Pandemic-induced demand is changing the swim spa niche
The concept of a stationary swimming apparatus has been around since the 1980s, evolving over the last 40 years into the swim spas we know. While their popularity has grown immensely over the last decade, the pandemic has taken the swim spa market to a level of success dealers and manufacturers had long hoped for.
Aspen Spas, a manufacturer in St. Louis, released its first swim spas in 2019, only to shut down at the beginning of 2020. “The ironic aspect of this [past year] is that we went from ‘What now?’ to ‘Holy cow!’ ” says co-owner Sam Bania. “We have enjoyed an increased interest in our product, and a surge in both new orders from existing retailers and an injection of new dealers in new territories.”
Swim spa orders in 2020 increased by over 180% and continue to grow over 2019 numbers for Jacuzzi brands, says Tracy Hall, vice president of global swim spa sales. “The demand for backyard leisure activities has exploded,” she says. “It has brought swim spas to the main stage, as they are the true entertainment product for the entire family and can be used all year long. We like to call them our ‘all season pool.’ ”
Interest in swim spas is at an all-time high for Master Spas, too. “Motivation has been everything,” says Kevin Richards, vice president of sales and marketing for the Indiana-based manufacturer. “It started with serious swimmers needing a place to swim because pools were closed. Then interest expanded to a much broader group: People looking for swimming, fitness, relaxation and family fun. With many pool builds out until [next year], our industry has seen big opportunity. The demand for our swim spas is through the roof.”
“Swim spa technology and innovation have continued to surprise us and excite the customer with improved efficiencies, performance and simplicity,” says Joe Stone, owner of Swim Fitness in Rancho Cordova, California.
Jim Ornce, sales and training manager for Pettis Pools & Hot Tubs in East Rochester, New York, says he’s seen upgrades in swim spa technology happening quicker in recent years, “which is a move in the right direction,” he says, adding that competition breeds innovation. “Dealers have to become the best in the market for knowledge and customer service to remain ahead of the competition. More competition among dealers means we will have to keep pushing our manufacturers to innovate.”
When Aspen Spas released its first swim spa last year, Bania says the company wanted to create a smartly designed and better-built swim spa, resulting in a larger and deeper swim basin, a stronger and self-supporting acrylic shell and fiberglass frame system, among other innovations. “Due to its success, we look forward to unveiling our next swim spa models, currently in development,” Bania says.
Hall says new models are continuously introduced for all swim spa brands under the Jacuzzi banner: Hydropool, SwimLife and Jacuzzi Swim Spas. Each of the brands has a 12- to 13-foot model “that have all taken huge market share,” Hall says. “Consumers are looking for a body of water that is both a hot tub and swim spa that will easily fit into most backyards. The 12-foot swim spa is the best of all worlds.”
All Jacuzzi brand swim spas come with soft stride mats installed on the bottom, making them a cross-training machine. And 2021 brings the introduction of a smart display goggle that gives the swimmer a real-time display of time, distance, calories burned, swim rate and heart rate indicators, in a patented heads-up display in the lens of the goggles.
Swim spa innovation doesn’t stop at technology. Richards says the biggest thing that elevates the swim spa industry is smart marketing. “Our investment in our numerous, high-profile brand ambassadors — including Michael Phelps — and the content we create, draws a lot of attention,” he says.
Before the pandemic, swim spas were already on the radar of those seeking family fun, Hall says. “Having more seats plus a larger swim area, water aerobics and play area is key for the consumer of today,” she says.
Ornce says he noticed customers becoming better informed about swim spas on their own over the past year. “While stuck at home, most seemed to have done many hours of research on swim spas,” he says. “In the past, many customers didn’t know they existed. People seem ready to buy more than ever, and the sales process was shortened because we didn’t have to sell them on the concept of a swim spa first.”
Bania says there now seem to be two types of swim spa customers: The one who has his eye on the therapeutic or recreational aspects of the swim spa, and the one looking for an alternative to an up to 2-year wait for a swimming pool install. “The former has become savvier, while the latter has certainly become educated [about swim spas],” Bania says.
Increased customer demand, Richards says, has meant seeing the joys of swim spas reach so many more people. But he’s cautious about how high demand can have negative impacts if customer service isn’t exceeding standards, too.
“Whether [brands are] overcommitting and under delivering on lead times or what their product does, negative reviews can hurt everyone [in the industry],” Richards says. “We all have an opportunity to exceed customer expectations, and I hope every company takes that seriously.”
As with hot tubs, before the pandemic most swim spas were custom ordered and manufactured as needed within three to six weeks, but increased demand over the past year means customized swim spas lead times of six to nine months. “The sales process is very different from a year ago due to the order time frame,” Ornce says.
Pettis Pools sells MAAX PowerPool Swim Spas, with optional upgrades of Bluetooth music systems, fountains and lightshows. But not all swim spas come fully equipped and customers are sacrificing upgrades to get their swim spas faster. Some features are limited due to manufacturer resources, Stone says. Most customers want a specific color and size for the swim spa, he says, but are content with any additional features they can get with the models currently available from the dealer.
Hall reports that many Jacuzzi brand dealers are ordering swim spas and putting them on white boards in the showroom to pre-sell before delivery. “This is a huge culture change, as typically in the past, swim spas were custom-ordered products,” she says. “The retailers doing this have worked with us to determine their order history, then placed orders for the entire year [based upon that], so that they can offer a consumer short lead times with different options and models they have pre-ordered.”
Stone changed his company’s sales model to focus on customer service, fulfillment and retention, rather than prioritizing closing the sale. “Selling is not an issue,” he says. “[The focus should be] real, transparent communication and urgency to serve the customer like never before.”
Instead of store hours, Stone schedules appointments for sales and wet tests to ensure social distancing and minimize the number of people in the store at a time. And while he’s still advertising on digital channels, the emphasis of those messages has shifted from ‘You need a swim spa’ to holding customers’ places in line while they wait for product, educating with fitness tips and sharing swim spa benefits. Stone’s team also offers white-glove delivery and orientation upon install.
For Megan Lockard, sales representative at Heavenly Times Hot Tubs & Billiards in Dillon, Colorado, swim spa sales have shifted from in-person to more online and technology-based sales than ever before. “This allows us to capture a larger customer base by talking with people who couldn’t or never would have stepped into our store, but they reached out to us online since it was convenient,” she says. “Adjusting our sales techniques by learning how to build rapport and convey the integrity of our product virtually has been challenging, but the more we continue to practice, the more we will grow.”
When the shutdown began, Pettis Pools had to close its doors. Meanwhile, a flood of emails and website information requests were coming in. “Our sales presentations took place via email, phone calls or FaceTime calls,” Ornce says. “I found myself standing inside an empty swim spa showing potential customers over FaceTime how big the swim spas are in relation to a 6-foot person. I even had shorter co-workers pose for pictures by the swim spas for reference. We had to be creative to help the customer feel comfortable to make the purchase.”
Bania says dealers are much more willing to put a swim spa on the showroom floor than they were before. “Customers marvel at the initial sight of a swim spa when they visit the showroom floor, making the start of the conversation even easier to facilitate,” he says. “You can read online and get information, but there is no substitute for seeing a swim spa in person. Dealers are also finding that [having a swim spa displayed] creates a more relaxed and natural sales environment.”
Evolving Customer Service
Manufacturers have also adapted and upgraded their customer service for their dealers during the pandemic. Jacuzzi holds monthly factory updates, giving its retailers an in-depth look at the previous month and how supply chains are adapting. Hall says Jacuzzi keeps retailers as updated as possible on lead times as well.
Aspen Spas expanded production facilities in 2020, with a new building for hot tub manufacturing and a new swim spa production location. The company hopes to triple its swim spa production this year to meet unprecedented demand, Bania says. In the meantime, continuing dealer education is a top priority. “With the tremendous influx of both inquiries and sales orders, we have found that providing sales support through our sales reps and factory employees has helped measurably,” Bania adds.
Richards says Master Spas is simply doing more all around. “More communication, more updates and more content to share with people looking for a swim spa,” he says.
Ever Evolving Future
Doug Gillespie, vice president of marketing for Hydropool, a Jacuzzi brand, hopes pandemic-induced demand has finally brought swim spas into the mainstream, and that swim spas will at last be recognized as a separate category. Gillespie says industry trade shows still put swim spas under the hot tub category but in light of the recent shift, swim spas “should get the recognition deserved.”
To that end, manufacturers are eager to maintain consumer interest. “Swim spa manufacturers and our suppliers are collaborating on new innovations to meet the needs and demands of the marketplace,” Bania says. “We continue to look for ways to increase our efficiency while creating an even more versatile product line.”
Since just a handful of companies tend to supply the manufacturers, an already-strained supply chain may continue to be taxed by demand. Stone believes another shift to the segment is on the horizon. “There will be a shrinking number of manufacturers due to the inability to procure materials to build,” he says. “The major manufacturers have contracted with many of the major suppliers for domination of supplies needed. I see the larger manufacturers getting stronger, more capable and specializing in their craft and product line like never before.”
Bania advises dealers to have patience. “Everyone is backed up,” he says, “so believe in yourself, your retail team and your products. That makes it easy for consumers to recognize who the best is, and who is going to take care of them in the future.”
Richards is thankful for Master Spas’ dealer base, which he likens to a family. “We’ve all grown together through this, and we’ve discussed what we see happening over the next several years,” he says. “It’s easier when you’re all shooting at the same target and everyone’s on board.”