Category Archives: Operations

Choosing the Right Pricing Policy for Your Facility

Pricing is determined by a variety of different factors, including facility size and amenities, local socioeconomics, cost recovery goals, neighboring competition, and political pressure. Often, there are many people and factors involved in determining pricing, but there are a few basic rules that most facilities follow.

Service vs Sustainability

Each facility is unique in the overall goal it is attempting to achieve. Many municipal facilities are funded and operated for the purpose of providing an invaluable service to the community. Their goal is to serve as many residents as possible and typically subsidize 40-80% of their operations in order to keep the admission fee affordable for members of the community. Whether a facility is focused on service or sustainability is often dependent on the socioeconomic climate in which it is located.  Facilities in lower income neighborhoods are typically there to provide low-cost service.  For this type of facility, pricing is usually driven by history and the governing political body. Other facilities operate more as an enterprise fund, in which cost recovery is the overarching goal.  Fees are typically higher in order to account for the expenses associated with offering programming or an aquatic facility in general. For this approach, you will need to calculate what your expenses are for each program or service offered. Based on attendance for that particular offering, generate a price that will ensure you are covering your expenses. Determine your overarching fiscal goal for the facility first, before beginning to design your programming and amenities.

How to Determine Your Costs

If you are interested in calculating cost recovery, gather all the financial data available to you to account for all programs and expenses. Calculate your utility costs by season, as most of your programming will be seasonal and can vary dramatically for an aquatics center. Next, separate each of your programs and determine how many hours you spend on labor for each position type for that type of programming. For example, when calculating costs for group swim lessons, be sure that, in addition to the instructor’s teaching time, you include their preparation time, administration time spent on marketing and organizing classes, deck lifeguard time, and time spent training and evaluating the instructors.  Next, add in the equipment costs, such as swim lesson toys, kickboards, pull buoys, end of session treats and report cards. Divide this number by the number of group swim lesson sessions offered during the season. After that, calculate what your maximum attendance could be during the session if every spot was full. This will rarely be the case; so, to be conservative, assume about 70% capacity. Divide your number by that 70% number and you will understand how much you need to charge just to recover program costs for one child in a group lesson for a session. Adding in utility costs is a bit trickier and can be the part where the process becomes more of an art than a science. A simple way to incorporate utilities into your analysis is to take the programmable hours of the pool and divide the total utility costs by the number of programmable hours. Then use that number, multiply it with the number of swim lesson hours, and include that in the program cost calculation.

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Season Pass Pricing

When developing pricing for your season pass, it is easy to overthink the process since your costs can vary significantly depending on how often the pass is used. Look to your records to determine how often the average season pass holder visits your facility in a season. Use that number and multiply it by your admission price to determine proper pricing. For example, if your admission price is $4 and the average season pass holder visits one time per week with a 12-week season, you would price the pass at $48 per person. This is where the art comes into the scenario. If your admission is $7 and the average season pass holder visits two times per week for a 12-week season, you will not want to price your pass at $168. It is highly unlikely that all visitors will be willing to pay that much, and will instead just opt for daily admission. Be aware of pricing yourself out of the market and make smart adjustments.

Why Are You Special?

Depending on your location, there may be neighboring water park or aquatic facility acting as a competitor with similar services. The key determining factor in where customers choose to spend their money may be admission price. Research your area competition to ensure you are charging a fair rate. There may be a situation where your competition is focused on providing a service for the community. In that case, look at what makes your facility unique and market how your facility is worth more than other facilities for that reason. If customers feel there will be better value at your facility, regardless of the reason, they will be more likely to pay the higher admission price.

Determining pricing for your facility can make or break the viability of your programs and overall facility. Be sure to define your overarching fiscal goals in relation to the service you are providing to your community when determining pricing. Research how much it costs to truly administer your programs successfully and then select a fee that matches that cost.

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Training Pool Management

It’s summer time, and you know what that means: training, training, training! Many of us at Counsilman-Hunsaker are former Aquatics Managers, and in our experience, we found ourselves most concerned with training lifeguards and guest services team members. Ensuring that these often seasonal staff members received proper training was always a primary focus. You tend to assume that head lifeguards, pool managers, and supervisors have more experience, know what they are doing, and have all arrived ready to work. However, this is not always the case.

Supervisors who are not properly trained can cause more of a headache for Aquatics Managers than one might think. Because they have a wider range of responsibilities than most other pool staff members, they tend to have more complex questions and requests that can prevent you from fulfilling your own responsibilities. After spending significant portions of our summer days answering questions from supervisors regarding things they should have already known, we realized there had to be a better way.

This involves listening to your staff and paying close attention to the types of questions they ask. Consider even writing down every question you receive from your management staff over the course of a summer. Use this information to determine the steps necessary to better train your staff. For instance, you could spend your off-season developing a training curriculum that addresses any questions or concerns received from pool staff. This ensures your future staff will have the answers to common questions. You could even consider providing a physical ‘frequently asked questions document’ to your staff so they won’t have to pull you from your responsibilities to answer standard questions.

These frequently asked questions can also serve as the foundation of a large-scale team manual that outlines expectations in regards to performance, behaviors, policies and procedures. Requiring your staff to read the manual as part of training provides supervisors with the knowledge they need to effectively run a safe, clean, friendly and fun aquatic facility. Another option is to review the manual with your staff in a presentation format. From here, the possibilities are endless. The manual can serve as inspiration for a weekend training session to build camaraderie and excitement within your management team. Here, you could go more in-depth and discuss big picture topics like leadership, risk management, safety and communication. 

While these options all require additional work on your part, it ultimately saves you time during operational hours. In our experience, we had our best summers after implementing this type of structured training. The staff is more competent and confident, and it was nothing but smooth sailing. The most important step to helping prepare your management staff is listening to their questions and concerns, and ensuring you are able to efficiently address them.

Inclement Weather Refund Policy

Weather policies at outdoor aquatic facilities are a critical component of both your safety protocol and your guest service protocol. When developing a weather policy, you want to ensure that you keep the guest’s safety as the key priority, but balance that with service as well. Essentially, there are ways to keep your guests both safe and happy, and the best weather policy is one that balances the two.

Clearing a pool should be immediate upon the first sight of lightning or sound of thunder, and the pool(s) should remain clear for at least 30 minutes after the last strike of lighting or sound of thunder. During this time, your facility staff needs to keep guests and staff clear of the water, trees and other equipment that is conductive and could attract a lightning strike. While this makes sense in theory, in practice it can be more difficult. After all, what do you do with the 200, 500 or 1,000 unhappy guests in your facility who spent money to come and enjoy an afternoon at the pool?

While it can be frustrating to lose revenue due to the unpredictability of the weather, you have to make sure that your guests are taken care of. You also need to be gracious to your guests who had their stay shortened. Providing rain checks (instead of cash refunds) perfectly balances service and business. You don’t lose any revenue, and your guests are typically happy to come and visit your facility on a nicer day.

A typical industry standard is only offering rain checks if operations are suspended for more than 60 minutes, rather than instantly at the onset of inclement weather. This prevents giving out rain checks for a quick 15-minute thunderstorm on the outer edge of your facility. Just be sure to include verbiage in your pool policy so all pool attendees are aware beforehand.

In summary, remember that safety trumps service in the event of severe weather and life safety, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a fair and reasonable policy in place to keep your guests satisfied in the event of severe weather.

How Many Lifeguards Do I Need?

Depending on who you speak with, you’ll likely get a lot of different answers to the question. Operators, administrators, head lifeguards, and the public all have their own idea of how many lifeguards a facility needs. Administrators will want staff costs to be as low as possible, while operators are concerned with mitigating risk and ensuring there is enough staff to make schedules work. Head lifeguards and other staff want to have plenty of bodies to have a relatively stress-free shift, and the public wants to see that there are enough lifeguards to create a safe environment.  The idea is to meet all of these needs with a number of staff that mitigates risk, is fiscally responsible, meets scheduling needs, and creates a safe and healthy environment.

The standard number for you depends on your lifeguard certification program or the state codes you follow. Some states mandate specific patron-to-lifeguard ratios. At Counsilman-Hunsaker, we like to use the general rule of one guard per 1,500 sq. ft. of traditional pool space, and one guard per 800 sq. ft. of free form pool space. This doesn’t provide a specific number, but usually gets an accurate estimate, or at the bare minimum, a decent starting point.

Once you have a starting point, there are other factors that go into deciding how many lifeguards are needed at your facility, such as:

  • Minimum number of lifeguards necessary to perform rescues
  • Regular and peak patron attendance
  • Site attractions and manufacturer recommendations for those attractions
  • Special events or swim meets
  • Blind spots due to pool shape or attractions
  • Other programs or activities
  • Lifeguard “breaks”

It’s generally not recommended to have less than two trained lifeguards on duty at any facility. This usually means one lifeguard on stand, and the other one down. This allows for the lifeguard down to take care of secondary duties, and act as backup in case of an emergency. This number should be increased accordingly to provide safe oversight of the facility and programs.

Activities like swim meets or water aerobics may not necessitate additional lifeguards, as the participants are active swimmers. But programs like swim lessons, dive-in movies, or birthday parties may require additional eyes as there is a larger number of swimmers in the water. While parents should be in the water assisting with safety and participating with their children when programs allow, they also like to see that there are multiple eyes providing a safe environment for their children.

Many attractions also have minimum staffing recommendations for their operation. Most operation and maintenance manuals will address staffing needs. Some require hard line minimums, while others offer suggestions for safe operation.

The final part of the equation is to add as many lifeguards as necessary to create breaks in your rotation. Whether it’s every 30 minutes or every 90 minutes, breaks are an important part of keeping lifeguards vigilant on stand, and is often an aspect missed when planning staffing levels.

Once the standard number of lifeguards is established, the operator should be flexible enough to adjust staffing as needs change. Counsilman-Hunsaker offers facility audit services that can help your facility save staffing costs while ensuring adequate lifeguard coverage of your aquatic facility.

Planning a Special Event? What to Consider

Facility members and special events are two aspects of aquatic centers that are sometimes at odds with each other. Special events can bring in new people, have a positive impact on the community and provide marketing for the facility. However, special events can also disrupt your members and daily users, and act as a drain on resources. It’s necessary to be able to balance the two in a way that will provide the greatest impact with the least stress for members.

Members and daily guests are the lifeblood of any facility. The vast majority of your facility’s revenue should come from these two sources. So if these two user groups start reacting negatively to your facility, you can have a major problem on your hands. Members and guests are also the ones that you typically have daily interactions with. You develop trust and build relationships with them, and they can provide insight into how the facility is doing. They’re more likely to tell their friends about your facility, as they have a vested interest, and want it to succeed almost as much as you do. These user groups are valuable assets for facility managers.

100_6370Special events can leave an impact on your facility in a number of positive ways. Typically, special events are fun and draw outside interest from those who may not frequent your facility. This increased interest can get your name out to the masses in a way normal programming can’t. They can also have positive impacts on your normal programming. Special events tend to have large captive audiences; this is a great opportunity to market your programs like swim lessons, fitness classes, health and safety classes, etc. to a new audience.

However, special events have their own set of challenges. Typically, they won’t be big money makers for your facility. Usually, there are high staff costs for special events to make sure everything runs smoothly, as well as special costs for additional supplies. These can range from relatively inexpensive trinkets and take homes for patrons, to large items like movie screen rentals and licensing fees. Increased costs are usually matched with low price points for admission. Depending on the size of the facility, a full house may still not be enough to break even.

Special events can also be frustrating for members and daily users. Portions of, if not the entire, facility will need to be closed for events. Special events are also typically held during peak hours when the majority of your members would use your facility. This, coupled with larger-than-normal crowds, can be a real turn-off for members and guests.

The key to special events is ensuring there is a balance between accommodating your key users and the special event attendees. Try to plan special events on off hours, or non-peak hours. Hold rentals and events after the facility would normally close or before it would open. Or, try to plan events during times that you see low attendance. It could not only lessen some of the hassle on you, but also provide you with increased attendance at a traditionally low time. Try to emphasize quality over quantity. Members are less likely to be irritated by special events when those distractions are minimized.

Lastly, make sure any special event you schedule is going to bring benefit to your facility. Rentals for swim meets or party rooms typically have minimal staff costs and large profit margins. Special events that bring in a large crowds are great to quickly increase your facility impressions. Make every impression count by creating feel-good moments with events that will have a positive impact on the community.