This is an excerpt from Aquatic Center Marketing by Judith Josephs.
Once your aquatics project is approved, you will enter the design phase for the facility. Be sure to go back to the work you did through the public process, focus groups, and surveys, and do your best to keep your promises. While working with your architects and engineers, be sure to focus not only on the pools and attractions but also on customer service, signage, theme, accessibility, and usability. For long-term success, your design needs to be customer friendly in order to extend your guests’ length of stay and to maximize your revenue. Design firms know pools, mechanical design, and chemical treatment, but not all of them know practical function and operations. You know your current customers and prospective members better than the design team does. The most beautiful designs can also be more costly in terms of supervision, maintenance, and usability.
Throughout this book, you may find the word guests used in two different scenarios. The first is for those public-sector operators and private swim clubs that consider a guest to be a friend of a paid member who comes along for a visit. In the resort and water-park world, everyone is considered a guest. Sure, water parks sell season passes, but they still view all who come to their property as their guests. Resorts also refer to everyone on their property as guests! It can be confusing, sure, but considering everyone as a guest is a positive approach for both public and private entities.
Diapers, Strollers, and Babies, Oh My!
Changing tables aren’t just for the women’s restroom. All of the restrooms on your property should be equipped with a changing table, covered trash can, and rocking chair if available. Creating a quiet, neat, and clean environment for a nursing mom or a dad traveling with a child meets a big customer need. Providing reusable swim diapers or plastic training diapers for sale or complementary can help you avoid a code brown situation, resulting in the closing of a pool. Feces in the pool turns off customers, who in turn complain to others in the community. In the design phase, be sure to put enough family restrooms or at least restrooms with changing tables within quick reach of parents. If not, your deck and deck chairs will soon be the substitute. One day, I’m going to invent a stand-alone diaper-changing area, just like some places provide a cleaning table for fish butchering on a dock. If there are stand-alone handwashing stations at public events, why not changing tables too? Something convenient, quick, and accessible will do. It sounds crazy, I know, but if parents have to leave the pool area to change a diaper and possibly lose their chair or leave their other child unsupervised, they aren’t going to go to a restroom.
Strollers can take up lots of room on pool decks and become a problem for guests who don’t have children. A parking area for strollers that runs along one of your buildings and has an awning for shade can become a quiet spot for a child sleeping in a stroller or for a parent and child who need a break.
When you design with the entire experience in mind, be sure to think like a guest. Visit other aquatic facilities. Take note of their restrooms, bathhouse, signage, shade, furnishings, and other amenities. Talk to those who are using the facility and ask what they like and dislike. Go the extra distance when thinking of guest relations. It’s not only about the pools; it’s about the entire experience.
One of your biggest decisions about operations will be how to determine your food service. Smaller facilities that entertain fewer than 100,000 visitors a year may only want to offer vending machines or a simple packaged-snack operation, while larger facilities may choose to find a concessionaire or operate their own food service. How does food service tie into marketing and promotions? Whatever avenue you choose for food service, be sure it is reliable, healthy, and reasonable. In terms of customer satisfaction and keeping an eye on revenue, offering a picnic area adjacent to an outdoor facility is a smart move. Customers can still visit your facility while on a budget and picnic adjacent to the property. Allowing picnic baskets in the facility will reduce per capita spending and hurt your bottom line. Offer an adjacent picnic area and you will make friends and promote multiple visits. Don’t worry—there are still concession items that can’t be brought in a picnic basket, like ice cream and shaved ice. Guests will still purchase those items.
Public water parks are often pressured to provide picnic areas both inside and adjacent to their facilities, but commercial properties know that in a seasonal operation, picnic baskets can ruin your revenue stream. Whatever you choose, make sure it is done well, or you will have a public relations nightmare on your hands.
Creating Excitement for Your Project
Throughout my career I have been called a shameless self-promoter because I understood the value of branding and promotion long before many of my parks and recreation colleagues caught on. Last time I looked, there wasn’t a line behind me ready to market me, my department, or my talented staff. It’s up to you to create the energy! Perhaps shameless self-promoter should be a badge of honor, as long as it isn’t at the expense of others.
I have shared various approaches to developing community consensus for an aquatic project on a budget. If you execute those steps, you’ve already created some buzz about your new or renovated facility. Whether that buzz is good or bad, it’s still creating conversation and excitement in your community. Now you have to keep that momentum going, and it may be hard. Many public projects take years to come to fruition. A talented and committed staff will be able to continue the excitement no matter what the season or budget. It just takes some creativity, a willingness to try even if the results aren’t stellar, and a sense of whimsy that will appeal to all ages. I’ve often referred to this approach as the salami effect. Am I suggesting you create a marketing and promotional plan that’s like an Italian sausage? I sure am! You have to deliver excitement, one slice at a time, just like you slice salami to make a great sandwich.
As discussed earlier, there is a perception that government can never get anything done. Even though you have done a great job promoting your public meetings, referendum, study, or community consensus building, there will still be those who don’t believe the facility will ever become a reality. Getting through the planning and zoning board for commercial aquatic center development is not much different—the host community must see you as an asset and not as a problem waiting to happen. It’s your responsibility to find each and every opportunity to create an event, make a splash, or submit a press release to keep up the buzz.
My Least Favorite Approach
I’ve worked with several communities that wanted to promote their new facility and get the community excited by selling passes or memberships well in advance of the project’s start or completion. Some folks in the political arena have posed this as a challenge to recreation professionals to prove there is community support. They also think that giving away memberships and passes at a promotional price will result in record numbers. This type of hype in government can easily work against you. Until people see the construction under way, they will still have the perception that this is another project the government will turn into another fine mess! If the membership sales before construction don’t meet the expectations of governing bodies, panic can easily set in. In addition, projects that sell memberships with a promised opening date can find themselves in a public relations nightmare when a facility misses its projected opening day. Whether for a public or private entity, you should be prepared for possible refunds or season extensions for outdoor facilities. Think about coupons and passes for the following year that may have to be offered. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It could have a two- to three-year effect on your bottom line. The public never forgets and won’t be shy about reminding you of a broken promise.