Swim spas occupy an interesting niche in the pool and spa industry. The category serves as an alternative to both traditional swimming pools and hot tubs, a hybridization that opens up a new set of potential customers.
At the same time, successfully marketing and selling swim spas can be challenging in the way they require both a new level of product knowledge and an understanding of homeowners who are looking for the ability to swim and exercise in limited space.
To explore this growing product category, AQUA spoke to swim spa dealers in different parts of the U.S. for their thoughts on what it takes to be successful in the market.
STRONG AND GETTING STRONGER
Jake Boyles, owner of Crystal River Spas (Carbondale, Colo.), may be new to the swim spa market, but he is already an enthusiastic proponent. A Watkins "combo dealer," Crystal River took on the Endless Pools line when Watkins purchased the brand over a year ago and opened a separate showroom for the vessels. Boyles reports that sales have exceeded expectations and continue to look strong going forward.
"Not only are swim spas new to us, they're new to the customer base in this area because the concept really hasn't been represented here on the western slope of the Rockies in Colorado, at least not until now. Because of that, we've had to kind of turn the clock back to when we started selling hot tubs 30 years ago.
Back then, most people were vaguely familiar with the concept of a hot tub. They'd say, 'It's like a wine barrel with hot water.' So they thought they knew what a hot tub was. The indoor/outdoor concept and the portable plug-and-play ideas were difficult for many customers to wrap their brains around.
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Now, all these years later, most people can visualize a portable hot tub and we don't have to explain the concept the way we used to. But I don't think we're there from an educational aspect with swim spas. They've heard of them and maybe think they're cool, but don't really understand the product beyond that. They ask many of the same questions, such as where are you going to put it, how are you going to power it and how much space do I need?
Once we go a little further down the path, that's where we see the divergence. Do they go swim spa or a hot tub? Or they might even consider an inground pool at that point. Swim spas are a different audience from both hot tubs and pools."
"From a marketing standpoint, we try to highlight all the different facets a swim spa brings to the market, much more so than a hot tub, where you might talk about hydrotherapy, the weightlessness and those types of familiar benefits. Swim spas take that to a whole new level. Now it's a fitness system.
With Endless Pools they're trying to give you almost a triathlon training program. You can swim; you can run on an underwater treadmill. They have integrated rowing systems. We have customers that put underwater spin cycles down into the pool, because that's their passion. They might want to be able to train for their Ironman race, but they can't do it on dry land.
That's why we're going back to very direct messaging, with bullet points that explain this is a fitness system. We hit those hot buttons: You can swim at an Olympic pace and you can run with 90 percent less gravity. You can cycle to the degree you need to be competitive. It's kind of a hot tub on steroids because we take the wellness aspect to a whole new level.
Another aspect that motivated us to bring on swim spas was that we were missing clients who wanted shoulder-deep water to stretch and do their exercises. Maybe they were coming off knee surgery or a hip replacement, or they have arthritis. Traditional hot tubs don't provide that space to stand shoulder deep in the water and move around. It might be that simple.
Our store that carries swim spas is called Soak Hot Tubs and Endless Pools. As luck would have it, it's on the ground floor of an orthopedic clinic. It's been phenomenal. We have people coming down while they're waiting for their appointment as well as doctors and nurses bringing their patients down to show them the different exercises they can do. Most people don't fully grasp the benefits you can realize only in water. Once they do, the swim spa is a great option for many of those customers."
EXPANDING THE MARKET
Jennifer Gannon is the proprietor for BonaVista Leisurescapes, a retail division of custom builder BonaVista Pools in Toronto. The company opened a retail store 11 years ago to offer hot tubs and swim spas as an adjunct to its custom design and construction operation. A Hydropool dealer, Gannon's operation has successfully opened up a new market segment for homeowners and design professionals.
"Swim spas offer an entry-level price point, which helps us get a water element into a backyard where the clients may be constrained by budget or by space. So the beauty of it is we now have something to offer a broader range of customers.
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On a purely practical level, swim spas help in situations where people live in developments with bylaws or other restrictions that limit where you can place a body of water. To me, the swim spa is the perfect urban solution because it's an easy thing to pick up from the road with a crane and place in the backyard. Ultimately, it helps us get more people in the water.
From a retail perspective, it offers the advantage of typically being open year round. It takes the seasonality out of the equation. Most of our pool clients will typically open in April and close in October — that's a six-month season. With a swim spa being open all year, it's really good for water care sales and repairs, which we refer to our construction division.
It's great for sales overall because it establishes an ongoing relationship that is going year-round. Even from an installation standpoint, we don't have that same urgency that you have with construction where you have a much shorter window, which is the typical pool season. We can deliver and install them up until Christmas. We don't install them in January and February because the ground is too cold for the foundation installation, so it's a nine- to 10-month selling season.
Swim spas enable the client to have a small vessel with a big swim experience. I like to say a swim spa is like a sports car: It has a smaller footprint but delivers a high performance experience. When we opened the retail store 10 years ago, we wanted to open the market up to a broader range, and that's what it's done. For example, it's expanded our reach into penthouse installations and condominiums that wouldn't be open to our custom pool business. Now we can serve those kinds of customers. Within the swim spa market, people are looking for different types of benefits. Hydropool offers two different types of spas: one is more like a plunge pool where you can stand up and move around against a gentle current. That's the Aquasports model, which is a smaller more crib-like vessel that offers a more low-impact experience. That's different from a client that might be training for a triathlon, or maybe they're a master swimmer or they have kids on the swim team. That's where we sell the Aquatrainer, which provides the ability to do more high-impact training where you're trying to continue to improve your athletic performance. When people come into our showroom, we'll explore what they're looking for in terms of the outdoor experience. Sometimes, if they're looking for more of the custom pool concept where they want to develop their entire outdoor living space, then we'll refer them to our construction division. If they're really interested in the hot tub or swim spa experience, then we're able to work with them at that level. It's a conversation where you can explore what they really want."
A CONVENIENT ALTERNATIVE
Rob Kaplan, owner of Black Pine Spas in Edmonds, Wash., took over the company three years ago. Among the changes he made was a greater emphasis on showcasing a line of Artesian swim spas on the showroom floor. The result has been a steady increase in swim spa sales across a spectrum of customers.
"Instead of having a bunch of small stores, we have one big one, which means we have room to display a number of models. When I bought the company three years ago, they were only showing one spa and even though the category has been around a while, sales were fairly slow. Now, since we've been showing different swim spas, it's picked up quite a bit.
People come in the store and really get excited. The size and all the things you can do with a swim spa are exciting for many customers. Most recently we've found a significant increase in people using them for therapy — senior citizens recovering from surgery or dealing with arthritis. We've seen some amazing scenarios where our customers are able to significantly improve their physical condition and regain movement they had lost in some cases. That's an amazing feeling, knowing that your product helped improve someone's life.
We also have those people who are using their swim spas for competitive training. Many of those customers appreciate the ability to work out all year in a convenient and private setting. Oftentimes, we've heard those people compare the cost of their swim spa to the cost of a gym membership.
In this market, swimming pools can be problematic. They're expensive to heat during the winter and costly to maintain. Swim spas give homeowners the ability to swim in a smaller space all year at a much lower overall cost. So the advantages cover a wide range of issues and broad base of customers.
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Overall, the key to selling swim spas is to treat them as their own category. They are not hot tubs and they're not swimming pools. To be successful in the swim spa market, you've got to understand both the product and all the different things you can do with it and the range of needs different customers have."
Kensey Steinhausen, store manager for A-Tex Family Fun Center in Georgetown, Texas, sees strong potential in the swim spa market, although she admits her company has yet to see consistent sales performance. The company operates three stores in the Austin area, offering a full palette of products and services for both package pools and portable hot tubs. As Steinhausen explains, the company serves a region that is dramatically expanding both in population size and diversity. Although swim spa sales have been spotty, she's hopeful that will soon change as more people become familiar with the concept.
"Since I've been here, we've seen significant growth every year in the overall hot tub business. A big part is due to the growth in the communities in this area; however, the swim spa market has been more inconsistent.
I think the health message has been extremely effective for hot tub sales, and I can imagine the same thing happening with swim spas. In the state of Texas, a hot tub is considered a medical device, which means with a prescription from a doctor or a chiropractor, they're exempt from sales tax. That's a big savings and roughly 90 percent of our customers realize that exemption. That really helps promote the wellness message. Add to that I'd say over the last two years, the industry as a whole has done a much better job helping to drive the wellness movement at home with exercise and hydrotherapy.
Still, a swim spa is a much longer sales process. Financially, it's a big pill to swallow and there are a variety of other factors that come into play. For example, some of these communities have height restrictions — nothing taller than 35 inches. So many homeowners in our area can't locate a swim spa on their property because they're too tall. And there's still a lack of understanding of all the things you can do in a swim spa. Even though customers are doing much more homework before they come in the store, many are still surprised by the versatility of a swim spa.
Some who do make the decision to buy are basically pool customers that don't have the space in their yard for a pool. Also around here it's almost impossible to dig in some areas, so installing a pool can be extremely expensive. The smaller footprint and the price when they're comparing a pool to a swim spa are big factors for many people.
Of course, I'd like to see more consistency in our swim spa sales. To be completely honest, I am not 100-percent sure what all is stacked against us. Our other sales are increasing, but swim spas? We'll sell one or two here and there. We do get excited when we sell them.
I feel that in this industry in general, from the dealers to the manufacturers, we're very comfortable with what works. It's slow changing people's perception and direction. I personally would like to see more help and support from the manufacturers because that's where it's going to start and trickle down."
WORKING THE BENEFITS
Jarrett Dahlberg, general manager for Phoenix Hot Tubs & Swim Spas (Tempe, Ariz.), is passionate about swim spas. The company has been successful bringing the Master Spas' line of Michael Phelps swim spas to the highly competitive Phoenix market.
"I've been in this business a long time and have come to believe the people who aren't successful with swim spas are those who don't understand them or show them. If you only have one or two on display in the corner of your showroom, it's not going to work. You have to demonstrate the range of products and the different types of experiences and benefits those different models can offer. We have seven swim spas on display in our store and two of them are full of water and up and running.
I love selling Master Spas because of the variety and the consistency of the product.
Swim spas are a huge part of our business even though we're in a tough market to sell spas. Here in Phoenix, you can buy pools for as low as $20,000 dollars, which is less than a swim spa, so you really have to understand the products and the benefits to justify in the customer's mind spending more on a swim spa than on an entire pool. That's an uphill battle. We're experiencing growth in a market where we have that challenge.
We tap into a whole vein of people interested in training. There's not another product on the market that delivers everything like the Michael Phelps swim spas can. But you've got to present it the right way because most people aren't training for the Olympics, so we don't lean too hard on Phelps' name.
We have a bunch of brochures and information about the benefits of aquatic therapy and how it can be used to treat a range of physical issues from people across the spectrum of fitness levels. Then, the line that we carry has features that are designed to accommodate all those different needs, as well as different budgets. We encourage everybody to come in and 'wet-test' a swim spa so they can understand the different ways they can use them. Also, because we have different models and features, you want to demonstrate what those mean to a given customer. We have a pulsing unit running next to a standard jetted unit so they can go back and forth and try both. It's important to guide the customer through that process. If someone comes and says put the jets on high and they dive in and start swimming against it, they get tired immediately and lose interest.
We show them how you can run the systems at different speeds and how you can move in and out of the current to moderate your workout. When they can see the different units and different levels of exercise they can achieve, only then can they fully appreciate how the swim spa will meet their individual needs.
The bottom line is you have to elevate your game in terms of understanding swim spas and the needs of the customer."
Questions or comments on this article? Please email Eric Herman at [email protected]