An Interview by Eric Herman
A watershaping industry veteran of more than 25 years, publicist Laurie Batter was cited as one of Aquatics International's "Power 25" in 2006; was twice named one of the Top 25 Industry People to Watch by Swimming Pool/Spa Age; was presented with the Eagle Award — the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals' highest individual recognition — for her service to the hot water industry; and has chaired APSP's Hot Tub Council.
A daily swimmer herself, she also advocates making every American a swimmer for life. Her current client registry includes the National Swimming Pool Foundation, for which she promotes safe use of swimming pools and helps spread the good word about the incredible health benefits of aquatic activity. Outside the industry, her distinguished career includes service as chair of the Carlsbad [Calif.] Arts Commission.
We sat down with Laurie to discuss her views on the current state of the watershaping industry.
The big question on everyone's mind is this: Do you think the industry is headed for a recovery?
It seems as though we're taking some small steps toward getting healthier. I speak with clients, colleagues, retailers and builders all over the country, and they're telling me that things are better this year than they were at the same time last year. I'm also hearing that service and renovations are doing well. But I'm also being told that it's hard to get through the door — and that when it happens, the process of closing a sale is much longer than it used to be and that closing ratios are down.
I get the sense that the patient is doing better and that the raging fever we had last year is down to a low-grade influenza. We're still sick, but we're doing and feeling better. I think a full recovery will take time — maybe four to five years of gradual improvement until we're thriving again.
What do you think we, as an industry, have learned during the past two lean years?
That's a really open question — not so easy to answer. I think that the survivors out there have found ways to keep their businesses alive with lots of introspection — asking the right questions, defining the core of what they do — and by tightening the reins on finances. Those who are stronger have expanded their awareness of what the consumer wants and have figured out how to reach them. Those who are surviving have also recognized the importance of education and training, even in non-technical skills such as sales. After all, when consumers are pushing harder and harder for better deals, salespeople need to be better at communicating benefits and value propositions to work through pricing issues.
There are lots of educational opportunities out there for industry people, and I've definitely seen a growth in inquiries and interest. In fact, the National Swimming Pool Foundation has experienced tremendous growth in its educational offerings and participation. We're all learning that consumers have changed and that we need to learn to respond to those changes.
For all that, I'm not sure that the industry as a whole has accepted what I see as the critical, core message: We must create a need for our products — a need that goes beyond wanting. Yes, it's important to lay a foundation for desire, but our products must become more than luxuries if we want to grow in the way we should.
What would you suggest as a focus, both short- and long-term?
We need to get the message across that our products are good for people, that pools and spas make people healthier and happier, that our products are good for family togetherness and wellness today and into the future. We should be talking about this constantly when we meet with consumers: These people are value-driven, and what could be more valued and valuable than the good health and physical fitness our products make accessible?
If you had to give the industry a letter grade for how well it's been communicating the benefits of aquatic activity, what would it be?
I could say "F" and justify it, but I'll be generous and say "D" because I know there are some in our industry who do embrace this message and have been communicating it. But by and large, there are still too many people in the industry who need to wake up.
I feel good about the partnering we at National Swimming Pool Foundation have done with both the mainstream and trade media during the seven years I've been associated with the foundation. The mainstream media, for example, has been very responsive to news stories we've sent out about cutting-edge research on both health benefits and injury prevention. It's reached a point where editors and writers contact us regularly.
In talking with builders, I find that they're just as hungry for this kind of information — as much of it as they can get — because it helps clients rationalize and "legitimize" their purchases. Consumers want to know they're making the right choices for their families and their health — and it's all backed up now by lots of scientific studies. As I see it, this is the sort of information that will help restore the industry to health, especially as all of us Baby Boomers get older.
Your personal involvement with swimming is something lots of people are familiar with, but how did it come about?
I've experienced two life-changing accidents — and it was swimming that helped me recover both physically and emotionally.
I was lucky to live in Southern California, where year-round pool access was easier to manage than when I was living in Ohio or Connecticut. I started swimming for recreation and exercise as soon as I moved here in 1978, but I wasn't a regular swimmer until after my first accident in 1980.
Immediately afterward, my doctors actively discouraged me from doing anything but lying around, but I liked swimming so I challenged their authority and went back in the water. Before long, I recognized that I could heal myself in the water, and my belief in what I was doing became a tremendous source of emotional and physical strength. So now I get in the water daily, no matter how crummy I might be feeling.
Lots of people comment on how disciplined I am, but my response is that I have an addiction — a healthy one, mind you, but an addiction just the same. And my experience has long fueled my passionate desire to get more people in the water. I believe so strongly in the value of our products that I want our industry to find its own strength again and position itself for growth.
What advice do you have for people in the industry who struggle with balancing the negativity of an issue like child drowning or suction entrapment with the health benefits?
It's important for all of us to accept that, although our products deliver a wealth of health benefits, there are also risks involved — as there are with almost all products. Our goal as an industry should always be to strive for perfection when it comes to safety, but I also think we need to acknowledge the risks and feel comfortable in explaining the need to be safe while talking about health at the same time.
As an industry, however, we evolve slowly. We still need to demonstrate that we have the will and passion needed to move up to the next level. But let's get real here: It's a scientific fact that people who swim live longer and have healthier lives. I can't imagine more powerful benefits for any kind of product!
I'm so convinced that the industry has a bright future that I've even thought about becoming a watershaper myself. I have such a passion for waterfeatures and pools, and I think it would be both fun and rewarding to combine that passion with my educational background in the arts and design. If I don't head that way, you know I'll still be swimming on a daily basis, staying healthy and, as a result, enjoying what I do professionally more deeply every day.
Laurie J. Batter is founder and leader of the BatterUp! Team, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based public relations firm that focuses on the pool and spa industry. For more information, go to www.batterupproductions.com.
Eric Herman is the editor of WaterShapes.