Photo: Bullfrog Spas

Secret’s Out

Swim spa awareness has never been higher — and isn’t going anywhere

After four years selling swim spas, Miles Berger knows one thing: People want them. Industrywide, consumer awareness of this versatile vessel has gone up, up and away during the pandemic, and while demand could slow in the coming months, consensus is the genie is out of the bottle. 

Berger, marketing manager of Hot Tub Central in New Jersey, estimates he’s selling 30% to 50% more swim spa units than when he first entered the category. “I would never not be in the category of swim spas,” he says. 

Steve O’Shea, vice president of sales and marketing at MAAX Spas, says the manufacturer’s swim spa output had grown a modest 8% to 10% per year before COVID, and that this percentage has increased “at a much higher rate” in the pandemic. 

“It brought the category to a group who never even thought of looking at it before,” he says. “We have all kinds of new customers.”

Four Winds Spas, a hot tub and swim spa manufacturer based in Smyrna, Tennessee, more than doubled its swim spa sales during the pandemic, according to general manager Todd Porter. “Our demand for spas went up for sure, but our demand for swim spas was at least twice as much as spas,” Porter says. 

Jennifer Gannon, owner of the retail division of BonaVista LeisureScapes in Toronto, says the company’s swim spa business has doubled since 2019. “It’s almost like a behavior shift,” she notes. “People who come in asking about a swim spa are ready to move and know what they want.”

Pool alternative

Bullfrog Spas just entered the swim spa category this year, and despite not being able to compare sales to prior years, director of marketing Jake Ricks says its market research shows the category “is growing quite a bit faster than regular portable spas.”

“We’re hearing from dealers,” he adds, “that the high price and low availability of pools is a big factor helping them to sell more swim spas.”

While most dealers are likely still selling more hot tubs than swim spas, Frank Firman, director of sales and marketing for aquatic fitness at Watkins Manufacturing, also says the latter category has nonetheless grown faster. “I would say demand seems to have grown at a higher rate,” he says. “Percentage is higher, but quantities are nowhere near hot tubs.” 

Even if per-unit sales of swim spas don’t or won’t match hot tubs, Brian Johnston, hot tub expert at Atlanta Hot Tub Center, says the cost to build a pool has almost doubled compared with pre-pandemic prices, which is a major factor driving intense demand in swim spas.

“I actually think right now, there’s a higher interest, a heavier interest in swim spas than hot tubs,” he says. “You used to be able to [build a pool] for $30,000 to $40,000; now it’s $50,000 to $60,000. The price [for pools] has gone up so much it has made the swim spa industry more appetizing.”

In Canada, Gannon says, the price for a new pool build is even higher: “We can’t get a pool into a backyard for less than $100,000,” she says of BonaVista Pools, part of the whole BonaVista brand. While the aesthetic of a swim spa no doubt is different, Gannon says, if someone is looking for water quickly, high function and low maintenance costs regularly move shoppers toward swim spas. “I help people when they are going through that discernment,” she adds.

Gannon and Firman both also mention ease-of-use benefits of a swim spa over a pool as a selling point for customers, such as lower heating costs, year-round use and the ability to adjust temperature relatively quickly. A swim spa can also be a hot tub, while a pool cannot — and Gannon says shoppers know all this and more before they even set foot in a showroom.

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“People do a ton of research before they come in,” Gannon says. “I just sold one to a busy lawyer who didn’t have time for a [wet test], but she knew what she wanted: a hybrid pool that can be heated to hot tub temperatures.” 

When contrasting the investment between swim spas and pools, O’Shea says, production speed matters at a time when waits are still months long. If a buyer learns both options have a year’s lead time, they often go with a swim spa: “We can start and finish [installation of a swim spa] in one day,” he says, “whereas a pool build won’t be done for two months [once its begun].”

Ongoing pain points 

Though peak awareness of swim spas means big business for dealers and manufacturers , they’re both still regularly battling circumstances out of their control. Berger is one dealer among many who is bumping up against limited availability. 

“Pretty much no dealer has swim spas for this year,” Berger says. “We’re looking at 2023 and even 2024. I have 19-footers I can deliver in a week, but soonest after that would be end of the summer.” 

Johnston is another retailer who could use more swim spa allocations from the manufacturer. He says he will probably sell 40 to 45 this year, whereas it would be more like 75 to 100 if he could get the stock. As of mid-April, Johnston only had a couple more allocations for the rest of this year, but he was is hoping to soon securethe manufacturer will offer 10 to 15 more. 

On the manufacturing side, Firman at Watkins says COVID has resulted in stressful if short-lived issues. He says it’s difficult to predict its business with dealers, so the company has limited the number of swim spas each dealer can buy. Further, with parts availability unpredictable at times, the entire manufacturing process can be affected in short order.

“You’re only as fast as your slowest component,” he says. “We do have supply constraints, but it tends to be addressed in a matter of days. But then it can be something else the next day.” 

MAAX’s O’Shea is also wrestling with ongoing allocation issues, owing to several factors such as resurrected COVID lockdowns in China. “We’ve yet to be completely stopped,” he says, “but we adjust our production schedule daily or hourly based on raw materials. I want a consistent flow of raw materials and staffing, but that has been one of the most difficult parts of all this.”

Predictions for the segment

Looking at the next few years, there is widespread optimism about the growth of the swim spa segment. O’Shea says the company is confident in ongoing swim spa demand, as evidenced by last year’s opening of its new swim spa manufacturing facility in Ottumwa, Iowa (population about 25,500). O’Shea says he believes growth opportunity for swim spas is “much greater than hot tubs by far,” and that he’s already concerned about whether the factory will be able to build enough units to meet demand. He’s expecting MAAX to produce six times as many swim spas in 2023 versus 2021. 

Firman says Watkins, too, is grappling with demand he calls “almost unmanageable.” While the craze has begun to taper a bit, Firman says swim spa sales will never again dip to their pre-COVID numbers. “It was a category that was going to explode anyway,” he says, “[and] we’re going to have to react to now from a supply chain, manufacturing and service standpoint.”

Johnston expects three to five more years of supply-chain hiccups, which could mean a tipping point is on the horizon. Some shoppers, he says, may simply find it too expensive to transform their backyards in this way. 

“The price of materials right now is so high that I can’t imagine the demand would stay,” he says, calling out rates for steel, chips, circuit boards, electric motors, lumber, fiberglass and plastic that he believes will never return to where they were pre-COVID. “If swim spas head down the same path as the pool, we will have a problem.”