Sound And Vision

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Back in the early 1970s, a wooden barrel filled with hot water comprised the entire hot tub experience. Hot tubbers, mostly Californians at first, just wanted a place to unwind and drink a little wine. Stereos and TVs? Those were in the house.

But the idea of the hot tub lifestyle soon spread, and as it did new manufacturers cropped up, each looking to differentiate themselves from the other hot tub makers. Among the innovations were vessels with acrylic finishes, multiple jets and rudimentary automated controls. These features, which are now standard for all manufacturers, all started out as innovations that no one was sure would catch on.

Since then, manufacturers have experimented with many new features, and today things like bromine generators, specialized therapy jets and multiple seating configurations have been added to the list of features that have become more or less standard. Dealers who offered these models early on got a head start on the competition by assuming the role of the market leader in new and exciting hot tub amenities.

In recent years, one of the key trends has been incorporating electronic components, and many models now come with stereos and pop-up televisions. But are these things merely fads, or will they become standard fixtures on the hot tubs of tomorrow. That depends on who you ask, of course. One thing's certain, though — if you don't adapt to new trends and consumer tastes, you'll go the way of the wooden wine barrel yourself.

TV Time

Perhaps no hot tub innovation has generated the amount of enthusiasm or cynicism as the integrated television.

Manufacturers and dealers who are producing and selling them sing their praises, but to much of the industry they're considered unproven at best, and plain-old unreliable at worst.

"Right now, the video people are using LCDs, which don't react well to the cold weather. It's a liquid material," says Maurizio Vozza, sales manager for Emerald Spa Corp., Kentwood, Mich., who adds that such appliances were never intended for use near water, either. "Our experience is they're not up to the standard for outdoor use at this time."

Alice Cunningham, a HotSpring dealer in Seattle, doesn't think they're a good idea either, but the harsh spa environment is only part of the reason.

"We're very leery of the TV screens. One bad thing is the dampness, of course, but the other thing is we feel we're selling relaxation," she says. "So many women customers have told me they're glad there's no TV in the spa because it gets their husbands and kids to talk.

"Personally I wouldn't want to go there because it's the antithesis of what we've been selling all these years."

Still, most reservations about the product are rooted in fears that the televisions will succumb to the moisture and cold air and just stop working. These fears arose from early introductions of electronic equipment, much of which wasn't up to snuff, says Michael Giovanone, president of Concord Pools Ltd., a Master Spas dealer in Latham, N.Y.

"It's like anything else," he says. "The first couple of years, electronics had their share of problems. Now we send them out and we don't have problems. We couldn't be happier."

No matter what reservations some have about televisions in tubs, you can't argue with the fact that if enough people are looking for them, well, manufacturers and dealers will find a way to deliver them. But just how big is the market for integrated TVs.

"Consumers tend to think they're not reliable, and maybe one in 20 will be attracted to a TV system," says Vozza. Admittedly, that's a number that many in the industry expect to grow as the option becomes more widely distributed, people become more comfortable with the technology and the price comes down.

But even today, when demand for them is relatively low, carrying them helps business for Greg Landry, owner of Master Spas of Ohio, located in Northwood, about five miles outside of Toledo. His company exhibits at county fairs and malls and holds tent sales, and every time he prominently features upper-end models with televisions.

"When most people see the model with a pop-up TV, they just gravitate toward it. They simply can't believe their eyes," he says. "But even if they can't afford it, it sparks interest in our other spas. They say, 'I don't need that, but what else do you have.' I think it opens a lot of doors. It shows that we're on the cutting edge and gives us added credibility."

Landry does understand the industry's reservations, though. He's got a lot of customers who don't trust them, and in fact, he was among the doubters himself not too long ago.

"There are a lot of our customers who don't want them because they see it as another thing that can go wrong," he explains. "That's what I thought when they first came out, too. But I've been very lucky so far.

"I had a customer who bought a big spa with the pop-up TV and everything. He had a party a week ago, and since then we've sold three models to his friends who were there. If he'd had anything bad to say about it, there's no way we would have gotten those referrals."

Bob Lauter is president of Master Spas in Fort Wayne, Ind., the company he says introduced the first hot tub with a pop-up TV three years ago. According to Lauter, there have been few warranty claims related to the televisions, which are made of a special material designed to keep moisture out and not fog up.

"I have a 42-inch plasma screen from Sony in my house, and that's broken down on me twice. So we have a better track record than that," he says.

Lauter brings up an interesting point. No matter how much research and development goes into a product, electronic products — even ones inside warm and dry homes — can break down. But a homeowner can simply throw a bum TV into a car, bring it back to the store and come home with a new one. What about spa owners. Do they have to call the spa repairman to fix their television?

"The service techs just have to swap the unit out," Lauter explains. "We made it a priority when we designed them for service people to just take out the old units and put in new ones. The flat screen, the DVD player and the am/fm CD player are all separate components."

Landry says that of the roughly 30 television-equipped models he sold last year, just a couple have needed a unit replaced.

"I've gotten customers where their TV shorted out or something, and we'll just replace it," he says. "It's a 15-minute process. No big deal."

Another manufacturer that's gotten involved in integrating televisions into its spas is Sundance, which debuted a model at the International Pool & Spa Show in New Orleans last fall and plans to release it in March.

"Its LCD screen is designed for outdoor usage," says Jerry Greer, vice president of sales and marketing for Sundance Spas and Jacuzzi Premium, Chino, Calif. "And the TV is capable of swiveling so the consumer can enjoy watching the screen from both inside and outside the hot tub." Like Master Spas does, Sundance's models feature what's known as a super-bright screen, which can be seen even in bright outdoor conditions. And, like Master, Sundance's electronics units are also easily taken out and replaced.

"The service aspect is also factored in during the design," Greer says. "That's to minimize the disruption to both the consumer and the dealer and his or her service department."

The easy-service aspect and the added profit margin are both big benefits to the dealer and both have contributed to the unexpected early success of the product, Lauter says.

"When we did the first one three years ago, we thought of it kind of like a concept car. We didn't think many people would buy it," he explains. "But we sold about 1,000 of them that year. There's a lot of profit for the dealer, and I think it's just going to grow.

"Another thing is stereos. They're a lot less expensive and a lot easier to do, so I think more manufacturers are going to go that way."

Hi-Fi Heaven

Emerald's Vozza may not envision a future with a television in every spa, but like Lauter, he believes stereo units in spas are growing in popularity and are bound to become nearly ubiquitous in the future.

"Audio will become almost standard, because music and relaxation go hand-in-hand," Vozza says.

Emerald buys the stereo units from Tri-Star, which takes Kenwood car stereos, specially treats them with a process called conformal coating, and wraps them in Mylar. Vozza says it's the same process Balboa uses to protect its circuit boards.

"That's just the starting point," Vozza says. "The other thing is the speakers. Some companies have done domed speakers, pop-ups, things like that. We use an audio transducer, so the shell you sit in is actually the media that produces the sound."

The idea is similar to one used in the housing industry for upscale homes, where they take audio transducers, attach them to the studs and the walls become the speakers. The advantage to doing this in a spa, according to Vozza, is that the hot tub occupants are surrounded by sound, and, "you're not putting the speaker in an environment where moisture, chemicals and ozone can react with it."

These stereo units, like Masters' and Sundance's video screens, can be easily switched out by service technicians, according to Vozza.

"The only thing the repair guys have had to do is replace the head unit," he says. "Sometimes they have to fix the power transformers, but all of that is about as difficult as hooking up a car stereo."

Cunningham has been selling a spa with a similar speaker setup from HotSpring for about a year. She admits to being surprised at how many people have been willing to pay the added cost — about $1,500 on average for the units her company, Olympic Hot tubs, has been selling.

"We saw it at a trade show and wondered, 'How are we going to sell this?' It's expensive, but sales have really exceeded expectations.

"The shell is the speaker, and that's a real perceived benefit."

If customers are going to pay extra for amenities such as televisions or stereos, perceived benefit will be crucial. And for a dealer to have any success with them, they've got to be produced economically and priced fairly. Spa shoppers may not know what a chemical feeder or a bromine generator should go for, but they know a good deal about home electronics.

"They know what a surround system costs for the home, and there are real thresholds for price/value that they'll accept," Greer explains. "So we have to develop great-sounding products that integrate into the designs that also fit within the consumer's idea of what they should cost.

"If there's a skew there, that affects their perception of the overall value of the hot tub. If we price the stereo at $3,000, the overall perception will be that the hot tub itself is overpriced."

Back To The Future

The industry's future will likely include more televisions and stereos in spas — not to mention computers, fiber-optic and LED lighting, and some things perhaps nobody's even thought of yet — but the manufacturers and dealers AQUA spoke with stressed the importance of remembering the primary attraction of the hot tub lifestyle.

"I don't necessarily see stereos and televisions becoming standard in the future," Greer says. "A lot of people don't want technology dragged into the hot tub. They view the hot tub as a place to escape all those technologies. That's a real big segment and we're not willing to abandon it."

Vozza and Landry, however, think stereos, at least, are here to stay.

"It's like the auto industry. Cars didn't used to have stereos or radios either," Vozza says. "I think they're going to remember the late '90s and into today as the time audio and video emerged in hot tubs."

Whether televisions can achieve that level of popularity remains to be seen, but with more and more video screens inside minivans and SUVs, along with technological improvements and an increase in units developed specifically for the spa, one would be unwise to bet against it.

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