Water Babies has an outstanding reputation as the world’s biggest, most professional baby and toddler swimming programme. We welcome over 52,000 children (and their parents/carers) into warm water at around 560 local pools every week and our sessions progressively develop children’s water skills in line with their physical, mental and emotional development phases.
We also offer world-class, once-in-a-lifetime high-resolution photography of babies and toddlers swimming underwater, and an online shop featuring delightful, practical swimming accessories.
Since Water Babies began in 2002, we’ve grown incredibly fast and currently have 71 franchises, running 79 outlets across the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and China, with Germany launching this year.
We are the largest baby & toddler swim school in the world – but run through a network of family-owned businesses, each of which is strongly rooted in their own local communities.
Our success means there are very few new territories left to buy. However, from time-to-time ongoing businesses do become available.
We’re now actively exploring Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar.
Our rigorous specialist baby swimming teacher training programme has been developed in collaboration with Swim England, the national governing body for swimming, and will qualify you as one of the world’s best-trained baby swimming teachers. What’s more, ours are the only baby swimming teachers who can obtain this prestigious qualification, which is the highest-level qualification available in early years swimming.
You’ll also receive fully comprehensive training at our head office in all aspects of running your own Water Babies business covering areas such as marketing, administration, computing, tax, VAT and customer service, with ongoing training and support always available.
As a franchisee you’ll have all the autonomy and excitement of running your own business, backed up by the business support of our head office and the mutual support of the rest of the network. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, with everyone helping each other out for the greater good.
From talking to new mums and dads on the phone, to giving talks, sorting out underwater photo shoots, marketing your classes, finding new pool space and, of course, teaching tiny newborns to bouncy toddlers, no two days at Water Babies are ever the same!
The bfa recently spoke to Paul Thompson, co-founder of Water Babies to discuss their prominent branding, and why they believe this helps their franchise.
Water Babies have been in business for over 15 years now, at what stage did you/the owners realise Water Babies had become a brand in your sector?
When we attended an international conference on infant swimming in Wellington, New Zealand in 2006. Sitting among our peers in the industry from around the world, it suddenly dawned on us that while we were teaching around 10,000 babies and toddlers every week, nobody else came close (the next largest baby swim school was only teaching around 3,000). There was a sudden realisation that we were no longer a kitchen-table family business - we were, in fact, the largest baby swim school in the world!
When developing your brand, did you have a marketing and brand strategy in place? And if so, at what stage did you implement it?
Firstly, we have always been unashamedly premium. Everything we do has to be the best it can possibly be. It's the only way to be if you want to be the market leader. When we first set up Water Babies, we had just £5,000 to launch the business with, and we spent all of it on branding. That’s how important brand is to us.
Our original marketing strategy was centred around PR: 15 years ago, baby swimming was a relatively unknown concept, and as a result, we got lots of press, both local and national. This meant that we didn’t do much paid-for advertising, because we didn’t have to. PR enabled us to raise awareness of baby swimming generally, with the natural result that we raised the brand awareness of Water Babies, too.
How has operating a franchised brand benefited your franchisees in the short and long term?
The most valuable aspect of buying a Water Babies franchise is the brand itself. Water Babies is a well-established, trusted brand and our teaching qualifications are endorsed by Swim England. We have 15 years’ worth of families who have been through the Water Babies journey, and they are only too happy to share the benefits of our programme in person and online. We know that potential clients will trust the advice of their friends and family above any paid-for marketing, meaning our great reputation is everything. We really believe in our programme and so do the carers that choose Water Babies. So our franchisees benefit from the national and international reputation we have carved out, giving them an immediate advantage over our competitors.
Is brand training incorporated into new franchisees training programme and do you have brand guidelines in place?
Yes, brand training is a major part of our training programme for new franchisees. Not just as part of our marketing training: it underpins all our training, so from aquatics to IT, everything must be brand standard. We've recently produced a set of Master Franchisor Brand Guidelines, and are in the process of updating our Franchisee Brand Guidelines to be in-line with this, which we'll roll out to our network. And crucially, we'll ensure these guidelines are understood, because ultimately this is what will make brand compliance easier for all of us.
How do you monitor franchisees and ensure they adhere to brand guidelines in their on- and off-line marketing?
We have a monthly audit of each franchise to ensure they are adhering to brand guidelines. Each office also goes through an internal business quality audit each year, and one of the elements they’re assessed on is brand compliance. What’s more, we’ve also built into our franchise contracts that any breach of brand standard will be penalised. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence. But it does happen.
As the franchisor, you set the tone and voice of the brand, how do you ensure franchisees meet/match these in their service delivery?
Communication is an important element of our brand guidelines and training – not only from a marketing perspective, but also how we interact and communicate with all the different people and organisations we encounter. And for us, the main recipients of any such interaction would be the tens of thousands of parents who bring their little ones swimming with us each week. So alongside our incredibly thorough initial training that every franchisee (and teacher) goes through, we have a network of mentors who regularly check that both new and existing teachers are delivering their lessons in accordance with brand guidelines.
When selling a franchise, how important is it for franchisees to share some of the core values and principles that lay at the heart of your brand?
We are a people-focused business. It takes a certain type of person to be part of the Water Babies family. We call it 'The Thing', it's an undefinable quality that marks out a Water Babies franchisee or staff member. We have had people come to Water Babies who have money to buy a franchise, but are not the right fit for us.
Has your brand stayed the same since its inception or has it evolved?
We've always been a premium brand, and our brand values have always stayed the same. Our visual identity has changed over time, but it's been an evolution, rather than a revolution, as it's important to us to always maintain our strong brand personality.
As we have moved internationally, we have had to consider our brand overseas, particularly in regards to China. We are working with a new market, so we have been through a localisation process to ensure our brand is fit for purpose.
Do you think brands need refreshing? And if so, how often do you re-fresh your brand?
I would never pin down a timeframe on it. And I would not refresh a brand identity just for the sake of it. When you work within a business, you can easily fall into the trap of being fatigued with your own brand because you see the same logo and the same imagery every day. Your clients are very unlikely to see it the same way, though. Particularly with our target market of parents and carers of babies from birth, where we have a regular intake of new clients.
Finally, if I asked 10 different people what their definition of a brand is, I’d probably get 10 different answers, what’s your own definition of a brand?
For me, brand is a company's total personality – what we look like, what we say, how we act, and ultimately, how we make people feel.
Water Babies began in 2002, since then they have grown incredibly fast and currently have 71 franchises, running 79 outlets across the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and China, with Germany launching this year. For more information, please visit their Members Directory on our website: https://www.thebfa.org/members/water-babies-ltd/
The Water Babies Berkshire franchise is run by Alan Crisford and his wife, Louise. Operating out of 25 pools the franchise covers 10 local areas including Basingstoke, Reading, Maidenhead, Slough, Windsor, Bracknell, Fleet, Farnborough, Aldershot and Ascot. The franchise currently teaches over 1,500 children every week the lifelong skills needed to be confident in and around water.
So how did it all begin? In 2007, Alan and Louise had their first daughter, Evelyn. With Louise being a watersports fanatic, the first thing she wanted was for Evelyn to learn to swim, so she signed her up to Water Babies. After attending just one lesson, Louise announced she wanted to quit her job and become a teacher, so she did.
Six months later, the opportunity to buy the franchise she was working with came up. Alan was working as a probation officer at the time. Leaving home at 6am and returning after 7pm, Alan had little time to spend with Evelyn. Owning the Berkshire franchise promised to improve their work-life balance, as well as being a fantastic business opportunity.
Buying an existing franchise wasn’t without its issues: the inevitable inheritance of liabilities meant there was a demand to continually grow the business. Given the economic climate at the time, this proved more difficult than initially thought. Alan believes the success of the franchise is largely down to the help they received from Water Babies co-founder and chairman, Paul Thompson, and his staff.
Alan says: “They were able to help us plan and structure the business to ensure we got through the first couple of years. They helped us recruit the right people, find the right facilities, even help us move offices in two foot of snow.” This, combined with working steadily 10 hours a day, seven days a week meant Alan was able to overcome the initial issues and build solid foundations for growth.
Six years later, Alan and Louise are now running a successful business employing 11 different teachers, managing over 60 underwater photo shoots and running swimming classes seven days a week. “We have managers in place that we trust implicitly and who have built their own teams to support them,” Alan says. “We have built a business that would continue to function just as well without us as it does with Louise and me.”
Looking forward, Alan plans to continue the growth of the business by using more facilities, training more teachers and employing more staff and ultimately offering more people the experience of taking their babies swimming for the first time.
Alan’s advice for anyone looking to start a franchise business is:
“Do your research on the franchise. When you meet with the franchisor the discussion will inevitably focus on business growth and what sort of returns you will receive if the business performs as it should. Make sure you ask what support you will receive as a franchisee if the business doesn’t perform as it should, will they support you through tough times and how?”
I first heard about Water Babies through my sister, Jess, who founded the company with her husband Paul in Yorkshire in 2002. At that time, baby swimming was pretty much confined to the South East and they were amazed by the speed at which the business took off… 200 clients after just eight weeks! This exponential growth and their obvious passion for what they were doing prompted me to start thinking about getting involved. After much discussion it was decided that my becoming a franchisee would be the best way of expanding the company.
My career up until that point had been fairly diverse, incorporating management consultancy, retail and marketing, so I relished the challenge of doing something different. A year later, in summer 2003, I started my first lessons in Bristol and Bath. Of course, the fact that I was joining a family team, where I had access to unlimited support, was appealing to me. But I also appreciated the fact that franchising offered me independence to run my business within a network of support and a central point of leadership.
With my marketing background I fully appreciate the value of a strong brand, and this, I believe, is one of Water Babies’ greatest strengths. Not only is our corporate image incredibly well devised but the brand now stands for so much in terms of fantastic customer service, innovation and attention to detail.
Although the last few years have been extremely hard work and full of challenges, I’ve enjoyed seeing my business grow from just myself, juggling all the teaching and administration, to a team of two administrators and 11 instructors. We started with 120 babies and now have close to 1,000 with a waiting list of 850 - mostly gained through word of mouth.
As far as Jess, Paul and the rest of Head Office go, I feel they have always provided me with great support and help – I feel constantly pushed to achieve more and be the best that I possibly can be in everything I do. The company, although much larger these days, still harbours a strong ‘family’ feeling: everyone works with, rather than for, each other. Most importantly, we are all passionate about what we do. Although the first couple of years when setting up a franchise are incredibly demanding and time consuming, I’m so glad I did it.
Before joining Water Babies, I was working for another large independent swim school and was also a self-employed personal trainer in some of London’s top gyms. Having spent the previous few years travelling the world, running a dive school in Indonesia and crewing various yachts around the globe, I felt it was time for a new challenge. Since I really enjoyed my work with the baby classes, it seemed a natural progression to look into running my own. I really believe in teaching swimming from birth, and want all the babies who swim with us to have a truly positive experience which will remain with them for the rest of their lives. I am also keen for babies to start exercising from an early age, which, I hope, will form the basis of an active lifestyle later on.
Since I was already working in the industry I was familiar with Water Babies and aware of its excellent reputation. When I got in touch with them to discuss franchising opportunities, Paul talked me through the options and, upon discovering that they didn’t yet have a franchise in London, I knew instinctively that it was something I wanted to do. So, in April 2007, I signed on the dotted line and set up Water Babies in South West London. Since then, my business has gone from strength to strength – by month five, I’d moved into offices, employed three members of staff and had more than 400 tiny clients.
One of the things which attracted me to Water Babies in particular, was the company’s professionalism and passion for what it does. It’s a very high-quality team of franchisees – we have lawyers, engineers, chemists specialising in Health and Safety, graphic designers and HR professionals, to name but a few; and that wealth of business knowledge is generously shared across the network. From a business perspective, we operate a very effective, exemplary business model: cash upfront and costs at the end of each course, so no-one ever owes us money. (And, mindful of this, we also pay all our own bills pretty much by return!)
As far as support from Head Office goes, it’s 100%. I know it’s a cliché, but we really are one big family – everyone speaks to everyone else within the network all the time and we can call anyone in Head Office day or night if we need to. In fact, we are actively encouraged, as new franchisees, to call existing ones as often as we like and the strength of camaraderie between us is really special. It does mean a lot knowing that, no matter how hard we are working as franchisees, we know that HO are working equally hard on our behalf and really want us to succeed, both from a business and personal point of view. That’s invaluable.
I was working as a local authority swimming instructor when I first saw an article about Water Babies in 2003. Little did I think that one phone call to the founder, Paul Thompson, would completely change my life. I originally trained as the company’s first instructor then, in 2005, my family and I relocated to Norfolk to set up our own Water Babies franchise, where we now have 600 clients and seven members of the team.
I am now also a senior tutor, responsible for co-writing the UK Water Babies swimming programme with Paul and, earlier this year, represented the company on BBC Breakfast News. Not bad for a swim teacher from Harrogate!
Obviously this amazing career development has been very closely linked to Paul, and I am very grateful for the constant encouragement and advice he’s given me; not least his innate belief in my ability to achieve anything to which I set my mind. It’s been incredibly inspiring, being so closely involved in a company whose growth has been pretty phenomenal. I’ve experienced first hand the hard work that goes into maintaining the highest standards of quality alongside such rapid growth, but also it’s so exciting being in a company where, quite literally, the sky is the limit for everyone involved.
Running my own franchise (with my partner, Mark) is, to be frank, damn hard work – although this is amply compensated for by the results we achieve with all our children and the fact that we adore what we do. The continuing support we get from HO is invaluable, not least because so much attention is paid to constantly moving things forward and improving things. For instance, we get a huge amount of documentation direct from them which we can simply transfer into our own operations. An example in point is that they’ve recently spent months working on a generic HR policy which, whilst we are all obviously responsible for our own HR, all franchises can adopt, thus saving us hours of work, personal expense and duplication of effort.
We first got involved with Water Babies when we took our own children to classes in Bristol. Having both previously worked in social housing, we did the classic ‘post kids’ thing of deciding that we wanted a complete career change; leading, hopefully to a new kind of lifestyle. When we began we were determined to make sure we didn’t get sucked into working all hours and, although the business was hugely demanding at the start, within its growth we’ve been able to organise our time in different ways and build a team to manage the business on a day-to-day basis. Two years in and we’re still not quite at the point of being able to surf every weekend, but, with time spent clubbing in Ibiza last year and skiing at Christmas, we’re not far off!
Having taken our own children, we knew that Water Babies offers something we personally really love, but also saw the company as having huge potential for growth. In terms of the benefits we feel we get from being part of a franchise network, these include support, shared knowledge and expertise (from both Head Office and the rest of the group); the strong common values and friendship we all share) and, not least, the knowledge that we’ll have a storming good time socially at the franchise conferences! We also really appreciate the benefits of being part of a bigger group when it comes to marketing, publicity and keeping our profile right at the forefront of the swimming industry. We also get a lot of business development advice and practical support from Head Office, who are always there, actively supporting everything we do.
We recently completed an industry quality accreditation mark, and despite our relative youth, we achieved a distinction and one of the highest marks ever scored. The assessment was extremely gruelling and our success was definitely, in part, due to belonging to a larger experienced and professional network. Moving forward, our aims are to ensure that every single person who comes into contact with us has a fantastic experience and that, if things don’t occasionally go to plan, we’ll do everything we can to put them right. On a more personal note, we think that Water Babies is pretty close to giving us the work life balance we were looking for, and for that - and so many more reasons besides - it’s the best business ever!!