Portable Spa Competitors Find Common Ground

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The pool and spa industry is not known for its willing teamwork and collegial spirit. At times, one may think it's an industry of adversaries that would rather sink than swim if swimming means working with rivals, even on projects of common interest.

For we are all competitors. Every set of eyes moving across this page is working for a body trying to gain at the expense of another. But at the same time, there are areas where cooperation benefits all, and in that area of mutual effort, the record of the pool and spa industry has generally been a source of mild despair.

But then one looks at the recent example of the hot tub manufacturers and thinks: Perhaps there's hope after all.

For roughly 80 percent of the industry's hot tub builders — fierce competitors all — are now sharing sales information with each other in order to help each company make better business decisions and ultimately help to grow the entire hot tub market. And where there were two frosty and contending hot tub associations, we now have synergy and combined effort.

The story of how this came about is worth the hearing, and involves some higher-level commitment and even some physical courage. Kristin Woiteshek, general manager of Nordic Hot Tubs and this year's IHTA chairperson, has played a central role in the effort, and as much as anyone, is responsible for this brief report of industry progress:

KW: It started as an initiative in the Hot Tub Council, back when the two hot tub groups (the Hot Tub Council and the International Hot Tub Association) were independent. And it spent about five years trying to get off the ground. And it just never got enough traction because there were a lot of barriers to entry.

For a number of years we had tried to gather some kind of statistical information on hot tub sales, and we really appreciated the help we got from component companies, but it was never information provided by the OEMs. We would try to get data from pump manufacturers or acrylic sheet manufacturers and try to work out sales totals from there.

But if I'm not buying my acrylic sheet from them, then nobody knows anything about the hot tubs I'm selling. So we felt that if we were looking for a true picture of hot tub sales, we needed the manufacturers' data, the true and final measure of sales, not just guesses.

So we decided to really go after better numbers. The first hurdle was trying to get some kind of consensus because we were two separate groups — the IHTA and the Hot Tub Council. We didn't know if we could get the participation and buy-in that we would need to make the whole thing work.

At that time, as I like to say, no one was willing to place nice in the sandbox.

Four or five years ago, that was just how it was. There were thing we were doing to each other that were detrimental to our industry. It wasn't malicious. With the recession, people were forced to look to their own survival.

People just kind of gathered themselves within their companies and said, "What do I need to do to survive? Today, I'm not trying to help the industry grow, I'm just trying to survive."

So at that time, we just weren't in position to have a spirit of cooperation.

Blizzards And Buy-in

Still, we built a task force on hot tub statistics. APSP was going through a lot of change and restructuring at that time. We were searching for a new CFO, we were reducing the board to nine from 21, and with all these changes we decided it was time for action. We said, "Rather than continue to toss this around, let's find some people who are laser-focused to move this forward. We've talked long enough, we need to produce something."

So Jim Sueppel from Bullfrog Spas and John Schrenk from Marquis and I got together and started working on an actual program. We finally got to the point of, "Yes I think this will work, let's get ready, let's launch, let's make this happen. Let's get the final buy-in from the board."

And that was when we were told that a merger was coming with IHTA.

To which we said, "OK, that's great, let's talk about what this means."

One of the best things about that, and one of the things I really appreciated at the time was the approach taken by Bob Lauter [president of the IHTA]. He said, "This [sales data initiative] was one of the selling points for us."

The IHTA is very strong on the engineering side, and he said, "This is something the Hot Tub Council can bring to the merger, and we're all for it. Let's go forward and see what we can do with this."

As we got closer to the actual date of the merger, Bob called me on the phone and said, "Hey, let's get together and work through these things."

That was huge — that spirit of open, face-to-face cooperation. We would work things out in person. So we agreed that I would drive down to Fort Wayne. And the day I drove down there was this monster snowstorm (I live in Michigan so I'm used to driving in snow, but this was something) there were cars spinning out on the road all the way down, and I told Bob when I got there, "I'm never coming back to Fort Wayne, are you kidding me? I couldn't even tell where the road was!"

But they were all very welcoming and I met with a lot of people there, and you could feel it — this was about three years ago — there was a shift in what we were doing in the industry. A change.

And since that time, all of those companies that are participating, you can really tell they are looking more at the industry as a whole.

Now there were other factors, of course. The recession is behind us, the economy is improving, there's been some consolidation in the industry, and that has helped a lot to broaden perspectives. But I have to say there has been a shift in people's mindset towards looking at, "What are the things that are benefitting the industry as a whole?"

The work of the IHTA Engineering Committee is an example of this — all of the things they do behind the scenes that benefit the industry that many people don't know about. And all those companies that have engineers sitting on that committee — those companies are offering their resources to help make the industry better.

There really has been a change.

Hot Tub Confidential

When you are handling confidential information, you need a reliable, trustworthy, independent company to receive and process the information and protect the manufacturers that are contributing data. And we found that company in Vault Consulting (vaultconsulting.com); they have a good reputation from their work on the pool side of the industry.

No one from the industry ever sees or has anything to do with the raw data. Companies send their data directly to Vault Consulting. And then those companies get quarterly reports. It's completely confidential.

My role has been a combination of recruiter, cheerleader and every once in awhile, if someone is late in reporting, I'm the one calling them, saying, "Hey, Vault Consulting says they still need your data."

This time of year, I spend a bit more time recruiting either at the show, or by email or phone. We have about 80 percent of the manufacturers participating, but we want more. We want everyone. We want the data to be as complete as we can make it.

And I'd like to say it's not hours of work for the participating companies. It's just a few categories of spa sales across different geographical regions. It's very simple, four times a year.

And overall, this information has helped companies make better business decisions, and it's also led to a lot of really productive conversations between people at different companies who would probably not be talking otherwise.

In the past the manufacturers in our industry were more closed off from one another than they are now. And that's not to say that we're all going to go sit in one big hot tub and hang out together every night, but I feel like there's a new focus on growing the industry.

With the new programs from APSP — the consumer finance and the ESCAPE outreach programs — there's more buy in for these ideas because more people realize these are things that can help our industry grow.

For me, this story is all about the spirit of cooperation in the industry. And people's willingness to share their confidential information with a trusted third party like Veris in order to help grow the hot water market.

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

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