The Experience Factor

Eric Herman Headshot
photo of lady with a hat lounging by a pool
Flickr | Andrew Sorensen

If you're like, me you've likely become fed up wondering when these economic doldrums are going to mercifully come to an end. Conjecture as to whether or not we're still in a recession, or entering into a double-dip, or on the way out has become so shopworn and tiresome it's hard to pay much heed to the musings of economic experts and pundits.

Fact is, we all know our economy is still limping along with no full recovery anywhere on the radar. As far as the pool and spa industry goes, the numbers remain grim: give or take a few percentage points, we know that construction of new pools is down a whopping 80 percent from its peak in 2006, a point when more than 200,000 pools were built in the U.S.

Now as we move toward the spring and summer seasons, it's reasonable to wonder if we're in for yet another year where fewer than 50,000 pools will be built at a time when many pools are being filled in or abandoned in foreclosed properties and commercial facilities are closing at an alarming rate.

It's all enough to make one reasonably wonder, where's the good news?

Mass Transfer

Personally, I've never cottoned to the concept of sustained negativity and always try to find the silver linings, even in the darkest clouds. Fortunately, I'm not alone.

I recently spoke with Vance Gillette, vice president of business development for Zodiac Pool Systems, who offered an unusually optimistic view of our industry's potential for growth in the near future and over the long run. Vance is one our industry's most dynamic and progressive thinkers and has long been known for his outspoken advocacy for our industry and these days, he's continuing to stir the proverbial pot.

Over the course of a couple of discussions, he shared with me some data and food for thought that should be taken seriously and ultimately could stand up as genuine cause for optimism. "We all know that pool and spa sales rely on discretionary spending, so we have to ask where are those dollars going to come from? To answer that, all you have to do is look at the mother of all macro-trends, the inheritance of the Baby Boom generation."

He quickly backed up that statement quoting economic sources that identify the Baby Boom inheritance as the largest transfer of wealth in human history, a staggering amount of money estimated at $11.6 trillion, of which $2.4 trillion is already gifted. And 10 percent of the inheritances average in excess of $1.5 million.

"The news gets even better," Vance added, "Millionaires rebounded in 2010. Ultra-high-net-worth individuals, those people worth more than $5 million, grew 8 percent and now number 1.06 million; people worth $1 million or more grew 11 percent to 8.4 million. And the industry's sweet spot, people worth $500,000 or more grew 13 percent to 13.5 million.

"Those are huge numbers of people with the resources to comfortably purchase our industry's product," he adds. "The challenge we face is promoting our products so that those qualified buyers choose to devote their resources to pools and spas."

Driving Desire

To draw future clients towards our industry, Vance makes a case that strongly resonates with my own thinking, "We shouldn't think of ourselves as the pool and spa industry, but as the 'outdoor entertainment industry.' We're not selling pumps, motors, concrete and plumbing; what we're really selling is experience."

I couldn't agree more and as he pointed out, other industries are arguably doing a better job of promoting our wares than we are. "Almost every single advertisement for resort properties features the swimming pool as the primary image. You rarely see the lobby or the rooms, but you always see the water. That's because people selling vacations know that the water provides the most exciting and enjoyable experiences for their customers.

"If we want to see our industry expand and reach its full potential, or at least come close," he continued, "we need to reinvent our thinking and start promoting the experience factor. It's critical we let go of the negativity that has plagued us for as long as most people can remember. Of course it's important to work toward making pools and spas safer, but we've got to stop allowing those negative issues to dominate our industry's culture."

As I was listening, my mind kept jumping back to my own experiences growing up in Southern California and the countless memories associated with swimming pools and how those experiences encompassed the very best of times with family and friends. I thought about how my own children's lives were spent largely in the water from early childhood straight into their young adult years.

It occurred to me that those experiences are so common and familiar that we've somehow learned to take them for granted. As an industry, we should take Vance's advice to heart and step back to consider the importance and sheer joy of aquatic lifestyles.

"Think about the words associated with pools and spas," he added, "fun, relaxation, beauty, excitement, family, togetherness, entertainment, prestige, luxury, rejuvenation, indulgence, and many others. That's what we're selling, the very best that life has to offer."

Spreading The Words

Odds are many of you reading this, like me, couldn't agree more with Vance and others who make similar impassioned points about the nature of our industry. And you probably also acknowledge that as an industry we haven't done a good job of promoting all those magnificent qualities. So how do we get the word out, what will it take to conveying those profoundly positive messages?

"We need to embrace the fact that buying a pool or a spa is an emotional decision," Vance says, "No one needs a pool, just like no one really needs a Rolex watch. Instead people who invest in a body of water are driven by their desire for all of the great experiences associated with it.

"I believe we need to look at promoting the outdoor experiences through social media, which has rapidly become one of the primary ways we communicate with each other. It's basically free and all it takes is desire and effort.

"And," he adds, "we need to use our trade associations to mount national media campaigns. Yes, that requires organization, leadership and resources, but isn't that what trade associations are for in the first place? Each and every one of us who's in an association, from the independent service technician to the largest manufacturer, should be actively encouraging, even insisting that we collectively start promoting the benefits of pool and spa ownership and all the positive emotions that drive purchasing decisions."

When Vance and I wrapped up our discussions, I couldn't help but think that if we embrace his message, the future might just be brighter than most of us have dared to think for quite some time.

Food for thought!

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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