How Do You Stop a Great Product From Drying Up?


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What do community swimming pools and pencil sharpeners have in common?

In twenty years, both might be remembered as once-valuable products that are now in the scrap heap.

Pencil sharpeners, I understand. But Swimming pools? That rock-solid institution of suburban summer fun? What’s next? Fireworks?

In Swim Clubs Struggle to Stay Afloat (The Washington Post , June 24, 2008), the paper reported that “beneath the sparkling-blue surface of scores of the region’s neighborhood swim clubs is a troubling new reality: many of them are crumbling physically and financially. . . The choice is simple, many pool officials say: If the clubs don’t change, those icons of Washington’s once-thriving middle-class suburbs won’t survive.” The claims are supported with declining membership statistics over the past ten years. With plant and equipment built half a century ago, many clubs can’t adjust to changing customer preferences.

How many industries and companies can you name that are experiencing these same gut-wrenching changes? Even if you market a product or service that doesn’t involve wearing a swimsuit, it’s worth taking a moment to understand what’s happening. The cultural and social forces exerting pressure on pool clubs are a microcosm of the world.

Lack of leisure time. Because an increasing number of households are supported by two working parents or a single working parent, it’s harder to spend hours at the local pool.

Increased availability of alternative activities. (It’s sad to see the swimming at the local pool replaced by more sedentary, digitally-enabled pursuits, particularly for a person who grew up swimming in pools and lakes. For an excellent discussion on this topic, read Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods).

Changing demographics in established neighborhoods brought about by new immigrant populations. Not every culture values the recreational experiences developers envisioned when pool complexes were originally built.

Escalating membership fees to cover high fixed costs. Membership fees are out of reach to consumers in the local communities.

Collision of local tax rates and current market conditions. Local tax rates create financial burdens because they reflect operational conditions over thirty years ago, when pool clubs were more financially stable.

How to stem the declining membership trajectory for public pools isn’t just a public policy problem, a land-use problem, or a recreation problem. It’s a sales problem. It’s about how seemingly rock-solid institutions succumb to forces when they are either unable to see them coming, unable to change, or both. It’s about substitute products cannibalizing markets. It’s about assumptions—valid up until few years ago—which are now incorrect because of changing preferences. And it’s about using those now invalid assumptions to create new strategies and tactics that are inherently flawed.

But there is hope. Could local pools be one beneficiary of high gas prices, as consumers modify their recreational activities to favor local pursuits?

Fundamentally, swim clubs need to rethink what they are selling. Could it be that it’s no longer splashing in the water, swimming laps, and playing “Marco Polo?” Instead, what about the community pool as a resort escape that you can walk to?

Here’s what I recommend for several of the local clubs profiled in The Washington Post article:

Install large poolside plasma TV screens. They’re on the beach in Tel Aviv. (After all, what’s sunset over the Mediterranean without World Cup Soccer?)

Co-locate Starbucks. Have “Free Latte Wednesday nights.”

Offer free wireless access and a “business center” in the clubhouse for those who just want to feel tethered to the office.

Provide alcoholic beverages (in plastic cups) Served weekdays from 9 pm to 11 pm, and all day on the weekend!

Offer Massage and spa treatments as concessions.

Offer live meringue for Hispanic residents and other ethnic music for other immigrant groups.

Hold inner-tube races for kids and adults instead of just swim team for kids.

Partner with property managers who need amenities such as pools to make their products more appealing. Provide direct transportation services from underserved communities.

Given the consequences of inaction, no idea is too preposterous. On paper, Minnesota’s Mall of the Americas, or the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, probably appeared equally foolish. Thanks to the resolve of their creators and financial backers, their commercial success proved otherwise.


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