Have swimming pools lost their luster?
An onslaught of negative coverage across mainstream news and information sources has experts worried that public opinion could be shifting away from pool ownership.
“The one group we don’t want to lose the message for is the consumer, and that’s precisely the group for which the message has gone completely the other way,” says Lawrence Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa and Pool Association in Hamilton, N.J.
“Right now it’s an anti-pool and spa message,” he adds.
Industry professionals have theories as to why their products may have landed in the consumer media’s crosshairs. They also are keenly aware of the challenges inherent in boosting the image of pools and spas.
But what can be done to reverse those negative messages? And does the industry possess the collective will, organization and resources to address the matter head-on, particularly when a sustained economic recovery is still likely years away?
Current image problem
Pools and spas have certainly endured a deluge of damaging press in recent years.
From highly publicized outbreaks of cryptosporidium to in-depth reports on the tragic, but rare, phenomenon of suction-entrapment, accidents involving swimming pools and spas seem to receive disproportionate attention. Moreover, editorial writers from Boston to California have questioned the merits of pool ownership in recent years, citing both safety and cost-of-maintenance concerns.
Experts point to an increasingly competitive and wide-ranging news environment as one of the primary causes of this type of coverage.
“You’ve got more channels, more outlets — everyone is fighting for attention on the airwaves,” says Manuel Perez de la Mesa, president/CEO of distributor PoolCorp in Covington, La.
“Those stories are being picked up by more sources now,” he adds. “So whereas before, the impact would be very local, it’s much broader today. And oftentimes they’re not even communicating or informing, they’re just taking [the information] and running with it, with no filtering or correction.”
This expanded news environment, combined with the fact that tragedies are among the most widely read stories, means that pool accidents — the majority of which involve children — often are viewed by reporters as an easy sell.
“The media knows … they’ll get their piece read or watched if they hammer away at things that aren’t good,” Caniglia says.
“Everybody tears their hair out because you see the bereaved parents,” he adds, “and everyone has that visceral reaction, that it’s a parent’s worst nightmare — and it is — but it sells stories.”
Meantime, added legislative attention also can adversely impact consumers’ perception of pools and spas, experts say. Issues tend to carry greater importance when government officials climb aboard.
Thus, high-profile events such as enactment of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act in 2008, and a widespread drain-cover recall that took place this past summer, typically lend added gravity to the subject.
“When you get that drumbeat going, and you have this combination of the media and now Congress and the government hammering away, it does create that negative feeling that people can have toward pools and the safety of pools,” Caniglia says.
The current recession has wreaked havoc on an industry that enjoyed decades of steady growth and prosperity.
With new-pool construction down as much as 80 percent in key states such as Arizona and California, it’s increasingly difficult for industry organizations to direct energy — and funds — to combating negative press.
“We don’t have a collective voice — our industry isn’t focused on putting out the right message to the consumer,” says Vance Gillette, vice president of business development at Zodiac Pool Systems in Vista, Calif., and a former member of the board of directors for the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals.
“Today, we’re too internally focused on ourselves,” he adds, “and we really need to redirect a significant portion of what we do to reaching out to the consumer, because that’s ultimately who’s driving our business. But I don’t think we’re preoccupied with it like we should be. It’s not a priority.”
Regionally, the tune is largely the same. In the economically stressed Sunshine State, attention and resources for the Florida Swimming Pool Association are almost exclusively directed toward responding to members’ needs.
“Associations have limitations,” says Wendy Parker Barsell, executive director of FSPA in Sarasota, Fla. “Because of that, when it comes to addressing other issues, it takes longer to get to the top of the list. Unfortunately, they don’t always get addressed as regularly or as readily as they should be.”
There’s also the question of collective will. The pool industry is composed of several related but fragmented entities, each with its own business models and goals. While their objectives may not seem at odds, it is rare for the trade to band together for a common cause.
A dozen years ago, Perez de la Mesa was among a handful of industry leaders who attempted to promote the trade through a broad-based advertising campaign. The goal, he recalls, was to help raise the profile of pools in the eyes of consumers, “and educate them on the merits and benefits of pool ownership.”
Though some in the industry were supportive and offered to participate, it wasn’t enough to keep the vision afloat. “There wasn’t a buy-in,” Perez de la Mesa remembers. “The majority were not interested.”
A similar attitude helped doom a nationwide campaign attempted by APSP in 2007. Officials hoped that the Hot Tub Industry Growth Initiative would reverse a downward trend in spa sales by raising $10 million annually for mass-market advertising, as well as education and certification programs.
One of the campaign’s sticking points was funding — a formula based on pump horsepower would have resulted in a fee for each spa manufactured, and most manufacturers weren’t on board. Another hurdle came with the realization that $10 million simply wasn’t enough for a substantial nationwide effort.
But officials also noted the disjointed nature of the hot tub industry itself as a source of obstruction.
“I think the importance of promoting [their individual] brand was foremost in companies’ minds,” says Lauren Stack, staff liaison with APSP. “They didn’t want to raise the tide to float all boats — if they had the money to spend on promotion, they wanted to make sure their boat was the one that was floating.
“But the fact is there’s such low brand recognition for the hot tub industry anyway, the general public doesn’t know what brand to ask for,” she adds. “And it was such a niche category that the potential for growth was huge. Everyone would have gotten a slice of it. So in part it was those brand-protective attitudes that kept the big players from stepping up and leading the charge, and the initiative suffered as a result.”
Learn from the competition
Industry leaders agree that any effort to stem the flow of negative press must be coordinated on a national level, and involve manufacturers, dealers and others. But who is equipped for the task?
Though APSP has emerged as a leader in developing standards and code language for pools and spas, its impact on the mainstream media is still nominal.
“The reason for … an association is to be an outspoken advocate for what we do,” Gillette says. “It seems so obvious, [yet] our industry has virtually nonexistent visibility to consumers.”
Pools and spas traditionally compete for discretionary dollars against products such as boats, motorcycles and RVs. In terms of vulnerability to market conditions, these industries provide a measure of apples-to-apples points of comparison.
But they’ve also proven wildly effective at mobilizing ranks — and enlisting their customer base — when faced with adversity.
Case in point is the American Motorcyclist Association, and its reaction to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The act, which in part sought to eradicate toys with high lead content, was written so broadly that it inadvertently encompassed products such as youth-model motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, as well as some books and clothing.
In response, the AMA organized a nationwide grass-roots effort that included 3,000 letters to Congress from motorcycle industry professionals whose businesses were affected by the act, and more than 135,000 e-mails and faxes from riding enthusiasts.
The association also spearheaded the Family Capitol Hill Climb, a highly publicized event that brought hundreds of youth riders, as well as their parents and supporters, to Washington, D.C., to speak out against the CPSIA’s restrictions. Riders from across the country delivered their message collectively and in meetings with individual lawmakers.
The effort paid off — in August, President Obama signed a bill that excluded youth off-road vehicles from the act’s terms.
“There has to be that recognition at the manufacturing and dealer level of organizing your user base to promote the positive aspects of what you do,” says Peter terHorst, a spokesman for the AMA and president of SymPoint Communications in Portland, Ore.
“If someone were to tell me that as a pool owner I might have to, say, drain my pool and refill it as a result of some pending legislation, then that would get my attention. That would cause me to become active, along with others in my community who happen to own pools. That’s what our experience has been. The end user is on the ground, and they’re the voters. That’s really where the rubber meets the road in terms of advocacy.