The 1980s was a time of self-discovery for pool and spa professionals, as the freewheeling ’70s gave way to a more responsible industry.
Leading the way was the National Spa & Pool Institute, which in 1982 launched a five-year program aimed at promoting the industry to consumers. The association’s broad-based campaign targeted the 1984 Summer Olympics, retail merchandising, the home-building, architecture and landscape markets, and, of course, the media.
Then-NSPI executive vice president Don DeBolt declared of the effort: “This isn’t a one-year, shot-in-the-arm approach. We’ve got the plan, and we’ve got the money — in the bank.”
Meantime, builders in the ’80s sought to make their projects more visually appealing while learning to work with smaller lot sizes. For elevation transitions, contractors moved away from leveling tiny yards and using retaining walls, opting instead to work within the natural topography for dramatic effect. Raised spas and bond beams became more commonplace.
The appearance and texture of concrete pools evolved too, as exposed aggregates from Australia hit the U.S., fiber-optic lighting grew bigger, and more builders experimented with freeform designs, vanishing-edges and rock waterfalls.
The ’80s also saw the emergence of the mass merchant. Large, national chains became a bigger threat to the independent specialty retailer, and to combat the problem, many industry members began marketing themselves as experts with a wider product mix and more personalized service. In 1982, NSPI created the Retailers Council during its annual convention in Dallas.
Among smaller organizations, the Independent Pool Service Association in Southern California split into two factions in 1981 in response to internal strife.
But the next several years seemed to soften the rancor, and the sides reunited in ’88 as the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association (IPSSA). The buying group Carecraft was established in Anaheim, Calif., in 1985.
All told, the decade was largely defined and remembered as a time when a professional image took hold, technology came to the forefront, and spas — no longer the ancillary sidekick — emerged as serious players.
In the 1980s, the industry embraced both the opportunity and responsibility that came with a maturing trade. Celebrity endorsers like Ed McMahon, Lloyd Bridges and Suzanne Somers brought a measure of glitz.
But against the backdrop of an established industry, a darker side lurked, as a handful of high-profile drownings and entrapments prompted greater media coverage — and scrutiny — of pool and spa safety.
A Pool & Spa News cover story in July 1982 titled “Hydro Air Recalls Drain Covers” reported a massive recall of 125,000 anti-vortex pool and spa drain covers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission coordinated with Hydro Air on the recall, which came in response to a pair of child deaths in 1981 caused by hair entrapments.
NSPI also placed a greater emphasis on safety in the ’80s, signing Olympic champion Greg Louganis to a three-year deal as spokesman for swimming and diving safety. Later in the decade, NSPI christened Gus & Goldie, a pair of child-friendly “safety spokesfish.”
But Gus & Goldie didn’t come soon enough for some companies, as litigation was ever-present throughout the decade.
In December 1984, product liability claims against Texas-based diving-board maker Aquaslide ‘n’ Dive Corp. forced the company into Chapter 11. It was facing $60 million in judgments stemming from 18 suits in 14 states over the previous several years.
Aboveground pools were beset by a slew of product liability claims and lawsuits, too, as manufacturers were compelled to address a number safety concerns.
By the close of the ’80s, they had developed, in concert with the CPSC, safety-information packets, decals and signage for mass distribution.
Electronics and automation took hold in the ’80s, with solar heating, spa controls, air switches, automatic chlorinators, cleaners and covers, remote-control devices for pools, water-level controllers and others gaining acceptance and entering the market in greater numbers.
Headlines in Pool & Spa News told readers of “Space Age Technology,” and announced “Design Comes to Life on Videotape: Computer wizardry aids sales efforts.”
Later, a May 1985 headline offered: “Automation: The Future is Here,” as the story asked: “Is the market ready for in-house controls? Consumer interest is piqued.”
The magazine got into the act as well. In a 1984 column, Associate Editor Allyn Brodsky opened with: “What is it like to get your first computer? Confusing, to start. The friendly salesman set it all up by connecting a maze of cables and ‘installing’ my word processing program … Now, two weeks later, I feel as if I’ve crossed a frontier into the world of the future.”
The hot tub market became a force in the ’80s.
In 1981, NSPI changed its name to the National Spa & Pool Institute to reflect a broader mission and membership. That membership further expanded when NSPI absorbed the International Spa and Tub Institute in 1983 and created the International Spa & Tub Council, which today is known as the Hot Tub Council.
The first few years of the decade saw spa dealers continuing to emphasize the social characteristics of hot tubs.
A March 1983 article titled “Spa Rentals Provide Profits and Fun” spotlighted Delaware Valley Whirlpool Spa Distributor Inc. in Langhorne, Pa., which promoted BYOBS (Bring Your Own Bathing Suit) hot tub, spa party packages: “The idea was to attract attention to the party aspect of these products,” said a company manager. The package included promotional posters, announcements, invitations and other materials.
By 1988, many dealers featured spa rental rooms, building on the customary test soak. At S&S Spas in Pennsylvania, spa rental rooms came in a variety of themes: the Maui Room, Neptune’s Retreat, Caesar’s Den and Lunar Landing.
In 1987, Chuck Hewitt of California Acrylic Industries/Cal Spas, Pomona, Calif., boldly predicted: “What the car was in the ’40s and the television was in the ’50s, spas will be in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Swim spas began hitting the market in the first half of the decade, too. Not much was known about them then, as several manufacturers had only been making the product a year or so, while others were just starting production.
But in a Dec. 22, 1986, article on forecasts for the following year, Debbi Albert, manager of Hot Tubs International in Tyson’s Corner, Va., reported heightened interest: “We just sold three in one month, and we don’t have any on display. Someone out there must be doing a good job of marketing them.”
Moments in Time - The ’80s
At a 1980 meeting of the Associated Swimming Pool Industries of Florida, a trio of retailers, including future Genesis 3 Design Group co-founder Brian Van Bower, agreed that spas were a “hot item,” and welcomed competition.
Jim McKay (left) and Larry Ray Bruns of radio station KKIK-AM in Texas may very well have set an endurance mark when they spent 72 hours in a portable spa. The pair donned life jackets in case they fell asleep and coated themselves in petroleum jelly to retain body moisture. Our January 9, 1984, headline read “Texas DJs Soak for World Record.”
Cellular telephones in 1985 were limited, due to lack of coverage, to just 50 metropolitan areas (“and even within those areas, coverage tends to be spotty,” we wrote). Still, the new technology created “an office on wheels” that revolutionized business.
More skimpy swimsuits, like this one that ran in November 1986, prompted a backlash among many female industry members, who blasted as demeaning “the use of nude and nearly nude women in ads for pools, spas and equipment.”
Hysteria Over AIDS Leads to Pool Cleaning
In August 1987, the mayor of Williamson, W. Va. ordered a public pool closed after a 21-year-old AIDS victim went for a swim. Bathers were told a pump was broken, and the pool was drained and cleaned. “Parents can use their own judgment whether or not they want their kids to swim there,” he said, “but as far as I know it’s safe.”
IN THE MOOD:
By 1988, spa rental facilities were being cited as potential keys to spurring sales. At S&S Spas in Pennsylvania, spa rental rooms came in a variety of themes: the Maui Room, Neptune’s Retreat, Caesar’s Den and Lunar Landing.
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