Category Archives: Operations

Updating Policies

One of the primary keys to having a successful aquatic facility operation is the development and implementation of policies and procedures.  Aquatic facilities need policies in regards to a variety of issues that will come up on a daily basis, including hours of operations, admission prices and refunds, severe weather, parental supervision, outside groups and camps, swim wear restrictions, acceptable behaviors and whether or not guests can bring in outside food or drink. While this is quite a long list, it’s imperative to your operation to have these spelled out so that both your team and your guests are on the same page.

After the policies are written, there are two main areas to focus on: guest communication and employee training. The policies need to be written and communicated clearly to your guests through multiple platforms such as signage at your park, as well as on your website.  The more information you provide for your guests before they enter your park, the better experience they will have. 

It’s not enough for the guests to know the policies, but also for your employee team.  They need to know all of your policies and procedures backwards and forwards, including the rationale behind them so that when issues do arise they can accurately and consistently communicate them with your guests. 

Be sure to keep a list of policies that get a lot of complaints from your guests so that you can analyze, review and update them on a regular basis.  Once you take the time to develop and communicate policies with your guests, and provide training on them to your employee team, your organization will continue to offer great service for years to come.

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Training

It Is critical that all aquatic operations have a comprehensive onboarding and training process for all new and returning team members.  Back in my aquatic manager days, I made the mistake of telling myself that I “didn’t have time for training my management/supervisory team” and that was the biggest mistake I ever made, and I really paid for it.DSCN1464 (640x480)

Over the course of several years I developed a weekend management team training prior to the summer season that overviewed leadership, risk management, guest service, employee relation tactics, etc.  Once this was fully implemented my leadership team started exhibiting all of the behaviors that I wanted to see (hard work, great attitude, service minded) and it trickled down to the lifeguards and guest services staff. They no longer tolerated their fellow management team members that has a poor work ethic and bad attitude and the entire team really started to thrive over the course of the next few summers.  And, it happened because I simply took the time to train my team.

If you’re currently struggling with your part-time supervisors and leadership, here’s a few tips to help get you started.

  1. Keep a list of all the poor behaviors that your team members exhibit and start identifying ways to train them better so they start to exhibit good behaviors.
  2. Keep a list of every question that a team member asks you over the course of a season and start to develop a comprehensive document that answers all of these questions.  Then, spend a day training your team on these questions/answers and scenarios which will better enable them to properly do their job.
  3. Provide a great vision for your team.  In order for them to get where you want them to be, they have to know where it is!

Sustainability

When the economy is healthy, there are plenty of opportunities to generate new revenue streams that help carry subsidized programs. When the economy is not so healthy, budgets are slashed in order to protect revenue generating programs. Recreation professionals are left with the decision of limiting programs, cutting hours, or even forgoing equipment improvements and repairs.

Operations include three operating models: subsidy, breakeven, and positive cash flow. Subsidy uses tax dollars to pay operating expenses while the breakeven model is able to pay its own operating expenses. Positive cash flow is the facility that is able to pay its own operating expenses and build revenue. While older facilities are typically subsidized due to higher costs of maintenance and fewer swimmers, a sustainable model is the norm for new facilities, with fiscal operations driven by programming revenue.

If economics are adversely affecting your operations, idle reactions garner a feeling of helplessness when realities of change are taking place. When things are out of control and it becomes necessary to react quickly, something has to be done to regain normality. It becomes necessary to ensure that sustainable and adaptive decisions are made for future changes.

Review your Market to look for Program Opportunities

Warning signs from demographic tracking can help determine when a new look at current programs may need to take place. It’s worth the effort to annually update your population characteristics to understand the growth/decline of age groups, income levels, and housing startups or the slowdown of housing replacement. A valuable tool is to examine the youth numbers in the preschools and schools through 8th grade to determine if significant changes have taken place over time. If the economy caused a shift in your community, examine what new opportunities may exist for new segments of the population. Other ways to predict change in the community is by getting close to the consumer through community mining.

Fee Structure

If income trends have changed, pricing policies for daily admissions and concessions become sensitive. It might be recommended that nonresident fees be applied or adjusted if outer areas have higher incomes. If annual passes are too high for some families, solutions might offer weekday-only passes, weekend-only passes, partial season passes or quantity passes. Discounts may apply to those who register early or as a renewal incentive to established customers. During community presentations, it is important to highlight the fact that competitors are charging initiation/joining fees and you are not.

Attendance

In order to save taxpayers money, gleaning information from your competitors is beneficial in finding gaps, improving policies and fees, and creating opportunities to utilize competitor weaknesses. Find out how many nonresidents your competitors are serving, which may be pulling from your community if your current attendance is down. A data comparison will look to find programming weaknesses in order to out-think your competitors.

Revenue

While it is the responsibility of the municipality to take a leadership role in managing evolving customer expectations, it is also your responsibility to manage the politics. The department’s programs and facilities (parks, beaches, events, festivals, athletic tournaments, historical sites, cultural performances, aquatic centers, etc.) must be prepared to demonstrate the success of programs, showing that they provide more tax revenues that you can either use to maintain the community’s infrastructure, facilities, and services, or to reduce the level of taxes that residents currently pay. This is why it is so important to keep good financial records. Moreover, if a program is cut, you have data indicating the reason(s).

Expenses

Technology is always looking for ways to save money, especially during economic downturns. An assessment of current and past budgets can look to see if operations are impacted by rising costs of utilities, chemicals, and maintenance. There is escalating momentum for environmentally responsible building practices, and aquatic/recreation design teams embrace green technology. By implementing sustainable equipment, money will be saved in the long run. Operating goals should include maximizing sustainable design for efficient operations and being responsible in using natural resources. Advantages include:

  • Reduce waste sent to landfills
  • Lower operating costs and increased asset value
  • Conserve energy and water
  • Healthier and safer for occupants
  • Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
  • Qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances, and other varying incentives

Conclusion

Whether your financial model is subsidized, break-even, or positive cash flow, taking a critical look at you operations can help identify improvements to increase sustainability. An in-depth review can shine a new light on programs, fee structures, attendance, revenue, and expenses congruent with local reality. Just like a racecar driver, you need to accelerate through the turn to make sure you are in the lead for the straightaway.

 

Revenue Throttles

One of the keys to long term success and sustainability is the use of Revenue Throttles. Revenue Throttles put pricing control in the field to maximize revenues while managing your communities’ expectations. There are three main areas I look at for developing revenue throttles, they include:

  • Use Resident and Non-resident pricing
  • Discounts
  • Wait Lists

Resident and Non-Resident Pricing

The use of various pricing points can help balance facility capacity levels and customer satisfaction. Many communities will charge a higher rate for non-residents users as opposed to resident users. There are a couple reasons for this. The main reason communities consider this structure is due to the fact that the local resident tax dollars paid to build the facility. The throttling opportunity comes with how much more you charge for the non-residents. When a community is growing, they will likely need to build a larger facility to meet future needs. But without the population required to fill the facility to capacity, non-resident users are needed to increase operational sustainability. In this scenario, non-resident pricing may only be slightly higher than the resident rate. As the local resident population grows, managers can increase the non-resident rate to deter them from coming and increase the resident satisfaction.

 

Discounts

Everyone loves a discount. While most communities try to keep the facility price affordable, I prefer pricing the facility at its appropriate value and providing discounts to make sure everyone has a chance to use the facility. The also gives throttling opportunities by discontinuing discounts as higher revenues are needed. This way a facility doesn’t actually have to raise pricing each year, but can increase revenues.

 

Wait Lists

Keeping programs full is always a challenge. The use of a wait list will provide a “backlog” of users. I’ve seen this be very useful with swim lesson programs. One benefit of using a wait list is to give preferential treatment to residents. Some facilities will allow residents to sign up immediately, but non-residents must join the wait list. This allows them to give residents preferential treatment, but still fill all classes to achieve revenue goals.

 

In summary, creating an economic engine to support your vision will provide a fiscally sustainable enterprise including water, features, and programs in concert with the community for many years to come. Using Revenue Throttles in your business model will help create a sustainable facility that meets the customers’ expectations and provides a tremendous value to your community.

 

Questionnaires that truly inform

The summer is rolling along, guests are flocking to your facility and you see the light at the end of a successful summer up ahead. You begin the process of evaluating your seasonal numbers, staff performance, and your personal feelings on your operational successes, but a critical stakeholder is missing: your customers. The age-old mantra of, “we wouldn’t have jobs if there were no customers,” still holds true today. Customer opinions are important to the overall success of your facility or program, more now than ever with the increasing use of social media for evaluating and discussing guest experiences through Yelp, Facebook Reviews, etc. The way we gather customer feedback on experience is an often overlooked component to our evaluation process. Below are a few ways to begin the process of developing informative questionnaires to truly evaluate the guest experience.

Do you really want to know?

Before you begin the quest for feedback from customers, you must ask yourself: Do I really want to know? If you have no process or plan to integrate the feedback into your operations, you are really just opening yourself up to the liability of being informed on issues without taking action. Depending on the feedback, this can result in legal issues if safety concerns are not addressed and continual customer complaints if service concerns are left unaddressed.

Length and Format

One factor to consider when developing your customer questionnaire is to keep it brief and to the point. Ask just the questions you really desire feedback on and give ample opportunity for customers to provide their own details with a comments section. How many times have you filled out an online survey and wondered if you would reach retirement before completing it? If it’s a paper survey, keep it to no more than one side of an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper, including the comment lines. If it’s an online survey, it should take less than 4 minutes to complete with a warning up front on the typical time necessary to complete. Questions should be worded as objectively as possible and always with an option for “not applicable” to ensure accuracy. Grouping the questions in sections like the example below allows you to ask more questions without making the customer feel bombarded.Questionair

I like asking specific questions that require the customer to name an employee tied to their answer. This encourages staff to develop and maintain relationships with the customers and allows you the opportunity to identify patterns with specific personnel and correct those issues. The customer can always skip that part if they do not know the employee’s name, but I have found that to be one of the most beneficial tools on a questionnaire.

Execution

Now that you have a great format and precisely worded questions, when should you make the “ask”? It’s best to get a diverse sample of your client base for the most accurate feedback. If you provide questionnaires to each swim lesson parent at the end of each session, you are missing out on the feedback of your waterpark guests, aqua aerobics participants, and fitness swimmers. Find a way to survey ALL types of users, throughout the year, at different times of the day. You may have a sparkling facility at 9:00am when the first swim lesson starts, but by the time rec swim ends and afternoon lessons begin, your restrooms can look atrocious, providing a much different experience for your afternoon customers. Sometimes, customers do not want to physically fill out the form. Sending staff members around to gather their results can mean an increase in survey results. Creating surveys specific to your special events can provide the opportunity to ask event specific questions. Aim to gather completed questionnaires from 5-7% of your customers to get a good sample of opinions.

If you leave it up to the customer to ask for a survey, then you will likely end up with a negatively skewed sample. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and people do not typically ask to fill out a questionnaire when they are moderately pleased with their experience. Encourage customers to give feedback in exchange for a coupon, free food and beverage item, chance to win a season pass, etc.

Compilation of Results

Once you have gathered all of your surveys, create a method for compiling the results. I have used a free online form builder to input all the results, which also allows me to run a report with the statistics for each question. This way, I can compare the results year over year. Any way you choose to compile the results, just make sure it is consistently followed and doesn’t become an end of season task. Most of the time, you will have lost many surveys and the opportunity to make quick easy fixes throughout the season.

Evaluation and Implementation

After the questionnaire feedback has been compiled, divide the results into categories. Assemble your management team to discuss the overarching categories. Evaluate whether policies can be adjusted, programs can be implemented, and do your best to address each “issue” listed. Once decisions have been made, introduce the results to staff. Sharing feedback with non-management staff can be eye opening, as they often do not understand the implications of their personal actions on the image of your park. Don’t forget to celebrate the areas where you are succeeding. Generating buy-in and psychological ownership over the great and troubling areas of your operations throughout your entire staff will pave the way for change and build a culture of success that will be unrivaled!