Swim spas — and the swim-in-place movement as a whole — are having a moment. Late last year, Marquis released its first swim spa model: the ATV, or Aquatic Training Vessel. And in March, Watkins Manufacturing announced it acquired Endless Pools, which produces swim spas, pools, swimming machines, aquatic treadmills and more. According to Watkins President Steve Hammock, the acquisition was a natural development for the company and the spa industry as a whole.

"As we look toward the future, our vision of ourselves is for a larger platform built around wellbeing products," he says. "We believe spas improve people's lives, and we believe aquatic fitness improves people's lives."

In the face of this strong vote of confidence, some hot tub dealers have seen mixed results on the sales floor. According to AQUA's 2015 State of the Industry survey, only 44 percent of hot tub retailers carried swim spas over the past year. When asked about sales, we saw a gamut of responses: Many said sales were slow or flat, but others said sales were improving. "Customer awareness and demand are increasing," one survey taker said.

These comments point to a pertinent question: As more spa manufacturers flock to swim spas and swim-in-place products, is the category finally seeing validation as a successful item for consumers and dealers alike?

"Well, we sure hope so!" Hammock says with a laugh.

"A Slow Rise"

photo of a man using a Master Spas swim spa

Endless Pools has been around for nearly 30 years. Why did it take so long for swim-in-place products to catch on?

"It's been a slow rise," Hammock says. "This thing's been going on for quite awhile, but similar to hot tubs in general, I still think our industry is a well kept secret. When you consider the fact that everybody likes these products and very few people actually have them in real numbers compared to the potential out there — we're only just getting started.

"If companies can get bigger and have a more substantial base from which to promote, that's going to perpetuate and create more customers. It's hard to do when the industry is really small, but as bigger players emerge, I think it's going to be easier for us to grow and get the message out."

Bob Lauter, CEO of Master Spas, is glad to have the company. The manufacturer has been active in swim spas for more than a decade, and as one of the few swim spa manufacturers to invest in national advertising, Lauter says a new player in the market will help boost consumer recognition:

photo of a woman using a swim spa

"Watkins will spend money on that category now, which they haven't in the past because they haven't been involved in it," he says. "So I think that'll help the industry because they'll generate interest in the product in general."

Moving Targets

The acquisition is no surprise, as swim spas have "exploded" in popularity, Lauter says, largely due to their appeal to two vastly different demographics, baby boomers and triathletes.

According to Lauter, 20 percent of Master Spas' swim spas are sold to people who are retired. "It's kind of perfect timing because you have this big population of 75 to 76 million aging baby boomers who want to stay young but have had hip replacements, bad backs, knee surgery and more, and a swim spa is the absolute perfect place to rehab from that stuff."

The other big demographic, triathletes, are just as passionate about swim spas, but use them for personal achievement goals instead of health goals.

"If you ask a triathlete or an Ironman competitor, 'What's the most difficult thing to train for?'," Lauter says, "99 percent of them will say, 'It's the open water swimming.' It's just hard to replicate." A swim spa provides a training edge by offering a convenient environment that imitates the long, sustained swim leg of a triathlon (as opposed to constantly bouncing off the walls of a swimming pool).

Master Spas is positioning itself within the athletic market with the Michael Phelps line of swim spas. In addition, the company has brought on a triathlete consultant to create a swim spa training program. "We're not just saying, 'Hey, come train in a swim spa,' we have the specifics of how you would train," Lauter says.

The At-Home Aquatic Gym

photo of an Endless Pool installation

For Watkins, acquiring Endless Pools isn't strictly a means of getting into the swim spa market.

"I think our vision is bigger than that," Hammock says. "Our vision is that aquatic fitness in all of its manifestations has a bright future.

"People are living longer, people are wealthier, people are more concerned about living healthy lifestyles. The opportunity to do low-impact cardio-related water activities in the privacy of your own home that research indicates leads to a healthier, longer lifestyle," he says, makes swim spas an obvious winner.

The industry in turn has responded with a wide variety of accessories for swim-in-place products and pools as a whole, such as rowing attachments, treadmills, stationary bikes, multi-use gym equipment and even waterproof tablet attachments that monitor activity and lead workouts.

Instead of pools, spas and swim spas functioning as luxury items, Watkins intends to position them as wellness items.

"It's the difference between a home improvement product and a personal improvement product," he says. "And we believe we make personal improvement products. That's just a different orientation."

Lauter recalls selling his first swim spa in the early '80s. They've come a long way since that time, and Lauter only sees good things ahead.

"I think that segment of the market will continue to grow. And I think what Watkins is doing with Endless will help," he says. "I think it will be good for all of us."

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail cailley@aquamagazine.com.

Tags: swim spas
Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.