Jim Clark is the assistant general manager/aquatics director at LifeCenter Plus in Hudson, OH. Under Clark’s management, the club’s aquatics program has been named a Best of Aquatics winner by Aquatics International magazine for the past three years. Clark holds WSI, LGI, CPO designations and is a NAUI SCUBA instructor. His presentations, “Program like a Pirate” and “Record-Setting Aquatics,” have been well received at Club Industry conventions the past two years.

With five swimming pools (two indoor and three outdoor), LifeCenter Plus has a unique summertime problem: overcrowding in our pool areas. As most clubs are struggling to hold onto members during the summer months, we are packed. On busy days, the smell of sunscreen and pool water mixes with the aromas of our concession stand as it pumps food and drink out to the hungry hoard of kids, moms, dads, babies and grandparents. As evening approaches, our staff doesn’t head home for some well-deserved rest. Instead, members of one of our competitive swim teams start to arrive, and the concession stand braces itself for another mob of hungry team members’ families and friends. The swim meets last into the twilight of a beautiful Ohio summer evening. From where did all these people come, and why is this aquatics program so vibrant? It all happened because at LifeCenter Plus, we don’t just have pools, we have an aquatics program.

Pools can be giant money pits. They are expensive to build, maintain, heat and staff, which may make you wonder why a club owner would ever want to build one. The answer is that pools attract new members and improve retention while adding non-dues revenue. Like every other aspect of the club business, an aquatics program must be managed and staffed, and correct fees need to be charged for services. Down time is the enemy. Pools that are not filled with people are not making you money—they are costing you money.

Once you have made the mental commitment to create an active aquatics program, you can start on the path to keeping your pools filled with happy members. The backbone of our program is swim lessons for kids. Every year, we teach hundreds of children to swim, making group swim lessons our primary source of aquatics revenue. To keep our classes full, we need top instructors. With that in mind, we pay our water safety instructors about $3 more an hour than our competitors pay. This tactic attracts the best, most mature and most experienced water safety instructors in our area. These outstanding instructors have parents beating a path to our door.

SPLASH (swim, persevere, learn, achieve, socialize and have fun) is our program for kids with disabilities. It always has a waiting list of families wanting to get into the program. The program is held in our warm water therapy pool where kids with a myriad of challenges, such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, find fun, friendship and success in the water. Some participants come from more than 40 miles away to join in the fun. Besides being a small group swim lesson, SPLASH also is a social experience. The sessions are tailored so that each child is with other kids with whom they will interact well. This gives our students the best chance for successful lessons. For example, a child with sensory issues often can become quite vocal when experiencing the added stimulation of a swimming lesson. To cope with this, our SPLASH coordinator might place a child who becomes over-stimulated and shouts with a student who happens to be deaf. We end up with a symbiotic pair of students who get along great and have fun while learning together. With autism rates rising to record levels (now thought to be as high as one in every 99 kids), we unfortunately do not see any end in sight for the need for programs like ours.

In addition to SPLASH and swim lessons, our aquatics programs offer a plethora of options to fit the needs of every member. Our adult aquatics program boasts nine types of water aerobics classes, including arthritis classes and Aquaqi (a Tai-Chi type class in the water). We also offer a women’s synchronized swim team and scuba lessons. Our kids aquatics programs are called Aqua Kids (a parent/child class), the Stingrays swim team, Bubblers (our swim team feeder program), a girls synchronized swim team and private swim lessons. We include the water aerobics classes with our membership, but the rest of the aquatics programs are fee-based, revenue-generating programs.

We also host fee-based, themed aquatics parties, such as a cardboard boat-building contest, dive-in movies, holiday pool parties, aqua bucking bronco challenge, pirate parties, aqua Easter egg hunt and The Great Floating Pumpkin Patch. We even set a Guinness world record doing a fundraiser for the Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland by having 273 people doing water aerobics at the same time. The event felt like a big pep rally. Our members loved it. More than 100 people tried LifeCenter Plus for the first time, and we received tens of thousands of dollars in free public relations exposure because of the event.

The family-friendly experiences that our aquatics programs create serve to galvanize families to our club, keeping our members smiling, coming back and purchasing fee-based programs—and, most importantly, paying their monthly dues.