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
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
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
But Gus & Goldie didn’t come soon enough for some
companies, as litigation was ever-present throughout the
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
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
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
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
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
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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