These days, when Clay Shuck thinks about
next year’s operating budget, he almost feels as if he’s waiting for the
results of a biopsy: Will he live or die?
He’s got good reason to fear. This season money was so
tight, Shuck had to reduce hours at all four outdoor aquatics
facilities and cut a key staff position. But he may look back on
2009 as a fiscal dream. Next year, his city will be looking at a
nightmarish $23 million shortfall, meaning even deeper cuts.
“It really feels like we’re on a roller coaster ride
and we don’t know when it’s going to stop,” says
Shuck, facility coordinator at Colorado Springs (Colo.) Parks, Recreation and Cultural
Services. “There will definitely be some impact to the
services that we offer the citizens of Colorado Springs, but
we’re striving to do what’s best for our patrons and
keep planning for the future.”
For Shuck and many other aquatic operators, that future is murky
at best. As the economy all but ground to halt, aquatics has been
left in the lurch. A generous $8 billion in federal stimulus money
is available for public works, schools and parks, but aquatics
projects were left out. In fact, the bill specifically forbids
money to be used on swimming pools.
At the same time, the first-ever federal pool and spa safety law
took effect. The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act
mandates new anti-entrapment drain covers and standards for public
facilities. The law could not have come at a worse time because it
forced facilities, many already teetering on the financial brink,
to invest thousands in compliance. Many older facilities with
existing hydraulic issues had even higher compliance costs,
sometimes $100,000 or more.
Faced with deciding whether to keep police on the street or
roads passable, community leaders are throwing in the aquatics
towel. For years, many facilities have been the equivalent of a
dirty little budgetary secret: They cost more to operate than they
make. The red can run one-half million dollars a year or more. As
the nation’s stock of approximately 300,000 public pools
continues to age, that number has only grown due to increased
maintenance and equipment problems in these aging pools.
Something had to give, and this summer in cities around the
nation it did. Pools shut down. Finding out how many is an exercise
in frustration because aquatics facilities are largely local
entities and no central organization keeps track of such
But anecdotally, the impact was undeniable. Almost daily
throughout the summer, news stories announced closures of pools and
aquatics facilities that could no longer afford to operate. The
list included the city of Worcester, Mass., which closed all eight
of its municipal pools; the New York State Parks Department, which
cut back swimming hours at numerous state parks, closed a number of
pools and beaches and shortened the season at others; the Georgia
Department of Natural Resources, which closed 11 state park pools;
and the city of Parma, Ohio, which shut down one of its four pools.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, were forced to hold
fund-raisers to open pools. Still other facilities around the
nation cut staffs and/or reduced services and hours.
In case you missed it, there’s a message in all this
carnage — the same message that makes Clay Shuck and many
others like him feel so uneasy: Aquatics facilities must reinvent
themselves or they will die.
“The pressure to become self-sustaining has become
acute,” says Ken Ballard, founding partner of Ballard*King &
Associates, based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “If you
can’t cover the costs of operating, you’re really at
What’s behind the need for a change in the status quo?
Industry professionals point to a number of factors, but ultimately
it all comes down to tradition. Aquatics facilities long have been
allowed to sustain losses, perhaps based simply on old conventions
and a “that’s the way we’ve always done it”
In an autumn 2008 survey of approximately 615 Aquatics
International readers, one-third reported operating their
aquatics facilities with annual losses. In Rushford, Minn.,
administrators estimate that the pool loses approximately $20,000
annually. According to local media, the nearby city of St. Charles
loses around $30,000 a year, and in Winona, Minn., the Bob Welch
Aquatic Center reportedly runs an annual deficit of around
“Yes, it’s costing us some money. But we know that
upfront, and so we keep the pool open and let the youth and the
adults enjoy it,” explains Windy Block, city administrator
Unfortunately for many communities, once-small losses have
ballooned over the years. Pools require more planning and
maintenance than a ball field or gymnasium, and many communities
simply weren’t prepared for the costs, notes industry veteran
Mick Nelson, facilities development director of USA Swimming,
based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Chemicals, utilities, insurance and a few other
necessities have increased way over that 3 percent [inflation
rate],” Nelson says. “Also, many facilities never
planned for capital repairs every three to five years, such as
chemical feeders, pool heaters or pool refinishing.”
Compounding those challenges has been the growth of competition
— fancy new waterparks, amusement parks, fitness clubs and
parks have all upped the recreation ante.
Lynn Ledford is a partner in Cal Elite Kids, a private sports center operation in
Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., that offers everything from
swimming to dance classes. A former attorney, she notes that when
she first started, the concept of charging children for recreation
often drew criticism. But today privately operated facilities such
as hers are setting the gold standard for the industry.
Thanks to the advent of the private waterpark market,
there’s an ever-expanding host of exciting water slides and
interactive products designed to dazzle patrons who, as a rule, are
savvy to what’s out there. More than any other time in
history, today’s public demands more than just a water-filled
hole in the ground.
“The expectation level from users has changed,”
Ballard observes. To that end, a strong, family-focused recreation
component is essential to draw today’s crowds.
“Most aquatic users are recreational users, and
recreational use is the key to generating revenue to help cover
operating costs,” says Mark Hatchel, the Irving, Texas-based
vice president and senior project manager of Kimley-Horn and
When Spokane Valley, Wash., opened its three aquatics centers
last summer, each featured a brand-new, recreation-focused amenity
(a lazy river at Terrace View pool, a water slide at Park Road pool
and a zero-depth entry leisure pool at Valley Mission pool) to
enhance the existing facilities.
“Basically, with three ‘40-year-old bathtubs’
there wasn’t a lot that would attract kids when you look at
the trends and all the slides and bells and whistles that are
available now,” says Mike Stone, parks director. “This
is our attempt to move closer to that.”
However, operators can no longer rely on recreational use alone.
Circa 1984, it might have been as easy as “build a water
slide and they will come,” says Claude Rogers, aquatic
planner/designer at Water Technology in Beaver Dam, Wis. But
that’s no longer the case. Growing interest in aquatic
therapy and water fitness has brought new populations to the pool.
With the expanded needs of the user group, modern facilities can no
longer rely on recreation alone to bring in the crowds. Today
it’s important to offer options to serve all potential user
What it boils down to is this: Operators must respond to the
needs and desires of the population, Hatchel suggests.
The business of aquatics
They also need to think about facilities in a whole new way.
Experts say that means coming up with new cost-cutting measures and
revenue-generation strategies. It also means thinking of the
facility more as a business and less as a charity.
Ballard says his firm is seeing more and more new projects being
planned from the beginning with the expectation that they will be
financially sustainable. For existing facilities, he’s noted
an uptick in the number of requests for operational audits.
“The public dollars are shrinking, but the expectation is
there to maintain programming. So there’s a challenge to find
a way to continue services,” Stone adds.
How can operators meet that challenge? It might seem like a
no-brainer to simply raise prices to cover escalating costs, but
given the expenses involved in running an aquatics facility, Stone
says that’s not a solid solution on its own. To generate a
profit, or at least cover operating expenses, operators in many
communities would be forced to raise user fees so high that no one
would be willing to pay. And lower-income patrons would be shut
out, defeating the mandate that a public pool be accessible to
Thus it comes down to efficiency and a retooling of standard
operating procedures to generate increased revenues and reduce
expenses. “From an operational standpoint, it has to be run
more like a business,” Rogers says. “Managers have to
be able to cut costs.”
As executive officer for Oakland County
(Mich.) Parks and Recreation, Dan Stencil knows all about the
need to become more efficient. His county is one of the wealthiest
in the nation, but in the last fiscal year, its parks and
recreation department recorded a $100,000 deficit. Small figures,
maybe, but large enough to set off warning bells.
Stencil says the agency had to undergo a major shift in
operations in an effort to balance the books.
“It’s about being accountable to our taxpayers and
government leaders, and doing it in the most efficient, effective
way possible,” he says. “The whole foundation is the
Starting last year, Stencil and his team refocused their
priorities and began a major overhaul of the organization from the
ground up. There’s a streamlined organizational chart, and a
new focus on Oakland County’s two enviable waterparks
that’s expected to bring the agency’s budget into line
A big part of any budget overhaul includes pricing. That may be
difficult to accept because the idea of a community recreation
facility is to provide opportunities that are affordable to
everyone. But rather than wholesale price hikes, experts say pool
operators need to consider overall pricing structure.
That means rethinking old pricing models, says Sue Nelson,
aquatic program specialist at USA Swimming. Instead of charging
based on comparative pricing, where fees are based on what the pool
down the street charges, or traditional pricing — “the
price is $XX because this is what we’ve always charged”
— she suggests a different approach.
Nelson advises operators to emulate the public golf course
model, in which users pay a membership fee along with additional
charges for specific programs and services. Rates for a particular
service or program should be determined based on how much that
program or service costs to run. Operators need to know the total
budget of their operation for the entire center, then develop a
breakdown of how much each program needs to bring in to contribute
its portion of expenses.
Another way to generate more revenue is by boosting attendance.
Experts say even in high-traffic facilities it’s possible to
draw in new users with creative programming. Stencil and his team
are beginning to consider new programming options, such as water
safety days and aquatic fitness. But that’s only a start.
Creative programming is all about attracting those niche
populations. These might include swim team parents or local extreme
athletes. Also keep in mind that baby boomers are aging so
there’s a growing number of seniors, and a growing body of
research supports the benefits of aquatic therapy for the sick or
disabled. Those groups represent important demographics that could
benefit from aquatics — and that means new programming
opportunities which could generate needed income, says industry
veteran Tom Saldarelli, chief operating officer of RehaMed
International in Homestead, Fla.
To provide the widest mix of programming opportunities, Mick
Nelson recommends that all new facilities include at least three
separate bodies of water designed for various nonrecreational uses
such as swim lessons, aquatic therapy, lap swimming, competition
and aquatic fitness classes.
Operators with existing facilities that have only one pool still
can target several diverse markets with careful planning, Nelson
adds. He suggests creating a compromise with a water temperature of
84 degrees Fahrenheit. That should allow for the relative comfort
of patrons of all ages in a range of programs.
And don’t forget about deck space. When there’s no
more room in the water, some imaginative operators have begun
planning programs that utilize deck space. For example, a 60- or
90-minute class that combines dryland stretching or yoga with water
aerobics could potentially overlap a 30-minute toddler swim lesson
or the tail end of an aquatic therapy session.
The key to offering that kind of total aquatic programming is
highly trained staff certified to perform multiple roles and
responsibilities, Sue Nelson says.
“All ages and stages can use the pool, but staff must be
qualified,” she says. “Now there’s much more
training needed, such as risk management and health
The customer comes first
One thing any operator can do to help increase patron usage is to
focus on the user experience. That means understanding patrons,
providing the services and amenities they want, and implementing
proactive marketing and customer service.
“In the past, we always just assumed we knew what they
wanted,” says Sue Wells, Oakland County
Parks and Recreation’s manager of parks and
But that’s changed.
Now the agency is working to become much more proactive when it
comes to potential users. It has begun gathering public opinion and
is soliciting the public’s involvement in long-term planning
for the waterparks. Wells says the agency also has created a patron
e-mail list and is utilizing it for things such as surveys.
Given the competition, serious marketing and advertising efforts
are critical, says Judith Leblein Josephs, founder/president of
Judith Leblein Josephs Enterprises in Wayne, N.J.
That’s why Oakland County Parks and Recreation created a
new marketing position. The new staff member will be expected to
handle advertising, promotions and public relations efforts.
Nowadays, with information available at the click of a mouse,
there are a number of avenues to make the public aware of
what’s available — and operators should be utilizing
all of them, Leblein Josephs notes. For tried-and-true advertising
such as printed fliers and brochures, perhaps the most important
factor is location: Get the material in front of the eyes that will
respond. For example, consider posting notices along the walking
trail in your community park. People on the trail are already users
of local municipal recreation and also are likely to have at least
a minimal interest in fitness.
Fortunately, new media — Web sites, e-mail blasts, mobile
marketing and social media — can be ideal for marketing on a
shoestring. “Selective e-mail blasts that are short, sweet
and timed properly before an event or membership drive [offer] the
best bang for the buck,” Leblein Josephs says. Also, Web
sites and online registration tools should be kept current, and
operators might consider adding blogs, photo slide shows, videos
and the like.
Often the best marketing tool is old-fashioned word of mouth.
The best way to get people talking is by tapping into what they
want and creating a fun experience. A younger demographic seeking
aquatic fitness, for example, might respond to programs and
messages keyed to the latest movies or video games.
Perhaps the one thing patrons want to see more than anything
else these days is a high-quality staff. That means paying
attention to customer service basics such as greeting regular
patrons by name, and making employee training and education a
Sue Nelson says a knowledgeable staff is one of the top things
people look for when evaluating a program. She adds that
cross-training can help to ease programming expenses — one
staff member may be able to instruct more than one type of program
— and highlighting the training may help operators justify
price increases to consumers.
Back to black
The bottom line, Rogers says, is that “operators need to
develop well-rounded facilities, or a system of well-rounded
facilities, that offer high-quality programming and
state-of-the-art recreational attractions with provisions to
renovate, or grow and expand to stay vibrant and prosperous in the
The changes at Stencil’s agency are expected to right the
balance sheets this year, but if making changes that streamline the
operation isn’t enough, it may be time to consider a
partnership approach. Indeed, given the desire for larger, more
all-inclusive facilities, Ballard says more operators are moving
toward joint aquatics projects.
Today’s partnerships are varied and may include
organizations from hospitals and day spas to local unions or real
estate agents. “Think of a business that thrives on your
opposite schedule and see if that partnership can work, such as a
‘rainy day’ discount in the local theater for your
members showing a membership card,” Leblein Josephs says.
“In turn, you might get advertising on the big screen and
movie passes as rewards for lifeguards.”
In the end, whatever combination of strategies it may take to
get there, it appears operators who are financially solvent stand a
good chance of remaining a vibrant part of their communities.
“We’ve seen that facilities that can break even or come
out ahead have done well in spite of the economic downturn,”
says Scot Hunsaker, chief operating officer of St. Louis-based
Counsilman-Hunsaker. “The longer people take to
react to change, the more difficulties they’re likely to face
in the future.”