Finding Success in the Spa Industry

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All photos courtesy Craig Ecelbarger

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Recreational Warehouse of Southwest Florida has established itself as a prominent player in the pool and spa industry since its inception in 1996. The company first opened its doors in Fort Myers, Fla., — which still serves as its main headquarters today — and expanded into both Naples (2012) and Port Charlotte (2017), strategically positioning itself to serve a wider market.

"While our three locations are not similarly sized or laid out, the product mix is the same, the pricing is the same, and our sales staff is trained the same way by the same people," explains Craig Ecelbarger, owner of Recreational Warehouse. "This is intentional, and it's acting with intention that has helped to grow our business."

In fact, Recreational Warehouse experienced a remarkable 91% sales growth from 2019 to 2023. This growth was a culmination of strategic planning, marketing techniques, and adaptability during challenging times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ian.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the company won the "Locksin Thompson Award" (the "Dealer of the Year" award by Hot Spring Spas, a brand of Watkins Wellness) two years in a row. As the company continues to innovate and adapt to market conditions, we sat down with Ecelbarger to understand more about the decision-making behind his successful business.

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Hot tubs — the company has been a Hot Spring dealer since 1999 — serve as Recreational Warehouse's predominant product, and account for just under 50% of its sales. Its product mix also includes swimming pool equipment (pool heaters make up another large percentage of sales), aboveground pools, outdoor kitchens and barbeque equipment.

Its sales training program is "pretty aggressive," says Ecelbarger, "but yields very good results." All 13 of his sales representatives between all three locations made the "Century Club" in 2023, which Watkins awards sales personnel after selling 100 spas in a given year.

The sales team meets for in-store training two mornings per week, on a weekday and on Saturday morning "because all of our sales employees work on Saturday," says Ecelbarger. Then, once per month, they all gather at the central Fort Myers location for a longer meeting where he reviews their sales performance and puts goals in place for the coming month.

"These meetings aren't your coffee-and-donuts type of meetings.We role-play and critique," says Ecelbarger. During the course of a year, each sales employee will go through 104 rounds of formal role playing followed by evaluation.

It's this strict training that not only helps onboard new hires, but also helps to keep employee retention high. "When you are positioned for success, and feel successful, you stick around," says Ecelbarger. "In our case, we have little to no turnover. Of our 28 employees, 10 or 11 have been in the industry or with us for over 20 years."

"And we don't train our sales team to specialize in a certain product," he explains. "They not only sell spas and hot tubs, but all of our other products, too. This way, the customer works with the same person across the board, even if they want to move between one product to another.

"This is certainly benefitting our sales, because we have more capacity to wait on people and more capacity to deliver product."

In 2017, Recreational Warehouse opened its Port Charlotte location, located in a shopping mall. The store has two distinct entrances, one brings in prospects from the mall (shown here) and the other from an adjacent parking lot.In 2017, Recreational Warehouse opened its Port Charlotte location, located in a shopping mall. The store has two distinct entrances, one brings in prospects from the mall (shown here) and the other from an adjacent parking lot.


Strategic advertising has also played a pivotal role in driving Recreational Warehouse's growth. "Fort Myers isn't among the largest of markets, as it ranks 55th in the country," says Ecelbarger, "but that also means the advertising dollar goes a long way."

With a focus on television advertising, the company is able to dominate the market share through consistent television spots, helping to ensure that when consumers decide to invest in a hot tub, among its other leisure products, Recreational Warehouse is top of mind.

Ecelbarger emphasizes the importance of simplicity and clarity in his advertising. The ads typically featuring appealing images of the products in use, along with competitive price points and financing options. A clear call-to-action prompts viewers to visit their showroom or take advantage of ongoing sales.

"The goal is always to drive people to the showroom, because the showroom is where we do our best work," says Ecelbarger. "It's where we have many spas — anywhere from 90 to 100 on display at any given time — and where customers can dip their hands in the water and go, 'That's what we want.'"

Recreational Warehouse also does direct-mail postcards — tailored specifically for swimming pool owners in their market, to help grow their service department — and has a robust digital marketing strategy that includes pay-per-click advertising, geofencing, retargeting and more.

The company has gotten more aggressive in the post-pandemic market. "We recognize a hot tub isn't an everyday purchase," says Ecelbarger. 

"We've become even more price-point oriented, because we know we have to earn customers away from taking cruises or European vacations — or anything else they would want to do with their money — that they maybe couldn't do in 2021. We want to make sure we get at least a fair share of that and hopefully a little bit more."

He underlines that advertising is a long-term investment, not a quick fix. But by consistently reinforcing their brand message across various channels, Recreational Warehouse has managed to stay ahead in a competitive market. And it's working: From 2022 to 2023, spa sales did drop, but only by 0.4%.

"We also have nearly 1,800 Google reviews averaging 4.8 stars," adds Ecelbarger. "And there's no doubt that the referral portion of the business adds onto our marketing efforts, because that word-of-mouth advertising supercharges the whole process."

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As Recreational Warehouse looks ahead at its 2024 season, Ecelbarger sees no reason why the year won't be at least what 2023 was. "We are looking at the year with optimism," he says. "We have a stable crew that's very well trained. We have a marketing plan that's very well oiled. And we expect big things."

While not everyday is a great day (see sidebar on page 32), there are a lot more good days than bad. "Each day is different, and there's so many different things you can achieve in this industry," says Ecelbarger. 

"In our business, the people we work with are happy people. They are buying things they don't necessarily need, but that's going to improve their quality of life. And time and time again, they tell us just how much they're enjoying what we're selling, and it puts a big smile on our faces." 

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