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
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
LEISURE COST COMPARISON
(for an average family of four)
All-day pass at a leisure pool
Zoo trip (not including food, attractions)
Movie theater tickets ($33) and snacks ($25)
Bowling (3 games, shoe rental,soda)
Dinner at a mid-range restaurant
Amusement park visit (not including food)
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
- 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,’”
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.”
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,”
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
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
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.”