Tamping Down the Tech

Should hot tub accessories get back to brass tacks?

Not long ago, it seemed every company had a hot, new, high-tech gadget they were rolling onto the spa market. The hot tub had been transformed into a computer with a hot water app attached via the Internet of Things. Your smartphone could operate waterfalls! Light shows! And, oh yeah, operate your spa. But these days, the hot tub accessories market is a little stagnant.

New accessory ideas seem harder to come by, but improvements on old ideas have worked for the motion picture and prime time TV industries, right? So where does the market go from here? More tech? Less tech? No tech?

“I’m positive about the accessory market,” says Matt McMillan of Cover Valet. “It’s been going great for the last decade, but it is saturated.” Understanding the distinction of various accessory manufacturers helps McMillan understand the state of the market. He says there are a couple manufacturers with full accessory lines dealers are looking for — steps, handrails, cover lifters, umbrellas, fragrances — to round out their lines. Others will have just one item.

“So there is quite a disparity in who would be considered an accessories manufacturer.” A manufacturer may sell only online, direct to consumers or through dealers, he says, “so the product can be part of an upsell during the purchase of a spa.”

McMillan says consumer and dealer choice is the mother of necessity — and a challenge to manufacturers. Cover Valet’s main focus is going direct to a dealer and offering multiple options from its product line. It also provides options based on what McMillan calls “clearance.” Clearance provides choice for what the customer is working with in their backyard. For example, some cover lifts require only a small amount of clearance, maybe 6 inches or so, above and beyond the hot tub, while in other cases up to 3 feet of clearance is required. “If we didn’t have to deal with all of these nuances,” he says, “we’d have very few choices: one design of this, one color of that sort of thing. The challenge is in meeting both dealer and consumer needs.”

When McMillan considers a new product, he weighs it against sales projections. The numbers can be sobering: “I’m not looking for the next big gimmick to hit the market,” McMillan says. “I have to be mindful that most dealers want to carry as few SKUs as possible. Sometimes a conceptual idea is presented and the initial reaction might be positive, then you do the math and realize you’d probably only sell 200 units of this item — as opposed to the 20,000 units you’d rather see with a new product…. The key is to create as close to a universal marketplace for the spa retailer.”

Dennis Lederhouse, vice president of sales and marketing for Confer Plastics, is just as pragmatic. He also pays attention to trends and customer interests when deciding on a new product or the modification of an existing one. His business centers on spa steps, bars and bar stools. “We’re not one of the app-centered manufacturers,” Lederhouse says, “but every year we take a look at the market and ask what we can bring to the table that is both new and fills a need.” Right now, he says Confer is looking at different designs and patterns for spa skirting to move away from the traditional look of wood.

Mike Genova of Leisure Concepts says he would be OK with a shift away from what he calls “high-tech overkill.” He’s more interested in accessories that consumers really want and need.

“I’d rather see less junk out there,” Genova says. “I want my spa water to be clean, hot and ready to use. I know we look at what will drive sales and create upsells, but as an industry if we don’t start creating products that make sense for the consumer, we could see them rebel a bit. If you look at a mature spa buyer, the ones on their second or third spa, they’re not going for a bunch of gadgetry.”

Genova still occasionally entertains ideas about modern advances he wouldn’t mind seeing in the spa market. “I’ve always envisioned some kind of wash basin at the entrance of the spa, maybe on the deck area, that provides warm water to wash your feet before you get in the spa,” Genova says. “I don’t know how viable that would be as a product, but the ability to get debris off your feet before getting into the spa makes sense to me.”

Another idea he likes is a heated towel warmer. “Make it a box with shelving,” he says, “and a heat device to warm the towels with a timer so the towels are properly heated and ready when you exit the spa. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d go for that.”

Chris Ogden of Time Machine Hot Tubs in Longview, Texas, says his younger customers love tech gadgets and often get into the spa holding their phone or tablet. But Ogden also listens closely to what his more mature customers tell him about their spa experience: They want him to make water care as simple as possible, and to stay in their spa lounge seat without getting blown away by overpowering jets. “I’ve yet to see a product that properly addresses that issue,” Ogden says. “We’ve always adopted home remedies for this, like weighted scuba- or deep-sea diving belts.” A few of his customers have actually put marbles and pebbles inside pantyhose and place the pantyhose on their laps in the spa. “That’s sad — and not a pretty solution,” he says. “It takes the shine off the apple of owning a $15,000 to $20,000 spa when you have to do stuff like that, doesn’t it?”

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