PHOTO: Balfour Walker

Management at Lake Norman Pool and Spa in Statesville, N.C., took a risk in the neighborhood of $10,000-$12,000.

But the gamble paid off, and the company walked away from a recent local home show with enough portable spas sold to cover all costs associated with the five-day event.

“These things definitely can be beneficial,” says Neil Johnson, the firm’s retail operations manager. “After all, we went bigger than ever this year, and I feel like if we hadn’t put as much into it, it wouldn’t have gone nearly as well.”

The sales hardly stopped at hot tubs. Lake Norman also sold an in-ground pool, a renovation job, and a handful of aboveground pools and smoker grills during the event.

In that vein, a number of portable spa retailers have agreed to share their strategies for success — and the lessons they’ve learned — for today’s consumer home shows. 

The audience

Despite a still-lagging economy, attendance at a number of regional home shows reportedly is on the rise this year. The same factors that have buoyed the pool industry’s renovation market may be providing a boon to consumer shows, experts say.

“I think people are investing more in their own homes rather than moving, because with the appraisals down so low, remodeling has seen an increase, and I think that’s helping the show quite a bit,” said Lisa Kohn, executive officer of the Bloomington-Normal (Ill.) Home Builders Association, on the heels of a well-received local home show in spring.

In fact, booth space was sold out for the Atlanta Home Show at the Cobb Galleria in March, according to Josh Kemerling, general manager at Georgia Spa Company in Buford, Ga.

Kemerling, who attends eight to nine consumer-oriented events each year, says the atmosphere has grown decidedly more positive in the last 18 months. He also notices a better-informed, and more inquisitive, shopper.

“People are asking more questions these days,” he says. “They’re looking at things like energy costs, circulation and the overall quality of the product.”

At the Denver Home Show, also in March, Stan Goodreau outfitted his company’s 10-by-30-foot booth with four portable spas. The president of Colorado Custom Spas in Denver says today’s customers have evolved beyond the hard-sell that may have worked in the past.

Now it’s about providing an honest representation of the product, he says, and establishing credibility with an eye toward the future.

“Consumers want to be heard,” Goodreau says, “so our salesmen spend a lot of time asking questions and finding out what’s important to them. Sometimes you have to look at it as a relationship opportunity vs. a sales opportunity.”

The showpieces

Spa dealers agree that an appealing physical presence is vital to any successful home show experience. For Goodreau, that means displaying multiple units of varying trim levels — his lineup for the Denver show ranged in price from $3,995 to $14,000.

“We’re seeing more people gravitate to the mid- to lower end,” he says. “But it’s important to bring the high-end products as well, almost as a qualifier. If you only have price-point units, it doesn’t show a lot of diversity. Consumers want to see that you have a good selection.”

Amy Barto says she too found success displaying a mix of premium and value-priced units at the Greater Philadelphia Spring Home Show in King of Prussia, Pa., in March. Of the nearly a dozen she sold at and through the event, the most popular model was a 7-by-7-foot hot tub that retails for $5,799, she says.

However, “we were the only booth there that had small spas,” says the co-owner of Barto Pool & Spa in Phoenixville, Pa., “so we picked up market share there, because nobody else was showing them.”

Still, it’s the “Cadillacs,” as Kemerling terms the pricier spas, that lend his booth the necessary ‘Wow’ factor.

As such, he keeps at least one filled and running, and another two supplied with power to display the lighting, stereo and other features.

The presentation  

A collection of elegant spas is essential for any attractive presentation, but what of the surroundings?

Experts agree it’s not enough to simply drop a handful of units into a 20-by-20-foot space and call it a day. Barto, for one, chooses to outfit her display spas with the full complement of accessories.

For her booth, it’s soft carpeting, comfortable furniture and plantings that help convey a relaxing ambiance.

Meantime, Goodreau likes to include posters of his spas in use — “lifestyle shots” — as well as informational ones, covering energy-consumption, for instance, along the perimeter of his booth. One in particular shows the kilowatt usage per hours of his products, as verified by the California Energy Commission.

That third-party corroboration lends valuable credibility to any claims his sales team can make, Goodreau says.

In Charlotte, Johnson decked out his booth with the requisite accessory displays, as well as a 50-inch flatscreen monitor running a loop of some of the company’s past installations. Lake Norman also called on a couple of its business partners to give its space the ultimate show treatment.

“We lined up a contractor to come in and do the landscaping,” Johnson says. “He brought in a crew to put in patio blocks, a flowerbed and an outdoor fire pit. Another company came and attached a wrought-iron fence to the booth. And they didn’t charge us, because we’re able to get them jobs.”

Planting seeds

For booth duty at smaller shows, Goodreau typically enlists his retail staff. But when the occasion calls for added manpower, his manufacturers will supply representatives to help out. After all, their knowledge of the product can be invaluable, he says.

However, Goodreau adds, care must be taken to ensure harmony: “You have to convey to the rep what your expectation is, because the dealer is the one who ultimately has to live up to the promise. Plus, different brands have different corporate cultures.

“The bottom line is that I don’t want the hired gunslinger there in my booth,” he adds. “Far more leads end up converting to sales than we expect at these shows, and it’s because we’re not obnoxious about it.”

A day before each event, Kemerling typically reviews with his reps the store’s pricing, available accessories, and service and delivery policies. The factory rarely sends the same individuals, he adds, so it’s important to ensure they’re informed of the company’s protocol ahead of time.

“Part of the story we’re trying to tell at these events is that it’s a factory-sponsored event,” Kemerling says. “It’s definitely a partnership, and it’s nice to have our individual reps at the show. It’s not something we take for granted.”

That partnership helped Kemerling gather dozens of qualified leads from his last show. And, he says, it’s provided further motivation for a trio of consumer events in the fall.

“Atlanta is a big city, and if I don’t go out and see the consumer, I’m not going to sell many spas,” he adds. “It’s not necessarily about selling that much at the event, but it’s the seeds you plant that take root down the road. We’re setting up contacts and meeting with folks. That’s what we’re there for — to meet our future customers.”