Variety may be the spice of life, but for a health club's aquatic program, it might also be the key to success.

“The way you build your program is through versatility,” says Sally Petrone, aquatic director at the Asphalt Green Club in New York. She should know. The aquatic program at Asphalt Green constitutes 70 percent of the income brought in by the club.

Not every health club can claim that stat, but many health clubs with pools can claim something else: well-run aquatics programs with a variety of programming can build membership numbers and member loyalty.

Since Petrone came on board five years ago and diversified things, the aquatics program at Asphalt Green has grown from 400 people attending water classes each week to 1,200 people per week. While the economy has caused membership numbers to drop a bit at the club, the water class attendance has remained stable. The aquatics program at Asphalt Green is important to the success of the club, says Petrone. The majority of people will either exercise on land or in the pool, but few work out at both, she says.

Cherry Creek Athletic Club in an upscale suburb of Denver, CO, is increasing the number of its aquatics classes because of the popularity of the pool facilities and is increasing the variety of classes to attract as many members as possible.

“More and more people seem to be getting in the water and seeing that they can get results,” says Daren Parks, athletic director at the club.

Both Cherry Creek and Asphalt Green have multiple pools. Asphalt Green has a small warm water pool that runs at 90 degrees. It also has a 50-meter pool that runs at 80 degrees and is the only Olympic standard pool for the public in the area. Both of its pools have moveable bottoms.

Cherry Creek has two outdoor pools — one an oddly shaped recreational pool that hosts many group exercise classes in the summer and the other a 25-meter pool for lap swimming and swimming lessons. The facility also has an indoor pool for winter lap swimming, aquatics classes and swimming lessons.

Both clubs offer a variety of programming that keeps their pools busy.

“People come from far and wide to swim here,” Petrone says about Asphalt Green. “That's good, but it's challenging.”

Challenging as far as scheduling goes because the variety of classes and activities occurring at the two pools means they are rarely idle. The club's instructors teach a combination of Red Cross and American Swim Coaches curriculum. Asphalt Green offers once a week, 45-minute classes for children from six years old to teenagers. The club also has children's swim teams with 200 to 225 children participating. For adults, the club offers a Masters swim program with 80 to 100 adults taking advantage of this program. Asphalt Green also teaches water polo and a water polo team practices at the pool three times a week.

The big pool hosts deep water running classes and shallow water exercise classes. In the warm water pool, Asphalt Green offers water exercise and arthritis classes. Several lanes are open to members at all times (except between 4 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. when private school swim teams pay a reduced rate to practice at the facility) so that lap swimming may occur.

During the day, the club offers a program called Water Proofing in which instructors teach public school children to swim using funds from a grant and donations. During the summer, the club not only holds day camps during which instructors offer swim lessons, but it also offers swim camps. The club also has a small synchronized swimming program. The club also offers one-on-one aquatic therapy in the warm water pool for individuals with disabilities.

“It's very comprehensive,” Petrone says of her club's aquatics program. “That's what I feel it has to be to have a successful aquatics program. It costs a lot to run a pool. To make enough money and support programs we feel are important, we have to have a variety.”

Cherry Creek offers 10 to 15 aquatics group exercise classes in the winter and more in the summer when all three pools are available. The club is marketing its aquatics program to members who don't normally participate in aquatics. Much of that marketing comes from the group exercise instructors, who also teach the aquatics exercise classes. However, the majority of people (about 65 percent) who participate in the aquatic exercise classes at Cherry Creek are over 50, Parks says.

“It's not bad,” says Parks about attracting such a large number of older members. “It keeps them active. As people get older, they feel they can't do the group exercise [on land].”

Still, Parks wants to attract the younger crowd, too. The deep water class that the club offers is a bit more intense and challenging, which attracts more of the younger crowd, he says.

The Genesis Health Club in Wichita, KS, also has experienced success with its aquatics program, although Sharon Schwartz, aquatics director at the club, stresses that the success is not monetary. Instead, it's more about usage and satisfaction with the programming.

“I run 2,000 people [per month] through that program,” Schwartz says. “Ninety-five percent of the time everyone is happy with where they are and what they are doing.”

That number doesn't include the lap swimmers or those who use the swim flume. The Genesis Club, which has three other locations in Wichita, has two pools at this facility — one a 25-meter lap pool for lap swimming and group exercise classes and the other a smaller rehab pool for therapy and arthritis classes

The retention in the pool area at Genesis is high, says Schwartz. The participants are older and many came to the facility with an instructor who had taught at a Y before this facility opened. The aqua program is important to the success of the club, Schwartz says, stating that 10 percent to 15 percent of the members wouldn't be members if the aquatics program didn't exist.

Schwartz hit on the main benefit of an aquatics program — not outright revenue, but the option and lure of an aquatics program for potential members.

“It's an amenity, and a lot of members wouldn't join if we didn't have that (a pool),” Parks at Cherry Creek agrees. “We are getting the revenue in that people are paying their dues each month and if we didn't have that, we wouldn't have as many members as we do.”

For people who just come in to lap swim, the pool can be their entrance to a facility. If the staff works it right, they can then get the person introduced to the rest of the facility and the benefits of doing more than lap swimming.

Besides, to make any money off of the aquatics program, a club generally must provide swim lessons. While most clubs include water group exercise classes and lap swimming in the membership fee, swim lessons are generally extra. Cherry Creek charges $120 for 12 45-minute sessions for adults and $65 for seven 30-minute sessions for children.

Asphalt Green offers swim lessons to members and non-members. Members pay a reduced rate for the lessons. Lap swimming and water exercise classes are included in membership at Asphalt Green.

Some clubs lease out their pool to different programs, including after-school swim teams. Cherry Creek, however, chooses not to do so partially for liability reasons but also because the exclusive club wants to ensure that the members get the most for their high membership fees and they have access to the swimming facilities at all times. Even during swim lessons a certain number of lanes are open for lap swimming.

Service to members is important in any program, and the aquatics program is no exception. Offering the cleanest pools, the best staff and a variety of classes and swim times can help sell the pool to members and the club to potential members. What more could a club owner want out of this liquid asset?

LURING THE BIG FISH

While swim lessons may offer the greatest revenue for aquatics programs, health clubs shouldn't ignore the potential revenue from attracting Master swimmers and tri-athletes. The exclusive Olympic Club in San Francisco does both. The club has had a swimming tradition since it opened in 1867. Today, the swim program is such an integral part of the club that it occupies three floors of the facility.

The Olympic Club integrates swimmers and tri-athletes into a training program. A triathlon training camp offered every Wednesday helps tri-athletes improve their swimming, which is most tri-athletes' weakest event. The tri-athlete market is hard to ignore considering it is a fast-growing sport, says Scott Williams, aquatic/triathlon sports director at the club. Two large triathlon groups exist in the San Francisco area.

“I constantly see their cry for pool time,” he says. “You can get biking and running time anywhere. The need is there (for swimming). That (pulling in tri-athletes) by far would immediately impact your membership.”

An added benefit is that tri-athletes generally earn at least $85,000 per year, much of it spent enrolling in triathlons and training for them.

In the end, athletes generally end up at the pool, Williams says, because they torture their bodies playing basketball, racquetball and softball until they require some sort of physical activity that is less strenuous on their bodies.

“I may be biased since I'm in the aquatic environment, but if I were to look at fitness in the future, I can see swimming as the best option for most people,” says Williams.

Master Swim programs are a good way to involve people in swimming, he says. The club employs coaches who help members involved in Master Swim improve their strokes, endurance and speed.

The Olympic Club does not allow non-members to participate in its swimming programs, and it does not charge members extra to participate in the Master Swim or triathlon training programs — they pay high enough membership fees as it is, Williams says. However, other clubs could make money by doing so, he says. Members may be willing to pay an additional $25 a month to participate in the Master Swim program and non-members might pay $50 to do the same.

The Olympic Club's method seems to be working for it. Of the 8,000 members, about 10 percent use the club on a regular basis. Half or four hundred of those people are involved in swimming, says Williams.

“It's easier to attract people to swimming than any other sport at an adult age,” Williams says. “It's not threatening, no impact. It's easy to bring them along slowly. It's easy to get them comfortable starting with swimming.”

And, if a club is smart enough, it can move them into the rest of the club from there.

RECIPE FOR AQUATIC SUCCESS

Every successful program needs a good recipe. For an aquatics program, the recipe isn't complex, but the attention to detail requires a watchful eye.

  • Hold a variety of classes. The more types of classes offered, the more likely a club could attract a variety of members to the aquatics program. That also means holding the classes at peak times and during off peak times.

  • Invest in the facilities. A successful aquatics program should have facilities to accommodate large groups of people, says Daren Parks, athletic director at Cherry Creek Athletic Club in Denver, CO.

    “If you don't have the room, it doesn't matter how great the staff is or the programs are, you need the facilities,” Parks says.

    Offer a warm water pool with a movable bottom. A club owner with limited funds for multiple pools can still have a successful program if he or she invests in a warm-water pool that is large enough to accommodate swimming lessons, the primary source of revenue for aquatic programs.

    “It doesn't have to be big; it just has to be warm,” says Sally Petrone, aquatic director at the Asphalt Green Club in New York.

  • Keep the pool clean and maintained. That means maintaining the chemicals each day so that the water isn't hard on members' eyes, hair and suits.

    “If the facilities aren't well maintained and kept, you aren't going to see people come to the classes,” Parks says.

  • Hire people with the right skills and education, but most important, hire people with the right personality, says Parks. This is especially true with a swim instructor who is working in small groups or one-on-one. That person must know how to work with various age groups and how to communicate effectively with them.

  • Cross promote. Promote the aquatics program to several groups of people by making sure people understand that aquatics is good for people of all ages, ability and levels, Parks says. That means selling the benefits of aquatics and dispelling the myths.

Cross promotion occurs naturally when aquatics exercise instructors also teach land exercise classes, especially if the instructors inspire their class attendees to follow them anywhere they teach.