Picture this scene: A leisure pool manager is assessing his facility. There have been a few upgrades to the mechanics, but no aesthetic upgrades. The water is in good shape, but the facility and pool are looking a little old — the paint is peeling, some deck chairs are sagging and no new waterfeatures have been added in awhile. His dedicated swimmers continue to come, but there haven’t been a lot of new or return visits for leisure users lately.

If you’re thinking perhaps this description hits a little too close to home, you aren’t alone. At a time of increasing competition and harsh economic realities, many facilities face budgets that make complete renovation a distant dream.

But there are less expensive ways to update your facility. Even small changes can make a big difference to the bottom line.

Tightening the belt

What happened to money for leisure facilities? For one thing, public facilities aren’t usually self-sustaining like their private counterparts. Most rely on taxpayer subsidies, which are down, to help pay for operating costs.

“In days when the taxpayer was able to help pay part of operating costs, no one cared about being self-sustaining, but losing $200,000 per year now isn’t acceptable,” says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic Consulting Services, a San Diego-based aquatics facility design/risk management company.

Leisure Pools: A Great Deal

Leisure pools offer a terrific value for families, especially when compared with other forms of entertainment. “The pool is the best deal in America,” says Mick Nelson, development director at USA Swimming, Colorado Springs, Colo. “Yet we tend to give it away.”

LEISURE COST COMPARISON

(for an average family of four)

ACTIVITY

COST

All-day pass at a leisure pool

$18-$22

Zoo trip (not including food, attractions)  

$54

Movie theater tickets ($33) and snacks ($25)

$58

Bowling (3 games, shoe rental,soda)

$70

Dinner at a mid-range restaurant    

$100

Amusement park visit (not including food)

$148

Another reason for dwindling budgets is simply that aquatics is an easy place to cut. “Cities are looking at police and fire and public works expenses; recreation isn’t considered essential, so places like swimming pools and libraries tend to get cut first,” says Ken Ballard, president of Ballard*King & Associates in Denver.

And though the economy has shown some signs of recovery, the continuing downturn puts pressure on families’ budgets. “Many people don’t spend their recreational dollars on recreation — they spend them on necessities,” says Mick Nelson, development director at USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Trying to get people to go to an aquatics center, even though it’s one of the best deals out there, is tough right now.”

This may make upgrading seem impossible, but that isn’t necessarily so. Judith Leblein Josephs believes that now is a good time to upgrade. “Renovations and upgrades can be more affordable now as contractors and firms are hungry for work,” says the president of JLJ Enterprises, LLC, in Wayne, N.J. Plus, pool visits are an outstanding bargain, and the right upgrades can pique families’ interest.

Decisions, decisions

Once you’ve decided to upgrade, the next decision is where to start. “What are your limitations? How much money are you able and willing to spend?” Ballard says. “You have to understand your targets and develop options as part of a master plan.”

A good master plan covers these three key considerations:

  •  Know your market. Research your competition, find out which features bring in the most revenue and ask your current visitors what they want. Could you increase the fees you charge because of the improvements you’re considering? “You can’t be everything to everyone,” Osinski says. “You have to cater to the people who use and pay for the facility the most.”
  •  Consider your operating costs. Many amenities for leisure pools will allow you to upcharge, but require more operating investment in terms of utilities and staff. Make decisions based on long-term operations considerations.
  •  Upgrade in stages. Not all renovations need to happen at once, Ballard notes. You can get immediate benefits by making a small investment, and then plan for more.

Cosmetic changes

Cosmetic changes are among the easiest and most budget-friendly facility upgrades, and they make a big impact.

Ballard remembers a leisure facility located next to a high school. “It had nothing in terms of curb appeal,” he says. “You would have thought it was part of the high school. You couldn’t see water when you first entered — you had to go through locker rooms first, and they weren’t good. Even though the water condition was fine, there were a lot of issues before people ever got to the water.”

To determine if your facility needs a face-lift, take a hard look at these areas:

  •  Locker rooms. Clean locker rooms are at the top of the list of what guests look for, according to Aaron Hunter of USAquatics in Delano, Minn. Are yours clean and well-maintained? To make a good impression, fix problems, repaint and create individual shower stalls. Also consider amenities such as swim suit dryers or upgraded disinfection systems.

“Locker rooms don’t necessarily have to have a country club atmosphere, but they do need to be well-kept,” Nelson says. “Locker rooms tell you a lot about who’s running the facility. A locker room with towels thrown everywhere and gum under the seats makes you wonder how well the water is kept up.”

  •  Color and/or theme. Refreshing your facility can be as simple as adding paint or upgrading the deck. Color can even date your facility. “If you have aqua blue tiles above your waterline, it screams the 1960s,” Osinski says. “Changing those tiles to royal blue or hunter green can modernize the look for very little expense.”

“Changing an old theme can make a big difference, too,” Osinski explains. “At Disneyland, the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House was changed to Tarzan’s Tree House because kids didn’t identify with the Swiss Family Robinson anymore. They didn’t rebuild the ride — they just changed the theme.”

  •  Landscaping and accessories. You can create a lot of excitement with landscaping and furniture changes. “Add a small fish pond and some shade trees to make a meditation zone,” Josephs suggests. “With a little imagination, you can turn an unsightly pump house into a charming cottage. Turn a flower bed into something spectacular with a wood carving from a local artist. Decorate your lobby with photos of your city’s aquatic history.”

One upgrade that brings the best customer response is increased and improved shade structures. “Add some linear shade along one of your buildings near the children’s area and create a ‘quiet zone’ or ‘stroller parking,’” Josephs says.

Updating amenities

If your cosmetic appearance is fine, you might consider changing or adding features to your facility, but remember that you’ll have to show the payback on the investment.

The good news is, there are low-cost options ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. These might include inflatables (small mats as well as modular models that can span a large pool), and atmosphere enhancers such as lighting, underwater speakers and even laminar jets.

With a slightly larger budget, you could consider mid-level-cost amenities ranging from $100,000 to around $700,000. They might include ceiling-mounted rings, an aquatic climbing wall, smaller or space-efficient water slides (including slide towers, mat racer slides and tube slides), a spa or hot tub, and some of the smaller aquatic play equipment and structures with features such as dump buckets and squirt guns.

“Any new attraction can bring a sense of excitement, but you have to watch the entertainment mix and your target markets,” Josephs cautions. “Make sure the new attractions you select match your market and target audience.”

If even the least expensive amenity is not an option, just changing the order or the placement in which your current elements appear can create a fresh look. “Adding something like an Aqua Climb where an old diving board or drop slide used to be is a quick and economical new amenity,” Hunter says. “Also, it’s easy to change out shallow water-play features. It may even be possible for a municipality to exchange a feature with another city for a year or two to mix things up.”

Going green

One of the biggest expenses for leisure facilities is utility costs. “There are lots of ways to go green and save energy, but you have to know what would work at your facility,” Osinski says.

Before choosing a green option, look at its return on investment. “A lot of options require a high cost up front,” Ballard says. “If the payback takes more than 10 years, you have to question whether that’s an investment you want to make. If the payback is quick, then it’s something to do. Even in a down economy, the public seems willing to support these kinds of improvements.”

  •  Lighting. Changing to more efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to go green.

Consider this comparison from Osinski: A 500W incandescent bulb burned 10 hours a day for a year will cost about $237 per year in energy (at 13 cents/kW hour) and needs to be replaced every 800 hours. Using a 32W fluorescent bulb instead will cost just $15.18 per year and needs to be replaced only every 12,000 hours.

  •  Heaters. Heating costs can be cut while lowering energy and natural gas use. One green option is solar heating. “If you drew a line from San Francisco to Richmond, Va., I’d consider passive solar heating for every facility south of that line,” Nelson says. “In those areas, passive solar will save money and generally pay for itself in about four years.”

If solar isn’t right for your facility, Osinski recommends buying the highest efficiency pool heater you can afford. “Thermal efficiency ratings on gas heaters range between 70 and 95 percent, and that’s a huge difference! Choose a heater with an ignition system rather than a pilot light. It may cost more up front, but the energy savings will be enormous.”

Don’t forget about the water (and heat) lost through evaporation, particularly if your pool is outdoors. “If you have an outdoor pool, add windbreaks and a pool cover,” Osinski says. “You might also consider nontoxic chemical solutions that trap heat when the pool is acquiescent.”

  •  Pumps. Switching to variable-speed pumps also can save energy. “A variable- speed pump can operate at a different speed in the middle of the night, when electricity rates are lower,” Osinski says. “By doing this, you’ll cut energy use to one-eighth of previous use. You may even be able to get an energy efficiency rebate to help pay for the cost of the pump.”

If you have a chance to change your layout, Osinski suggests changes that lower water resistance. “The higher the velocity of the water, the greater the resistance,” she explains. “If you remove resistance, you’ll use less energy. For instance, using 3-inch pipe instead of 2½-inch pipe will allow for less resistance and save energy in the long run. If you can arrange for fewer turns in the pipes, you’ll also reduce resistance.

And if you can downsize your pump by one size (5 horsepower vs. 7.5 horsepower), you can save a couple thousand dollars per year in energy costs.”

With any upgrades, the first question asked is, “How will these improvements make money?” The answer lies in improved customer response and loyalty.

“Remember that every time you update your facilities, you’re really promoting an aquatic culture,” Nelson says. “Once a child learns how to swim, he or she will come back to the water to exercise when they get older. That helps both public and private facilities.”