In a weekly series the Star seeks simple, affordable solutions to the problems faced by Torontonians and the city as a whole.
The problem: There are 25,521 people on waiting lists for City of Toronto swim programs. Meanwhile, many hotel pools are underused, especially at certain times of the day.
It’s the Uber of swimming, the Lyft of lessons and it might make a dent in the long list of those waiting for openings in the City of Toronto’s aquatics programs.
It’s called Propel, and the co-founders, taking a page from the Uber playbook, refer to it as a tech company.
There are 25,521 people on wait-lists for 11,000 spots in aquatic programs in the city, creating a crisis each season when parents vie — and often fail — to sign up their children for swimming lessons.
The problem is not unique to Toronto — New York City has had to resort to a lottery system. Only the winners get a chance to learn how to swim, unless they can find a pool and afford private lessons.
One company stepping into the void is Propel, a platform that allows Canadian Red Cross certified swimming instructors in Toronto to connect with students for private lessons at GTA hotel pools — putting into use expensive assets that in many cases are underused.
“We wanted to basically bring the aquatics industry into the 21st century by fusing platform technology with the shared gig economy,” said co-founder Amie Nguyen, a former City of Vancouver swim instructor and lifeguard.
Propel debuted in Vancouver in 2016 and launched in Toronto two years ago.
The maximum class size is two. Current Propel instructors in the GTA are offering classes at $60-$120 an hour for one person, with a 20 per cent surcharge for two.
The biggest hurdle so far has been finding hotels to participate although hotels that do participate are paid a fee.
“It’s getting a little easier. We’re working with hotel portfolio companies instead of going to individual hotels,” said Nguyen.
Participating hotels in Toronto include the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Downtown Toronto and the InterContinental Toronto Yorkville. Propel also operates in Markham, Barrie, Burlington and Guelph.
It wasn’t money that led the InterContinental Toronto Yorkville to participate, said Shaun Pearson, executive assistant-manager of the property, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
“We’re about creating those unique experiences not only for our guests, but for our neighbours as well,” said Pearson.
The service is offered to guests through the concierge’s desk and has been well-received.
“It’s running very smoothly,” said Pearson.
Propel takes care of everything, including ensuring the guests leave after their lesson and don’t spend the day lounging on the deck. All the hotel has to do is give them key card access for the lesson.
Fees range from $45 an hour to over $100, depending on the instructor. Lessons are also open to adults and some instructors are trained to work with children and adults with special needs.
Nguyen said that paying more for private lessons is actually cheaper in the long run — based on her personal experience, she says children learn much more quickly if they receive individual attention, so far fewer lessons are needed.
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“I think the biggest waste here is time, it’s not so much the money. Going to the community centre, fighting for parking, watching your kid shiver while they wait for a turn,” said Nguyen, who holds both National Lifeguard and Canadian Red Cross Water Safety Instructor certifications.
“It might seem a little expensive at first, but once you get that lesson and we can see that progress right away, it’s worth every penny.”
The city has tried to address the issue of the wait-list for swimming lessons.
In December 2017, city council approved a community recreation growth plan, which included adding more spaces in learn-to-swim programs at the city’s 59 outdoor and 61 indoor pools.
Wait-lists for swimming lessons were reduced by 10,992 spaces, or 14 per cent, in 2018.
The city has also been hiring more people to address demand — the number of active aquatics employees has grown to 3,724 in 2019 up from 2,182 in 2012. Still, the city remains years away from closing the gap.
Vladimir Ushakov, who competed for the Kazakhstan men’s national water polo team at the London Summer Olympics in 2012, said being a Propel instructor is great for him because the students he teaches end up joining the Surrey Water Polo Club, where he is head coach.
He also likes the job because he can manage his own schedule around his other work. He earns about $45 per hour (clients pay Propel $80 for a lesson with Ushakov) and can claim expenses on his income tax.
The hourly wage for swim instructors in the City of Toronto is $17.28.
“Private lessons can be helpful when a swimmer is working towards achieving a new developmental milestone as they allow the swimmer to focus on the individual’s specific needs,” according to Shelley Dalke, director, swimming and water safety education programs, Canadian Red Cross.
She said the Red Cross recommends that those looking to take swimming lessons choose a Red Cross certified Water Safety Instructor.
“These instructors are trained in stroke development and correction techniques, and can provide the knowledge and skills which are foundational for drowning prevention.”
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