Big Name, Big Changes
Right now, the swim spa category is in the same place hot tubs were about 15 years ago, says Doug Gillespie, director of marketing for Hydropool. "When I first started in the hot tub industry, 95 percent of all hot tubs were installed either indoors, in a deck, or inground without a cabinet. This type of installation limited the number of people who could afford to install a hot tub.
"Plus, customers were forced to figure out the logistics surrounding accessibility for service, groundwater issues and rodent protection. Once the industry understood that these installation hurdles prohibited the growth of hot tub sales, hot tub manufacturers began to engineer and market the aboveground, easier-to-install hot tubs, which initiated the sales growth that was witnessed over the last 10 years."
The swim spa category is evolving in a similar pattern, says Gillespie, and this is helping sales as the units become easier to install and maintain.
"The installation of swim spas has completely changed," adds Gillespie. "Five years ago, about 95 percent of our swim spas went inground, so there was excavation involved and retaining walls and sump pumps and all kinds of stuff. It was a complicated installation.
"Over the last three years, swim spa manufacturers have really begun to understand that for sales to increase, we need to make this thing easier to install, and now that suppliers are moving toward more-portable swim spas, that's what is happening.
"They're also becoming more energy efficient," adds Gillespie. "On ours in between the tub and the skirt, we use what's called a thermal-seal blanket. It has a reflective nature to it, and it's an insulated blanket that wraps the inside of the cabinet. It reflects the waste heat of the motor, the shell and the plumbing back into the water, so the heater doesn't have to come on nearly as much to maintain the desired temperature.
"People are also looking for something that's easier to maintain than a normal pool," continues Gillespie. "These people are realizing that with a swim spa, they don't have to vacuum it, they don't have to backwash their filter, they don't have to put a ton of chemicals in it and they don't have to use a ton of energy to run it. It's got a small footprint, so it's greener than a pool. Some look at a hot tub and they look at a pool and think, 'this swim spa is the perfect in-between.'"
Smaller backyards also prompt some consumers to go the swim spa route. This has certainly been a trend in denser, bigger cities, but only more recently influenced buyers for Tom Sampson's clients in London, Ontario. "We didn't see a lot size under 50 feet here until about five years ago," says Sampson, a dealer who sells fitness equipment as well as Hydropool swim spas at California Spa & Fitness. "It was just unheard of, and we weren't pressed for space in this area up until a few years ago, but now we're starting to see smaller lots."
Sampson says the swim spa's smaller footprint in comparison to a pool sometimes influences client's decision to buy a swim spa. Plus, he has found the premanufactured swim spas facilitate a better swim than putting in a small pool and a couple of jets at the end. "They just don't work as well as the premanufactured swim spas because there's not only water pushing out, there's returning water you don't want interfering with the flow, and you get better flow with our premanufactured design."
Aside from people with small backyards, a couple of other groups Sampson finds interested in the swim spas are those who use them to rehab injuries, which is both homeowners and physical therapists, and folks who are downsizing. "They used to have a pool, but the kids are no longer in the house and so they moved to a smaller house with a small lot, but still want some water. So we're selling more swim spas to that 50-plus area."
To build awareness of swim spas in his area, Sampson recently sponsored a local triathlete team doing some workouts for charity at a local fitness show. "There were about 30 of them biking on Spinner bikes, running on treadmills and swimming in our swim-in-place pool as part of a mini-marathon," says Sampson.
"We interviewed the triathletes just after they came out of the pool, and they just love it. They thought the swim was great, and that's part of the reason I use Hydropool. The swim in their units is really good," adds Sampson.
In future home shows, Sampson plans to have people swimming in the swim spas, as well. "We find when people see other people swimming in them, it's a lot easier to understand the benefits they get out of it."
At a home show earlier this year in Toronto, Gillespie said Hydropool gathered an "enormous" amount of leads for its dealers. "What one dealer did is have his leads come to the factory in Toronto for a private swim spa evening. There's a swim spa at the factory that people can try and the dealer also brought in a good swimmer to demo the swim spa. And he brought in a landscaper, an electrician and finance guy. The thinking is to eliminate any objections. The common objection of a person buying a swim spa is: how much is it going to be to install it? Well, if you have a landscaper there who will tell you it's $1,500 for a concrete pad and an electrician that estimates $1,000, there you go: it's $2,500. On this night, the dealer presents the clients with a factory offer, which is usually quite successful."
The one thing Gillespie believes the swim spa category needs to grow further is a hardcover retrieval system. "For swim spa owners in warmer climates, there are some fantastic automatic cover removers they could invest in.
"However, these types of covers are not practical for swim spas in colder climates that deal with snow loads. There are currently no solutions provided by any cover lifter manufacturer for the removal of a swim spa hardcover, which is an awkward, heavy and hard-to-store item, but is necessary for every swim spa installation as it provides both energy efficiency and peace-of-mind safety for the consumer. For swim spa sales to grow further, this is the last hurdle that needs to be overcome."
In addition to swim spas becoming easier to install, another development that might help the whole category is Michael Phelps' endorsement of Master Spas swim spas. The Olympic gold medalist is bringing some attention to and expanding awareness of swim spas.
It was certainly hard not to notice Phelps at the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo last November. "There was such a mob around him. It just stopped the show," says Bob Lauter, CEO of Master Spas. "There were long lines to get autographs and he just lit up the room."
While celebrity endorsements don't always make a lot of sense, it's hard to deny this one seems to be a good fit. "His goals and our goals are in harmony," says Lauter. "He wants to advance the sport of swimming and generally get more people involved in swimming, and so do we.
"I think it's going to help our whole industry. As more people get involved in the swimming lifestyle, they're more likely to build a pool or buy a swim spa. From that standpoint, I think it really helps all of us because it raises the interest in swimming across the board."
To demonstrate Phelps' earnest interest in increasing involvement in swimming, Lauter noted that when Phelps won eight gold medals in Bejing, he got a $1 million bonus from Speedo that he donated to the Michael Phelps Foundation, which has a mission to grow the sport of swimming and promote healthy and active livestyles. The funds were used to develop safety and swimming programs for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. "He's doing a lot of really incredible things," says Lauter.
In addition to generally increasing interest in swimming, Phelps chose to endorse swim spas, according to Lauter, because they're a way to bring access to swimming to people that can't put a pool in their backyard, and he also wanted to develop a product he could train in.
When Phelps agreed to promote the swim spas, Master converted the H2X line to the Michael Phelps Signature Swim Spas line. "We modified the product based on Phelps's and his coach Bob Bowman's recommendations. We changed the horsepower and developed a souped-up propulsion system. The Signature model is actually at Phelps's training facility in Meadowbrook in Baltimore, and he uses it for stroke development."
The Signature swim spa comes with an optional underwater camera so Bowman can analyze Phelps's stroke. "Looking at somebody's stroke in a swimming pool is hard to do because you'd need a camera moving with him though the water. Bob loves that he can look at the video on a monitor or record it to a laptop and review it later with a swimmer. It's really been an interactive tool," says Lauter.
Stroke analysis is a rapidly growing interest among endurance athletes training for triathalons, and this capability could find a welcome market there.
Active Fan Base
Skilled swimmers demonstrating how to use a swim spa is tried-and-true method for boosting swim spa sales. Endless Pools has taken this concept in a novel direction with its network of more than 600 demonstrator pools across the country. Basically, current Endless Pool owners welcome prospective buyers into their home so they experience an Endless Pools current, whether that's in the supplier's swim spa, introduced in 2008, or one its traditional Endless Pools.
"It's something pretty powerful when they love the product so much they want more people to see it and try it in their home," says Michael Sparacio, manager of North American wholesale division.
Pretty powerful indeed. No matter what line of swim spas you sell, showing customers how they are used is one of the most effective catalysts to a sale. Getting one of the world's most-recognizable swimmers to endorse you spa doesn't hurt, either.
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