In 1991, Ron and Jane Sciarro launched Aqua-Tots as a modest, home-based business to teach swimming skills to children in the Phoenix area. Their state-of-the-art training curriculum made waves and by 2005 the couple was ready to bring the company’s nationally recognized “Lessons for Life” program to a broader customer base.
Paul and Heather Preston came aboard as partners to help Aqua-Tots transition from private swim lessons to a franchised business with fully equipped, indoor swim facilities. “Ten years ago, our kids were all toddlers and we couldn’t find quality swim instruction,” Mr. Preston remembers. “We couldn’t find a place to take our kids that was indoors, open year-round.” This gap in the market presented the ideal opportunity for the growing company. “We wanted to do something with excellence, and we also saw a need in the community. We were reacting to what families and parents want. We saw that parents really want a quality swim environment.”
Opening the first Aqua-Tots Swim Schools facility rocketed the brand to the next level. “We were able to control the environment; we were able to control the look, the feel, the cleanliness, and also minor things like water temperature.” The move also brought all of the swim instructors together under one roof, increasing efficiency and streamlining operations. “We are able to control our instructors and create teams of instructors that focus on these children,” Mr. Preston explains. “Having our team together, instead of being out in remote locations – that’s what really took us to the next step.”
Children and families are drawn to Aqua-Tots Swim Schools’ warm, caring environment and state-of-the-art facilities, as well as the company’s leading edge teaching techniques. Aqua-Tots Swim Schools offers swim classes for virtually everyone – infants, babies, toddlers, kids, swim teams, adults, and children with special needs. Swim classes are always limited to four students, so each child gets the individual attention they deserve. To ensure quality instruction, each Aqua-Tots Swim Schools swim instructor undergoes 40 to 50 hours of training before they begin teaching.
A team based in the Mesa, Arizona, headquarters works tirelessly to keep the curriculum at its best. Made up of both home office staff and franchise owners, this committee meets monthly to discuss improvements and develop new ideas. “We make sure we are teaching the best quality instruction and training for these kids,” Mr. Preston states. “We are constantly revamping.” In fact, the team just rolled out a new curriculum for the first three swim levels.
By staying on top of the Aqua-Tots Swim Schools curriculum, the team ensures that each student receives the best instruction possible to develop a lifelong love of the water as well as crucial safety skills. “We are not just a swim school. We are partnering with our communities [to provide] drowning prevention and [help] kids be safe.”
Aqua-Tots Swim Schools enjoys a steady demand for its services, but the team is taking a measured approach to growth to ensure that the quality of the brand remains high. “We are really slow [with our expansion] because we don’t just want to open more swim schools; we want to open a place where people say ‘that is a great swim school.’”
The company launched 20 new locations last year and will launch 20 new locations this year, but only added a handful of new franchisees during that time. “We are bringing in four to six new franchise owners a year; 75 percent of our growth is within our current franchise system.” New franchisees must meet stringent company standards. “We are very deliberate about who we award franchises to,” Mr. Preston reports. “We take a lot of time with our franchise owners; we view them as family, we view them as partners.”
Fitting into the company culture is key. “We are looking for people who buy into our vision and our core values. They have to buy into who we are and what we stand for – things like extend grace to those who are teachable, choose relationships over profit, think outside the box. Every one of our swim instructors, every one of our front desk staff, our aquatic managers, our general managers – they have to know what we stand for.”
Potential franchise owners also have to show that they have what it takes to succeed in business. “Our franchise owners have to show a level of perseverance in their life before Aqua-Tots Swim Schools, whether it is in corporate America or small business,” Mr. Preston explains. “We are determined to be the best and our franchise owners can’t be satisfied with being average. We focus on being the absolute best swim school.”
Franchise owners must remain enthusiastic about what they do and what Aqua-Tots Swim Schools stands for. “They have to love kids, they have to have a passion for the families. It is a great thing we get to do for the communities and [our franchise owners] want to keep that progress going to influence more kids and parents with the brand.”
To be sure, Aqua-Tots Swim Schools’ measured growth is not due to a lack of franchisee interest. “We are receiving hundreds and hundreds of inquiries for franchises every year,” Mr. Preston shares. “We will have close to a thousand inquires this year.” Remarkably, this interest is promoted almost exclusively by word of mouth. “We are not doing any advertising, we are not at trade shows, we are not part of up and coming franchise publications.”
Future growth will be primarily in North America, but will extend to other markets as well. New locations continue to open in the United States on a regular basis and the first facility in Canada will be opening in Toronto in the coming months. Aqua-Tots Swim Schools already has a location in Monterrey, Mexico and several more locations are set to open in that country over the next year. The Middle East is also proving to be a strong market. There are currently Aqua-Tots Swim Schools locations in Kuwait and Turkey and additional facilities are planned for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. “We do have international growth happening very rapidly with some of our international partners,” Mr. Preston points out. Currently, Aqua-Tots Swim Schools boasts 52 locations worldwide and 1,900 instructors. By the end of this year, the franchise will have 60 locations, and by the end of next year, there will be a total of 80 Aqua-Tots Swim Schools facilities in North America and the Middle East.
Aqua-Tots Swim Schools is not the only swim school experiencing success in today’s market; the industry is enjoying a boom overall. “There are a lot of new faces in our industry right now. A lot of new competitors are coming in. They are responding to the need as well and the industry overall is doing very well. Ten years ago, parents didn’t know this even existed. And now, people aren’t asking the question ‘what is a swim school’ they are asking ‘which swim school do you go to?’”
Rather than being intimidated, the team feels quite positive about the increasing competition. “It is good; I like the competition. [It means] we have to be very good. The challenge for us is to be the best in a competitive market.” Being pushed to be the best not only benefits the company, but the consumer as well. “If there are swim schools littering a metropolitan area, the consumer wins because they are going to have choices.”
Mr. Preston believes that Aqua-Tots Swim Schools’ leading edge training curriculum and family friendly environment will win customers’ loyalty in the end. “At the end of the day, I want them to say ‘we are going to Aqua-Tots Swim Schools because they care about my family, they know my kids [and] I feel welcome. My kids are learning a great life skill.’” The team will continue to push for excellence as the brand expands and the competition heats up. “We don’t want to be just another swim school. We want to be the best.”