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Since their introduction nearly 40 years ago, swim spas have occupied a unique niche offering the benefits of both hot tubs and swimming pools in one unit. For the most part, it's been the ability to swim laps in a small space that has kept swim spas afloat, particularly with fitness-minded homeowners who don't have space for a lap-sized swimming pool.
In recent years, however, the appeal of swim spas has expanded beyond the home-fitness focus to customers who are now turning to the product category for a different set of reasons. The result, according to swim-spa proponents, is an increasingly robust sales environment supported by improved models and accessories.
"The category of swim spas is growing exponentially for our company," says Jamie Burson, sales and operations managers for Great Bay Spa and Sauna, Portsmouth, N.H. "In the past, it was all about the client looking for daily, year-round swimming for aquatic exercise or health-related concerns. Now the client is often looking for a spa for floating and hanging out, or a small pool for kids to splash around that doubles as a place for therapeutic, relaxing soaking."
Christian Staples, owner of Arctic Spas Utah in Salt Lake City, agrees.
"There are many reasons swim spas are increasing in popularity, but in the northern regions of the U.S. and Canada, a big part of it comes from swim spa retailers selling their spas against pools. Swim spas have become an alternative to swimming pools."
"It started with the need for an exercise alternative," says Oran Wakelam, marketing manager, Coast Spas, Langley, B.C., "Now it's evolved into a product that not only offers various options for aquatic exercise, but also provides hydrotherapy and, in many cases, an alternative to a swimming pool."
The reasons for the expansion break down into three basic categories:
The immediacy of digital communication and marketing along with increased product offerings have resulted in more informed buyers.
"There is much more of an awareness of this product now versus five years ago," Wakelam says. "This can be attributed to a combination of factors, from retailers and builders who were early adopters who brought the product…into their market to the coverage of the product in trade and consumer publications. Together this awareness has really helped increase demand for the product."
Swim spa manufacturers have worked hard to simplify and speed-up installations, a factor that plays well against traditional swimming pools.
"Just 10 years ago, a swim spa was a more involved project. It was more of a custom installation," Burson explains. "Not today, because the product is completely self-contained. We have all our swim spas installed, start to finish, within three days. The ease of installation has made it a more attractive solution."
"There's no digging, no contractors, no special equipment," Staples says. "It simply cranes into place and it's ready to fill with water."
As is true of traditional hot tubs, swim spas enable homeowners to enjoy the water when it's cold outside without the expense of heating a 20,000-gallon pool.
"One of the most important reasons we are seeing a growth in the category in our area of the country is the fact that the swim season is so short," Burson says. "Rather than a pool that is only open three months tops, you can use a swim spa year round. So the consumer gets much more use out of a swim spa."
"And you can use a swim spa year-round for half the cost of a pool," Staples adds, "so it's a fun and easy sell for us. The spas we sell are designed for cold weather, thus they are called 'Arctic Spas.' These swim spas are extremely efficient to run — in most cases they cost under two dollars per day to operate."
As swim spas have increased in popularity, so too have the many possible accessories available. These ancillary products provide a terrific upselling opportunity for the dealer and more enjoyment and utility for homeowners. As a result, manufacturers have responded with a greater variety of accessories and improvement tailored specifically to the swim spa market.
"Swim spas are now filling multiple roles for hydrotherapy and relaxation, often providing the enjoyment of a pool in addition to physical exercise. This in turn creates consumer demand for both high- quality covers and accessories that complement the many ways in which the swim spa is used," says Mike Genova, owner of Leisure Concepts, a spa accessories manufacturer located in Spokane, Wash. "Because consumers are looking at the swim spa as an alternative to a pool, they have demonstrated a willingness to increase their overall spending."
"The sales increase has improved the demand for items such as steps," Staples explains. "A basic part of every swim spa sale is the discussion of getting into and out of the swim spa. For those who don't build a custom deck or stair section up to the spa, there are new modular steps designed specifically for swim spas that are wider and have more tiers. These need to be particularly stable with handrails. Many retailers are even purchasing steps that include lighting built into the swim spa steps, as these spas are often used at night for after work exercise and relaxation."
As is true of pools and spas of all types, today's homeowners want their swim spas to not only function conveniently and efficiently, but also fit in with their overall exterior designs.
"This is a higher-end customer who wants to renovate their entire backyard with decking and landscaping," Burson explains. "Oftentimes these customers want their swim spa to look like a pool so they want it 'sunk in' with the deck. We can do this with raised decks but often, here in New Hampshire, the Granite State, you can't dig into the ground without explosives — so the client is forced to put the swim spa on a pad.
"In these cases," he continues, "we sell them a high-end step designed specifically for swim spas, the MOD step by Leisure Concepts. It's a great step with handrails, and an easy up-sell because it's functional and attractive. We also always sell two cover lifts and a split cover, one for each half of the swim spa, so it's easy to remove the spa cover, which is a must for many customers."
In addition to larger items such as steps and covers, Staples reports that swim spas also generate sales for smaller items as well: "Attachable tables and racks for towels and personal items quickly increase the profit on each sale," he says. "In addition, we have a lot of swim spa clients who become customers for water aerobic exercise equipment. These clients often also want stereos built in, lighting packages and even an enclosure."
It's not surprising that dealers such as those interviewed for this discussion, who have seen success with swim spas, are bullish on their prospects for the foreseeable future. So much so, in fact, that some are developing business plans with swim spa growth in mind.
"We believe this category is going to continue to grow rapidly, and we know that we are probably taking some market share away from aboveground pools or small inground pools," Burson says. "That's why we're going to continue to invest in the category and are already undergoing a major expansion to our showroom for our swim spas, showing displays sunk-in and flush with the deck, as well as free standing on a patio. We're investing a lot of money in this showroom expansion because we know it will pay off for us."
Another option in the "alternative pool" market is a small vessel offering a bit more room for play than a swim spa, plus built-in current for exercise — something in between a swim spa and a 12-by-20-foot swimming pool. Fox Pool makes a small vinyl liner pool kit called the Ultimate Fitness Pool which comes with powder-coated steel panels that are pre-punched and pre-cut to accommodate a current generator, in this case the Badu Stream II, with 4-inch plumbing manifold and plumbing support brace.
"It fills the need for consumers who want a pool for keeping fit as well as for relaxing," says Eric Gohn, vice president of sales for Fox Pool Group. "Aquatic fitness is growing exponentially in popularity so builders have been asking for a product designed to fit into today's smaller backyards that can fill the need of both a pool and an exercise machine."
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"If we have made one person's day better, we have succeeded. If we bring one family together, we have succeeded. If we can ease someone's pain, we have succeeded." —Troy Derheim Owner, My Aquatic Services