Pool of Franchisees Keeps Growing for Big Blue Swim School
Chris DeJong, founder and president of Big Blue Swim School.
Personalized videos from swim instructors. Hand-written letters from its leadership team to families. E-learning activities and tips on how to practice swim strokes outside of the pool. These are a few of the creative ways Chris DeJong and Big Blue Swim School are staying connected to the many kids who take swimming lessons at one of Big Blue’s five Chicago-area pools—or would if all the locations weren’t closed because of COVID-19.
DeJong, Big Blue’s founder and president who started the company in 2009, said they’re doing everything possible to stay engaged and support each school’s community of swimmers. That includes continuing to pay 100-plus employees and full-time swim instructors who DeJong said are a major differentiator in the franchise swim school space.
“We haven’t laid off any staff,” said DeJong. “We’re able to leverage the incredible relationship between the instructors and the kids during this time.”
Other communication efforts include an explanation of cleaning protocols and highlighting Big Blue’s water filtration system, which provides germicidal light sanitization of the water, and information from the CDC that there is no evidence COVID-19 can be spread through the use of pools. “We’re not trying to be experts in public health or epidemiology but that we do believe this will end at some point,” said DeJong of how he’s approaching the sharing of information on the virus.
While the pandemic necessitated the postponement of a Big Blue opening in Georgia, franchisees are still moving through the various development stages and are “cautiously optimistic” about their prospects to open successfully once restrictions ease, said Scott Thompson, chief development officer.
“We have a real estate team that’s doing weekly calls, plus a new store opening manager who’s having weekly meetings,” said Thompson of ongoing communication with franchisees. Some are already starting to see more advantageous lease terms being floated by landlords, “and landlords want to speak to us.”
Big Blue also just signed a new crop of franchisees, four of them, who plan to open 15 swim schools in four states and bring the brand’s pipeline to more than 80 locations. The brand gave the new franchisees the option to wait until the end of April to pay their franchisee fee, an offer Thompson said all of them took.
“We started Big Blue Swim School really in the height of the last recession, and what we learned then is that parents will continue to spend money on their kids, especially when it’s for a life-saving activity like swim lessons,” said DeJong. And franchisees, put in Thompson, “recognize that now is the time to move forward.”
One of those franchisees is Hiag Avsharian, who plans to open four pools in the cities of Ann Arbor, Northville, Canton and Royal Oak, Michigan, in the next five years.
“I knew I didn’t want to look back and know I’d been short-sighted,” said Avsharian of his decision to add three more locations to his franchise agreement even as the COVID-19 virus “had already really started to explode.”
“I’m thinking 10 to 15 years down the road,” Avsharian continued. “What I see as a risk is being aging in the workforce and relying on someone else for a job.” (I’ll have more from Avsharian and why he signed with Big Blue in an upcoming issue of Franchise Times.)
The cost to open a Big Blue Swim School ranges from $1.82 million to $3.68 million; multi-unit development discounts are offered.
DeJong, meanwhile, anticipates demand for services such as swim lessons will quickly return once restrictions ease and parents can finally get their kids out of the house.
“This is going to be the summer and fall of staying local,” he said. “Parents are going to continue to invest in their kids. And so they’re going to continue to take their kids to swim lessons, almost as a little tropical vacation.”
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