It’s been a funny old season for lidos and this weekend some will close their doors. Others, like Beccles Lido, are extending their season and that warms my heart. Some are still undecided, with the level of support from swimmers they are likely to receive being the deciding factor.
This post from Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham, one of the grand old ladies of the lido estate, makes plain the link between the number of swimmers using a facility and the income needed to stay open. We are all, by now, aware that the number of swimmers who can use a pool at any one time is much reduced from pre-pandemic levels. That, naturally, reduces how much income a pool can generate per session.
That reduced income leaves pools in a difficult position. Their operating costs don’t go down just because they have fewer swimmers – the water still needs to be heated, the insurance and utilities bills still need to be paid, grounds and buildings need to be maintained and lifeguards are still required. None of these things can be reduced to take account of falling revenue.
Different pools have taken different approaches to solving the knotty problem of how to balance the books. Some have put up their prices a little. Some have restricted the amount of time a swimmer can stay in the pool for the admission fee – although this is just as much about managing demand and ensuring that everybody who wants to swim gets the chance. It also has the added benefit of almost obliterating the familiar lido queue, which in turn reduces the risk of infection spreading. Some pools have suspended season tickets for the time being. Many, sadly, have deemed the problem unsolvable with the resources and time available to them and have, therefore, not opened their gates at all.
I find the comments under the Sandford Parks post interesting. The biggest issue that commenters have is pricing and, obviously closely aligned to that, the absence of season tickets. Those concerned about pricing point out that, to them, the admission money is too expensive for a one-hour swim. Some of those expressing that view say that in the past they would have stayed for much longer for that admission money and would, in fact, have spent more than that because they would have made use of the café. This strongly suggests that it isn’t the price per se that is the problem; it’s not that these commentors can’t afford this (although some will be in that position this year due to the financial impact of the pandemic) it’s that they don’t get what they are used to getting for that amount of money. Put simply, they only have an hour in the pool and then have to get out. They could, of course, still use the café after their swim and so their visit would be prolonged. Those regretting the absence of season tickets are regular swimmers for whom admission fees multiple times a week soon add up.
For both groups of swimmers one thing is true. The pandemic is exposing them to the real costs of running an outdoor swimming pool. I had an interesting talk with one of the Sandford Parks trustees last year, during which we discussed running costs for that facility. They are nothing short of eye-watering. The pool gets no government money, although it does receive revenue from the car park thanks to the support of its local authority. That revenue is useful, but it doesn’t come anywhere near covering costs.
Under normal circumstances Sandford Parks can rely on a high volume of swimmers over the course of a full season, and they are incredibly inventive with the programme of events that they run across the season. That means that they can spread their running costs more thinly across all users – in other words, they can keep prices to a minimum and can also afford to subsidise regular swimmers by way of offering a season ticket. It is important for swimmers to understand that a season ticket is a subsidy that pool gives to its swimmers. It’s a reward for being a regular/local. Most pools lose money on season tickets over the course of the year. I say this as a long-standing season ticket holder at Portishead Open Air Pool where I know, during the course of an average summer, that I will effectively be swimming for free by around mid-June.
This year, most pools simply cannot afford to offer that subsidy because their income has been strangled by the pandemic-related caps on their earning potential. They cannot afford to allow people to stay all day for the same admission price. They have to try and eek every scrap of income out of what remained of the season whilst also trying to fairly distribute their limited capacity to give everybody a shot. And they have to do that while also trying very hard to retain enough reserves to be able to open next season under what may well still be significant restrictions.
I have a plea; if you would have happily spent the admission fee, and some café money, at a lido if you were allowed to stay all day please, please spend it this year and accept gracefully that you will get a bit less for your money. In past years lidos have been able to support their swimmers by offering longer sessions and season tickets. This year, and perhaps next year too, they need us to support them. If you possibly can, please do. They still represent amazing value for money, you’ll still get all the fun, fresh air and health / emotional wellbeing benefits. You’ll still be able to eat ice-cream. And you won’t have to queue. The only difference is that you’ll be home a bit earlier – but you’ll still have made memories.