Category Archives: Programming

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.

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You’re Not Alone! Facing and Fixing Today’s Aquatic Challenges

As the president of the North Texas Aquatics Association, I recently surveyed our membership of aquatics’ professionals in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, as well as some of my colleagues on the World Waterpark Association’s Public Sector Committee, in order to find out what challenges and obstacles they currently face.  As the results came in, I quickly realized that the majority of the challenges mentioned fell into one of three categories: Personnel, Financial and Facility.  And while none of the answers surprised me, it was interesting to see the challenges they face and how it affects them and their organization.

Staffing issues top the list of challenges, mainly because of the nature of the positionsCapture and hours offered to prospective employees.  Operators need staff from 5am to 10pm Monday through Friday, and most the day on the weekends too.  Not only that, sometimes staff is only needed for a few hours at a time (programming, noon lap swim, etc.) and it’s difficult to find dedicated and engaged employees who want to work a staggered schedule.  Because of this, employee turnover and competition from other less stringent jobs stood out as primary challenges posed to the group I surveyed.  Throw in the lack of buy-in from younger employees, and the complexities with recruiting, training and motivating staff, and aquatic professionals have a difficult task ahead of them, and we haven’t even gotten past the first category!

On the financial side, challenges included the rising costs of equipment, supplies and labor, something I noticed over the course of my days as a public sector operator.  From 2007 to 2014, the cost of my calcium hypochlorite went from $166.00 for 100 pounds to $193.00, that’s a 14% increase during times of shrinking budgets. Couple rising costs with aquatics’ staff being given unrealistic cost recovery goals for their facility and the decrease of annual operational budgets, they quickly become frustrated because they must generate more revenue, with less resources to do so.

On the facility side, operators struggle with maintaining aging facilities at an acceptable level, while not having the financial means to make it happen.  Aging pools built in the 1970s and 1980s face physical (aging infrastructure) and functional (lack of features) obsolescence.    These facilities have low attendance because which puts revenue generation at an all-time low, yet their costs keep rising.  Add in changing codes and legislation and now operators are being asked to patch their 40 year old pool to get it into compliance, when it needs a complete renovation.

Now, that we have a list of chalI Thinklenges that hinder aquatics’ professionals, let’s develop a framework to start tackling these one by one.  Anytime I look at overcoming a challenge, I asked myself four questions in regards to that specific challenge.

1)      What difficulties does this challenge pose?

2)      How does it affect my organization and operation?

3)      What are the benefits of overcoming this challenge?

4)      How do I overcome it?

Answering the above questions will make the path to conquering your challenges much easier and will provide you with clear direction and purpose.  Let’s take training and motivating staff as an example and then I’ll send you on your way to tackle the rest.

1)      What difficulties does this challenge pose?

Aquatic operators lack the time and resources to fully train their staff, primarily because they have so many other responsibilities.  Recruiting, hiring, programming, payroll and maintenance all take time and which leaves little time for training. Lack of funding also impacts training and motivation because training funds typically go first when budgets get slashed.

2)      How does it affect my organization and operation?

The lack of training and motivation means that operators receive poor employee behaviors which can put your guests at risk, as well as providing them poor service.  Without training, employees are less likely to buy in to the vision and culture of your organization, which means they leave sooner and operators have a high employee turnover rate.  That puts you back at square one which means less time to train and motivate because must spend time recruiting and hiring.

3)      What are the benefits of overcoming this challenge?

The benefits of training and motivating staff far outweigh the time and resources it takes because once you start training then you can become more efficient in your time management.  You can delegate some of your responsibilities to your more proficient staff and the good behaviors starts to flow from your team. You now have a safer facility with employees who provide better overall service.  They start buying in to your philosophy and vision and now they stay longer, which reduces your turnover and gives you more time to focus on improving your operation, instead of just getting by.

4)      How do I overcome it?

This is probably the toughest question to answer when looking at overcoming the challenge of training and motivating staff, but it’s also the most important.  Operators should create a training calendar that covers all of the topics that need addressing on a daily, weekly or monthly basis with each of their levels of employees.  Once complete, you must show the importance of training in order to achieve your organization’s vision (don’t forget to make attendance mandatory!).  Also, make sure you hire hiring individuals who have shared values with your philosophy, a positive attitude, internal motivation and great communication skills.  These are the ones that are easy to train!  I might take a little more work upfront during the hiring process, but you’ll be glad you did.  Training is merely an extension of the hiring process so it’s important to show organizational purpose and vision in the interview, as well as every day on the job.  Lay out your expectations on the front-end of employment, communicating to them what to do, how to do it and why it matters.  Buy-in, loyalty, staff retention and employee engagement await around the corner!

Overcoming challenges and obstacles can prove to be a difficult process, but a worthwhile one.  Improving your operation just a little at a time will have big rewards for the future and set your organization up for success for many years to come.

You want more competitive swimmers? Make swim meets shorter!!

Competitors swim during the women's 200m freestyle heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games“If I had only one day left to live I would spend it at a swim meet because they last forever.” I’ve seen this on swimmers’ t-shirts at swim meets across the country, and I couldn’t agree more.

I was recently visiting with USA Swimming in Colorado Springs when we began discussing how to get more competitive swimmers into the sport. Several approaches were discussed, all with merit. USA Swimming is beginning a great new campaign called “Swim Today” to convert swim lesson kids to swim team kids.  However, there was one approach that I felt needed to be addressed: shorter swim meets would draw and retain younger kids (and parents) to the sport.

With three age-group swimmers between the ages of 8 and 11, and having swum competitively myself, I understand the current age-group swim meet agenda: spend five to six hours on a pool deck either early on a weekend morning or late into the evening on a weekday. This is costing the sport future competitive swimmers not because the kids do not want to compete in swim meets but because the parents, who may not have been competitive swimmers, do not want this big of a commitment.

Over the last couple of years, I have been able to recruit some of my kids’ friends to the swim team through conversations with their parents.  I have appealed to the benefits of gaining confidence in the water, to a healthy lifestyle, to fun with friends.  What I tend to leave out is the lengthy time commitment required for swim meets.  I would say that I have only had about a 10% retention rate after the parents’ experience a long swim meet.  Now usually they stick it out for a short period of time, but the reason I get for their kids quitting is the swim meet time commitment.

We have all heard the phrases “practice makes perfect” and “practice like you play,”  but this to me is one of the largest disconnects in the sport of swimming.  Swim practices can last one to two hours with interval training and very, very limited breaks.  Rarely does a swimmer get out of the pool during practice.  Yet at a swim meet there may be an hour between events.Start Backstroke

During high profile meets like the Olympics or FINA World Championships, the media always make a big deal out of a condensed time frame between races for athletes like Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps.  I understand this for high-caliber meets but age group kids (and parents) do not need a long break to rest.  A typical swim meet may include three to five races for each of my kids over the five to six-hour time frame.

Here is a typical meet……kids arrive at 6 a.m. to warm up for 20 minutes.  Meet starts at 7 a.m.  My son swims a race and then is back on the grass field playing baseball or football.  I don’t know an age group kid out there that can be contained to “rest” for the next race when it’s an hour away and all of their friends are ready to play.  But hey, there is good news for the parents…..you get to stand behind a starting block for two hours, time the other kids, and see your kid swim for maybe two minutes.

Something has to change.

Think about this, most other sports like soccer, baseball, and football all have the same practice requirements as swimming (one to two hours) but the games are typically equal to the length of practice and most often are shorter.  I would enjoy a maximum of 2.5-hour swim meet where coaches have to select events (and entries) that fit within that time frame.  PS:  my 10-year old doesn’t need to swim the 200 Fly. Or we could have more swim meets that have condensed time frames – baseball and basketball games are commonly held frequently throughout the week. In fact, I recently saw an article on ESPN.com where a Major League Baseball executive suggested a 7-inning MLB baseball game to appeal to more people.  The same type of thinking needs to take place in the sport of swimming!

Pool Design Part 2 – Often Forgotten Elements of the Best Pools

You can read about the science behind a good pool but what else goes into a facility to really make it great? It is easy when designing a pool to stop at the pumps controlling a pool and the hole you put in the ground but a truly good facility looks not only at the athlete but also at the ease of hosting an event and making a facility that considers all aspects of a true Natatorium

Lighting– Lighting is often an afterthought in many aquatic center designs and often times, no consideration is given to how it can effect a race. Lighting is important for both judging the distance and gauging the swimmer position, in competition. A good facility design has considered a careful balance of natural light with careful attention to limiting the glare it could cause and un-natural lights with proper angles and illumination for optimal racing, all while keeping in mind the spectator experience and officiating requirements.

Acoustics– A natatorium has to deal with all sorts of sounds. There are starter buzzers, official whistles, final lap bells, announcements, coaches coaching, on-deck athletes talking and spectators cheering. It can be difficult to design a facility that considers and properly accommodates for all the action but when you are in the design phase, choosing the right elements can make for sound dampening like wall angles and materials, speaker placement, spectator viewing area placement and athlete accommodation areas. Good teams work with engineers that specialize, exclusively, on aquatic acoustics.

HVAC Systems– With fresh, clean air, an athlete can perform better. Lung expansion and contraction can reach optimal levels and non-athletes are in a more comfortable, more enjoyable space. Fresh air is critical not just for the performance of the athlete but also for the comfort of the spectators and those fully clothed.  Spectators require cooler air with higher velocities as compared to the athletes on the pool deck.  When it comes to HVAC solutions in natatoriums, there is not a one-size fits all approach.

Deck Dimensions– Optimal deck space is really dependent on the types of swimming going on in your facility. For a strictly practice facility, the most important element is the pool itself and deck space needs to accommodate for the coach, swimmers that are not in the pool and their parents. When considering a facility that can host collegiate and elite competition, it is important to consider television tracks, appropriate space for the number of swimmers attending the competitions. Let’s not forget the officials who have to traverse the length of the pool, and don’t want to fall in due to congested walkways. Once your space is designed and built, it is very costly to expand you space and with the right feasibility study and market research, an appropriate size can be determined

Spectator Seating– The joke in swimming is that you always want to separate the coaches and swimmers from the parents by putting them on the second level to view at a distance. But in truth, having seating on the second level provides the best feel for the fans and the most room for everyone taking part in the event. The swimmers want to feel energies by crowds as well as feeling like they have space to focus on there on events. In elite competition, this also enables security and safety of athletes to be controlled and can provide easier credential check points.

It can be a challenge to consider all users that are affected by an aquatics facility but with proper planning and a good team, you can truly make a great space. Being considerate of your market opportunity and users can ultimately position your facility to stay on budget with a build and optimize the return by capturing an appropriate audience of users.

Pool Design Part 1 – Fast Pools

Every time a new pool is built or there is a high profile event, someone always seems to ask, what makes a fast pool? It is our job in the industry of building pools to make these Facilities the BEST they can be. Swimmers on the block should only be considering their efforts towards training and planning for a race to make their best times, not whether or not the designers have used the best and most appropriate materials in building or refurbishing the pool. Here are a few factors that to consider when building or upgrading your facility.

Water Depth: Over the past few years pools have been getting deeper and deeper.  When a swimmer dives in the water this creates waves not just on top of the water but under the water too. Think of an echo in a small room, the sound waves reverberate off each wall; well in a pool the waves (or currents) can reverberate off the floor and affect the swimmer as the race progresses.  These currents carry through the entire race. The more shallow the water is, the greater the effect these currents have on the swimmers. When talking about short distances like the 100 meter freestyle, the difference between 1st and 8th place could be 1/10th of a second.

Temperature:  When building a pool one of the biggest topic s of discussion is the temperature of the water.  Competitive and Lap swimmers want it cooler, divers want it warmer and therapy wants it even warmer. There is no perfect situation when trying to make everyone happy in one pool.  It is important to have a primary focus for the pool so that conditions can be optimal for the primary use. For racers, cold pools can shock the system and tense up your muscles, but hot pools create the body to overheat which they makes the athlete extent more energy, resulting is sluggish swims. The perfect temperature (for racers) ranges between 78-80 degrees. It can be challenging to maintain these temperatures when you are dealing with all 4 types of energy; radiation, evaporation, convection and conduction.

Lane Width– In a standard swimming pool the lane width is typically 7 foot wide.  In high competition pools the lane width is 8 and sometimes 9 foot wide, for higher end facilities. The large lanes are intended to give each lane equal conditions and minimize the effect of the currents created by other lanes.  A wider the lane leads to less wave movement from one lane into another.

Lane Line Design– Lanes line technology has changed progressed a lot over the years.  The first style of lane lines were really just floating ropes, as seen in this photo from the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Today, the lane lines are designed to suppress wave turbulence and now flank every lane. The competition improvement has led to the introduction of a 10 lane pool that adds capacity to practices but creates 8 equal competition lanes.fast pool2

Gutter Design: In an effort to maintain a consistent pool current throughout the race, competition pools have also lowered their gutters to absorb the waves at the edge of the pool, rather than bouncing them back towards center. A thoughtful gutter design is a very important aspect to a fast pool.

With water entries, flip turns and strokes all impacting the water’s surface, the number of currents in a pool are significant. All technological improvements that can be made to minimize these contribute to maximizing the speeds obtained in these pools and make them the best, fastest pools.