As the pressure builds for aquatics centers to become self-sustaining, rentable spaces such as cabanas and birthday party rooms are becoming more popular. At many venues, these areas have became even more in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic, as families look for ways to secure distance and privacy.

With the right planning and imagination, rentable spaces are feasible for the majority of aquatics centers out there, experts say. Here, they share tips and ideas.

Versatile option

Rentable spaces take plenty of forms in the aquatics landscape.

“At waterparks, the most popular are cabanas,” says Kevin Post, a principal at St. Louis-based Counsilman-Hunsaker. “During every off-season, [waterparks] seem to be finding more spaces to add more cabanas.”

But not only big-budget waterparks can take advantage of this trend. And while it’s good to plan these spaces as part of new design and renovations, this opportunity is open to existing facilities not undergoing a facelift. Take the City of Newark, Calif. A while back, management noticed it had some mostly unused deck space and decided to use it. “We thought, ‘Well we’ve got this. Let’s create a space for those who want to use it,’” says the city’s senior recreation supervisor, Peter Beireis (pronounced Bires).

The team set off the cabana spaces with dividers that they fashioned from frames made of PVC plumbing covered by tarp material. This provided flexible dividers that could be reconfigured based on the needs for the day. They took loungers that had been removed from one area and placed them in the cabanas.

Between those and a birthday party space, Beireis estimates they see a boost in revenue of about 5%.

Think outside the box

Don’t become too specific in how your rentable spaces will be used.

Take birthday-party rooms, for example. While these have become a staple in aquatics, their usage can be expanded. Consider including dividers of some sort, so the space can be broken up into two or more smaller ones, recommends Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Development Group, a San Diego-based design firm. “Oftentimes our aquatic centers become part of a community center,” he says. “The city, other departments or community organizations might want to come in and have meetings just because it’s a pleasant [setting].”

When discussing rental rooms with his clients, consultant Mick Nelson looks for at least three income-producing uses for the spaces. In addition to birthday parties, for instance, a room may accommodate officials at a swim meet, or be used as a swim-team gathering room, in facilities that host the competitions.

“You’re only going to have so many birthday parties, and most of them are over the weekend,” says Nelson, the co-owner of Total Aquatic Programming in Colorado Springs, Colo. “What are you going to do with the room Monday through Friday?”

You may even consider providing the space free of charge to local non-profit organizations. If nothing else, Nelson says, it exposes your facility to more community members. “Remember: Only one out of every two adults swims,” he says. “[Some people are] probably never going to step inside your facility doors unless something unique brought them in there.”

If the space is large enough and the setting nice enough, you may be able to rent it out for weddings receptions, proms and other events.

Some facilities even rent spaces to food trucks and other such vendors, Berkshire says, instead of taking on the overhead to stock and staff a concessions stand.

And just as sure as it’s impossible to think too big, there’s also no such thing as too small. The City of Newark, Calif., for instance, rents single tables at its aquatics center.

In fact, more waterparks and facilities now offer multiple tiers of amenities. A high-budget waterpark, for instance, may have air-conditioned suites packaged with conveniences and entertainment, along with more basic cabanas and even single chaise longues for rent.

“It doesn’t have to be something that’s really above and beyond, with an engineered or prefabricated building or cabana,” says Miklos Valdez, a studio director with Counsilman-Hunsaker. “It can be just a rentable table space. People are really looking for those areas to have their own space where they don’t have to worry about it.”

In the name of getting the most out of your investment, consider accepting sponsors for these areas and hanging banners for them. At the very least, you can advertise your own programming.

Finally, some facilities and waterparks apply surge pricing, charging more on weekends when there is higher demand. Depending on the type of facility, these higher prices don't need to be extravagant, Valdez says: “Maybe it’s going from $5 to $10 instead of from $50 to $100.”

The essentials

These spaces generally involve some basic but crucial provisions. For instance, assess whether you have adequate staff, warns Beireis. At his center, a part-time staffer coordinates and schedules the birthday-party room rentals. Others serve as hosts, who usher the group to the space, provide the necessary information to use it, ensure that any food packages contracted through the center are delivered, and occasionally check in during the party.

Logic would suggest that you’ll need electrical and water for party/meeting rooms in particular. But also be generous with electrical outlets, as keeping electronic devices charged is an ongoing concern.

Also be sure to devise a way to block the spaces from others who don’t belong to the renting party. This can include simple signage explaining that the space is reserved.