We didn't start the fire that warmed the spa. No one can take credit for discovering the wonderful sensation of easing down into hot water.
Long before the Romans built their hot tub palaces and made soaking together a social custom, one has to assume that stone age man discovered geothermal pools, slipped off the bearskin, sat down in the steaming water and said, "Honey, let's live here."
No, we didn't invent hot water immersion here in North America, but we did invent the modern portable spa industry.
It happened in California; it's difficult to be more precise than that, because there were many different beginnings and it's hard to say what the first commercial portable spa actually was.
Was it a wooden barrel nailed together for the purpose? Was it a fiberglass shell molded in somebody's toolshed?
As early as the 1950s, out in the wine-growing regions of the state, people were taking old wooden wine vats and filling them with hot water. And in 1968, Roy Jacuzzi came out the first self-contained whirlpool bath. These were steps in the right direction.
And throughout this period, a stationary, handcrafted, built-in-place hot tub was becoming quite popular; this was a tiny bubbling body of hot water added as an accessory to the main attraction, the backyard pool. But as of yet, nobody had really put the whole thing together in a product you could put on a pallet, slap a sticker on and ship.
The Pieces Come Together
So there we were, with flower children getting back to nature in wooden tubs up in the hills, upper-class suburbanites chatting in gunite spas in the Valley, and hydrotherapy and relaxation pumping through Roy Jacuzzi's jetted tubs.
The pieces were in place. And the mother of invention — consumer desire — was on hand and ready to deliver, but thorny problems remained.
While the wooden tubs had definitely caught the eye of a large market segment (throughout the birth of the modern hot tub industry, wooden tubs held onto a hefty share of the market, and supported 15 to 20 manufacturers), they tended to be somewhat leaky and had no jets. And the people who made them often wanted to soak in them, too, and that led to a relaxed attitude toward marketing and expansion.
Roy Jacuzzi's jetted tubs remained a fine idea, but they had to be refilled, which was costly, and seating was limited. And gunite spas attached to swimming pools had all the elements of a spa experience, but they were expensive to build because they were not mass-produced. Each and every one was as unique as a hand-blown vase, and even more labor intensive.
For these backyard gunite spas, product growth was being strangled by production methods. That was the conviction of Len Gordon, a Southern California contractor. Gordon would later become a legend in the spa industry for his inquisitive, innovative mind, but in 1969 he was just trying to make poolside spa installation easier.
Almost half of the pools Gordon built had attached gunite spas, Gordon later told Spa and Sauna (the magazine that would eventually become AQUA), and though he was building a fair number of them, "building gunite spas with any real consistency was a very difficult thing to do."
As Gordon pondered the problem, his friend Jack Stangle had begun to wonder if a spa would work as well if it were made of fiberglass, like a boat hull. It seemed to Stangle it would be easier to make that way. Gordon was an idea man, and when he had one, he was relentless in pursuit. Always a daring entrepreneur, he jumped into the fiberglass spa business with both feet.
He rented some space at a nearby gas station and started popping out fiberglass spas. The process was simple: He'd spray a non-stick, separating agent (the manufacturing equivalent of Pam) into a mold, followed by gel-coat, and then fiberglass for structural strength. Gently pry it out, and it's a spa shell.
These prefabricated spa shells changed the equation entirely. Gordon's spa builders started using them. Soon everybody started using them.
"The fiberglass shell was a contractor's dream," Gordon said later. "All you had to do was dig a hole in the ground and you were just about finished. It cut the costs dramatically over gunite."
There were some doubts among consumers at first; people weren't used to the feel of the product and didn't know how it would last. But the price was irresistible. "Everybody fell in love with it because it was something the blue-collar worker could now afford," Gordon said.
The '70s Spa Rush
People invent new products and start new businesses every day. Ninety nine percent of them become humorous family stories. But the initiatives in the infant spa industry caught the public eye.
At the dawn of the '70s, the public was starting to understand that a new product could dramatically alter and improve an experience they already knew they liked — a relaxing bath.
"It was a great time," recalls Henry Young, president, Aqua Nova, Van Nuys, Calif., a man whose pool and spa industry memories go back to the mid-'60s. "You had guys drilling holes in the seats of spas, putting air blowers under them and selling rides for a quarter. It was an exciting time."
Spas were the hot new thing coming out of California — still the great golden draw for most Americans at the time. It was a sexy product from a place a lot of people wanted to be. The fiberglass spa was a hot new product that was easy to sell and fairly easy to make. Anybody could make a spa mold, and once you did, you were a going concern.
In some ways, it was like the California Gold Rush over 100 years before: Everyone knew there was gold in those hotwater shells — consumers obviously loved them — and all you had to do was get out there and start fiberglassing.
A lot of companies formed up and jumped in. Mike Dunn, now executive vice president at Watkins Wellness, was a teenager on the scene and remembers the excitement of a rapidly growing industry:
"My dad owned a boat company back then," he said, "he had a facility with a couple of bays, and he was subletting one of the bays to some guys with a fiberglass mold making this little two-person Victorian hot tub. Well, those guys got into financial trouble and started falling farther and farther behind on the rent, and finally, to settle the bill, my dad took their hot tub mold.
"And that's how we got started. He took the mold down to Ron Clark and Clark Manufacturing, and we started selling the product retail. I was 16."
It was in many ways the perfect product for the '70s. It had the right image — it was fun, sexy, and at a simple, basic level, reliably pleasurable. But in terms of product quality and consistency, there were some serious growing pains.
"What really held the industry back were customers that had trouble with their spas," said Philip Horvath, president of Aqua-gon, Naperville, Ill. "Back then, product testing was usually done in the customer's backyard. And a lot of the products simply didn't work. So if a guy bought a spa and had trouble with it, that's what he'd tell his neighbor."
Probably the most notorious of the industry's struggles were the surface problems that plagued spas in the '70s and early '80s. There were major issues with the gel-coat — cracking, crazing, delamination — but perhaps the worst problem came to be known as The Black Plague.
"You'd get these little blisters all around the tub that were black. It looked something like measles," Dunn remembers. "We were using the same kind of fiberglassing techniques as the boat people or even the fiberglass pool people use today, but the difference was the temperature and chemical concentration."
It was an industry bloodbath, with angry consumers demanding compensation and manufacturers at a loss to cope. The resulting warranty claims drove a number of manufacturers out of business.
Of course, the answer was right in front of our noses. Baja Products had been making acrylic spas since 1973, and acrylics would come to dominate the industry in time, but as of the late '70s the majority of manufacturers were still cranking out fiberglass/gel-coat products.
Industry giant Gerico, for instance, did not make the switch to an acrylic surface (with fiberglass backing to maintain structural rigidity) until 1980, according to Tim Ware, a former Gerico employee and later president of Stenner, Jacksonville, Fla.
The problem was cost. "A lot of people didn't get into acrylic right away because of the expense of buying the machines," he said. "You have to invest in large molds and vacuum-forming equipment, as opposed to just making some molds and spraying some fiberglass on it."
Even as many manufacturers began switching to acrylics, in the early '80s, surface problems arose with this material, too. After 10 years of making acrylic-surface tubs at Baja, according to Burba, they were seeing blistering problems. "The boat industry was having the same problem," he says, "and there were a lot of unhappy customers in both camps."
At this point, spas across all material lines — wooden tubs (which saw splintering problems with age), old style gel-coat fiberglass tubs and acrylic tubs — were experiencing surface problems.
Maturity in the '80s
But then, with the pressure reaching a peak, some manufacturers figured it out and dramatically dropped their failure rate. Among these were the Watkins brothers, who brought out a spa made of Rovel, a co-extruded material from Dow.
At the same time, the acrylic problem was solved by the boat industry, Burba says. "They discovered that instead of using polyester resin against the acrylic, if they switched to vinyl ester resin, that would take care of the surface problem. That discovery took a spa industry that was really struggling, and gave it a big push forward."
At the same time as the discovery of this crucial technical solution, the industry was growing leaner and more professional. Companies were beginning to mature. The product had been around long enough for some of the manufacturing deadwood to drop off, and the industry had begun to get organized, with trade associations and better communications. There is some disagreement among industry veterans on the precise date, but sometime in the early to mid-'80s the spa industry began to grow up.
"Manufacturers and products were becoming larger and more sophisticated," remembers Dunn, "Guys were going from garage shops, if you will, to factories.
"My family business building had been about 10,000 sq. feet, and in the '80s now we're moving to a 55,000-square-foot factory on 5 acres. So it was that type of thing.
"Everybody is starting to scale up a little. And the product is advancing. And we're trying to find ways to build spas more efficiently, add some features and still keep the price down.
"We're moving from pneumatic controls to electronic controls. More jets. Designs of shells are starting to change — you're starting to see protrusions into the tub, which are a little more difficult to do from a molding perspective."
By startling coincidence, this period was accompanied by a large increase in sales. "It was the maturity of the industry that really brought the growth. Losing the fly-by-night tag," Horvath says.
"As the industry began to mature, the testing began to be done in the factory, where it really should be done. The product wasn't put out onto the street until it had been perfected."
More and more people, hundreds of thousands, were enjoying the spa experience and passing along the word to neighbors and friends. As always, this was a very effective marketing technique.
"At the same time," says Stan Chambers, 40-year industry veteran and AQUA sales representative, "the public began to become educated on the product. Until the mid-'80s, consumers didn't really recognize differences in quality. One spa was the same as the next, and all were very price sensitive.
"As more companies began to design, manufacture, test and market more effectively, consumers became more comfortable with spending more for a spa."
The Decline Of The Wooden Tubs
Even as the hard-shell spa business was finding its feet, wooden tubs were still very much in play. They had been improved with liners and better plumbing and their marketing had gotten savvier.
The largest and best known of the wooden tub makers, California Cooperage (a cooper is a maker of barrels) began operations in 1974. If you opened up Playboy Magazine in the '70s, your eyes met a California Cooperage ad with a toll free number to order a hot tub kit. They'd ship it to your home, and you could build it in your backyard.
Their tubs were very popular at resorts, and were considered quite chic.
And if you asked most consumers in the mid-'70s to picture a hot tub, likely a wooden product came into their minds.
That was to change fairly quickly. The growing convenience of the man-made shell spas, especially once manufacturers got most of the bugs worked out, really cut into the wooden tub trade. Customers might like the natural atmosphere that wood imparts, but only the die-hards could defy the convenience of a spa that you could roll into your house, plug in, and soak in almost immediately.
"Once the portables came in," says Gordon, "it was too easy."
To install a wooden tub, the dealer had to pour a slab, assemble the unit, run a gas line, dig the trenches and plumb the equipment. "It took us two days to do one," said Alice Cunningham, who transitioned into Watkins spas (see an interview with Alice Cunningham on page 61) from wooden tubs in the early '80s. "And as a dealer, we were in the construction business, really — building and plumbing these things. But suddenly, with the portable plastic spas, we could do four a day. We could have that spa at the customer's house in half an hour."
"They cost about the same at the time," Gordon said. "Which one would you rather sell if you were a dealer?
Convenience For All
Customers cannot resist convenience. And it was convenience that ignited the portable hot tub industry. Convenience converted the hot water immersion business from a primarily in-ground, installation-focused business to an aboveground, truck-it-to-your-home enterprise. It was like the difference between building a walk-in freezer and buying a refrigerator.
"It changed the sale from a contract-type sale to a retail-store-type sale," said Cunningham. "It made the spa into a retail product that could be managed and stored and inventoried, delivered, and easily hooked up. And it became much easier to promote. It was a huge thing for the industry."
"You could sell it for less money and still make money," adds Ware. "And then people started putting steps and surrounds and decks and gazebos to go with it, and it was easy to market that, too. It was a good product and even better marketing."
The sales numbers bear this out exactly. Before 1985, the majority of spas sold in America were in-ground," said Jonathan Clark, former president of Jacuzzi Hot Tubs and Sundance Spas. "And from that point on, the market has been dominated by portable, above-ground spas."
The convenience of the portables also meant a dramatic improvement in quality control, Clark points out. "It really helped the industry, because it had been dependent on somebody else to dig a hole in order to sell a spa. And these people weren't plumbers — if a leak occurred underground, that was a real problem."
It was convenience for everyone. What took time and hassle for the dealer, took the same from the customer. An increasing number of Americans had the money to buy a tub, but time and energy were in short supply. To them, the hassle-free soak sounded pretty good.
No more home invasions of plumbers and handymen. No more waiting for days. And if they didn't like the spa where it was, they could move it.
"When companies came up with that neat little package, it made all the difference," says Ware.
By 1988, according to Clark's figures, spa sales hit an astounding peak of 280,000 units. It was the culmination of a remarkable period of growth. In the space of 20 years, the spa industry had grown from obscurity to an established position in the national culture. It was here to stay.
The issue had never been whether or not people liked soaking in hot water. Any Roman, sitting in any of the city's 900 public baths could have answered that question correctly 2,000 years ago. But it took a 20-year conspiracy of inventors, entrepreneurs, builders, and men and women of business and manufacturing to bring that vessel into the realm of the possible for mainstreet America.
[Eds. note: The preceeding story is an updated version of an earlier original piece by the same author.]
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