Jane Herbert reports on the conflicting demands for community water space…
Commercial pool operators have rarely been under so much pressure. Swim England’s September 2021 report – A Decade of Decline – highlighted the urgent need for investment to combat ageing pool stock.
Months of COVID restrictions have led to some facilities not re-opening at all, whilst all have suffered extended periods of lost revenue. Add to that the need to catch up on 18 months or more of missed swimming lessons and it’s easy to see how the demand on pool programming is greater than ever before.
“Our number one goal is to get as many people swimming as possible and right now we have to prioritise getting kids in the pool,” explains Helen Bull, National Commercial Aquatics Manger for Serco Leisure.
The huge backlog in swimming lessons caused by COVID downtime has led to an unprecedented boom, but also increasingly common shared use arrangements where the pool space caters to two activities at the same time. As Helen admits it has also led to “some difficult conversations.”
“Many facilities have had to rip up the rulebook and alter their programme to revise or reduce previous commitments to clubs and organisations. Things will balance out over the next couple of years but at the moment our priority is opening up as much pool space as possible for teaching.”
Ladywood Leisure Centre in Birmingham teaches around 3,500 schoolchildren a week. The centre’s two pools – a Short Course Competition Pool and a dedicated Teaching Pool – also host everything from elite swim squad training to free sessions for the local community.
“When we re-opened following the COVID lockdowns, we made some changes,” explains Dawn Page, Ladywood Leisure Centre Manager and Deputy Partnership Manager for Birmingham Community Leisure Trust (BCLT), which manages nine facilities across the City.
“Ladywood only opened in August 2019 but COVID gave us an opportunity to stop and reflect on how things were working. With SMART Programming it’s possible to have more than one pool activity and still retain the highest levels of health and safety, as well as optimising the all-round customer experience.”
Pam Radley is the Centre Manager of White Horse Leisure and Tennis Centre which runs the largest swimming lesson programme in GLL Oxfordshire. “Swimming is available at all times whenever possible, maximising all the space we have,” says Pam.
“We have seen a huge increase in demand and effectively twice as many complete beginners. There’s also more demand for fitness swimming. It’s all about balancing the programme to ensure access for the whole community.”
Emma Lewis, National Aquatics Manager for GLL, says sticking to clear “programming priorities and principles” is key to ensuring a balanced – and commercially viable – programme.
“Ultimately, you want to fit as many people in as possible and at the right time of day, but your programming has also got to be based on the opportunity to generate income. There is an element of having to accept that you can’t please everybody all of the time!
“Often facilities inherit commitments to organisations and the priority is to protect time and space for these audiences. This means maximising the commercial potential of other time periods to offset certain activities. The challenge is how to take two thirds of your income and usage in one third of your pool time, during peak hours.”
Hardened fitness swimmers may rue the need for infatable or fun sessions taking up space in the pool programme, but this allows for kids and families to use the pools. The income generated allows reinvestment in facilities and the programming of community-based programmes that are much needed but don’t necessarily make money.
Emma agrees that COVID offered an opportunity to refresh programmes and try a different approach. It also led to an increase in digital opportunities for swimming which are positively impacting on programming.
“Most pools have now moved onto an online booking system,” explains Emma. “This is a real culture shift for swimming, but it makes it much easier for operators to manage capacities and ensures that customers are guaranteed their swim time too.”
Pam Radley says their new “trickle feed entry system has allowed us to move seamlessly between different types of activity without the need to ‘close’ between sessions.” This has resulted in a higher number of users per hour at White Horse Leisure and Tennis Centre.
Balancing pool programming across facilities that share operational management in the same geographical area is one way in which water time can be optimised.
James Ewart is the Contract Manager for Leisure who oversees Serco’s Stoke Mandeville Stadium. School swimming and private hire represent almost 90% of their utilisation and revenue.
“In a post-lockdown world, we have had to review all our programmes and also our local competition which has led to a better understanding of our position in the local pool operator market. With a large destination fun pool only two miles away from our site we have tailored our programmes towards offering swim lessons, private hire and lane swim activities. We don’t try and compete with others for the family swim market and inflatable activities. This specialisation in terms of product offerings has meant we have become better in those areas rather than trying to a little of everything.”
Emma Lewis shares GLL’s similar experience in London: “As an operator you’re trying to put a mix of everything into the programme, but you also need to take into account the local demographic and type of facility. If we (GLL) are running four pools in a London borough, we will make sure there is a balance of fitness swimming, lessons and fun sessions across the week. There needs to be balance across a local area as well as balance in each individual facility.”
GLL operates the world-renowned London Aquatics Centre. It’s three pools attract visitors from all over the world who want to swim in the same space as their Olympian heroes. Built for the London 2012 Olympic Games, the venue was also designed as a fully functioning community facility. Each week, London Aquatics Centre teaches 3,500 children and adults to swim and more than 600 people to dive. It is also home to Ultimate Aqua Splash – the UK’s largest indoor infatable aquatic experience – which utilises the centre’s 3m and 5m dive platforms as launching pads for two huge inflatable slides.
The Manchester Partnership (GLL) operates six leisure facilities with pools from the Olympic-sized offering at Manchester Aquatics Centre to various smaller community-based centres.
Leila Bendrimia is the Area Community Sport & Health Manager: “GLL work closely with Manchester City Council and MCR Active who have a whole city view on sport and physical activity to plan and programme the pools to benefit Manchester residents and raise the sporting profile of the city.
“Our pool programmes are created to provide a balance for community access and sporting pathways. They are not created in isolation but looking at a city wide approach.”
Collaboration also helps reaps dividends in terms of new product development. Successful leisure centre operators are working on ways to expand on the potential crossover into swimming from dryside activities, whilst also bringing in new activities that support the increased focus on health and wellbeing.
“We’ve started to look at a more holistic approach to family activity where, for example, fitness classes for parents / carers can be run alongside child swimming lessons,” says Leila. “Manchester is also exploring piloting the Good Boost Aquatic offer as the benefit of aquatic activity on health and wellbeing is recognised. Good Boost is part of the Swim England’s Water Wellbeing programme. Award-winning Social Enterprise Good Boost creates personalised programmes for people living with musculoskeletal health conditions in a bid to get them physically active.
Alex Hains, Head of Business Engagement at Swim England says: “Right now, pools are under a lot of financial pressure post-pandemic, so trends are to tighten up on what activities are done in the most viable slots. Fortunately demand for swimming lessons is very high so we are seeing a lot more children being accommodated for lessons. The next big focus will be around health and wellbeing as local leisure starts to create links with health in their local authorities, and facilities are viewed as hubs for mental and physical wellbeing not just as venues for sport.”