Designing Modern Aquatics Centers

April 25, 2024, Feature, by Michelle Gable, AFO, CPO

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How special features enhance aquatics spaces and increase revenue

Pools and aquatics centers are continuing to move away from the rectangular, six- or eight-lane design and function of the past. This transition is happening even faster than anticipated by industry experts, as park and recreation agencies operating pools find themselves needing to generate more revenue to continue recovering from the financial hardships brought on by the recent pandemic, combined with rising staff costs and changed expectations with regard to subsidizing aquatics. Many also took a hard look at their aquatics facilities during the downtime the pandemic provided and came to the realization that their tired aquatics facilities needed significant renovation or even replacement. To revamp an existing aquatics facility or in planning for a new aquatics facility, park and recreation professionals are turning to the variety of popular special features that can multiply the number and variety of users, revenue and fun at pools.

Special Features

Special features, like vortexes, lazy rivers, water slides, obstacle courses, inflatables, interactive water features, surfable waves, climbing walls and play structures, generate interest because they bring elements of experience, challenge, thrill and fun for individuals, families and even teenagers. These features can provide variety so tremendously different than the staple of recreational and lap swim that they can even attract entirely different groups of people to the facility. Experience shows that people will seek out an aquatics facility for an intriguing special feature and/or the programming that special features provide. Often, they even are willing to travel quite a distance for a special feature and related program. Consequently, they are willing to pay an extra fee or fees on top of the entrance fee for such an experience. This additional revenue can help sustain the operation of competitive pools, which can be subsidized by these revenue-generating amenities.

Chad Gunter, recreation supervisor for City of Folsom, California, shares insight into the success story of the Steve Miklos Aquatic Center’s implementation of continuous airflow ALFEX inflatables during the 2009 recession. The inflatables offer a captivating “wow” factor, enhancing the facility’s appeal to passersby and those approaching the main entrance. While originally catering to the entire community, the inflatables notably attract a younger teenage demographic, diversifying the facility’s offerings and retaining interest from a group that might otherwise age out of having interest in the facility. The inflatables also serve as spectator-friendly attractions, allowing friends and family to cheer on participants as they navigate the courses. Presently, visitors are charged an extra $3 per day for an inflatable wristband, and each year the center welcomes new and enthusiastic patrons eager to tackle the latest inflatable challenges. This has proven instrumental in boosting attendance and revenue. During the past 15 years, these inflatables have generated an impressive $600,000 in additional revenue.

Another example can be found at the Rogue Credit Union Community Complex (Rogue X) in Medford, Oregon. Rich Rosenthal, parks, recreation and facilities director for City of Medford, says, “Our department’s mandate was to replace an aging seasonal pool where [the City of Medford’s] swim lessons were conducted, but it didn’t make sense to replace a Cold War-era outdoor rectangular pool with another simplistic rectangular design, only with a roof over it. The modern design provides ample space for the most important thing we do — teaching swim lessons — but the additional amenities and features like water slides, the lazy river, etc., go a long way in helping the city generate more revenue and achieve a higher cost recovery.”

Indirect Programs

The excitement generated by unique aquatics features isn’t limited to free swim times; it also enriches structured programs, like swim lessons. Special amenities can be integrated into swim lessons as a reward. For instance, allowing participants to use the water slide during the last five minutes of a session for good behavior or to celebrate advancing to the next level adds an element of fun and motivation for both students and instructors. This approach also applies to the professional development of lifeguards and swim instructors who can look forward to utilizing these features during their regular in-service training sessions. Beyond attracting regular patrons, the diverse and enjoyable nature of these special features also can appeal to potential staff members, offering them a work environment that is engaging, varied and more interesting than traditional lap swimming sessions.

Implementing special features doesn’t necessarily mean a significant increase in staffing requirements. Communities often can find a working balance and enhance community engagement without overburdening the staffing budget by adjusting the operational hours of these features to times when staff are more readily available, which often coincides with community peak times. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that introducing special features does necessitate extra training for staff, both initially and on an ongoing basis. Planning for this training is an essential part of the staffing and budgeting process, ensuring that the team is well-prepared to safely manage these attractions.

Fostering Inclusion

Other special features have less revenue-generating potential but are equally attractive to a wide variety of people from the community — many of whom are willing to travel a significant distance — including amenities like moveable bulkheads, beach entries and ADA ramps. Aquatics facilities with swimming, diving and water polo programs benefit significantly from the use of a bulkhead. Disparate programs can operate simultaneously, benefiting a parent with multiple kids in different age groups or sports, and can allow these programs to operate earlier in the afternoon or evening. For families that often travel quite a distance to a facility, this can positively impact afternoon/evening family life. Such a feature also can allow the facility to host more competitions, which can bring additional revenue-generating opportunities. Beach entries and ADA ramps provide gentle access into the water that benefits people of all ages and stages of life. Accessible facilities are welcoming to all and can be the difference between someone choosing one facility over another. In addition to ADA-access benefits, beach entries are friendly to less experienced swimmers, parent and child swim lessons, toddlers, and those wanting to wade rather than swim. They support a large variety of users and have the added bonus of being fairly easy to lifeguard.

Anna Slocum from City of Merriam, Kansas, highlights the inclusive and accessible features at the Merriam Community Center’s pools. Notably, the city’s facility stands out in the area for offering both indoor and outdoor aquatics options in the almost 16,000 square feet of aquatics space. Indoors, its amenities cater to diverse needs and interests. The activity pool is divided thoughtfully into zones, featuring a zero-depth area with water sprays and a water table, a current channel with a “shower curtain” and depth charge, and a slide-plunge area with options for families and thrill-seekers alike. Additionally, there’s an activity zone tailored for swim lessons and open swim, complete with seating and four indoor lap lanes equipped with basketball hoops.

Moreover, they provide a smaller warm-water therapy pool for those requiring specialized care. Outdoors, the single body of water connects seamlessly with a walkway to the zero-depth shallow-water area, promoting inclusivity and easy access. Unique features, such as benches for seating and interactive water features, like the bucket spill mix, anthem bloom and spray rocks, enhance the experience for all visitors. The lap-lane section boasts additional attractions, like a zip line, two one-meter dive boards and eight starting blocks, catering to a wide range of interests and abilities. Furthermore, its membership structure fosters accessibility by offering a single membership for both indoor and outdoor facilities. This two-in-one approach eliminates the need for separate memberships to access different areas of the community center, making it more convenient and cost effective for patrons. Additionally, the city provides flexible membership options, including monthly bank drafts, annual payments or summer memberships, ensuring accessibility to all members of the community.

When pondering a special feature, weigh the pros and cons before making the capital investment. Talk to other operators, shop manufacturers to get quotes, and poll interest from the community. Plan the pricing structure, staffing requirements and operating hours for a full picture of the impact a special feature can bring. With the variety of features available in the industry, there is no single solution that will work for every facility. Careful planning, attention to budget, communication with staff and customers, and an understanding of under-resourced programs in the community can result in maximizing the impact of any new feature.

SEE ALSO: The Challenge of Renovating Historic Aquatic Facilities, Robin Steinshnider and David Mills, Parks & Recreation, September 2017, Vol. 47, Iss. 9.

Michelle Gable, AFO, CPO, is Associate at Aquatic Design Group, Inc.