Change Is Good

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When people purchase a pool, it's not just a pool anymore," says Bill Wiley, director of marketing for Latham International. "Now they're adding on features, such as spillover spas and lighting and waterfalls, and the pool is really becoming part of their home as opposed to just a rectangular pool in the backyard with a filter and a concrete walkway around it. They're really taking the pool to the next level. And we're seeing a lot of our builders increase the cost of their pools because they're adding all these features."

Think you've heard that before. Of course you have β€” but in the past the comment more often applied to gunite pools, whereas today it commonly applies to vinyl-liner pools as well. Much has changed in the vinyl-liner segment over the last several years and below a few industry veterans reflect on those changes, their impact, the future of this segment and more.

In the last five years, what has been the single biggest change or innovation in the vinyl-liner segment of the industry and what effect has it had?

J. Kevin Shea, president of Vyn-All Products Corp.: From a manufacturing point of view, there's been lots of automation that's found its way to liner manufacturers. Two examples that come to mind are automated conveyorized cutters, and hot-air or hot-wedge sealers that attach the bead on the side wall. The benefit of the cutter is accuracy and speed and the benefit of the hot-air and -wedge welding is aesthetics, consistency and speed. So they're enabling fabricators to gain better efficiencies β€” more volume on a daily basis out of their plants. It's also allowed us to gain, really, a better-fitting product because of the accuracy of the cutters.

Michael Giovanone, president of Concord Pools: Today, we can adapt in the vinyl-liner panelized world to any shape, any dimension, any sunledge, swimout, step or water feature. Our limitations have been taken away. As long as a design meets safety specifications, there's nothing gunite builders can do that we can't, whether it's a negative edge, a beach entry or another feature. And the effect is you can break into new frontiers; you start working more and more with landscape architects and your dominance in the marketplace expands. When we started five or six years ago really attacking the highend custom work, what used to be a 30-mile radius of Albany, N.Y., is now a 100-mile radius of Albany as architectural firms and landscape architectural firms acquire the knowledge that you can deliver on these two-, three-, four-level custom pools with standing beams and water features and so on and so forth. It expands your market share and your margin.

Bill Wiley, director of marketing for Latham International: The quality and choice of the vinyl-liner patterns has increased greatly over the last five years. Today, you see 3D liners that in the past were really just flat sheets. Now you've got beautiful colors coming out and because of that you're getting people that I think in the past may have leaned more toward a concrete or gunite pool. Another thing I've seen is the increased demand for shapes and designs. In the past vinyl-liner pools used to be rectangles, and now the growth has been into shapes and designs that in the past only the gunite industry really focused on.

What else has had a significant impact?

Shea: I think the utilization of Web-based marketing tools, like Web sites that enable the dealers to order online for convenience. Most of the major manufacturers of liners now have Web sites where the dealers can get status on an order, place orders, etc. That's definitely been helpful. The sites have also been a sales tool to generate leads for the builders.

Also, CAD systems have improved to enable fabricators to design more random and free-form shapes, and that, coupled with the automation in the plant, is now enabling fabricators to build liners to create the same effects and features that were at one time only available through a gunite pool.

Giovanone: Product is being manufactured more efficiently now and it can be installed more easily today than it was 10 years ago. So we're able to build more efficiently, deliver on time and create a good perception in the customer's mind about the swimming pool industry. You don't see these proverbial three-, four-, fivemonth projects. And that's good for the whole industry.

What are the special features you often sell and why are those popular?

Steve Schneeberger, sales manager for Sonco Pools: On our higherend pools, if the clients want it to have the look of a custom gunite pool, we do a brick coping around the pool, instead of just the concrete coming right up to the edge with an aluminum coping, because that's pretty much standard on what everybody does. We'll also do pavers or stamped concrete, which has become very popular within the last five years.

Automatic pool cover sales have been growing because there's been a lot of publicity over the last four to five years over drownings, so this has become a popular feature. It's remarkable how many I've already sold for next year. I've got 12 pools already signed up for next year and five or six want automatic covers with them.

Bruce Holmes, CEO of Pools of Fun: We usually put in over 300 automatic pool covers a year. People want them, No. 1, for safety and No. 2, for the cleanliness of their pool. Other than that, customers want userfriendly and low-maintenance products like in-floor cleaning systems and electronic control systems.

Giovanone: First would be the liner itself. There's 3D clear-coat liners out there that are just unbelievable. You stand back 5 feet and you think you're looking at $50-a-square-foot tile. Second would be a rough tie between specialty lighting and water features because they go hand in hand. The liners give owners a choice because they can find a beautiful one to suit their needs and personal taste, and the lighting and water features give the pool sizzle, which many people want these days. We have upwards of 50 pool contracts a year where the accessories are much more than the pool was. Much more. I've done $50,000 pools that ended up as $180,000 vinyl-liner pools.

Wiley: Quite honestly, most people don't swim in pools, they socialize in pools. So they're looking for more items in that pool that will make that experience more pleasing. So we're getting more requests for internal steps and benches and spillover spas. And one thing that's growing in the vinyl is the negative edge. In the past, you could only get that if you had a gunite pool. Now, it's just a normal way of life with a vinyl-liner pool. In fact, we've increased our internal design departments because we're seeing more and more demand for custom shapes and sizes, and to do that, you have to have the design staff that is able to provide that quick turnaround to the builders so that they can compete in markets where they may never thought of being in the past.

What are the best ways to market vinyl-liner pools?

Giovanone: The best way to market and sell would be to develop good relationships with good home builders in your marketplace β€” bar none. It's secure because you get paid at the closing, and you march right down a neighborhood and assure yourself of openings, closings, servicing, referrals, etc. We build 300 custom pools a year and half of our volume is put in new homes through our home-builder program. We build pools with the home that's going in, prior to lawns, irrigation and landscaping.

And let's say you have a milliondollar-home development going in with 50 homes in it. Well, to get the work you'll need to be able to meet the wants and needs and the realistic expectations of not only those customers, but also that builder. Because the last thing a builder wants to do is couple in a relationship with a pool builder who is not dependable or can't meet all of his customers' needs. At a recent seminar I did, I often got this question: "These negative-edge pools are beautiful, but do they sell you more pools." No. What they do is they open the door for a more healthy relationship with a home builder so they know I can meet all of the needs. I do 80 pools a year for some builders, and if were to say to one of them: "I can do these 60, but I can't do those 20," then he might start looking around for another builder. Whereas now, I can do anything they can sell.

It's also a good idea to display at local home and garden shows. We do the local showcase of home galleries each year. We're sold out every year by marketing our pools where the buyers are. You may only have a hundred people vs. 5,000 people reading a newspaper ad, but if there's a hundred home builders going through an open house with one of my pools in it, that's a target-rich environment.

Holmes: Paramount Pool & Spa Systems evaluates every project we do and last year we earned a quality assurance rating of 96.41 percent. That evaluates the sales staff, the office staff, the install crews and the project managers. It covers everything about the project. And we use that rating as a great marketing tool, because I can tell you, in today's society, customer service is what it's all about. With that big of a project, if you can satisfy 96.41 percent of your customers, that's your advertising right there. So we really use that.

Shea: I think the industry as a whole needs to do a much better job of promoting the pool concept in general, and not just vinyl-liner pools, fiberglass or gunite, but swimming pools in general, similar to what the dairy farmers did with their "Got Milk." campaign, or what the RV industry did. The pool industry has yet to do that and I think if we as an industry could come together and create a generalized greater awareness, then I think we'd all benefit from that.

If the industry as a whole could get its arms around this, I think that would be tremendous because we're really missing out on a lot of the discretionary income that we're competing for. Meaning we're losing sales to the boating industry and the RV industry or the vacation industry. That's all the discretionary dollars that we're hoping to funnel into our industry.

Schneeberger: For us, the best way to market β€” without a doubt β€” is word-of-mouth referrals. Sonco's been around so long β€” 25 years this year β€” and we've got quite a reputation, so we do a lot of referrals. I pay customers for them and they appreciate that. There's people that get two or three checks for referrals every year from me. You have to have happy customers in order to do that.

Wiley: The people that are successful in marketing higher-end vinyl-liner pools are the people that are using the video and DVD presentations, they're using computerized design programs, they're providing marketing and advertising support that gives the overall look of what it is that they're buying. It's like when you go in and buy a Mercedes. You're buying an overall lifestyle and the materials they give you promote that lifestyle. In our Showcase program that we provide on our Pacific Pool, we have about 25 to 30 different pieces of marketing materials and videos and training. We do not, nor do our dealers, sell on price.

What do you see on the horizon for the vinyl-liner segment of the industry?

Wiley: I think we're going to see increased growth, and I think people are going to continue to cocoon and that we're going to see the vinyl-liner pool continue to get a bigger piece of the pie. This year we're coming out with a real waterline tile that goes around the top of the pool and the vinyl is attached under the water, so we're taking the vinyl out of the sun where the sun and the UV reduce the life and we're giving the consumer what it is they want: real tile. With vinyl, we've been trying for years to make it look like real tile and we've said, "You know, let's give them the real tile." If that's what consumers want, that's another opportunity they can have.

Shea: The quality of the product is only going to improve with the use of enhanced coatings and formulations. And the skill level of the fabricators is only getting better. But the rising cost of raw materials is a concern. Concrete has gone up, steel has gone up a lot, and polymer has gone up, too. So, I think that's going to play a role ultimately. I'm hoping it doesn't get to a place where the price of the pool increases to the point where it starts to slow down the demand. I'm also a little bit concerned about what will happen when the refinancing money coming out of homes is no longer there. Long-term, I do have a bit of a concern that maybe the bubble is going to pop and if so, the impact it's going to have is not going to be positive. It gets down to how much of a negative one is it going to be: mildly or substantially negative? I don't have a guess on that.

But the liner and panel and pool systems manufacturers have stepped up to the plate in the last few years to offer a real, legitimate alternative to gunite pools because you can now get a pool that looks exactly like a gunite pool that has all the features of a gunite pool and in many cases is not as expensive. So I think that's only going to help the market share, which I think is growing.

Holmes: I think the outlook is great. There's great opportunity out there. I think we can provide for the customers' needs in the vinyl industry and if the vinyl and steel wall manufacturers change with technology with quality and if the individual companies likewise do the same, then it'll take our industry to another level.

Giovanone: I see vinyl-liner pools just breaking the surface of opportunity. I see more premanufactured features becoming available, because time is money. There are only so many trained crews available for pool installation β€” we all know that. They're a rare commodity. So the more time you can save them, the more units they can produce. The more that's premanufactured in a factory, the more time it creates in the field, the more pools are produced.

I also see technology in liners taking great strides. You used to see liners that would last on average eight to 12 years because they would dry rot. The ultraviolet breakdown from the sun's rays would just literally make them like a thin sheet of ice. Today, you see liners lasting 15 to 20 years, and you see liners fitting so much better. You also see liners with gorgeous ceramic prints today. Within the next five years, you're going to see iridescent liners, and liners that glow in the dark, just like the face of your watch. Just think about how wild that's going to be.

AQUA INTERVIEWED: J. Kevin Shea, president of Vyn-All Products Corp, Newmarket, N.H.

Michael Giovanone, president of Concord Pools, Latham, N.Y.

Steve Schneeberger, sales manager for Sonco Pools, Rockford, Ill.

Bill Wiley, director of marketing for Latham International, Latham, N.Y.

Bruce Holmes, CEO of Pools of Fun, Plainfield, Ind.

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