Water is the most abundant resource on our planet. Humans, early on in their embryonic development, boast webbed fingers and toes, a nod to their water-dwelling ancestors. And even when we abandon the womb, we don't abandon water. The substance composes most of our total body makeup.

Small wonder, then, that water-based programming can be a popular addition to a health club.

With warm weather fast approaching, clubs need to harness water's inherent power with their aquatics programming. Traditionally, the summer has been a down time for clubs. But water-based activities can be a cash cow for that sizzling three-month stretch if you get creative with your programming and aggressive with your marketing.

Consider this scenario: It's the middle of June. You're advertising in the newspapers, mailing out brochures about your pool and putting out flyers. You've done all the proper pool maintenance, making sure the water is nice and clear, the tiles aren't chipped, and the filters aren't clogged.

But guess what? There's one lone lap swimmer coming to use your Olympic-size pool. And he's going on a two-week vacation in a couple of days. Insert chirping cricket noise here.

What's the problem? It's summertime. Everyone's away at the beach or the lake. Or maybe you only have an indoor pool, and there's an outdoor pool up the street that's attracting your clientele away.

How can you compete with surf, sand and sun? Actually, you can't.

That's not to say you shut down for the summer, though. You're really never going to fight sunshine, and the beach and the sand with an indoor pool on a warm summer day, says Scott Strane, the aquatics director for Michigan's Family Fitness Factory. But you [offer] different activities [for the summer months].

You can create aquatic excitement by launching different water programs when temperatures start to rise. I start with new programs for the summer months. Make sure there is something new and different, offers Pat Fossella, facilities manager for Cranford Pool and Fitness Center in Cranford, N.J.

Cranford's own aquatic programming is so successful that Fossella claims the facility has a waiting list in January for the pool in summer. Of course, the club also does a lot of advertising. We spend $10,000 a year on advertising in a town of 25,000, she says.

While smaller clubs may not have that sort of advertising budget, they certainly have the ability to promote their summer programs long before the weather heats up. For example, parents want someplace wholesome to bring their children during summer vacation. A pool is such a place. However, parents are making decisions before school breaks for summer holiday. So catch their eye early.

Parents do start planning their children's summer activities well in advance of June, advises Richard Meyer, the regional Southern California president of Club One.

Dawn Gillespie, the aquatics director for the Kingwood Athletic Club in Kingwood, Texas, pulls an all-out youth promotion before the summer season starts. I personally and my staff as well go to grocery stores, pizza parlors wherever you're going to find kids and I just ask the people if they wouldn't mind posting our pamphlets, she says.

Children aren't the only group you can target in the cooler months. To get a jump on the summer crowd, Meyer advises discounts for early or multiple sign-ups. A financial discount usually creates a sense of urgency, he explains. In addition, at our big pools, we have a summer sign-up day. It creates urgency in people.

To get multiple sign-ups, you'll need to provide multiple reasons for joining. Sure, you can host some fun classes like water volleyball, scuba diving or kayak lessons but some people just don't want to get into a pool. So get them around the pool.

Make the summer pool experience more social by throwing parties or having everyone meet poolside for refreshments. Whatever you decide to do with your summer aquatics programming, try to schedule it around major vacation times when people are free and looking for a good time.

Creative Pool

Keep in mind that people won't have a good time if you get stuck on the same-old, same-old water programming ideas. Have fun. Be creative.

By providing everything from swim classes to kids' camps and birthday party rentals, a well-run pool can be a major profit center for any club. Aquatic programming can even turn to dryer environments for inspiration.

Whatever we have on land, I try to bring into the water, says Cynthia Bialek, the program director for the Fitness Club of Fairfax, a Fairfax, Va.-based health facility offering a year-round, heated indoor pool.

Bringing new classes into the pool brings more people into the club. Bialek claims that water-based programming has increased membership. This is because this programming offers a low-impact alternative for the club's large older population. For people with arthritis or knee problems, aqua exercise offers less pain and more gain.

As most club operators will agree, the older market is a stable, loyal demographic. And the pool is an ideal environment for many elderly exercisers. Fossella can attest to that. We have an underwater treadmill that they fight over, she says.

Besides the older set, water classes are an attractive alternative to overweight individuals who want to get in better shape, but are intimidated by the workout floor. We have a few people who are extremely overweight and they don't want to be seen on the floor, explains Bialek. [The pool] gives them a place to hide.

Indeed, the water is a much more friendly option for obese individuals, according to Aquatics Director Saralee Bloese of Michigan's Howell Area Aquatic Center. A lot of people are attracted to the water because it's not as intimidating, she says. You can get in the water and bounce around and not really be seen, or you can just bounce around and not have the same impact. Or if you're really heavy90 percent of your body weight is displaced.

It feels good, she continues. It just has the natural properties of massaging your body.

It is the natural properties of water that give a pool such a cross-generation appeal. Besides the elderly and deconditioned, a pool is a great resource for families. If your summer programs manage to draw kids, you may eventually sell their parents too.

Water exercise and learn-to-swim classes aren't the only ways to interest parents and kids. Frank Tuohy, the aquatics director for the Aquatics and Fitness Center in Philadelphia, made up flyers for kids' swim clinics taught by national level athletes and posted them at the local swim team's practice spaces.

You can do very well with these types of clinics, he says. Parents are more competitive than their children. They want their kids to be the best.

So do their coaches. The Aquatics and Fitness Center rents out its pool to swim teams, a practice that's so popular, Tuohy has had coaches steal the flyers from competitors' schools to keep the pool for themselves.

Kids, parents, the elderly whomever you decide to target with your pool, make sure that the programming reflects their taste. Market the clientele you want to attract, advises Julie See, president of the Florida-based Aquatic Exercise Association.

If the population base from which you are drawing potential clients averages 68 years of age, she adds, well, then aquatic kickboxing probably won't be the class of choice, no matter who teaches, at what time, and with what perks you offer!

Likewise, she says, If all a 25-year-old client has observed is an arthritis class in the pool, they will not be rushing to sign up for any water fitness program. Offer a sample of class formats so that potential clients can observe or participate to see if that is something they are interested in.

Aquaphobia

In addition to the type of programming, clubs need to take into consideration that many die-hard landlubbers may be hesitant to try water exercise. Why? Quite simply, they think it's a wimpy workout. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aquatic programming, though more gentle on the joints, packs quite a punch.

It's a misconception that you can't sweat in the water, says Strane. You work on opposing muscle groups evenly. It really holds itself to a faster [workout].

A lot of people think water is wimpy, says Fossella, but not if you use it the right way!

We had a woman who said her doctor said to her she should never ever give up on her water exercise because of the strength it's given her, she adds.

Water wimpy? Meyer scoffs at the idea. Those people who think that should go out there and try to swim a few laps, he exclaims.

Once people try aquatic programming, and like it, they will become dedicated members. Meyer points out that the water exercisers offer more commitment to the club because of the logistics of taking a class.

You can't just run in and run out, he says. You got to get dressed, take a shower, both before and after the class.

This means that the aquatic faithful spend more time in the club than the average member does. And the more time members spend in class means the happier they are likelier to be with your club and their results. But it's up to the club to make sure members get their feet wet.

Marketing, while critical, isn't enough to make this happen. Nor is creative programming. You also have to make the pool experience a pleasant experience.

An ideal pool environment must take the following into consideration: Is your pool too cold? Lap swimmers like the temperature to be brisk, but the water exercisers don't want to catch a chill when taking a dip.

Most clubs argue that a temperature between 83 and 84 degrees is ideal. Likewise, the air temperature should be around the same temperature as the water, so exercisers aren't shocked when they climb out of the pool an important consideration when dealing with your elderly customers.

And for those more intimidated by the idea of wearing a swimsuit, make sure the walk from the locker room to the pool doesn't run through the weight room. Don't turn the walk to the pool into a barrier.

Another barrier for members may be their own ingrained perceptions about the pool. They may not realize all the benefits it may have to offer. So it's up to you educate them.

Remind them that cross-training is a great way to keep people in great shape and motivated, advises Meyer. By including aquatic workouts in their cross-training, exercisers are less likely to get bored with their routines, as well as more likely to get great, overall body conditioning.

For this reason, promote the pool as a resource for all athletes, not just swimmers. According to Jenny Rohan, the head masters swim coach for New Orleans' Elmwood Fitness Center, I was watching some football players getting in the pool and strengthening their arms and legs by running in the water. I saw a boxer get in the water and do his punches in the water.

See offers her own programming suggestions: Clubs will probably gain the most from promoting their pools in as many different options as possible! People still associate pools with swimming, and if they are not swimmers, then they are not attracted. Deep and shallow water fitness classes should be advertised for those with or without swim skills vertical water exercise, no swimming required, all ages and abilities, etc.

Then, within the exercise realm, promote a variety of programming. Avoid the mistake of the fitness industry when aerobics first became the hot topic and expect everyone to sign up for the same class. Specialize. My theory is divide to multiply. Divide your classes into different ability/goal levels, and you will multiply the profits by providing several classes that can be filled to capacity by meeting the needs of the participants.

Of course, if you can't tempt them into the water by offering diverse programming, you can always get them through a little self-serving playtime. Strane offers a Flick and Float idea. It's where you bring in large inner tubes or flotation rafts, darken the lights and show a movie [projected on the side of the pool wall], he says.

Watered Down

Strane has also tried meditation or relaxation classes in the water. The pool is decorated with floating candles, and soft music is piped in. No swimming is allowed. Really, that is a tremendous draw, he says.

If you can't get enough of your own members in the water, there's always the option of opening up the pool to the general public. Fossella says her club offers pool rentals in the evening a popular choice for parents needing a place to host birthday parties.

Suggestions such as these can keep your pools from stagnating during the hot season. However, even if people do take a break for the summer, as long as your employees have a connection with members, they'll be back.

The key to keeping people is good staffing., says Gillespie. If you have fun classes, they'll come back because they miss you.


Aqua Opportunities

The Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) has scheduled its 13th Annual International Aquatic Fitness Conference (IAFC 2001) from May 15 to 20 at the Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa in Fort Myers, Fla. The AEA will host 80 international presenters offering more than 120 different sessions for the fitness professional.

IAFC 2001 will include in-depth pre-conferences, fitness instructor certifications, master classes and specialty training workshops. Topics will include aquatic-specific choreography, athletic training, personal training and more. In addition to educational information, fitness professionals will be able to see the latest in aquatic fitness equipment, clothing, shoes, music and related products.

For more information, see AEA's Web site (www.aeawave.com) or call (888) AEA-WAVE.



No Pool? No Problem!

How to borrow your local aquatic center's pool for your club's clients.

Building a pool for your facility can be quite a time-consuming (and costly) adventure. So why bother?

Well, maybe you won't have to bother if you can borrow someone else's pool. For example, if there is an aquatic center close to your club, you can try a membership swap. Your members can buy an optional plan that gives them access to the pool, while the people at the aquatic facility can pay a little extra to use your club.

This kind of You scratch our back, we'll scratch yours mentality may very well be a reasonable alternative for pool-less clubs. Or, if you know that members aren't interested in playing in the water past August, perhaps a short-term, summer agreement with a local outdoor pool is the way to go.

There are many pools in each community in this country that are not being used very much, says John Spannuth, the president/CEO of the United States Water Fitness Association Inc. By diplomatically contacting the right person, you can work out the right agreement.

Where can clubs find pools? Try hotels or motels, aquatic theme parks, community pools, or high schools and colleges. Many of these places, according to Spannuth, have downtimes in which your club's classes could fit in nicely. Offering them some sort of professional service that they don't have at the present time would be a good foot in the door, he says.

For example, if a club is contacting a hotel with a pool, they could offer to host a water fitness class for both the club's own clients and a limited number of the hotel's guests. Or, in the case of a retirement community's pool, the club could offer free classes to the community on certain days in exchange for the pool's use.

High school and college pools are Spannuth's choice. That's where I would look first, he says. Their well-kept pools are generally empty during the summer.

Even if you want to build an aquatics center, a pool partnership could be a great way of testing the waters, so to speak. By offering water classes at another facility, you'll find out if there is enough member interest to justify the expense of investing in your own pool.

If you do decide to contact a pool facility to create a partnership, there are a few points you need to consider. According to Julie See of the Aquatic Exercise Association, clubs need to find out if their insurance covers issues that happen off-site. In addition, clubs won't be able to use their own counter check-in system at another facility, so they need to figure out some way of monitoring attendees. Furthermore, the aquatic instructors will have additional travel time, coming to and from the off-site facility, and both staff and members need to be educated about the facility's rules.

If they're not careful, the agreement won't last long, warns Spannuth. They are guests at the facility, so they need to act like guests and follow the rules.

All in all, if there is strong marketing for the program, a good management system in place and strong interest in the program, your club could benefit from a partnership with a pool facility. And, for those clubs with a downtime over the summer, an aquatic program can attract members, especially if the programming is held in an outdoor pool. Members can then enjoy the weather and still maintain a relationship with the gym.

It's a change of scenery, Spannuth says. Plus they can get fresh air and some sun.


What's up with your pool?

Got an example of a cool aquatics program that you'd like to share with Club Industry? Please send a letter to: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: jerry_janda@intertec.com (610) 238-0992.