Outside-the-box business strategies from hot tub industry leaders
By Michelle L. Cramer
Industry leaders often experiment with cutting-edge strategies and business practices, ambitiously working toward expanding their market. From creating an online staff training program to hands-on hot tub design, and geo-targeted marketing techniques to in-house electrical, they are growing their business and saving on overhead through innovation.
Training Hot Tub Experts
A year ago, a typical fourth-quarter hire for Jake Boyles, vice president of sales and marketing for Crystal River Spas in Carbondale, Colorado, looked like this: Hand him keys to a truck, a GPS, tell him to figure out where his stops are and watch a video at home to learn the how-tos. By contrast, Boyles can sit down with a spring hire (during the slower season) and talk theory, tasking him with balancing the water in the showroom tubs while Boyles observes his level of understanding for the business.
“We opened the store when I was in second grade, so I’ve been a part of all sorts of training,” Boyles says. When he brought a new team member on board, “I would have one technician that was only capable of doing X and then another one that could do X, Y and Z,” he says.
Boyles would assume technicians who had been with the company for years knew how to do a certain task, only to find they were never trained on it. While his staff would earn a pool-operator certification — a title he says appeals to customers — Boyles recognized only a small portion of the training is relevant to the portable hot tub industry.
This necessity for consistent and in-depth training led him to develop the Hot Tub Expert’s Academy, an online training program required of all current staff and new hires at Crystal River. Boyles can customize the content for new hires, depending on their job description. The program also gives him the chance to see where a new hire might be struggling — such as multiple attempts to take the quiz on replacing an ozone system — and adapt a visual, hands-on approach as needed. The goal is to have new techs in the field on their own within four weeks.
He’s hoping to eventually eliminate the cost of sending employees away for training — a hefty expense for the company — by keeping it in-house. “If I can do a good job assembling all the knowledge from the 30 years our operation has been in existence into The Academy,” he says, “I can save a tremendous amount of money and time from sending these guys out there, and make sure the training they’re receiving is exactly our way of doing it.”
Currently, new hires spend half the day working in the Academy and the other half on ride-alongs, scaling the scope of work done on the ride-alongs to what they’re studying in the Academy. Before, he would just send a new tech to ride with a seasoned employee for a month. “Whatever Dave is doing, you’re going to learn how to do,” Boyles explains. “But Dave has been with me for 10 years and does a lot of things I would never ask new hire to do. But I can’t take those tasks off Dave’s list because they’ve got to get done. So [The Academy] gives me more flexibility to kind of cherry pick tasks that I could never have done in the field.”
The training program is still new — just a year old — and Boyles wants to add video training for some tasks. His wife helps with this ongoing project. “She has the remarkable skill of being able to decipher the garbled thoughts that come from my mouth and assemble them into something fairly logical and meaningful into The Academy,” he says.
He’s hoping the platform can expand into more technical aspects, like components, diagnostics and changing items like a cover lifter. When the technology becomes more affordable, Boyles hopes to add a virtual component.
In an effort to make the offseason more profitable, Seattle-based Aqua Quip took a chance. Recognizing the company could provide more quality care to the customer, Aqua Quip started maintaining its own electrical division of the company in 2006.
The company is now doing all its own electrical work for hot tubs, swimming pools and fireplace installations, and has absorbed three electrical companies to date. “What happens is, a guy becomes an electrician and suddenly his business is busy,” president Brian Quint says. “His business grows, he hires a another electrician and another, and then the owner becomes an administrator and not an electrician. And we’ve found that they love doing the work, but they really don’t like all the paperwork, the administrative, dealing with employees and insurance, sending out bills. We’ve got an administrative office, we’ve got a purchasing department — we’re already doing all of that. Let them be in the field.”
The Aqua Quip team understands that it will need to train people, rather than always being able to hire certified electricians. “We’re hiring pool cleaners, hiring service technician trainees and then hopefully giving them a career track where they can also — with our support — get the credentials and develop a career around electrical contracting.” As of March 2018, Aqua Quip has one technician in an apprenticeship working toward his certification as an electrician.
The electrical division of Aqua Quip holds 2.4 percent of the company’s overall revenue and has four employees, but growth is a priority. “It represents a more long-term opportunity,” Quint says, “as long as you have the proper people and continue to grow and add to the team. You have to go out there and meet people who are electricians, learn best practices and become a student of it, and then you have to tread in. You don’t just jump in, you tread in.”
On-Site Hot Tub Design
While the Bullfrog Spas virtual reality program is making waves in the industry right now, allowing customers to use VR to design their hot tub, Justin Winkelbauer, store manager for The Great Escape in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says there is another Bullfrog sales innovation that deserves some press. Winkelbauer says the hands-on design experience — offered in a few of the Great Escape stores — is helping to close sales of these models more effectively. “Being able to see it, feel it and touch it makes a difference,” he says.
Bullfrog Spas offers 17 JetPaks and a variety of acrylic colors, making the hot tubs highly customizable. However, verbally explaining that to some customers doesn’t quite sink in. “Millennials can go online and they can click the colors and get an idea for how that looks,” Winkelbauer says. “But, for the older generation, being able to see it, feel it and touch it makes a difference.”
So Bullfrog introduced the hands-on design element, which became available at the Fort Wayne Great Escape store when it opened in late 2016. The JetPaks are displayed on the wall and customers can simply pick the one that appeals to them and place it in a bare bones showroom Bullfrog hot tub model to see how it looks. If they want to wet test it, that is also an option. All of the available hot tub skirting options are available on the bottom of the design wall and customers can take a magnetic shell and move it around to find the combination that appeals to them. There is also a separate piece of acrylic to pair with the JetPaks so customers can create a highly customizable look to their hot tub.
“You can tell a customer they can do a contrasting color with their JetPak five times, but it doesn’t sink in for some people until they see a navy JetPak on a silver shell and see how cool it looks,” Winkelbauer says. While The Great Escape offers hot tubs from a variety of manufacturers, Winkelbauer says this visual representation of Bullfrog’s options certainly helps close the sale.
“You tell the story, you’re bringing up the options, you put them in the showroom sample, they feel it and the conversation progresses to picking colors,” Winkelbauer says. “Having all these tools and accessories definitely appeals to more closes during the presentation in the showroom.”
If you’re a Bullfrog dealer and don’t have the JetPaks on the wall for your customers to see and feel, Winkelbauer says, you’re not doing the brand justice.
Geo-Targeting the Market
Just over a year ago, Eric Cassidy, vice president of Valley Pool & Spa in Pittsburg, started using a technique called geo-fencing, and he is pleased with the results. Geo-fencing is a GPS-type marketing campaign targeted to specific areas, over and above traditional radius marketing like on Google AdWords.
With geo-fencing, you pick the specific location you want to target — an entire city or as small as a shopping aisle in your local market. When individuals enter that targeted space with a location-enabled mobile device, the geo-fencing program captures their device’s IP address. Depending on the chosen campaign, those individuals will receive targeted ads over a designated time when they visit social media platforms or search the Internet on that device. If they click on the ad, they go to a landing page for your company that contains a sign-up cue or a special offer to track conversions more directly.
Cassidy says this is more expensive than traditional marketing approaches but worth it when done properly. “It’s impression based, and often our ads are displayed 10 times in a three-day period after a customer goes into one of our geo-fence zones,” he explains. “Even though conversions are the most effective way to track ROI, this type of campaign needs to be thought of more like billboard advertising and branding.”
Initially, Cassidy used the program to geo-fence competitor locations, but this approach was wiping out the campaign budget quickly, and the highly specific targeting had an extremely low conversion rate. Now they are geo-fencing other types of businesses that would attract the same customer profile as Valley Pool & Spa. “We’re also geo-fencing grocery stores within a two-mile radius of our newest location because if someone is shopping in a grocery store, then they live right there in that demographic,” Cassidy says. “So we’re getting the word out that we’re in the area.”
The current campaign is testing to see whether locals will come to the new showroom by creating a landing page that offers a $10 gas card on their next visit. “They’re also seeing our constant branding and [we hope] keeping us at top of mind to come back and purchase a hot tub,” Cassidy says.
Cassidy recommends using this approach for a year or more, and constantly building up the data to examine effectiveness and fine-tune it for the best ROI. At the time of this interview, the store-focused campaign had been running for just 30 days, but resulted in 107 form fills and 32 gas-card redemptions. It’s a three-month campaign, so there’s more data to collect, but Cassidy believes it to be pretty effective.
Cassidy advises partnering with a local marketing agency that’s familiar with the approach, because there is a lot of time-consuming groundwork needed to launch it, including identifying the proper geo-zones. “It’s not like a Google pay-per-click or a Facebook ad you can do yourself,” he says. “Team up with a local agency that knows the market to develop a campaign. And it’s something that should be done in the offseason because it does take about two months to get fully set up.”