Chicago-based Big Blue Swim School is targeting southeastern Wisconsin for its next out-of-state expansion.
The company, which offers year-round swim instruction to children 6 months to 12 years of age, operates five indoor pool facilities in the Chicago area, and recently opened its first-franchise location, in Georgia.
Now, Big Blue is actively working with potential franchisees to open at least four facilities in the greater Milwaukee area within the next couple of years, bringing about 140 new jobs. The move is part of larger plans to open 150 franchise locations across the U.S. by 2021.
"We've already fielded a lot of interest in the (Milwaukee) market," said Chris DeJong, founder, president and chief marketing officer. "We know our concept will be well received by parents in those communities."
What attracted the company to southeast Wisconsin was its high population of families and young kids, many of whom spend their summers at pools and lakes located across the state. Dejong said it's imperative that children learn how to swim, especially in a region where water recreation is a central part of local culture.
"The Center for Disease Control found that formal swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88%, so we really think we're doing a public service with our concept," he said.
DeJong opened the first Big Blue Swim School in Wilmette, Illinois in 2009, after a competitive swimming career that nearly landed him a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team, both in 2004 and in 2008. His ultimate goal is to teach a third of the children in the U.S. to swim by bringing the Big Blue concept to every major metropolitan area in the country. And DeJong wants the experience to be more enjoyable than it once was.
"When I grew up, even though I grew up in a swimming household, I learned in a freezing cold pool in a really big class at a local university," he said.
DeJong said Big Blue aims to revolutionize the swim lesson experience for families, with 90-degree pools, small class sizes (about three students per class on average), and accessible locations and ample parking.
These days, with the threat of the coronavirus pandemic still looming, another huge part of that experience is a clean environment.
After temporarily shutting down in March due to COVID-19, Big Blue's Chicago-area facilities began reopening in June with limited programming, enhanced cleaning protocols, and updates such as hand sanitizing stations throughout the space and touchless faucets in bathrooms. In addition, the company invested in its pool filtration system with new water filters and a UV filtration light for another layer of disinfection.
"The CDC has been clear that in a well-chlorinated pool, it is highly unlikely that the virus could ever spread," said DeJong.
He said it's encouraging that health officials have allowed swim facilities to reopen during this time, adding that eliminating swim lessons for children would create its own public health crisis.
In addition to the Milwaukee area, Big Blue is eyeing three other territories in Wisconsin. Dejong declined to disclose specific locations on the record.
Target markets for the company across the U.S. include Denver, Charlotte and Southern California.
From a real estate standpoint, Big Blue plants its 10,000-square-foot facilities near neighborhoods or in commercial areas that drive business from local families-- also known as the "path of least resistance," said Dejong. The company usually renovates inline retail center sites, instead of investing in new builds.
"But that's not to say we don't look at all opportunities out there," he said.
Once a site is selected, it takes about 18 months to open a new Big Blue Swim School. But the company first has to secure franchisees to lead the charge, said chief development officer Scott Thompson.
"We are very selective," he said. "We spend a lot of time educating and properly bringing a candidate through our process to make sure that there's a mutual fit for both the franchise partner and for Big Blue."