Sink or Swim

Maintaining a successful public-sector waterpark is as easy as 1-2-3.

By Scott W. Hester and Michelle Schwartz | 2007
Splash and Spray

In the 1950s and 60s, numerous small neighborhood pools dotted the landscape of small towns and cities across America. Every summer, local kids biked or walked to the public pools, and swam as long as they wanted, all without the supervision of parents. When the nation became more intimidating in the 70s and 80s (television coverage of perpetrators, kidnappings, drive-by shootings and drug dealers), moms and babysitters escorted children to the pools, faced with a boring day at the typical neighborhood pool, spending less and less time there. Consequently, many pools fell into disrepair, some shut down completely, and others began to add features, hoping the whole family would come more often and stay longer. The industry had a choice: sink or swim.

Today, municipal swimming involves fewer but larger, innovative aquatic centers and water parks that entice all the senses: the sights and sounds of families interacting in refreshing, free form pools and wave pools, splashing down waterslides, romping in zero-beaches, lap swimming in designated lanes, and laughing in inner tubes floating down lazy rivers underneath waterfalls; intoxicating scents include sparkling, clean water, coconut sunscreen, and soft towels with the aroma of sunshine; taste buds are tantalized with juicy drinks and healthy sandwiches for robust appetites resulting from plausible, entertaining exercise. These are memory-making places where families are eager to frequent, sometimes in lieu of vacations.

The change began with a bang in 1977 when George Millay created the first commercial water park in Orlando, Florida. Wet N’ Wild featured water-oriented “rides” for all ages (source: WWA)). But the public sector is unique from private sector water parks because they are tax payer funded facilities with operational expectations of revenue and expenses. They are designed for the community in a concerted effort with the community.

Residents are proud of these places and are willing to “pay to play” if the proper experience is provided. The public is continually updated in environmental stewardship and knows that increasing the community profile generates revenue and property values. The public sector water park remains successful not only by sustaining a clean, friendly, environmentally responsible and fun reputation but also by maintaining an entrepreneurial approach.

Entrepreneurs know that gleaning information from their competitors is beneficial in finding gaps, improving policies and fees, and creating opportunities to utilize competitor weaknesses. The municipal water park might boast that it is geared toward families and helps put money back into the local economy by buying local food and supplies. It may also point out that many residents prefer pay-as-they-go fee structures rather than buying memberships that require initiation fees that competitors may be charging.

From a marketing standpoint, entrepreneurs know it is well worth the effort to yearly update population characteristics such as growth/decline, age groups and income that may change over time. Municipal water parks understand market segmentation in regard to the target market profile: age group distribution affects program attendance and opportunities, income trends affect discretional leisure spending and consequent fee structures, population growth or decline affects attendance and overall revenue. Municipalities track if the community is aging (gray power can be a large, affluent market), if young families are moving in, if new subdivisions or condominiums are being developed and in what price range, and if the per capita income is growing exponentially with inflation (how the local industry is doing).

If income trends change, pricing policies for daily admissions and concessions become sensitive. Nonresident fees might be adjusted if outlying metropolitan 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 and quantity passes. Discounts may apply to those who register early or as a renewal incentive to established customers. In some parts of the country where people are willing to drive an hour or more to enjoy a full day at a water park, rain checks are valid for the entire season to promote customer good will.

Once the target market segment has been updated for predominant user groups, municipal water parks continually find and adjust programming through community outreach. Unlike private water parks, public sector water parks plan with residents rather than for residents through focus groups and surveys. Expectations for toddlers are very unique from elementary schoolers, pre-teens are unique from teenagers, and various subgroups of adults are unique from various subgroups of senior populations. Municipalities do not view market analysis as merely numbers, but get to know lifecycle program users and how each group participates. For example, the community may have a goal that all fourth graders learn to swim or that teenagers have a place to congregate on Sunday. If the area’s demographic characteristics have dramatically changed since the water park first opened, features and amenities are analyzed before rash decisions are made.

When adding features for a growing community or where the municipal water park is a destination facility that must maintain a high profile, a steering committee typically acquires a feasibility study while working with the public. When looking at the opportunity for expansion or adding or changing features, the committee will gain a clearer understanding of pro forma and design solutions as the study provides projected first dollar costs and yearly operational expenses for the first five years, which might be offset by offering appropriate amenities and opportunities.

By conducting community meetings and stakeholder and staff interviews for suggestions, features and amenities are analyzed that can provide additional revenue streams beyond main ticket sales. These might include pavilions for rentals or multiple concession locations. Hot trends might be suggested for the unrepresented 12-16 age group or the 17-22 age group. Mat Racers or a FlowRider might be chosen to fill these gaps respectively. Adventurous preschoolers are likely to feel disappointed as most water slides require riders to be at least 44 inches (and they’re too big for the tot slides). An otter slide is just-their-size and may need to be added to the portfolio for this niche market.

Staff may suggest that the water park needs a cohesive theme to stand out. With the continued advances in the production of water features in both safety and realism, fantasy retreats can provide water jungles, pirate coves, and rainforest temples to name a few. Geographical features specific to a region can include culture, wildlife or geological formations at the entrance or throughout the park. Color theming and music can lend a resort impression of the French Riviera, the Mediterranean, ancient Mexico or the Caribbean. With slides, waterfalls and water play products available in look-alike bamboo, thatch, wood, tile and brick, and features such as palm trees, castles, forts, ships and animals, any theme can be achieved.

Perhaps the community desires a natatorium that allows for year-round competitive swimming, party rentals and therapy needs. Competitive swimmers can be a very loyal group if opportunities for practice, training and meets are offered. A therapy pool can provide warm water designed to assist those with strained muscles, arthritis, and other aquatic therapy needs as well as aerobics and gentle water exercise. Natatorium temperatures are maintained at a comfortable mid-80° allowing party rentals where natural, filtered sunlight streams down upon swimmers during the harsher months of the year.

Diversity and entertainment of the selected attractions are weighed as to how the additional features will fit into the overall user comfort of the established facility. The design team must understand triangulation between elements so as not to jeopardize segregated age group areas trying to enjoy experiences as well as programs. For example, placing a teen action island inside the configuration of the lazy river near the large waterslides will not disrupt the senior water walking environment on the other side of the park; or placing spray features inside the entrance for a plaza effect that immediately invites little ones to zip around the playful, interactive fountains will not disrupt the tiny tot area safely out of harm’s way in a more private area.

When the concept is buttoned down, the public sector water park business plan must demonstrate to political leadership how expectations regarding facility subsidy will change and how subsequent revenue from return on investment can be used to impact other community programs. They make sure that first dollar costs are palatable to the community. All decision making regarding the continuation of the aquatic vision is conducted in a public forum to avoid the “ready, fire, aim” approach.

Once additional amenities or features have been approved by the community referendum or council vote, architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural design approaches must be long term solutions while accommodating economic considerations. Municipal water parks must not only ensure that specialty design consultants have proper experience with the project’s building and zoning issues but will stay on budget. The design partner provides experience and direction, but does not make the decisions; those have been predetermined by efforts with the community.

Success also relies on the skills and craftsmanship of the licensed construction professionals. Municipalities understand the difference between qualifications based selection and low bid. They pre-qualify the experienced swimming pool contractor and understand that a design-bid-build process includes specifications that clearly identify the requirement for contractor qualifications. Specifications must indicate work to be completed by others; a specification that is not proprietary increases competition amongst bidders. Outlining the scope of work to be included within the pool package creates a tighter bidding environment. Multiple vendors and manufacturers typically assist in maintaining a fair and competitive bidding environment.

If the Construction Manager (CM) model is chosen, the CM is responsible for coordination with the design professionals on all issues related to design. The CM coordinates bidding and selection of contractors and negotiates final pricing while assisting in preparation of contractor contracts. The CM establishes lines of communication with inspection agencies and coordinates construction site meetings with contractors and the architect and any other related professionals. The CM coordinates punch list preparation, requests warranty information and closes out the project.

When new experiences are in place, municipal water parks make sure that staff, which is typically more than fifty percent of the annual expense budget, understands and conveys all new processes and procedures in a positive environment. In order to win and maintain participants, lifeguards, front desk attendants, instructors, maintenance crews, concession operators, and managers work to provide service, programs and amenities that have been thoroughly analyzed and well planned. The public sector water park combines excellent customer service with community outreach to achieve customer loyalty in maintaining a place where proud families make great memories year after year.