The 1990s were a decade of transition — not just for the pool and spa industry, but for the rest of the world, as well.
As we sped toward the new millennium, everything seemed to be changing. Events such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the launch of the Hubble Telescope and even a cloned sheep showed us that so much more was now possible.
Pool & Spa News’ coverage in the ’90s reflected the unique shift that occurred in the industry during that decade, spanning the gap from an early, more quaint pool and spa business into the modern industry we know today.
A growing concern about water safety, the advent of many new technologies and the role of female pool and spa professionals were major issues of the day, but nearly all aspects of the business were markedly different by 1999.
A push for safety
The 1990s is when water safety became more than just a cursory concern for the consumer — it became a movement.
Quoting the Oxtoby-Smith study in June 1990, Pool & Spa News noted that “two-thirds of those in the market for a pool had concerns related to the safety of children, [and] more consumers are concerned about safety now than in the past.”
“Pool-baiting safety advocates,” as we dubbed them, took that message to heart, inundating the mainstream media with horror stories. In 1991, the magazine’s then-editor Jim McCloskey wrote, “Recently, I saw a story that backyard pools in Arizona had been branded as ‘serial killers’ in an educational campaign.” The damaging sentiment was picked up by the Los Angeles Times.
The public’s perception of the industry’s product was such a concern that William Sadd, then-executive director of the National Spa & Pool Institute, appeared with Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s “Today Show” to share the industry’s message of safety. There, he told millions of viewers that water safety is “everybody’s problem.”
The next year, the organization’s legal counsel, Dave Karmol, appeared on the quintessential ’90s talk show “Sally Jessy Raphael” to meet with parents of drowning victims.
As pool and spa professionals grappled with this public perception, a new safety-related concern was about to rear its head.
In May 1996, the drowning of a New Jersey teenager in a health-club spa put the issue of suction entrapment squarely in the public eye.
As a result of 16-year-old Tanya Nickens’ death, the media spotlight turned to the pool industry for answers, while home-owners reconsidered the safety of their own backyard vessels.
The industry got an early glimpse of SVRS-type devices from a 1996 headline that declared, “Invention could prevent suction entrapment.”
By December of that year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had proposed a new set of standards aimed at preventing future incidents.
The industry got on board as well, performing tests in 1997 “designed to determine whether a dual-main-drain system with a maximum water velocity of 6 feet per second would be a satisfactory solution to the problem of evisceration.”
That October, CPSC released official guidelines for avoiding such incidents. Meanwhile, the mother of an 11-year-old entrapment victim announced plans to campaign for “Kelsey’s Law” to be passed in late ’98. But it would be years before another child’s tragedy inspired federal action.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the pool industry during the ’90s was an avalanche of new technology that culminated with the Internet. In fall 1990, Pool & Spa News printed stories such as “Taking Your Business On-line” — which at the time only meant sorting data on a computer system. Most of America had no idea what the term “online” would come to mean in a few short years.
Early in the decade, a handful of builders had discovered computer-aided design systems, and “CAD” became the industry’s new buzzword. We reported that such technology was “doubling closing ratios,” and that it “amazes consumers, dazzles architects and makes the designer’s task immeasurably simple.”
The real shake-up, of course, came with the introduction of the World Wide Web. The first hint of this nebulous portal in Pool & Spa News was a 1995 computer survey, where we tentatively asked readers, “Do you use any on-line services?” (answer choices included CompuServ, AOL and Prodigy) and “How much more involved [in technology] do you plan to get in the future?”
Later that year, we wrote that many distributors were “still trying to decide whether or how to merge onto the information superhighway.” Now it seems impossible that these hubs of pool and spa product dissemination would be able to function without the Internet.
In an editorial column around that time, McCloskey announced that the magazine had joined the technological revolution with its very own email address. The industry as a whole became exposed to the Web when NSPI launched its official site in 1995. By ’96, Pool & Spa News had debuted an entire Website, which was referred to as the “SplashZone.”
But despite these advances, the magazine was still wary of the new online realm. “The Internet is hard to describe and even harder to believe,” we wrote. Articles such as “Coming to Grips with Tomorrow” reflected the discomfort many older professionals felt with the rapidly advancing technology.
Still, some industry members saw potential. NSPI’s Carvin DiGiovanni predicted “eventually, long-distance education and training will be available on the Internet, another useful tool for any pool builder or service company.”
Manufacturers became the online pioneers of the industry, and we even published an index listing all 75 pool product firms with Websites as of summer ’96.
That number soon grew exponentially, and by 1997 computers were so ubiquitous that they became competition. An article called “Harnessing the Future” asked, “Will it be a spa — or a computer? Your customers are trying to decide.”
Women in the industry
The ’90s also served as a bridge between the past’s marginalization of women in the industry to the more equal footing enjoyed by female pool professionals today.
Though the visuals presented in ads recalled the excess of the ’80s, this decade kicked off with one big difference for women. In 1990, Linda Speaks was the first female to be named a chapter president of the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association.
The election of a woman to a major leadership role would be the last until the mid-’90s, but the pool industry was beginning to appreciate the fairer sex as an important customer demographic.
The much-lauded Oxtoby-Smith market research study commissioned by NSPI showed that female consumers played a crucial role in purchasing pools and spas, and our 1990 series “Spanning the Gender Gap” used the insight of a half-dozen female pool professionals to examine how to tap into that market.
“One of the most important things we’ve done to attract women into the store was to hire another woman to talk to them,” one saleswoman suggested, a thought that had not likely occurred to many male store owners before.
But though the industry respected their buying power, the abilities of women behind these pool firms’ counters were still largely overlooked.
Things slowly improved, and in 1997 Arlene Stachel became NSPI’s first female president. But it would be nearly a decade before another woman duplicated the feat.