For those who seek the health benefits a portable spa can offer, hot water isn't everything. Much of the allure of hydrotherapy — and a major draw for hot tub ownership in general — comes down to jets and the stimulation they provide to soothe aching muscles, relieve pain and reduce stress.
And while jets have always been an essential part of the portable spa experience (and a huge marketing hook for manufacturers), the hot tub industry's continued shift towards health and wellness means jets are only increasing in importance among consumers, dealers and manufacturers alike.
But as important as jets are to everyone in the production chain, not much is known about the behind-the-scenes design process. Who's in charge of making sure a jet configuration targets exactly the right muscle groups? How are jet arrays developed?
We spoke to two manufacturers to get an inside look at jets from conception to development to your showroom floor.
Starting With the End
First and foremost, jet configuration design requires keeping the end user firmly in mind.
"We step back and take a look at it from a higher level and think about the overall hydromassage experience that we want to provide to our customers," says Kacy Rivers, senior brand manager at Hot Spring Spas. So when we're developing a new hot tub, we'll start looking at the seats and we'll say, 'We want to make sure we provide a really good lower back massage, and we want to make sure we provide a really good foot massage.' We want to make sure we address all the different areas of the body in a variety of ways."
At Watkins, the jet design process is largely internal. Many on the team are "passionate hot-tubbers," Rivers says, with a hot tub at home. Their personal experience often informs the final design. However, everyone on the team — which may be 10 or more people — chips in their two cents, often by personally trying out a new seat.
"Within our group we have a very wide variety of lifestyles and body types represented," Rivers says. "We have people who are, let's say, 'vertically challenged' (not very tall), and we've got people on our team who are 6 foot 2. We have athletes and people who are very active, and people who use the hot tub more for connecting with family. So we have such a wide variety of people that are involved in the development and design of our hot tubs, and we have so many years of experience knowing what feels good to us, we feel like we're a pretty good proxy for our customers.
"And all of those people are usually involved in wet-testing the hot tub to make sure that when we develop a seat, that it isn't comfortable for one person and uncomfortable for another person. So we find that good balance and make sure there's a good seat in every hot tub for everyone."
Having a diverse team can also yield new ideas. For example, when developing the Highlife and NXT collection in 2014, a few designers considered a common ailment caused by running: tight hip muscles. Could they develop jets to specifically target the hip area?
"We hadn't built a hot tub before that allowed hydromassage on the hips. And the reason was there wasn't a place to put a jet that would face your hips. You would have to be in a seat with acrylic shell on the side of you in order to hit your seat, but we've always had barrier-free seating that's prevented us from doing that," Rivers says. "So we designed a seat so that it would create just enough of a wall on the side of your legs to make room for a jet right there."
A common word you'll see in Bullfrog Spas' marketing and branding is "therapy." The core of the manufacturer's offerings is the JetPak, a set of interchangeable seatbacks, each with a different array of jets designed to offer a particular therapy experience.
So it's not surprising that Bullfrog collaborates with physical therapists and chiropractors whose expertise helps shape the jet configurations.
"We have chiropractors and physical therapists who advise us and help us with some of those 'trigger points,' they call them, or common pain points, and the type of therapy that is best suited for those different points on the body," says Dan Sjoblom, director of marketing at Bullfrog.
Leaning more about spinal issues, for example, led the Bullfrog team to develop the Spinalssage JetPak, which features two dual-pulse rotating jets that align with tension points on the spine. With 16 JetPak arrangements, consumers can select several different kinds of jet therapy based on their ailments — and even purchase additional JetPacks down the line as health needs change.
"We're looking for as much variety as possible, because everybody's going to have different therapy needs and different preferences in terms of what feels good to them," Sjoblom says.
The jet design process for both Watkins and Bullfrog isn't entirely in-house; both companies actively seek feedback from end users.
"We really need to strike a balance between that 'technically good' therapy, the therapy that a trained chiropractor or massage therapist would provide, and what a consumer tells us feels good," Sjoblom says. "Because in the end, we're looking for a combination of two results: One, of course, is improvement in the consumer's overall wellness, which means the therapy that they receive for 15 to 30 minutes a day in their spa makes them feel better all the time, and then the other piece is an enjoyable experience while they're using the spa."
The team at Watkins Wellness keeps a watchful eye on social media channels as well as its ratings and reviews platform, which can be found on the Caldera and Hot Springs website, for pertinent feedback.
"Every time we get a review that comes in through our ratings and reviews on our website, somebody on our team reads that review with an eye for, 'Is there product feedback, good or bad, in this review we can share with our product management team and our engineering team?'" Rivers says.
Just about everything in the hot tub industry is evolving. And while jet technology has come a long way since its invention, Sjoblom says it's the manufacturers who are evolving the most right now.
"Better OEMs are addressing real therapy needs as opposed to guessing at therapy needs," Sjoblom says.
"I don't believe the needs of consumers overall are changing a whole lot," he adds, "but I think we're getting better at really addressing those specifically and providing a better experience."
In addition to providing more therapy solutions, manufacturers also strive to provide as many solutions in each tub as they can.
"Our approach to creating personalization is to have that variety within the spa so that depending on the day, and depending on the part of your body that needs the massage the most, every part of your body can be covered in one of our hot tubs," Rivers says.
When designing a hot tub, the design of each seat is just as important as where each jet goes. As Rivers explains:
"If you put a lot of jets in a seat, but the seat isn't designed with the geometry just right, then those jets will sort of blow you out of the seat. So we go to great lengths to make sure that the curvature, the geometry of each of our seats, helps to balance out the pressure from the jets so that you can relax comfortably into that seat. The development of heel locks and foot ridges also help people stay in place."
The Hot Tub Arms Race
"This hot tub has 300 jets!"
"Our new model has the most jets of any hot tub ever!"
If you've ever walked through a trade show floor, you've undoubtedly seen hot tub manufacturers try to best each other in jet count. While the buzz surrounding jet count can certainly draw attention to a manufacturer, this industry-wide one-upmanship has created a problem: Consumers who think more is better.
"I think that our industry as a whole has done somewhat of a disservice to consumers by training them to think more is better in terms of jet count, and not really educating them on the differences in therapy based on jet design, jet style, hydraulics in the product itself and configurations," Sjoblom says. "I think that's one of the overall challenges to our industry in terms of growth and more general acceptance of the product. If we really design therapy into these spas and give a premium experience, then the industry I think can grow. If we're really just trying to create a false sense of 'more is better,' then the consumer experience suffers, which means the overall acceptance of the product suffers, too."
Instead of "more is better," Watkins believes in "just the right amount."
"As a shopper, you may be like, 'Wow, look, that hot tub has 100 jets. It's so impressive.' But we know from all these years of experience that you don't need 100 jets to get an amazing hydrotherapy experience," Rivers says. "We know that it's better to have the right number in the right place to give you that experience."
A History of Improvement
The first jet was developed by the Jacuzzi bothers in the '50s, and since then, jets have changed quite a bit. For one, the quality with which they're made has grown over time.
"One of the reasons that good OEMs have really kind of gotten into the business of manufacturing their own jets, like we do, is that jet quality has been a challenge in our industry for a long, long time," Sjoblom says. "This industry went though a period of time where we used a lot of ball bearings, a lot of clips that held jet faces into jet bodies, and that type of thing that over time would deteriorate and break.
"I think in the last even five or six years, one of the great advances our industry has made is there's really no need anymore for a manufacturer to be using jet technology that has durability issues. I think there are multiple manufacturers, ourselves included, that have proven that we can manufacture jets that don't need continual maintenance, don't need continual replacement."
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