Hotel and spa pools are crowd pleasers for visitors and members alike but are they worth the investment? Jan Hurst gets the inside story from some of the busiest operators in the UK…
In a recent customer survey, conducted by Hilton Hotels, the presence of a pool was deemed to be a major deciding factor for guests in choosing where to stay. “A swimming pool is very important, not just for our leisure members, who usually live or work locally, but also for business customers who are attracted by the additional facilities we have,” says Dave Heap, group leisure and spa manager at QHotels, where 19 of the group’s 21 hotels boast a pool. This is echoed by the experience of Justin O’Neill, leisure sales manager at the Macdonald Portal Hotel, Golf & Spa in Cheshire:“The swimming pool is massively important to all our guests, whether it be as part of a special spa day or residential break, or even to the 1200 current members who use the facility.” Lesley Bacon, group health club and spa manager of Hand Picked Hotels goes a step further, claiming that pool provision is a ‘crucial’ part of the group’s success, which includes the recent accolade of being named AA Hotel Group of the Year for 2012/13.
Pools represent a considerable investment in terms of initial costs and ongoing maintenance. The Macdonald Portal Spa, for example, is reported to have cost in the region of £3.5 million when it was built five years ago and with an investment on this scale it makes sense, not only to offer a five-star service to accompany the existing facility, but also to seek to constantly improve what’s on offer in order to attract more business. Steve Bambury is head of hotels at the facilities management company, Leisure Connection, which manages 10 Radisson Blu and Park Inn clubs. Steve reports a 66 per cent growth in membership since April of this year and emphasises the importance of user feedback in the partnership he maintains with hotel operators: “Whether it’s restructuring a swim timetable, or investing in new changing rooms; we will implement change and improvement if there is a demand from our customers,” says Steve. “We will invest capital, £250,000 over the past two years, to ensure facilities meet the expectations of the guests.” Chris Southall, head of leisure clubs at Village Urban Resorts and De Vere Hotels stresses a similar need to provide a continually evolving programme that reflects the demographic of the pool users: “We are the only hotel chain to have full-sized pools and fully-functioning gyms and spas that replicate those found in standalone health clubs. Many of our users fit the older demographic, with more disposable income and more time to spend, so our pool and spa facilities are a unique selling point for them and it’s vital that we provide the right pool environment. “People also book weekend breaks, specifically because of our pool and spa facilities and we constantly enhance the programmes we offer, like Splash Time, to ensure that we are also catering for families with children, ”adds Chris.
A less visible, but absolutely necessary investment with regard to pools lies in health and safety procedure. Most hotels and spas enlist a company through a service contract, train their pool and spa staff, or employ a combination of both, to ensure that the water quality and safety of their pools meets appropriate standards. In common with a growing number of other facilities, the Portal Spa has a computerised system in place to monitor the pool, and staff are trained to perform hourly checks on the chlorine and acid levels in the water to ensure that the exact requirements are met. A service contract with Alba Pools ensures that the company provides a monthly review of all plant equipment, plus a 24 call-out, if necessary. Lesley Bacon at Handpicked Hotels similarly relies on a specialist company to take and analyse water samples and report back to the hotel’s health and safety manager on their findings. Any anomalies in water quality are dealt with straight away with a follow-up test to ensure that water quality reaches the required standard. Leisure Connection ensures that all staff hold current NPPO (National Pool Plant Operators) qualifications and there is a programme of on-going training in place for its employees and at Village Urban Resorts, the 25m pools are fully staffed at all times and qualified pool attendants are always on duty.
Swimming pools have in recent years become an integrated part of the more comprehensive wellness packages offered by an ever increasing number of hotels and spas. From gym inductions with personal trainers to saunas, steam rooms and beauty treatment rooms, there is a constant challenge to offer everyone, from the casual user, to the resident guest, something extra in terms of pampering and relaxation. The Pool Hall at the McDonald Portal Spa, for example, boasts a thermal suite which houses a rock sauna, an infra red sauna, a steam room, an aroma steam room, an ice room and two experience showers. A dozen of the hotels in the Village Urban Resorts group include Riva Urban Spas, which offer a full range of treatments, as part of fully-inclusive packages, along with healthy menus and use of facilities. QHotels provides a complete wellness package at all of their leisure clubs, with gym inductions, personal trainers and on-going programmes and regular reviews, which are tailored to ensure that members get the most they can from time spent at the clubs. Overall, there is a constant challenge on the part of pool and spa managers to ensure the needs of residential guests and that of spa and pool users, who may be corporate or individual members, are balanced appropriately to ensure optimum usage. This is often reflected in terms of long opening hours – 6.30 am to 10 pm being the norm, by the provision of corporate health checks to encourage regular membership and through tailor-made activity programmes, like the Swim School programme, offered by Leisure Connection.
‘Fit kit’, as it’s commonly called, is taken very seriously, as an asset to the business and everything, from state-of-the-art software systems to specialised pool cleaning equipment, is brought into play. A recent investment by Leisure Connection takes the form of a new front-of-house membership management called Club Wise. The software integrates the financial administration and retention services with the aim of making membership registration easier and quicker for customers, while providing significant data capture for hotels. poolside lounger Jason O’Neill at the Macdonald Portal Spa says that the ‘poolside lounger’ is definitely the poolside accessory that his customers tell him they value the most, while Chris Southall reports that Village Urban Resorts couldn’t do without their deck scrubbers – an ingeniously-named piece of machinery that removes all deposits, including body fat, to ensure that pools and pool surrounds remain non-slip. An integral part of keeping ahead of the game lies in consulting industry experts and there is no shortage of independent pool and spa professionals who can offer advice on every aspect of the business, from current legislation to pool plant machinery. Topline, World of Leisure and Pool Care form part of Q Hotel’s consultancy team, while Jason O’Neill at the Macdonald Portal Hotel and Spa has over 20 years of professional experience in pool management himself, in addition to a contract with Alba Pool Management and most pool and spa managers keep abreast of industry developments through Pool & Spa Scene magazine.
Every aspect of modern living impacts on the environment and swimming pools and spas are no exception to this rule, but almost all hotels are now involved in some kind of initiative to promote energy efficiency, taking CSR (corporate social responsibility) seriously and many have made a declared commitment to carbon reduction within their business.
Practical initiatives on this front include employing overnight, heat retaining pool covers and fitting low-voltage light bulbs in pool and spa areas, to maintaining ambient, rather than the traditionally warmer pool temperatures and encouraging guests to reuse towels. Wider initiatives include measures like Q Hotels’ partnership with the Carbon Trust to set out targets for reducing CO2, regular energy control meetings and sourcing equipment and resources from environmentally-aware companies and contractors. The overriding challenge for the future of hotel swimming pools and spas appears to be balanced evenly between practical and theoretical considerations. Many hotels cite space as the ultimate challenge – there is no lack of ideas and expertise with which to provide good service, but swimming pools and spas have to compete with all of the other facilities that hotels must offer to residents and customers. Others view their greatest challenge as lying in the nature of the business and the never-ending quest for innovation and development. But there is one thing that pool and spa managers agree on completely – the pool and spa are costly, but invaluable assets to the whole of the business and as such they deserve to be taken seriously