We've read the studies. We've used the product and seen the benefits for ourselves. But the vast majority of potential hot tub customers in North America have not — they remain either unaware or unconvinced that hot tubs offer tangible health benefits and should be central players in the wellness movement.

Infomercials, magazines and bookstore shelves are devoted to practices and substances that adherents believe make them healthier — from yoga to organic vegetables. And yet spa immersion and aquatic massage, a practice whose health benefits are confirmed by actual clinical studies, continues to go unnoticed by the great masses of consumers.

It's a stubborn secret whose revelation could change our industry.

Slowly, drip by drip, the hot tub health secret is leaking out. But there are people working to accelerate the flow. One such person is Shelly Roberts, senior manager of marketing content at Watkins Wellness.

"There are a lot of people talking about healthy lifestyles out there," she says.

"And they're saying eat right and exercise and make sure you are able to relax or perhaps meditate a little bit each day, and stay in touch with your family or community. We just need to get hot water immersion and massage in that mix, which is what our products provide."

RELATED: Sell More Hot Tubs by Selling Wellness

Much has been said in the spa industry about the need for a large-scale advertising campaign to reach out to consumers and convince them of the health benefits of hot tubs. This article is not about that. While such a campaign might be helpful, the obstacles are high, and a much more direct and powerful means of persuasion is readily at hand and making converts daily: simple testimonials of people who immerse themselves in hot water.

"Word of mouth is really the most powerful thing we have going when it comes to spreading the idea that hot tubs are a wellness product. And we have to do all we can to facilitate that," Roberts says.

The foundation of the Hot Tub Health Movement is more than a few lines of information or an idea — it's the conviction that hot tubs can improve one's health.

It's a belief, like the commonly held belief in the health benefits of vitamins, meditation and a daily constitutional after dinner.

How do you create belief in the minds of consumers? One way is to put that consumer in communication with a believer who is trusted source, either a friend or family member, or someone else in whom they have confidence. Getting that trust connection to work for you is often the difference between a customer that might consider a hot tub and a confirmed sale, says Jake Boyles, owner of Crystal River Spas in Carbondale, Colo.

"One of the main types of customers we see is the family," he says, "the kids want a small swimming pool, maybe the mom likes the social aspect, but the dad is dragging his feet. Well, once he has that 'aha' moment, where he's talked to someone he trusts that has told him that this is a health product that he can use to alleviate a lot of his back pain, then he's on board — and that can seal the deal. But most of the time it has to come from firsthand experience or word of mouth."

Push It

If truth and testimonial is your most powerful marketing tool, it makes sense take it as far as possible, which is what they do at Combined Pool & Spa (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Sales Manager Jacque Stauffer understands the enormous value of a single customer that is passionate about hot tubs — because that passion is contagious.

"Word of mouth is crucial for us, that's how we get a lot of our customers," she says. "People that have heard something from a neighbor or family member — those are our new customers. So we are really trying to get people to go out and tell that story.

"When someone comes in to have their hot tub water tested, we're saying, 'Hey, how're you doing, how's your back? Good...So that hot tub is really helping...'
"I have a gentleman whose daughter had a condition who needed a hot tub, and he's one of our best ambassadors. We have relationships with our customers, and we ask them directly, 'Would you mind telling somebody what your hot tub has done for you?'

"The big thing we've been pushing lately is Google reviews. We ask people, 'Can you give me a Google review on your tub and mention how much better you feel because of it?'"

Influencers and Enthusiasts

Also to be considered in using the chain-of-trust theory, beyond the evangelizing of friends and family members, are the people marketers call "influencers." These are people — not necessarily famous people — who are communicating their passionate beliefs beyond their personal circle, often through smaller local media. These could be contributors to health magazines, websites, newsletters or social media who are advocates for a product or idea. They might have a deep faith in the power and benefits of yoga, or kids sports or mountain biking, and they spread their passionate ideas in a natural, organic way that is very effective.

"Especially in the health and wellness community, influencers are a powerful force in shaping public opinion, and we need to reach these people about the power of hot water immersion and massage," Roberts says.

Reaching them and convincing them, she notes, can be a difficult task, but it is an important component in the hot tub health movement.

Boyles, Stauffer and Roberts all agree the way the best way to persuade influencers and everybody else and accelerate the hot tub health movement is simple: You have to get people in hot water.

"When you experience the hot tub lifestyle, you come to believe in it, and then you can make others believe. I think there's a lot to that," Boyles says.
"We push that in the store: 'You're going to buy this for your health and you need to use it every single day,'" adds Stauffer. "But I'm a true believer, I have a hot tub and use it twice a day — 10 minutes in the morning, and then a lot longer in the evening. Because I think part of getting behind it is having one and using one yourself. If you're using one yourself, you're going to see the benefits."

"We just have to get people using their hot tubs. If they're using it, they're telling their neighbors about it, they're telling the people at work, they're spending time with their kids in it, and that's what creates the hot tub culture."

The London Study And Passive Exercise

There's no substitute for the experience of hot water, but the theory behind the Hot Tub Health Movement is important, too. The bedrock under the argument for hot tubs as a health product is the mounting pile of medical studies. Anecdotes about sleeping better and faster recovery from injury and pain relief are great, but the measurements taken by doctors in controlled settings are powerful — and generally underused — tools in persuading potential customers.
Dealers trying to make the case should refer to these studies early and often, Stauffer says. She keeps copies of the medical research from Dr. Bruce Becker on-hand, ready to back her up. She doesn't go on and on about them, she just mentions them a lot.

"When I'm talking to a customer about the health benefits of hot tubs, it's always good to throw that out: 'I have the studies, do you want to see them?' Nobody ever takes me up on it, but it's important to have them ready. And it's important for you to know they're there."

Recently a study from Loughborough University in London took the approach of comparing the effects of sitting in a hot tub with the effects of exercise and found they are very similar — as if the body doesn't know the difference.

RELATED: Hot Tubs: As Good As Exercise

"I'm not surprised by this study out of London," Roberts says. "We've been comparing hot tub use to exercise for some time. It's a passive form of exercise, and we coach our people to talk to consumers about passive exercise, that is, the ability to get the benefits of exercise — raised heart rate, lower blood pressure — without going out for a walk or a bike ride. And in this way, you can build it into your lifestyle more easily, because that's the key: making it part of your lifestyle."

"For dealers talking to customers, equating hot tub use to exercise is important because your body really doesn't know the difference: Whether you have just gone for a walk or just settled into a hot tub for a while — all your body knows is its heart rate has gone up and its blood pressure is down and its circulation has improved."

So for someone looking to make a healthy lifestyle change, a crucial difference between hot tubbing and exercise is that exercise requires effort and discipline, whereas settling down into a spa is something people actually want to do.

And research shows that people often abandon healthy choices and activities (workouts, low-fat diets, etc.) due to short supplies of this same effort and discipline. Hot tubbing, on the other hand, requires none.

Evolution of the Message: Parties to Wellness

Part of the difficulty the industry has had in making a compelling case for hot tub health is the fact that the spa marketing message over the years has not only been faint but transient.

"In the '80s, you bought a hot tub for the parties you were going to have. And after that we started talking about the pumps, jets and this doohickey and that one — the mechanics of the hot tub," Stauffer says. So changing the message again has been a slow process. The primary target is the huge baby boomer generation now reaching its golden years — with plenty to spend on spas, and plenty of reasons to be thinking about health.

"I'm aging myself," says Stauffer. "And as we age, the health benefits become more important. But you've got to get their attention, and you've got to find out what's hurting and what they're worried about healthwise. You've got to do a little digging to find out what made that particular person come in — was their back just killing them and they need to do something about it? Are they a runner that wants to keep running into their 60s and needs help recovering?"

Turning The Corner

Some believe this battle to focus on hot tub health and wellness is absolutely crucial if the industry has aspirations of getting back to the days of 400,000 tubs per year, or even beyond. Surveys of consumer attitudes have revealed alarming uncertainties toward the product, which need to be replaced by strong convictions if hot tub sales are to really take off.

"I think we really turned the corner on hot tubs and health back in 2011, when APSP commissioned a study through the Harrison group about public perceptions about hot tubs," says Roberts. "This was a real wake up call for a lot of people. The study said that essentially, much of the general public didn't see the hot tub's perceived benefits as worth the money to buy one.

"That really opened some eyes. And it got a lot of people thinking that there has to be a more powerful reason for people to buy a hot tub — and that reason is health."

Bigger Pieces of Pie

Competition is at the core of our economic system — manufacturer against manufacturer, dealer against dealer. One sees this in most industries: cars, computers, appliances. But the hot tub industry is in the unusual position of being a disposable income item still trying to convince the public of its necessity. Thus, in-fighting among dealers and manufacturers has at times served as an unhealthy distraction for consumers and a vast waste of resources for dealers and manufacturers.

Because everyone already needs a car, Ford and GM can focus on a message of "buy ours, not theirs." But the spa industry has never firmly established its value to the wider public.

Its potential as a health product offers that chance.

RELATED: Selling the Benefits of Hot Tubs

If a unified voice from the industry could persuade consumers the spa is health product and thereby access the billions of dollars devoted to the health movement, the size of the market would increase dramatically. This is the hope of Boyles and others:

"This isn't a Watkins movement, it isn't a Jacuzzi or a Bullfrog movement, it's an industry movement," Boyles says. "And if we can just win this battle, then all the dealers and manufacturers can go ahead and compete on widgets and service, but we'll all be competing for a much bigger pie." 

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.