Lodge Life

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do when planning a park or facility is to build something that will save a lot of money and headaches in the long run.

The problem is always budgetary. Cuts and compromises are often made, saving money and time in the short term, but ultimately costing more as issues crop up in the long term.

Fortunately for Des Peres, Mo., located just outside St. Louis, the city was able to create a high-end design with high-end materials and features for its new aquatics and recreation center, simply tagged The Lodge.

The Lodge really looks like a lodge. It feels warm and looks upscale (and, in fact, it is). And housed inside its lodge-like exterior are more lodge-like appointments. But, and most importantly, The Lodge is filled with a diversity of aquatics, fitness, sports and general recreation amenities that serves its public.

"Before The Lodge, we were more a provider of park facilities, and now we're a fully-staffed department with a broad range of programs and activities," explains Susan Trautman, director of parks and recreation for the City of Des Peres. "We really didn't have a town center or main street. There was no place for people to gather until now, and that's our tagline, 'The Lodge is where your neighbors gather,' and they really do."

The Lodge concept is carefully tied to a well thought out philosophy, or value system, which girds everything done there. Each primary value has a list of sub-values that more specifically address how those values look in reality. For instance, under the Lodge Life value that says, "We provide extraordinary customer service," it goes on to say, "We know our guests' names, and greet them individually with a smile. We respect our guests and we are honest when responding to their inquiries." And so it goes with the rest of the values, which include, "We, as a team, empower each other. We bring the community together. We create experiences worth repeating. We constantly improve."

Each of the values listed above, and their sub-values, are the building blocks of the Lodge Life staff training program.

"We have a very high level of customer service. It's not Disney, but it's a step above the usual in how we approach people and how they're treated. We know our customers' names and their individual idiosyncrasies," says Trautman. "We empower our staff to make decisions. If you're working the front desk, and someone's upset, within reason, you can do what it takes to make them happy. My staff knows how to deal with issues, and we've given them the ability to make decisions for themselves. They're expected to solve problems at the root of the problem."

Values Meet Reality

The values have been successfully implemented at The Lodge, says Trautman, as the unique combination of a high-end design and construction process with a high-end attitude toward customer service has infused the entire center.

The project, which was designed by Hastings & Chivetta Architects out of St. Louis, includes The Lodge itself at 73,884 square feet, and the outdoor water park at 30,450 square feet.

Inside The Lodge is a natatorium with a large pool that lives a double life as both a lap-swimming and wave pool. It easily serves special needs with a zero-depth entry and other accessible entrances.

The wave pool component is one of the nation's most unique features, particularly in municipal parks and recreation. It helps fulfill one of the challenges that many in the field face; namely to provide the latest in aquatic leisure with more traditional services. It also includes an underwater camera system for safety that Trautman says has worked especially well as a training aid.

"It works really well for us, because we can do lap swimming, run swim lessons, and have group exercise programs that are all full, but at the same time, from Friday afternoons to Sunday nights, we can turn on the waves and we have a leisure pool," says Trautman. "The wave pool is an expensive energy piece. However, if you're in my kind of environment with so many choices, it works very well. We have so much flexibility, and people really like being in the waves. It's a real drawing card for the area."

Because of features like the wave pool, and the extreme attention to detail, The Lodge is close to 100-percent annual cost recovery. The high initial cost is paying for itself many-fold as The Lodge matures.

"The benefit of the design and attention to detail at The Lodge is that we host a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and reunions because the structure is so nice. It feels warm and cozy and its atmosphere is like a Colorado lodge. There's a great payoff for having invested in that on the front end. For instance, we have slate flooring, which is very easy to maintain," explains Trautman. "We're careful how we manage it, and try to run it like a business. We haven't marketed membership, because we have capacity issues. We have about 3,200 memberships, which equates to about 11,000 people, and if get any more than that we start to get uncomfortable. We try to generate revenue through the rentals and programs so we can support that limited membership base."

In addition to the natatorium, The Lodge has about 5,400 square feet of fitness, with aerobic and free weight areas, a three-lane track and a 1,750 square foot aerobics room. Trautman says that The Lodge could easily support and justify twice the space and equipment due to the popularity of fitness, which is also stoked by creative fitness programming, such as a fitness boot camp, Buff Brides, youth fitness classes and camps, functional training (which mimics movements people make in their day-to-day lives) and other unique programs culled from both the private and public sectors.

"We put a lot of effort into making sure our guests' needs were met. We didn't just go with one fitness center. We put a whole matrix together of criteria we were looking for, and that made a huge difference because they have a wide variety of cardio equipment and three different types of strength equipment to choose from based on the matrix we put together," says Trautman.

The center also has a large gymnasium, concessions, a wet party room, family changing areas, sauna and steam rooms and various meeting rooms.

Perhaps the most important element in the entire center is its flexibility. Trautman emphasizes that the spaces inside should be able to change at a moment's notice in order to accommodate all types of activities.

"We don't have a senior center, or a teen center or a game center. All of our rooms can be turned over and made into anything we want. That's one thing you need to think about, because if you lock into a certain type of room you can't really use it for something else," says Trautman.

Since the entire center includes an outdoor water park, Trautman stresses the importance of understanding the differences between how much different the outdoor and indoor aquatic environments are, and how to manage all the details involved in indoor maintenance, particularly since most parks and recreation agencies are used to running outdoor pools.

"The biggest thing is keeping the building clean. In parks and recreation you typically don't have that kind of training. It's probably the biggest building a city will own, and it took awhile to learn how to clean efficiently and to find the right products," says Trautman. "You have to make sure you have people who understand HVAC, air quality and chemicals. We had a situation with our pump room where the contractors didn't seal off penetrations, so we had a lot of harsh chemical get in the air and corrode some panels. So it's very important to really understand the environment in which it operates and make it function correctly. An indoor pool environment is radically different from the rest of your building, and having someone who understands chemicals is very important. Making the assumption that you've operated an outdoor pool and can now run an indoor pool isn't one in the same; they're very different."

Equally important, says Trautman, is an open and communicative process from the get-go, all the way to opening day and beyond. Otherwise, a closed system that creates barriers between the city government, the users, parks and recreation, the architect and construction will create unpleasant surprises down the road.

Trautman explains, "There should be no hidden agendas or surprises. A lot of it is the willingness to confront issues when they come at you, instead of ignoring them. For instance, if you have a board member who's really strong minded, instead of explaining the consequences of a decision you often choose not to, but we have to do the opposite and be open-minded and willing to deal with the difficult things right away. It's a frustrating process, particularly during construction, but if you keep communication open at least everyone knows about it and what you're dealing with, and there are no surprises. It's a whole lot better to deal with the reality of a situation than to pretend it's not there."

The outdoor pool complex includes a zero-depth entry pool, a play area with spray fountains, a lazy river, a six-inch shallow leisure pool, a 220-foot slide and a separate outdoor building with concessions, locker rooms and offices.

As far as running the outdoor portion of The Lodge, Trautman says that staff needs increase on the play portions to adequately supervise the area and that the play features themselves need to be understood completely.

"Water features can be tricky, and the valves can go out. We learned how many parts there are, so make sure you have the components on hand in case they do go out, and what it's going to take to maintain it; even slides, because they're more complicated than you might imagine. There's a lot that goes into making them work properly and taking care of them. There are lots and lots of details, so you have to hire people who are adept at working on those details."

For more information or to request a copy of Des Peres' Lodge Life training and values material, Susan Trautman can be reached at strautman@desperesmo.org. More can also be found at www.desperesmo.org.