When the recession hit and the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., found itself facing a serious budget shortfall, public pools went on the chopping block. Pool hours were reduced and staff members let go, but city leaders decided that wasn’t enough. Ultimately, they shut down the pools entirely.

But that wasn’t the end. When Tina and Kevin Dessart heard what was happening, they saw an opportunity to step in. The co-owners of Colorado Springs Swim School needed pool space, and with seven municipal pools scheduled to shut down, there was going to be a lot less to go around. They worked with the city to establish a partnership arrangement, and in May 2010 the Dessarts took over operation of three of the city’s facilities.

Since then, they’ve taken a business-minded approach and improved efficiency in a number of ways, including adjusting staffing levels and taking a hard look at costs for various items.

Time will tell whether the partnership is successful. “There’s still a lot of work to do for this to be successful,” Kevin Dessart says.

Other aquatics operators are facing similar budget-related wait-and-see situations as aquatics facilities continue to fall victim to shrinking state and local coffers. In fact, 70 percent of operators say they’ve been directly affected by budget cuts, according to an Aquatics International State of the Industry survey of approximately 500 readers.

In a way, that's hardly a surprise, given that the nation remains in the grip of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But our State of the Industry survey went deeper. The goal was to determine how core issues — including facility maintenance, construction, patrons, programming and staffing — have been affected, and the different ways that aquatics leaders are looking at operations with more business-focused eyes. Then we went to the experts and asked them to interpret the responses.

The result is a detailed analysis of what it will take to get aquatics back on track when the economy finally turns around — and how to get there from here. 

Renovation nation

Survey results show the majority of respondents, approximately 80 percent, are affiliated with public or nonprofit facilities. The other 20 percent are affiliated with private operations. Regardless of affiliation, however, everyone seems to be putting off needed work.

The survey finds 40 percent operating  pools that are more than 20 years old, so it’s not surprising that more than 60 percent of respondents say they’d like to renovate their facilities in the next five years.

But the bottom line is still the bottom line. Upfront cost is the most important driving factor for nearly 30 percent of respondents, and approximately half believe they won’t realistically be adding anything to their facilities any time soon.

“We’ve seen more people who just want to keep their existing facility running,” says Kevin Post, project manager at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis.

Keeping the doors open means equipment must be working, and many of those surveyed indicate that the last piece of equipment they bought was an essential component.

Approximately 23 percent say a pool pump was the last major piece of equipment purchased.

Filtration equipment systems and pool vacuums make up almost another 30 percent, while UV systems comprise another 15 percent.

Still, development is happening: Three percent of respondents have facilities that are less than a year old. When it comes to renovation, 21 percent plan to add a water slide. Another 21 percent want to add shaded deck space, and 20 percent plan to add splashpads. (Respondents were asked to choose from a list and mark all options that applied.)

When asked to rank renovation projects in order of priority, adding a pool or substantial new amenity (such as a water slide), was chosen most frequently as the highest priority, ahead of adding a play structure or spraypark, remodeling bathrooms, improving deck space, upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment, and adding shade structures and group rental space.

But experts warn that in this era of fiscal responsibility, just adding a new amenity is not the key to fiscal sustainability.

“When you added a water slide 15 years ago, you were unique,” Post says. “Now it’s standard. It’s being efficient, not different, that’s going to drive the revenue now.”

Apparently some operators are getting that message. According to survey results, 30 percent say either revenue potential or ongoing maintenance costs are a top priority when considering a renovation project.

“People have come to understand the reality that their thinking needs to be, ‘yes we have X dollars to build the pool, but do we have enough to operate it?’” Post says.

Patrons and programming

While 44 percent think recreation is the main reason patrons utilize their aquatics facilities (ahead of physical fitness, aquatic therapy, competition programming and learn-to-swim), in the final analysis, it’s programming that drives revenue — and there’s more competition now than ever before. 

“It’s not just offerings for kids, but fitness options, too,” says Dave Rowland, president of Lutra Aquatics in Simsbury, Conn. “I think the industry has been very slow to adapt to the rapid expansion of options for people to spend their recreation dollars.”

Survey respondents do offer a diverse range of programming, everything from Masters Swimming (34 percent) to scuba (26 percent), but the majority focus their efforts on children. The most frequently selected main demographic was children ages 4-12. That corresponds with the fact that the most popular program, by far, is learn-to-swim classes for youngsters. Such programs also are the most widely offered by survey respondents. A total of 85 percent offer learn-to-swim classes for kids. Only 62 percent offer a competitive swimming/ diving program.

Focusing on the kids is a good thing, suggests Mick Nelson, facilities development director at USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo. Learning to swim builds a foundation for other aquatic activities, such as elementary school before high school, he says.

But to maximize opportunity, pool operators must be constantly evaluating program offerings to make sure they’re providing the most benefit to the community.

“We have to operate the most valued programs out there,” agrees Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist at USA Swimming.

When it comes to marketing their programs, it appears operators are not taking advantage of available marketing channels. TV and radio advertising doesn’t come cheap, and given that budgets have been slashed, it’s not surprising that only 2 percent of respondents report running TV ads. The same is true for radio.

So why aren’t operators taking advantage of free or low-cost options? Just under 30 percent say they produce a brochure, and only half of that number utilize a Web site. Around 10 percent run print ads, but only 2 percent report using any form of social media, such as Facebook.

Perhaps it’s a matter of being comfortable with the technology. Or maybe it’s one area that operators still need to understand from a business perspective.

Either way, Sue Nelson says, “If I had to decide to put dollars toward marketing or toward my staff, I would put it toward my staff. They are the people who are going to make us successful.”