Swimspas popular because of health and fitness benefits

0208 45The pages of AQUA are filled with beautiful images of high-end swimming pools, commonly surrounded by casual dining sets, outdoor kitchens, cabanas and the like. Often these pools fulfill more of an aesthetic function than a practical one, serving as backdrops to poolside parties and as places to stage light shows rather than places to, you know, go swimming.

"I think that swimming and exercise and fitness are not things that have been thought of in the past by the industry," says David Biles, COO of Endless Pools, a swim spa manufacturer in Aston, Pa. "It's just not something that's discussed."

But there's a large and growing segment of the buying public that's ready for that discussion. They view the industry's products as vessels for fitness, injury rehabilitation and even athletic training. They aren't necessarily interested in backyard bling, and they represent a good target audience for swim spas, a term used here to refer to a range of products, including multi-use systems and current generators in pools.

Like Biles, Steven Heinkel, owner of Precision Pools & Spas in Menifee, Calif., thinks it's high time the industry started talking about fitness. He does it, and it's helped him carve out a niche installing small fiberglass shells and rigging them up to customer specifications. About one in four of his clients wants him to add jets and make it a swim spa.

"One of the reasons I started doing this is for marketing and to get more business," Heinkel says. "There's nobody doing it in my area and nobody is promoting it."

Getting The Word Out

Dimension One Spas is among a growing number of old-line hot tub companies that have been promoting a line of swim spas recently, recognizing the growing number of people looking for backyard fitness products. First introduced in 2002 and relaunched on a larger scale and with greater emphasis last year, Dimension One's Aquatic Fitness System allows users to not only swim against a current, but also to engage in a variety of non-swimming exercises, including rowing, strength training, stretching and walking in place with tensor cords. A separate hot tub at the other end is completely self-contained and can be kept warmer for traditional spa soaking.

"It enables you to more than just swim in the unit," says Anders von Kantzow, AFS product manager. "It allows people to exercise 24/7, 365 days a year without the hassle of going to the gym.

"We've found that 20 percent of the time people are just going to swim in the unit against the strong current, and 80 percent of the time they're going to be doing horizontal exercise." But who are these exercise buffs and how do they differ from typical spa and pool shoppers? That depends on whom you ask, and on the type of product.

"The typical profile of people that purchase the product fall within three categories," says von Kantzow. "Usually it's the baby boomers, people who are well established and have disposable income. They have the money."

Some of these boomers don't have the backyard space for a full-sized pool, others may be planning to retire and sell their houses soon, he explains. For them, the AFS is a good fit.

Athletic-minded people represent another large portion of the system's customers, and people with health issues or injuries that require low-impact rehabilitation round out the group.

"People with back problems, arthritis, can't run on the ground," von Kantzow adds. "But when you run in the water it tremendously reduces the amount of impact on your body." Heinkel's swim spa customers skew older too. Often heading toward retirement age, they're looking for low-impact workouts and are also attracted to his fiberglass shell-based product because of the price and the size, both of which run a fraction of that of full-blown gunite pools.

"Out here in California, as you know, they just build the houses right next to each other," he says. "It's not like in Wisconsin where you've got a quarter acre. But people wanted pools. That's when I started to promote the swim spa and show it to all my customers as an option, and they started biting on it.

"I also noticed in '05 people were spending 100 grand for a pool. 'Give me everything.' Today, they're like, 'Nah, I've got to keep it at 50 grand.' Then it's, 'What have you got for 40 grand? What about 30? OK, what have you got for 20 grand?' Money is harder and harder to get."

Heinkel also points out that his swim spas can be used for more than just swimming, citing the number of aftermarket products available to provide resistance for walking in place or strength training.

Wave Of Change

Endless Pools' customer base has traditionally been very focused on fitness and training, and includes triathletes and other serious swimmers. This, and the company's direct- marketing focus, have set Endless apart from other participants in the swim spa category, according to Biles.

But the company recently introduced a current generator, called Fastlane, for new pools and retrofits, and it's changing the way it sells its products.

"We've always been a factory-direct seller, and it had always been a oneproduct company with the Endless Pool," Biles explains. "But we now have a machine that can create a good current in the backyard pool. By nature that product is one that makes sense to have the builders offer, so we've kind of ramped up a division to focus on the pool builders' needs. Fastlane comes in both a wallmount version for new construction and a retrofit version that bolts to the deck and is suspended into the pool.

"The wall-mount is harder to put into an existing pool," Biles explains. "We have some people do it, but you have to drill through the bond beam, etc., so it's a little technical. You'd really have to be renovating to put that on an existing pool."

Show And Tell

While the potential market for standalone swim spas and current generators of all types is tremendous, manufacturers, dealers and builders still need to get the word out to a public that's receptive to the message but isn't always hearing it.

"We have a lot of dealers who just advertise from time to time and expect to sell it," says von Kantzow. "The key to sell this product is to advertise, be consistent, and follow up on your leads. You have to do this over and over to make it work." And just like hot tubs, it's important for retailers to show the product if they're going to be successful selling it.

"We require our dealers to carry our product on their floor. It's really important for the customer to be able to come in and try the product," says von Kantzow. "Like when you buy a car. You don't want to just buy one online. You want to take it out for a test drive. For the swim spa, you need to wet test it, to see it and feel it."

Builders selling swim spas and current

generators don't always have the ability to show the product the way retailers do, so understanding and stressing the benefits is key. In addition to health and rehab, a smaller footprint and the ability to swim for extended periods without constantly turning around, swim spas can be heated up quickly and run throughout the year in a large part of the United States. These benefits are attractive, but customers need to be educated about them consistently for the category to fulfill its potential.

"One of the things that we try to tell pool builders to do when they're out selling their pools and signing contracts is if you don't ask, you're not going to get an answer," says Biles. "And typically, when you ask someone if they'd like to use this product for exercise and fitness, the answer will be 'yes.' Very few people say 'no.' But you have to ask the question." Heinkel agrees, adding that as more people get swim spas in their backyard, selling them will only get easier.

"As more neighbors see it and become more aware of it, I think it will grow," he says. "Especially considering how small backyards are on new homes.

"Also, I think people have been leaning more toward spas than pools because they feel they'll get more use out of them. Swim spas give them an option to have that spa plus a decentsized body of water for them and the kids to swim in."

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