As communities provide outlets for one of America’s most popular pastimes, they often do so with limited funds, maintenance queries for aging facilities, and changes in demand, regulations, and weather. According to Paul Gilbert, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, innovation is key for sustainability in today’s aquatic environments. “In the last 20 years, every new housing development…has built a pool. There’s a saturation,” says Gilbert. “Now you have to sell something more interesting…create a fantastic experience.”
The Experience Economy
Gilbert credits this strategic mindset with the recent success of three of Northern Virginia’s aquatic facilities, which, since renovations in the late 2000s, have recovered costs and generated revenues on an increasing basis. By taking advantage of the Blue Ocean Strategy (developed by Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne), his agency created new market space targeting a specific set of decision makers—children ages 4 to 10.
For example, at Pirates Cove Waterpark in Lorton, Virginia, features such as water cannons and dumping buckets are presented with a thoroughly integrated pirates theme. Children can enjoy murals, play on a ship, and dig for “treasure”—medallions they can trade for trinkets at a treasure chest. Gilbert says the iconic images and fixtures, some visible from the road, create a sense of adventure that can’t be replicated. “The experience starts long before you get inside,” he states.
Indiana’s Lake County Parks took a similar approach in the late 1980s when, in lieu of a traditional facility, they began development of Deep River Waterpark. “We knew we needed to do things that would generate positive revenue,” states Jim Basala, superintendent of business development, adding that the water park now contributes 25 percent of its gross revenue to other county park and recreation amenities. Basala says carnival food and logo souvenirs help to imprint unique, vacation-like memories in visitors’ minds. He states, “There can be only one Deep River experience.”
New Services/New Customers
Gilbert says agencies don’t need to go beyond their enterprise expertise to create revenue streams. By taking advantage of market adjacencies—changing one aspect of an operation, either a product or service, or customers—agencies can limit financial risk.
Products and Services
In 2011, Gaithersburg, Maryland, made renovations to its Water Park at Bohrer Park to engage more people of all ages. “We tried to give everyone something,” says Michele Potter, director of parks, recreation, and culture. The agency converted the main pool into a 25-meter, six-lane amenity to accommodate the high local demand for competitive swimming, and it transformed the traditional baby pool into a play/spray ground with a Maryland theme. Additionally, Gaithersburg made enhancements to attract more teens. Potter adds, “We set up volleyball nets and basketball hoops, and added a slide where you can race your friends.”
Agencies are citing success with private rentals. Deep River Waterpark hosts between 40 and 50 groups per year; the facility is rentable most weekdays after closing time when the temperature makes general visitation unlikely. Brad Anderson, facility/program supervisor for Englewood, Colorado, Parks & Recreation, says birthday party packages with private space, food, and paper products are popular at the city’s indoor aquatic facility and water park. “It’s a one-stop shop,” says Anderson. “The parents don’t have to worry about the hassle and mess. They can enjoy themselves.”
Personal space and shade are powerful draws, according to Anderson. He notes that four cabanas constructed last year in Englewood’s waterpark completely recovered costs that same year. Operations manager Martesha Brown of Rockford Park District, Illinois, says basic cabanas offered at Magic Waters Waterpark in 2008 were so successful that Magic Waters has since expanded to luxury cabanas, bungalows, and island patios.
Social Media Marketing
To generate buzz and increase admissions, agencies are taking advantage of social media. Gaithersburg, Maryland, recently utilized CertifiKid—which Potter describes as a type of LivingSocial site for children—to increase weekday attendance. Brown says Rockford Park District generated $30,000 in 10 hours for Magic Waters, pre-season, through a “Terrific $10” sale, with multiple benefits. “When they come to the park, they aren’t spending as much on admission, so they spend it in the park,” says Brown.
It goes without saying that fitness and safety are important components for agencies seeking the balance between leisure and social responsibility.
Johnson County Park and Recreation District, Kansas, provides a program with U.S. Masters Swimming that, according to superintendent of recreation Jill Geller, has been profitable for many years. A punch-card system allows access to up to 15 classes for a set fee during mornings and weekday evenings to accommodate adult schedules. All associated staffing expenses are charged to the program.
For Walnut Creek, California’s Arts, Recreation and Community Services department, swim safety is not only a driver for participation, it is at the core of the agency’s mission. Assistant director Kevin Safine acknowledges the success of their lifeguard training programs and swim lessons—which recover the highest percentage of costs—but is quick to point out that affordability and accessibility are priorities to ensure they are serving everyone.
Safine is curious about the ways in which Walnut Creek will innovate in the future to be less reliant on the city’s general fund while continuing to accommodate community needs and demand.
“How do we do that?” he asks. “There is an answer out there; it’s just getting there, which is our challenge.”
Amy Kapp is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.