Community aquatics facilities often strive to keep single-visit (daily admission) fees low to better serve the community (and the budget) by drawing more users. But in most situations, low single-visit fees actually discourage
use. Ironically, the best route to attracting users and improving
the bottom line is through higher single-visit fees in combination
with a reasonably priced unlimited-use pass. The result is somewhat
counterintuitive, but here’s why it works.
If you want more consumers to purchase what you’re
selling, lower the price. If you really want lots of people to use
it, make it free (or at least seem like it).
This is a lesson that traditional health clubs figured out long
ago. Health clubs are built almost entirely on the unlimited-use
pass concept, where the consumer pays a flat fee in exchange for
unlimited usage of the facility during a specified period
(generally a month, season or year). The consumer pays up front,
and then incurs no fees for any individual visit.
With an unlimited-use pass, each individual visit is free. Of
course, the unlimited-use pass isn’t free, but no financial
consequence is associated with any particular visit. As a result,
more consumers will use the facility, the same way many diners make
multiple trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet, but few order a
second entrée at a traditional restaurant.
No matter how low the single-visit fee, it deters use at any
particular time. But if it’s “free,” consumers
will use the facility whenever they have the slightest interest in
doing so. In fact, unlimited-use passes can actually prompt
additional usage because consumers try to use the pool more
frequently in an effort to “get their money’s
worth.” To really draw users to a community aquatics
facility, the best approach is the unlimited-use pass.
Of course, unless you give away unlimited-use passes, you
haven’t avoided the whole price issue. If you can’t
convince consumers to use the facility for an individual visit, how
can you sell them on an unlimited-use pass?
Actually, it’s easier. The purchase dynamics for long-term
goals are extremely different than for short-term interests.
Unlimited-use passes represent long-term goals, whereas single
visits are inherently short-term. And long-term goals are the best
product that community aquatics facilities have to offer.
Consider fitness users, whose long-term goal is the expected
results of regular exercise. This is a powerful goal, and something
that many people are willing to pay quite a bit for.
But what about the benefits of any single use of a fitness
facility? The promises of infomercials aside, six-pack abs
aren’t built in one workout. There’s always tomorrow.
In fact, on any particular day, fitness users might not want to
exercise at all — they may have to force themselves to use
your facility instead of pursuing more enjoyable short-term
interests. They want the long-term goal, but they don’t
necessarily want each individual exercise session.
For recreational users, the difference isn’t quite as big,
but it’s present nonetheless. These users may be purchasing
the goal of a summer vacation (or other period) filled with healthy
and enriching fun. That’s a powerful goal, and something
consumers are willing to pay for. But on any particular day, there
are plenty of other options. Some may be more expensive, but more
enticing; others may be less enticing, but simply less expensive or
easier (such as watching television).
Community aquatics facilities compete better based on long-term
goals than on short-term interests. Selling an unlimited-use pass
is about how often consumers expect to (or think they should) use
your facility. Individual visits are about how often they actually
Even recognizing the desirability of selling unlimited-use
passes, most community aquatics facilities still strive to offer a
low single-visit price. While the reasons are varied, the rationale
generally boils down to two factors: (1) making the facility widely
accessible (that is, making single visits accessible to individuals
of limited financial means); or (2) spurring use by those who did
not purchase the unlimited-use pass. Both factors tend to appeal to
recreation managers and politicians alike, and thus low
single-visit fees are common practice.
The problem is that single-visit prices have an enormous impact
on sales of unlimited-use passes, and this relationship isn’t
adequately considered when setting single-visit fees.
When choosing between the unlimited-use pass and single-visit
options, consumers consider their expected frequency of use and the
relative prices. Consciously or not, consumers divide the
unlimited-use pass price by the single-visit price to determine the
“equivalent visits,” or the number of visits at which
the two options are financially equal. If they expect to use the
facility more than the number of equivalent visits, the
unlimited-use pass is the wise choice. If not, the single-visit
option on occasions of actual use is preferred.
To see the impact of this relationship, consider an
unlimited-use pass priced at $40 and a $5 single-visit fee. In this
case, the unlimited-use pass is equivalent to eight visits. If the
single-visit fee was $10, the pass would be equivalent to four
visits. At a $2 single-visit fee, it would take 20 visits to
“get your money’s worth” from the unlimited-use
As the single-visit fee goes down, the number of equivalent
visits goes up, and more and more consumers decide that
they’d be better off paying by the visit based on their own
expected level of use. Because a single-visit fee discourages use
on any given occasion relative to the unlimited-use pass (where any
given use is free), facility usage decreases as fewer unlimited-use
passes are sold.
To spur widespread use of an aquatics facility, the best
approach is to raise the single-visit fee while keeping the price
of the unlimited-use pass option reasonable. This will prompt more
consumers to purchase unlimited-use passes. And as more consumers
face zero cost of using the facility at any particular time, usage
will increase along with facility revenue and the cost-recovery
If making the facility accessible to individuals/families of
limited means is important, the most effective approach is a system
of financial assistance, wherein those families who demonstrate
need are granted a reduced price for the unlimited-use pass (not
for single-visit fees). Lowering the single-visit fee does little
to help families of limited means, and ironically limits facility
usage overall (even among individuals of means).