Ask most industry experts about the appeal of those perpeptual swimming machines known as swim spas or counter-current pools, and their answers seem pretty broad. They say swim spas are for everyone; young, old, fit or not. They point out the many possible uses and installations. It seems that the swim spa is a good answer to nearly any residential/recreational water question.

Ask typical consumers about a swim spa, and their responses, too, are fairly vague. Many consumers haven't seen a swim spa, let alone used one, and aren't really sure what they are. And most people are hesitant to spend a lot of money on something they haven't quite figured out.

So while versatility may be the beauty of the swim spa, it can also confuse consumers who, increasingly, rely on branding and categories in order to make sense of the cacophony of marketing messages to which they are subjected. Focusing in on those swim-spa features that are most salient to the individual customer is the way to clear the clutter.

"Part of the swim spa approach is that you have to educate people," says Audrey Markiton, director of marketing for Sunbelt Spas. "People aren't familiar with what it is. There are people who will walk in and know what it is, but most will walk in and say, 'What's that giant box?'" Markiton says over the last several years major manufacturers have helped place articles in magazines that target healthy-living people, people who have arthritis and other people who could benefit from the therapy.

"We and a lot of other companies have been doing a lot of national advertising, and the Web has certainly helped, as well, to bring up public awareness," says Graeme Thomson, general manager of Hydropool's Aquatrainer brand.

"Knowledge of the product is essential," says Markiton. "Be able to tell a customer about the product and answer all the questions they have. Go to a homeowner and talk about things they maybe didn't think about. You as a retailer will know things that they don't know or don't remember. 'You could put steps here. How about a Cover Butler?' It allows you to bring in your knowledge of the product and the industry."

Who Are They For?

Some manufacturers say that there's not an exclusive, specific demographic group that buys swim spas. They are for everyone; young people, old people, families, people who are maintaining a high level of fitness and people who are addressing an injury or medical condition. But there are some specific groups for which swim spas fill a specific need.

"There isn't really one defined consumer. It's pretty much open to everybody," says Thomson. "But you definitely have a specific market in serious swimmers, whether they're swimming for fitness or competition." These swimmers have a different set of criteria than the more casual user. They are more likely to be concerned with the nuts and bolts of getting a realistic swimming workout. For them, details about the propulsion system may be of top importance and retailers will score points if they can discuss their products on these terms.

"We specially designed our swim jets for in-place swimming, says Thomson. "We get a better .ow and current. The jets produce resistance that's equal to a swimming speed of about 5 miles per hour."

At Markiton's company, they use a jet with an established brand name to impress consumers. "BaduJets are a really big selling point, people know what they are before they even go into the store," says Markiton.

"It's a specific kind of jetting system that's used for swimming and resistive exercises."

But having a realistic approximation of the Olympic Aquatic Centre pool isn't a priority for most consumers.

"You also have the market of older consumers who may just want to do fitness to have a better quality of life. They can't go out and jog, but they can swim and do bouyant exercises," says Thomson. These consumers will be interested in therapeutic jets as well as those that create a swimming plume. And they won't have a need for a current that reaches 5 miles per hour. They will likely be concerned with ease of maintenance. And talking about options and add-ons that will make their swim spa into an allin-one aquatic gym will impress, too.

Markiton says that therapy and medical needs drive a lot of the marketing at her company.

"We have doctors and physical therapists who recommend swim spas to their patients," she says. "A lot of the marketing right now is aimed at facilities where people are going to become familiar with the product."

"But," says Thomson, "the market is far from limited to just those areas."

Says Markiton: "We have a lot of familes that buy them. People who don't want to go to the expense of $50,000 in their backyard, but they'll spend $20,000."

Thomson notes that changes in residential planning have made the swim spa an excellent choice for many. "With the trends in building — the postage stamp-sized lots — people are limited to their space, and they don't necessarily want a pool that will take up their whole backyard and not leave room for a patio or a garden."

And for the small yard, a swim spa compares favorably to a small pool. "You can't put the slides or the diving boards in a 30-foot pool, anyway," says Thomson. "If you really want to use the 30-foot pool for swimming, you take three or four strokes and you have to turn around already. What do most people do in a pool. Hop in, relax in the sun and float around in a chair with your beverage of choice. And you can do that whether it's a 30foot pool or a 14-foot swim spa."

Athletic Aesthetics

It's a serious piece of exercise equipment, but unlike the gangly bulky eliptical machine or treadmill that inelegantly squats on precious floor space in many homes, a swim spa is an aesthetic benefit. Markiton recommends taking a designer approach and visiting the home.

"By going to the customer's home, you can actually work in a color scheme. You can talk about, 'Wow, you have a really great verdigris fence back here. Why don't we match the colors.' Then it becomes a project, not just a spa purchase. And people really like that. They like the idea that somebody came there and learned about their style and found a versatile way to put that into the backyard," she says. And making the installation into a project means adding value — casual furniture, decking, landscaping — to the ticket.

Consumers who know about swim spas are big fans. Retailers who successfully highlight the pertinent features of this versatile product will have happy (and healthy!) customers.