We’ve come a long way in the 60-odd years since the huge boost that was given to aquatic leisure in this country by the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. And probably, in a sense, we’ve come even further in the last 30-40 years since the first moves were made to enclose some of the predominantly outdoor 50 yard pools that sprung up after the Olympics.
We’ve gone from summer-only, cold-water outdoor venues run with an iron fist by “hose and thongs” men to modern, multi-faceted, all year indoor and indoor-outdoor venues that offer a huge diversity of activities to millions of users annually. (Sadly, some hose and thongs staff persist: I met one not more than 10 years ago who bragged about pushing the clock forward 15 minutes near closing time and who got the hose going in the change rooms at 5.30 pm as a way of encouraging people to pack up and leave!)
The changes have been dramatic. The dominant model of an outdoor 50 metre pool and a static shallow-water “play” pool surrounded by lawns and rusty cyclone fencing (I think there was a company that manufactured it that way so as to be as unappealing as possible) has given way to heated indoor 25 and 50 metre indoor lap pools; specialised warmer water “program” and health pools; interactive water play areas; ever-larger fitness gyms (of increasing specialisation); a multitude of program rooms; consulting suites; cafes with quality food in place of snack-selling kiosks or canteens; quality lounges, seating and waiting areas; multiple change and other service areas including those for people with disabilities, and much more.
Management has changed too. Many of the hose and thong and family-managed venues have long since given way to professional management regimes with greater numbers of and more skilled staff. Many venues are still contracted out but most are to fully professional organisations (whether commercial or not-for-profit) with highly skilled staff, staff training programs and staff with a broad diversity of skills.
Yet as Councils build ever more expensive aquatic leisure venues – with the most recent being well over $50 million — one might well question whether we have gone too far or perhaps more importantly, whether we have gone or are going down the right track. There is a danger that we are taking a “success breeds success” approach to aquatic leisure provision and are perhaps ignoring some key issues we ought to be paying far more attention to. Are we too much into meeting the “aquatic health and fitness” needs of a group of clients who know what they want rather than thinking about our broader purposes and roles and the health and wellbeing of the entire community? Has anyone assessed whether the $20, $40 or $60 million now being spent on new venues is really the most effective use of such huge amounts of money? In some parts of Melbourne we now have 3-4 multi-million dollar venues within 3-5 kilometres of each other while other community services and programs languish.
Here’s some key questions every aquatic leisure Centre Manager and/or venue-owning Council’s might benefit from asking themselves — and if they cannot answer them, initiating some research into. The research that is needed is not all that complex but it would produce invaluable findings which, almost certainly, would improve the service we deliver to the community:
- What are the missions, goals and objectives of aquatic leisure centres and are they the same as those of the owning organisations and/or of the management body running them? My experience suggests that the latter is far more influential on what is provided than the former.
- Are the missions, goals and objectives of aquatic leisure centres focused on performance outputs or wider beneficial outcomes across the community? Here, my experience suggests that the former is far more influential on what is provided than the latter – if the latter is understood at all.
- What are the beneficial outcomes that we want to deliver and which are being delivered by our aquatic leisure venues? How do we know that they are being delivered? What research was done prior to the opening to use as a benchmark and to allow the subsequent measurement of changes in the beneficial outcomes that are achieved?
- What beneficial outcomes are being delivered to the wider non-using members of our community? What client and control groups are being monitored to measure the value of the investments in aquatic leisure venues? How do these compare in quality, diversity and cost with other non-aquatic forms of leisure, health and recreational provision? There is now extensive research that shows that leisure and recreation opportunities contribute significantly to personal growth, stronger self- and community esteem, reduced vandalism and anti-social behaviour, economic growth, and environmental health. What proportion of these outcomes is being achieved through aquatic leisure venues compared to other resources?
- How many individual members of the community are actually represented by the 250,000, 450,000, 650,000 or 800,000 plus visits that are achieved by many venues each year? Our company did some research several years back that indicated that one particular metro outdoor pool that was achieving 15-18,000 visits a year was only serving 1,830-2,000 different people. Does that represent good use of the assets and the money they cost to run?
- Are memberships equitable and who misses out because of them? Too many venues seem to crow about the fact that have reached say, 3,000 members when they had only projected 2,000 or 1,500. Yet who are the members and what proportion of the community do they represent? Are they the wealthy members of the community who can afford to pay for 6 or 12 months or are they the poorer members of the community who have told us that they don’t have credit cards and fear direct debiting? A commercial operator I know began a women-only gym program and within 6 weeks had 400 members. Some 80 percent had never been a member before. Who in the community are Council venues neglecting?
- Who benefits from memberships and direct debits? We conducted a study at a big metro Melbourne venue several years back where the cost of the full suite of programs and facilities for a full day for a non-member was around $24. By comparison, a person on an annual membership would have paid $2.30 for the same services. Is that equitable and is that sensible? Why are memberships pushed so hard? Is it because managers want to lock in users and their money so they don’t have to work so hard chasing users or developing attractive programs? Is it because managers are really only concerned with the financial bottom line as opposed to triple or quadruple bottom line accounting? Our in-house research suggests that memberships actually cost centres income, especially where (as has been the case at a number of venues), managers actively discriminate against non-members. A balance of members and non-members where the proportion is biased towards non-members can produce a better profitability for the centre.
- What are triple and quadruple bottom line accounting? Not so long ago a study we completed suggested that many Council officers didn’t understand these terms and that those who did and pursued them were often over-ruled by those whose only concern was numbers through the door and dollars through the till.
- Who are the venue users, whether members or non-members? Do they represent an equitable and representative cross-section of the gender, age, cultural mix, income and skill mix of our community? Some years back, a survey of users of an indoor centre in a Council where over 50 percent of the population was of a non-Anglo-Saxon/non Australian-born background, found that Vietnamese and Cambodian residents visited at one-twentieth of their proportion of the population. Did this mean that the centre was almost entirely irrelevant to the leisure needs of these community groups or was it the programs on offer that were irrelevant? There were no Cambodian or Vietnamese staff at the venue. What message did this convey to the community?
- Do staff come from the community they serve and do their characteristics reflect it? What impact on use and attitudes to the venues might such changes make?
- Why are professional management companies paid to manage expensive Council assets when, if they were in the mainstream commercial market, they would be paying huge dollars to lease the venues? Just ask, does Westfield pay its tenants to deliver the retail services they do or is it the other way around? Not so long ago I heard a senior officer from a management company berate Councils for not putting enough money into the venues his organisation managed. What do these organisations put in and what do they really offer? Might a team from Red Rooster, David Jones, Westfarmers or Boost Juice on the one hand or from a Council’s neighbourhood community hub, a migrant resource centre or the local health centre on the other, actually do better? How do we know?
- Is there anything new or unique that the big management companies bring to Council venues that a good Council employee and team couldn’t deliver?
- Do the programs offered by the larger management agencies vary from venue to venue in keeping with their research into and understanding of the communities being served or do they roll out what is essentially a generic set of programs across all the venues they operate?
- How far do people come from to use aquatic leisure venues and are there suburbs and districts that send few or no users? If so, why is this? And why is it that different types of programs and activities develop different catchments with quite different user characteristics? What can be done to overcome gaps in the service areas of our venues? Our research has found huge inequities in use rates between suburbs and potential client categories that must be addressed if we are to deliver equity of opportunity.
- Do venue management teams work with other nearby service providers? How many venues operate in isolation from local commercial aquatic and fitness providers, health centres, doctors, youth centres, aged care venues etc? Why? Some years back, the management of a large metro centre knocked back the offer of a swimming program for people with disabilities from an accredited support organisation because such programming was “part of it management contract” despite the fact that it wasn’t offering any such programs. Is that equitable?
- As questioned previously, are the big dollar developments the best way to go? Are the bigger growth Councils now trying to out-compete each other in spending more and more? One centre I saw recently must have spent at least $5 million alone on the building facade. What is the benefit of this? With venues getting closer and closer, total catchment populations are actually contracting meaning that operational subsidies will always remain high. Bigger does not necessarily mean the people will travel further. Like big regional shopping complexes, size can put people off or stimulate more efficient and effective “feeder” venues nearby that draw the patronage of the many in the community who dislike the gloss of big venues.
More importantly, the scale of operations raises another question. Are we really building Coles supermarket scale venues when the community is increasingly looking for boutique services? Around a decade back we undertook major user and catchment surveys for a big metro venue that was facing potentially substantial competition from a new centre being developed nearby. We found that users of that supermarket-style venue went to 53 other service providers to meet their specialist needs, to gain personal service and to take part in programs that the “supermarket” could not provide. Might we not be better off developing 3-5-8 boutiques rather than just one mega-venue for the $50 million available? Aberdeen in Scotland has a dozen or so public aquatic venues: only two of these offer lap swimming. The rest provide other far more specific services and facilities. What Council would have the courage to do that in Australia?
I’m sure these questions will draw some defensive responses. But any community services-focused organisation should be able to answer every one of them with confidence and with clear research-based evidence. I suspect (and fear) that most managers and Councils would not be able to answer many of the questions – either because things are going too well and they haven’t had to bother or because they do not realise how poorly their venues are actually serving the communities they were established to serve.
The The Stages And Elements Of Modern Day Aquatic Venue Development, developed by HM Leisure Planning over recent years from a review of what’s been happening over the last century, is of interest. It shows our industry’s simple beginnings as a service to the poor – the provision of bathhouses — and the changes that have occurred since. While the last column indicates where we are at and heading, it is probable that a comprehensive aquatic leisure service should offer something of all of the stages that are recorded… including baths for the homeless and disadvantaged. What might Stage 7 in the chart offer?
I would now like to raise another issue, that being, are we providing the right mix of opportunities? For some unexplained reason, most Councils still see aquatic leisure venues as stand-alone facilities. They are often surrounded by nicely-planned landscaped areas, trees and car parks… and as a result, many in the community do not know they are there. They look like office buildings, or hospitals… or Taj Mahals!
Why is it that most aquatic leisure centres are not integrated with retail, educational and commercial offerings? Why are there so few commercial and retail components? Why don’t we have retail, leisure and community shopping malls that include aquatic leisure venues rather than stand alone monoliths that increasingly, reflect the egos of the architect or the Council? One centre we planned in Tasmania and that has now been built includes the local doctor’s practice. How many others are there? How many venues are also a TAFE campus, as in Wangaratta? How many management teams run community-focused training courses… across a whole range of disciplines? How many management teams have the skills to do so?
Several years back we had a commercial client who asked us to negotiate on his behalf with a local Council. He wanted to offer a $2 million investment to become part of a new Council venue. He was willing to offer products and services that would have been a lower priority for Council (and thus less likely to have been provided by it), thereby diversifying the offer and the attraction. The offer did not get past first base.
Nearly every week I read about community services staff developing new community hubs. These offer a diversity of community health, education, fitness, wellbeing and social capital programs. Some older residents have actually told me they prefer these places to aquatic leisure venues as they are more “homely” and they don’t feel out of place. I’ve also heard aquatic recreation professionals make derogatory comments about such venues: is this some form of jealousy, some fear that they are intruding?
Finally, I want to touch on the plight of rural and regional areas. Many small rural towns still have their original 1950s or 1960s pools: identical to the day they were built. They are still weather-dependent, still often run by part time “amateur” managers and committees and still offering no more than a 25 or 50 metre pool and a tiny toddlers pool. Attendances are one tenth to one twentieth of what they used to be as the venues are next to irrelevant to anyone but bored kids on their school holidays… and to teachers who struggle to run meaningful learn to swim and water safety programs at them. It is a disgrace that both Councils and State Governments have forced rural communities to endure such outdated provision. If aquatic leisure venues are so critical to health and wellbeing in the community, then is the grants system fair when it gives millions to large urban Councils (who top these up with $20-50 million of their own) when so much more is needed in the country?
As I suggested earlier, though the aquatic leisure industry is healthy and thriving, its quite a lot like the national two-speed economy: some things are going “gang busters” while others are not. Thus, I think that the industry still has some way before it really delivers what it could deliver to the whole community. And if it does its homework, it will be even more effective than ever before.
How do these views compare with your views of Aquatics and Leisure in the future? Are we heading in the right direction? Do you have any suggestions to steer the industry in the right direction? Tell us about them in the comments below.