Looking through the pages of AQUA could give the impression that big backyards with high-end pools always come with custom spas, and standalone spas on patios or decks are always of the portable variety. But obviously that's not true in all cases. Sometimes the half-million-dollar pool customer wants the hydrotherapy experience that only a portable spa can provide, while other times customers with small backyards or budgets will opt for a standalone gunite spa, with beauty trumping all other considerations. The latter customers have limitless options for placement and design, but need to know up front what they're getting — and what they're giving up.

The trick for builders is getting to know the customers and how they see themselves using their hot tubs. For those that don't sell portable units, that could mean sending them elsewhere, or doing your best to make their gunite spas as therapeutic and ergonomic as possible.

Wants And Needs

Colorado Poolscapes is a Genesis 3 builder in Glenwood Springs, Colo., which sits about 45 minutes from both Vail and Aspen. General manager and partner Marshall Foote says the days when a custom pool necessitated a custom spa are disappearing.

"Today, with self-contained spas where they are, we're seeing that people getting a custom pool are also getting a portable spa," he says. "So we're starting to provide more clients with that."

There are a few reasons for this change, Foote explains, but the biggest is hydrotherapy, and custom gunite spas are no match for portable ones in that category.

"We make it quite clear to our clients that for us it's really about what you want out there — is it aesthetics that you're looking for or is it actual functionality — so that they understand when they get the custom spa, they're getting the look that they want and whatever they want as far as landscape architecture, etc., to fit in," he says. "If they come to us and say, 'You know, I'm playing golf and running and I want a custom spa.' We go, 'Well, if it's all about the hydrotherapy, we're going to push you toward [a portable spa], and you'll save a little bit of money, get a little more value, and get you something that you're going to be happier with.'

"It's about what the customer needs and wants and really trying to figure out the product that's going to fit that. They may not think that they need one or the other, but if you can show them why it fits their needs and wants, then it's an easy sell."

Another builder, Steve Chandler, president of Custom Pools & Patio in Boise, Idaho, has similar conversations with his custom pool customers.

"They'll come in wanting concrete and we'll talk them into a portable. We do that a lot," he says. Sometimes, though, even after learning that portable may be preferable, highend pool customers worry that they're giving up too much in the aesthetics department.

"The way we address that is we will recess the portable spa and build a vault," Chandler explains. "That takes some of the high profile away from that spa. Also, if people want to fit it into a particular setting, we can do cultured stone or some other facade around the spa to make it blend into what the setting is."

Foote says Colorado Poolscapes does similar installations to get around certain customers' initial objections to the look of a typical portable spa.

"We're starting to see a big market of custom installs for self-contained spas," he says. "It's not just slapping the spa on the deck, it's building a vault and setting the spa in it and doing some nice rockwork around it to make it look as if it's a custom spa. So they're not having to pay as much, plus they've got the energy efficiency and the hydrotherapy of a portable spa."

Profit Potential

Both Foote and Chandler insist they don't always try to steer customers toward portable, despite the ease of the transaction compared with a custom job.

"It depends on the customer," Chandler explains. "It's certainly easier for us to do a portable spa, but our biggest thing is to make sure that the product fits the customer, and if there's somebody that's really in need of hydrotherapy and likes to use it a lot, we'll probably push them toward the portable spa.

"If the obvious preference is for the better-looking spa and using the spa as one of the features of the backyard, we would certainly go with gunite."

On the profit-versus-ease equation, Foote feels similarly: "For me, customs can be a little bit more of a headache, but I've got a little bit more of a profit margin, because it's highend stuff. But the self-contained portable spas are an easy turn — you find out what the client wants, you've got it in stock, boom, it's there. Where with a custom pool and spa, we've got jobs that can last two-and-ahalf years, so it's a lot of time in between billings."

Foote adds that his salesperson's relationship with the design and construction departments makes figuring out whether a customer's needs can be met with a custom gunite spa easier.

"She'll come up all the time and go, 'Do you think this is possible.'" he says. "Then she can sit down with the client and say, "Here are the different budget areas. What can you realistically afford, and then let's try to work around that and get you something that you're really going to be happy with.'"

Gotta Have Gunite

While there's no doubt a portable spa can't be beat for hydrotherapy, ergonomics and value, some high-end customers won't settle for anything less than a custom spa spilling into the negative-edge pool into which they've invested $50,000 or $100,000 or more. Even custom installs of portables fall short of the look they're after. They want the lounger seats, calf massagers and as many jets as they can get, and they insist it's got to be gunite.

"There are people that have had portable spas before that are looking for an in-ground concrete spa with a pool, and they'll want to stack jets or add a quad set of jets for one person and foot jets that come up through the bottom of the floor," says David Klohr Jr. of Smart Pools in Las Vegas. "Those kinds of things are more common in the high-end spas that we do. We do some with reclined seats, where you angle the bench and angle the back of the spa wall. We've also done a couple of chaise lounges."

These projects, Klohr admits, are on the difficult side, partly because they've got to measure the clients and account for the differences in buoyancy between men and women, and partly because they realize that increasing the water action increases the likelihood that something will go wrong and need fixing.

"If you get a problem with these you've got a big problem," he says. "Some manufacturers make a higherend jet body, like Waterway's threepiece jet, which you can turn on and off and change nozzles. But if it's a standard spa jet and you've got a problem outside of the jet nozzle, you're going to have to start chipping into the concrete or around the jet to try to figure out the problem."

Foote says Colorado Poolscapes also does its best to accommodate customers who want portable performance in a prettier package, and says that until recently, the company kept up pretty well.

"We always tried to put more jets than were typical," he says. "Ten or 12 years ago you had eight jets on the acrylic shells, and we were putting in more than that. Then the portable spa over the last seven or eight years kind of leapfrogged over us to where you can get 60 jets in a spa. I have clients sitting in a nicely installed portable spa asking, 'Can you match this?' I tell them, flat-out, no. But if it's aesthetics, I can put glass tile in it, do any shape you want out there, custom build it — it just depends on the budget."

Like Foote, Chandler says making sure the customer know what he or she is getting is the key. He says he'll gladly install a custom spa with special jet locations and numerous jets (21 is pretty common for one of Custom Pool & Patio's custom jobs) and other features modeled on today's portable spas.

"We try to accommodate people," Chandler says. "But any time you add anything there's more opportunities for problems. Expectations are everything when you're selling. People need to know what they're buying as well as what the potential for problems is. We try to address that with every job and every product we sell."

Portable Problems

Custom spas loaded with jets aren't the only ones that need fixing. Portable units can break down too. For a spa on a concrete pad, it's relatively easy to pop off a panel and make the needed repairs. Plus, if they're new enough, it's covered under the manufacturer's warranty. But what if something goes wrong with a custom-installed unit. That requires a little on-site demolition, and someone's got to foot the bill.

"We make sure the client understands that if there's a leak at the jet in the back left corner, that all that flagstone around the spa, we're going to have to pop that to pull the spa to do any work on it. We make sure the customer is very aware that the install for that portable spa is not covered by warranty.

"Six years ago when we were doing those we wouldn't even think about that, and then something down the road would be covered under warranty, and the client's like, 'What. It's under warranty. You guys have to pull this out and fix it.' We'll fix it but there's some liability the owner has to take. That was a big lesson for us."

Diff'rent Strokes

While Foote, Chandler and Klohr say they do all they can to make their custom spas come close to the performance a portable spa delivers, they say that, for the most part, each attracts a different type of buyer.

"The portable spas are so good for hydrotherapy that it's hard to beat them with a gunite spa," Chandler says. "The gunite spas are for people that don't care about a lot of jets, even though we can put a lot of jets in. They like the hot water, and the value is just in the beauty of the spa."

So listen to their needs, and don't take it for granted that a high-end pool buyer is going to be happy with a gunite spa. Even if he insists he is.