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Changing the Industry's Focus

By Vance Gillette

VanceGilletteJandyThe time has come for a major change in the pool and spa industry: Time to think differently about how we promote and market our products; time to recognize that our products bring more happiness and excitement to people than anything else they can buy; and especially time to dump the negativity of the past and greet the future with enthusiasm, because our products offer experiences almost everyone wants.

Consider the fact that when you see an ad for a Marriott resort, a Hyatt Regency hotel, Sandals or any other vacation destination, the companies co-opt the joy our products bring by showing water in the form of luxurious pools and spas. They don't highlight the lobby or the rooms. They don't spend time with the restaurants or shops. They might show a snippet of the golf course, but the imagery is mostly dominated by remarkable experiences around pools - people living the good life, making memories and enjoying the richness of outdoor aquatic experiences.

The reason for this is obvious: Pools provide experiences that people remember and cherish, and more important, that they anticipate. For reasons we all know (or at least should), people of all ages and all walks of life simply love pools and spas. They associate them with fun, family togetherness, luxury, parties and even freedom and sensuality - all in and around water.

Yet when you look at what we talk about as an industry, none of this comes through at all as the primary point of discussion. Instead, we go on and on about safety, child drowning, suction entrapment, diving accidents, the toxicity of chlorine and an array of other issues that, while they deserve attention without question, mostly serve to distract and drive people away from the amazing benefits we offer our clients.

Seeking Experiences

Right now, we need to drop the overall downbeat tones and attitudes. Both individually and collectively, we need to start an open dialogue about the experiences that make our products so amazingly desirable.

Yes, we need to be as technically competent as possible. Yes, we need to be up to speed on energy and water conservation. And yes, we need to make sure our products are as safe as humanly possible. That's all true and important. But we also need to step back and look at what people are really buying when they pursue pool and spa ownership. In a word, what they're doing is seeking experiences.

Look at it this way: If you care about the car you drive, the first thing that comes to mind is the brand. It's a BMW, a Mercedes, a Lexus, an Audi, a Ford or a Chrysler - the make is all that matters. But do you ever really stop to think about who made the spark plugs, the radiator or the transmission? These days, all that even the gearheads know is the horsepower of the engine, and that's about it.

What we do know about our cars these days is what the experience of driving them is like, especially if it's enjoyable. Maybe you love the suppleness of your Mercedes' interior, your Audi's amazing ride or the raw power of your BMW.

People think of pools and spas in the same experiential way. In truth, nobody cares at all about the variable speed pump other than to appreciate the fact that it makes running a pool more affordable. Nobody cares about the specifics of the filtration system or the chemical feeder or the pool cleaner. All they know is whether they like the water quality. Way beyond all that, what people really do know is this: "My pool gives me enjoyable experiences."

When you look at the psychographics of our industry and the psychology of our clients (not their demographics and their age, weight and gender), you quickly learn that what characterizes our clients is their desire for the experiences they can have in and around their pools and spas. And this surfaces in lots of ways. Some crave pride of ownership, others are drawn to aesthetic beauty, and still others want a place to hang out with family and friends, or a place to play in water, or an opportunity to luxuriate in a spa.

Everything they're after - everything! - comes from positive past associations and the lifestyle preferences they create in the present and for the future.

To that point, let me add that I believe the term "swimming pool" is antiquated. Most people do not swim or exercise in their pools. While some do strive to achieve transforming health benefits (and we would be in an even stronger market position if more people did), the fact is that the majority don't. So when you talk about motivating people to buy - notice I did not mention selling (more on that below) - we're not really there to educate them about health issues, but rather to amplify, reinforce and exploit their desire for the experiences they do already have in mind.

Backyard Entertainment

When we consider this concept of experiences, I like to say that the best thing about memories of pool and spa ownership is....making them. When you think about the experiences of pool and spa ownership, you should immediately consider the fact that you are no longer in the swimming pool business but are instead in the "backyard entertainment" business.

As has been discussed for years in WaterShapes and by other progressive voices in the industry, water is just part of an overall picture. Yes, pools and spas might be the most significant investment and sometimes the most prominent feature in a backyard, but they exist as parts of overall environments that may also include outdoor kitchens, dining/entertainment areas, fire features, landscaping, lighting, shade structures, outbuildings and purely decorative watershapes such as ponds, streams, reflecting pools and fountains.

Again, it's all about the experience. That's our business, fulfilling our clients' desire for the overall backyard entertainment experience. In my book, that's why we should be the world's most vocal proponents of the excitement and unabashed joy of owning a great outdoor environment.

And make no mistake: I'm not talking about selling here, but rather about an absence of selling. Our clients are already sold on the types of experiences they want. That's why they called you in the first place. They don't need to be convinced that owning a beautiful setting for fun, entertainment and relaxation is something they want. They already know it - which is why, both as individuals and an industry, we need to develop the communication skills required to translate visions into realities.

Sadly, I can't escape the feeling that most people and even most companies in this industry are nowhere near embracing this concept and the attitude that goes with it. Too many of us are stuck in the past, where the conceptual mindset revolves around making profits off of selling concrete-lined holes that contain water.

We haven't been helped by the economy during the past two or three years: It's done little to inspire visionary thinking, let alone optimism. The numbers may be argued, but roughly speaking, about 200,000 new pools were built in 2006. For 2009, that number dropped down below 50,000 - a decline of more than 75 percent in just three years.

That's enough to darken the outlook of even the most optimistic among us. Even so, as we move toward a recovery at glacial speed, most of us (with regrettable exceptions) are still here. Each of us should be proud of having persevered. But we also must be sublimely aware, more than ever, that we can't allow opportunity to pass us by simply because we're shy about embracing the amazing set of benefits we offer and are ready to provide.

Bouncing Back

Indeed, being ready - right now - is what's important because there are strong reasons for redoubled optimism. Consider, for example, the wealthy households that are prime targets for luxurious backyard treatments. We should all be encouraged to know that households worth more than a million dollars (excluding income from property ownership) grew by 16 percent in 2009. Families worth more than $5 million grew by 17 percent and now are more than 980,000 strong.

Further consider that in many cases those people have held onto their money the past two years in fear of the rough economy. Although their spending habits have temporarily changed, that has done nothing to separate them from positive thoughts about pools and spas. I'm among those who believe that all this amounts to is tremendously pent-up demand.

On top of that, we know that banks have been ridiculously reluctant to lend money for home improvements or purchases, even to qualified borrowers. Recently, however, we've heard noises from the financial community (including statements from financial mogul Warren Buffet) predicting that banks are poised to begin lending again.

We must combine these macro-trends with an improved and more focused message from our industry to fuel a dynamic resurgence - one that can be proclaimed by industry leaders as well as the rank and file. But we must be ready with that message. We must be prepared with lines of discussion that zero in on all those experiences we know people want.

The great thing is, we already know what those experiences are because we share the same desires with our clients. What designer or builder doesn't share a sense of the value of living with a well-designed, beautiful space made for spending time with loved ones, having fun and feeling relaxed? So we know what to say; the trick is being ready to say it, over and over again, without hesitation, fear or compromise.

As for the means of disseminating these messages, we need to consider marketing campaigns, product literature, promotional videos and all sorts of aggressive marketing vehicles. We need to get involved in social networking and turn our existing contact lists into collections of friends, past clients, colleagues, current clients and potential clients.

There is simply no excuse: We must make the case for our products and let people know we can deliver on their dreams. To do that, we must start believing again in the value and benefits and joys of what we offer and provide. We must leave behind any sense that pools and spas are second-class citizens of the design world, leave behind attitudes of defeat and failure, and instead declare ourselves to be professionals who give clients what they want the most in life: great experiences.

Vance Gillette has been extremely active in the swimming pool and spa industry for more than 40 years. He has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia representing a number of leading pool industry companies. As a sought-after speaker, he has inspired countless people to think about the many exciting opportunities open to pool and spa professionals. Currently, Gillette is Vice President of Business for Zodiac Pool Systems. For more information, go to www.zodiacpoolsystems.com.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest - Al Rizzo

    I just finished reading your article, Vance, and as always you're right on the money. I drive a BMW and have no idea how it's put together and how it's built. I bought it for the name and the style.

    Most pool builders have had to learn how to live and exist in this terrible business climate. I keep in contact with builders throughout the country, and they all wonder how long the jerks who keep selling pools below 2008 pricing will last. We all know how they do it. The customer suffers in the long run — and in the longer run, the industry gets a black mark.

    Al Rizzo
    Rizzo Construction Pool Co.
    Newington, Conn.

  • Guest - Glenn Douglas

    There are so many levels in Vance’s article that can be touched upon. First, let’s talk about Vance: He is an exceptional individual with great vision. He himself is infectious to be around. He brings out the best in people. He understands the pool industry and knows how to attack it from a visionary marketing perspective. Vance, the industry should embrace your ideas with open arms.

    Vance is not asking the industry to ignore what has happened to our industry. He wants you to understand the pulse of our industry. I don't know where you are in the industry chain. From top to bottom, manufacturing to service and repair, thousands of industry professionals daily touch the lives of others. Whether you are the salesman in front of a prospective client or a sales rep meeting with a prospective retailer, we touch the lives of others daily. What we say or sometimes don't say speaks to the mindset of others and directly affects the pulse of our industry.

    Vance is a realist when it comes to the lack of lending that has crippled our industry. He understands that our industry is spent, tired and hanging on by a thread. Guys, raise your hand, I am there with you. Agree. Rising above and beyond the challenges is a necessity for all of us. Vance is asking you, the industry professional, to redeem and renew your energy in a positive way.

    He is right: We as an industry provide our end-user with little reason to purchase our product. If one analyzes the product, the end-users receive these negative impressions: entrapment, drownings and contractor horror stories. If the list can be passed around from industry professional to industry professional, each could add ten other negative impressions.

    Vance is calling for an industry movement. He is asking our industry to take a step back and remove ourselves from the negative battle we fight daily. He is calling on us to have a renewed focus for the future. As an industry, fix what is broken, move away from the negative impressions and focus our attention to the new buyer. Realign our thinking away from the swimming shell and focus the attention to the backyard experience.

    Vance understands that the days of the shell are behind us. Our product will always be limited [to] the clients who can afford it. In the next decade, who will be able to afford our waterscapes? If we as an industry realign our thoughts with those who are going to be able to purchase our products, and reinforce to them why our waterscapes are so wonderful to bring home, we will have provided a pathway to the new tomorrow.

    Thank you to all the Vance-minded people in our industry.

    Glenn Douglas
    L.A. Custom Pools and Spas, Inc.
    Yucaipa, Calif.

  • Guest - Anonymous responses

    In addition to the responses above, Vance Gillette received a number of e-mails he forwarded to WaterShapes EXTRA! As they were parts of personal communications, we will publish only anonymous excerpts from them here.

    Reading things like this is always a head-slapper for me. I need to laminate this and break it out every four months or so when we get tied down to the nuts and bolts, and we forget about conveying the fun and excitement that we know people are looking for.

    We need to speak with homeowners about how they envision their dream pools and how they plan to spend their weekends in them. Those [in the watershaping industry] who can communicate about these dreams and help homeowners successfully envision themselves in them are going to win the race.

    I have no doubt that this approach of not selling, but rather accommodating dreams is the accurate pathway to, and method for, success. The most successful designers of waterscapes will be those who are able to paint the picture most vividly in the clients’ eyes.

    I go to my step-brother’s place all the time to enjoy his pool, and the moments that I remember from those experiences are very important to me. After reading your commentary, Vance, I see new ways I can approach my customers to keep them excited about their new pools, even during construction.

    You’ve captured the state of the marketplace in this economy. What you describe should be part of every call we make — less about nuts and bolts, and more about sizzle and how a pool or spa can change lives.

    When people go on vacation, they seek relaxation and great experiences. We are given the opportunity to recreate those things for our customers by focusing more on creating backyard resorts. It’s all about entertainment, whether it’s grandparents buying [a pool] so the grandchildren will visit more often; or parents who need to entertain their kids through long, hot summers; or young couples who want to host awesome pool parties.

    It narrows down to the same thing: They all seek “backyard entertainment”!

    Your discussion of the marketing tools that hotels and resorts use to invite potential customers was excellent and reminds all of us involved in building pools that our clients want pools of their own because they want to have great experiences.

    As one mom said to me, “When I was a child, we had a pool — and some of my greatest memories with my parents and siblings had to do with being in the water. I want my children to experience that as well.”

    Needless to say, Mr. Gillette, you are correct: Our clients seek great experiences.

    Vance, I think you hit the nail on the head. In the pool industry, all we hear about is the bad stuff and the builders who take the money and run. The economy will get better and busy again, and the builders who survive will be the ones who adopt your vision and reinvent the industry.

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