Last spring, hot tubs made headlines in the Northwest as utilities, local governments and the media, looking for something to blame in the face of a potential energy crisis, painted portable hot tubs as major energy wasters, tying them to the perceived "California Lifestyle" of selfishness and decadence. The negative image stuck, and the industry scrambled to find ways to set the record straight.

In Tacoma, Wash., city officials went so far as to propose a ban on the use of electric heat for personal hot tubs - they even considered fining violators $100 per day!

The industry was caught off guard by the negative publicity and unprecedented singling out of its product, and even though it managed to prevail in Tacoma, it's an issue that's sure to surface again, especially with a gubernatorial race in California next fall. With that in mind, the Hot Tub Council hired the engineering firm Arthur D. Little to determine how much energy hot tubs typically consumed and what effect they had on overall consumption so they'd be better prepared next time the issue arose.

The Arthur D. Little study, which shows that hot tubs are not the villains they're often made out to be, will give industry members ammunition to fight the misinformation surrounding hot tubs and energy usage.

Meanwhile, NSPI's Hot Tub Council, along with acrylic manufacturers like Lucite and Aristech, are trying to steer the public's attitude about portable hot tubs in a more positive direction through public relations efforts and category advertising. NSPI has even created a new membership category for spa dealers to increase the amount of money it has for promotion.

"Once we get past the hurdle of talking about energy usage, we can get back on track with our consumer message," says Mischel Schonberg, account supervisor for Northlich, the Cincinnati PR firm hired by NSPI to spearhead a new advertising and PR program.

Armed With Info

In a way, the industry dodged a bullet this past year when the predicted energy shortage didn't materialize.

Also, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the energy issue moved to the back burner of the nation's consciousness. But experts point out that the country is still operating with an insufficient power grid, and consumption continues to increase along with the average size of a home, so the issue will surely not go away. And when it does return, hot tubs and their owners are likely to be attacked again.

"Hot tubs have become a scapegoat," says Lauren Stack, a representative of Aristech Acrylics and outgoing chairperson of the Hot Tub Council. "We did our best to combat the negative messages with qualitative facts last year, but we needed hard facts. Now with the A.D. Little study, we have the data that proves tubs are a small part of overall consumption."

NSPI released the results of the study in early December at the International Pool & Spa Show in Phoenix. Among the findings were that nationally, electric portable hot tubs account for only 0.7 percent of annual energy consumption in the United States, and that they cost the typical user about $22 per month to operate. Furthermore, they contribute only 0.3 percent to peak energy demand in any given area, including hot-tub-happy states such as New York and California. (For more information on the study, contact Mischel Schonberg, Northlich, at 513/762-1949.)

Along with the study, Northlich and NSPI released a media relations guide for hot tub retailers that details ways of addressing the energy issue and redirecting the dialogue toward the health, happiness and relaxation benefits hot tubs offer.

The 3 Rs

"When the Hot Tub Council came to us, they wanted a sustainable campaign they could build on," says Schonberg. "And there are three main things that attract people to hot tubs.

We call them the 3 Rs: Relax, Renew and Retreat."

This past spring, NSPI ran ads in consumer and trade magazines owned by Hanley-Wood as part of the agreement the association made when it sold its trade show to the Dallas company. Titles included Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful and Home Remodeling and Decorating.

Jack Cergol, chief staff executive for NSPI, says the initial response from the ads was positive and that he plans to continue running them.

"We also ran a 32-page insert in Better Homes & Gardens," says Cergol.

"I had that reprinted and we use it as a fulfillment piece when people call in for information. I had 20,000 printed and still have 5,000 left. We'll have a new insert to reprint this spring."

Schonberg, who had a hand in designing the ads (but not the insert), says they focus on people's feelings rather than any special product attribute.

"While the pool ad features a daytime shot, the hot tub ad is a nighttime scene, which is more intimate and quiet," she says. "It has a reconnecting and private retreat message."

Similar messages are also increasingly common in ads by hot tub manufacturers, as the industry continues to stress the benefits it feels customers are most apt to respond to.

Health Issues

With solid information in hand to combat negative messages relating to energy usage, the Hot Tub Council hopes to put another feather in its cap by funding research about the benefits of hot tub usage to ease back pain.

Stack says the association has gathered about $80,000 of the estimated $94,000 needed to fund the study, which will be conducted by the physical therapy school at Andrews University in Dayton, Ohio. The study is scheduled to begin Jan. 6, and after six months of gathering clinical data and another month of analysis, the results should be ready next fall.

If the study yields the results the industry is hoping for, it should help sell more units. "From the point of view of educating the consumer, I think the most important thing is to let people know how good hot tubs are for them," says Robert Randall, field sales manager for Tony V's Sunrooms & Spas, Clinton Township, Mich. "But the perception is that hot tubs are expensive to own and operate. That perception isn't really going away."

Money Matters

But running category ads, funding studies and promoting the industry through PR is expensive, and Cergol says NSPI has to be careful where it spends its money. Unlike the RV industry, the pool and spa industry doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on promotion.

Last July the association took a step toward closing that gap when it approved a new membership category for hot tub dealers.

"We just don't have the resources to do the things we'd like to do in PR right now," says Stack. "But with each new member we'll have about $400 for industry promotion. That adds up pretty quickly."

According to Stack, the association currently has between $125,000 and $150,000 to spend on promoting hot tubs. She hopes to be able to double that figure in the future.

Whether or not the association reaches that goal, it will continue to focus its efforts on both delivering positive messages about relaxation and therapy while defending the industry against unfair attacks, because the energy and cost issues aren't going to go away anytime soon.

That's why it's all the more important for the industry to stay on message, says Stack. "When people asked about energy issues last spring, we had the opportunity to supply them with our '3 Rs' message, and that softened a lot of the blows we got in the media. We were able to mitigate the damage from those articles."

Schonberg agrees: "Obviously, people are now looking to stay home, and we think hot tubs play into the whole 'Take a vacation in your backyard' idea. So we want to get back on that message track."

Relax, Renew and Retreat

Research shows old image of hot tub sends the wrong message

For an industry to prosper, it needs to know who its customers are and what those people want. Sounds simple enough. But for years portable hot tub manufacturers and dealers operated under the false assumption that their product appealed primarily to young people looking for a place to party. Manufacturers' ads often depicted scantily clad female bathers with come-hither expressions and alcoholic beverages, assuming their target audience would jump at the chance to get into that tub.

But in recent years that's changed, thanks in part to research that shows the average buyer to be considerably older, more family-oriented and less eager to hop into a hot tub with a drunken floozy.

NSPI and acrylic manufacturers like Lucite and Aristech, all of whom stood to gain considerably by an increased overall market, initiated category advertising and public relations campaigns aimed at promoting hot tubs as places for families to gather for fun, relaxation and therapy. Many manufacturers have followed suit and now gear their messages toward the same audience. Flip through some old issues of AQUA and you'll notice how the image of a hot tub owner has changed in recent years.

"The old ads had more of a party situation," says Chris Robinson, sales and marketing manager for Lucite Acrylic, Cordova, Tenn. "We found people were looking to reconnect and just enjoy the therapeutic benefits of spa ownership. Our newer ads show couples in tighter shots - just showing the people enjoying themselves instead of focusing on the product."

According to Lucite's research, the average buyer is between 35 and 54, has a household income of $75,000 and is college educated. Robinson says the company also determined what the average buyer wanted from the product, then geared its message to appeal to those desires.

"Relaxation is a bigger factor for buyers under 45 and therapeutic benefits work best for people 55 and older," he says. "Only 12 percent buy for socializing, so those old 'party spa' ads weren't going to connect."



Media Mavens

What to say (and not to say) if the media comes a-calling

Knowing the facts about energy usage will help you not only steer an interview in a positive direction, it can also come in handy if a potential customer raises the issue.

Here's what the engineering firm Arthur D. Little found out: A typical hot tub costs about $22 per month to operate, based on an electricity cost of $0.10 per kWh. All together, hot tubs account for less than one percent of overall energy consumption in the United States. Compare that to refrigerators (12.9 percent), air conditioners (11.7 percent), space heaters (11.4 percent), lights (9.2 percent), TVs (3 percent) and microwaves (1.1 percent).

When the energy issue comes up again - and it certainly will - it's important to know these facts and to be prepared to answer questions from reporters. While it's unlikely an AP writer will call you, it's much more likely a local reporter will call looking for a local angle on a wire story.

Following are some interview tips, courtesy of Northlich, a Cincinnati-based PR firm, and NSPI.

  • First of all, think of the interview as an opportunity to convey key messages about your products and the industry. Know those messages and incorporate them into your responses.
  • Try not to offer too much information. That can take the interview "off message" and can open the door to other problems.
  • Don't get defensive or suggest the interviewer is being too negative - after all it's a reporter's duty to ask questions. Also, don't be afraid to say "I don't know" to a question. You're not expected to know everything.
  • If you are caught with your guard down and a reporter calls, tell him or her you're busy and will gladly call them back. Then take a few minutes to prepare your message. You can even contact NSPI for help.
  • Be careful how you answer questions. If a reporter asks you something that doesn't relate specifically to your business, refer them to someone better qualified to answer.
  • If asked about industry sales figures, say you don't know what others are doing (because you probably don't). If asked about sales at your own store, say you'd rather not answer for competitive reasons and leave it at that.

Above all, don't make speculations.