Is it time to discard the idea that nothing changes in the pool construction industry?
Mike Giovanone, president of Concord Pools and Spas (Latham, N.Y.), is among those who believe the industry has entered a period of profound transformation. "Our industry has changed more in the last two years than it has in the last 20," he says. "It might sound surprising to some people, but in many ways, it's never been easier to sell a pool."
The reasons for that optimistic assessment, he says, can be broken down into a number of areas, but it all starts with the mindset of today's customers.
"People today really want you to understand them. They want you to know why they want a pool and a backyard environment. When you understand that, then you can be tremendously successful; if you don't, you'll find the pool business difficult and frustrating.
"It all starts" he says, "with the 'why.'"
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IN SYNC & IN TIME
Understanding the motivation to buy may sound simple enough, but in practice it can translate to a mindset that influences every aspect of your business from marketing, sales, design and construction to ongoing service long after the project is finished. In order to successfully establish that kind of client-facing approach, the first step is to embrace the much-vaunted experience factor, or "culture of a great experience" as Giovanone describes it. For all of the variety of form and function available these days, ultimately the aquatics industry is all about creating places where homeowners experience quality time with their friends and families.
"On average most people only spend 30 to 40 minutes at a time in or around their pools or spas," he says. "You can't go to a lake or shore, or anywhere else outside the home, and have a similar experience in that small amount of time. Those types of activity usually take all day or maybe a vacation. We're giving homeowners incredibly valuable experiences with their families in much smaller time frames. That's time together they wouldn't have if they didn't have a pool, spa or a beautiful outdoor environment."
Rob Pyrz, owner of Aqua-Tech Pool Spa and Bath in Winnipeg, agrees that the marketplace is evolving based on the desire for a more fulfilling at-home lifestyle.
"There's definitely been a sea change," he says. "People now understand an outdoor great room can really be the best place in the house. Now they're thinking, 'Why can't we have two kitchens? Why can't we have outdoor rooms where we can enjoy the experience of being at home?'"
Although he agrees the industry is surging across North America, Pyrz is quick to point out it's not necessarily because of stellar pool sales.
"I doubt we'll ever get back to the number we saw prior to 2008," he says, "but it's a very different market now. If you want to grow your revenue, you have to look at other places, at different business units, whether it's outdoor kitchens, patio furniture or different types of hardscapes. When you go down that road, it really connects with clients, and that's where you'll find the greatest opportunities for growth."
ACROSS THE LINES
Understanding the all-important whys behind the desire for owning an aquatic environment also means adapting to the fact that clients come to the process far more prepared than ever before. The ability to search the internet, coupled with the myriad options in aquatic and exterior design, have resulted in prospective buyers who often have very specific ideas.
"You have to realize that by the time they reach out to you, they've done their research," Giovanone says. "The last thing you want to do is back them up in that process. Instead you want to fan those flames, keep the passion and the energy in play. You become an orchestra leader. They have all or most of the pieces they want, but you're there to help them put it all together. What you're doing is validating their research, validating their ideas by showing them how it all fits together. They don't want to start at ground zero again."
Giovanone believes the best way to accommodate today's more informed buyer — to keep the momentum they've already found online — is to "cross sell" pools and outdoor features. That's why his company offers steel and composite vinyl pools (including their own patented concrete I-Beam support structures) as well as fiberglass pools, gunite and poured concrete structures with inlaid tile. All of these come with a broad spectrum of associated features in the landscape.
An industry veteran dating back to the early 1970s, Giovanone remembers the days when dealers who specialized in one type of pool spent most of their efforts marketing and selling against competing types of pools, a practice that often confused prospective buyers. That approach, he says, should be considered entirely obsolete.
"We don't try to sell them on one kind of pool we offer. Instead we work to identify and sell them the pool that's right for them," he says. "We're always trying to get them to pick out the pool that's right for their situation, their budget, their property and personal preferences. Again, to do that you have to really understand why they're there in the first place. Only then can you upsell a project, the outdoor kitchen, fire features, landscape lighting, etc. When you listen to the homeowner and sincerely understand them, you build trust. When you cross sell, you're not trying to force them in a specific direction but instead you have the freedom to work with them to find that perfect package — the right package."
AN EVOLVING PALETTE
Both Giovanone and Pyrz understand that meeting ever-more sophisticated customer expectations — the whys — involves an almost constant effort to stay up-to-date on the latest features and trends. That's part of why both are members of Latham's Advisory Board, where they have an opportunity to give the multifaceted manufacturer input on specific issues such as liner colors and patterns and popular features in pool design and technology.
"Manufacturers and distributors need to grasp useful and new ideas — they should listen to the dealers," Giovanone says. "When they do, they understand the pulse of what's going on in the industry. What colors get people excited, what colors create passion and what colors they don't even talk about. It's feedback that you have to take from the grassroots level and deliver it all back to the manufacturing level."
"As an industry, we've never been in a better position with the suite of products that we have available to market to our customers," Pyrz adds. "I think there are vinyl dealers out there right now who don't realize how creative you can be with a liner pool these days. You can do almost everything with vinyl you can with a concrete pool — vanishing edges, beach entries, attached spas."
That design flexibility, he says, enables creative builders to follow popular design trends, such as the relatively recent evolution in stairs. "Staircases have really experienced a renaissance. They used to be just the way you get in and out of the water. Now, the designs can be extremely elaborate, with stairs that might cover a third of the pool's perimeter with all sorts of shelf and benches."
An increasing awareness of the health benefits pool and spas offer also holds potential, especially across demographic lines.
"It's both the wellness of mind and body," Giovanone says. "We know that swimming is great exercise and that using a spa is also extremely good for your body, but we're also providing that sense of tranquility. I can't think of another type of product that can give you both at the same time. There's no question that many homeowners are looking for both, that's a big part of why they decide to invest in an aquatic environment."
And, both add, as baby boomers enter retirement and become grandparents, older buyers have become a far more important part of the growth picture.
"Back in the '80s, the number of grandparents buying pools was zero. Now they are increasing in numbers," Pyrz explains. "Grandparents do a lot of caregiving compared to back then — the times are different. Both mom and dad are working and the grandparents have the kids more often. And maybe it's a little self-serving, too; they're creating something that makes it easier for them to take care of the kids. And grandparents often have the capacity to afford more features, things like an automatic pool cover. It's something that maybe a younger family might not be able to put into the budget."
For all the optimism expressed by builders such as Giovanone and Pyrz, the industry still faces an uphill battle competing with other high-ticket recreational items such as vacations, RVs and boats, all of which have experienced faster growth in the post-recession era.
"Our challenge is to inspire people to think about pools," Giovanone says. "Those other industries have done a much better job of promoting the experience, which is ultimately what we're selling."
That effort, he says, largely takes place one homeowner at a time. "If you give them a good experience, if you put a spring in their step when they walk into the backyard, price becomes secondary," he says. "That's powerful and I live by it. I've always made price secondary to the experience. If you hold true to those beliefs, you'll gain their deepest trust, you'll make service them much better and you'll make a long-term client and a friend."
Perhaps of all of that is why the industry really is changing.