Last month, approximately 800 employees gathered for the second annual PoolCorp National Sales Conference and Trade Show in Dallas.

Attendees took advantage of training and informational sessions, and heard the disributor offer its perspective on the pool and spa industry.

“The best opportunity right now is in maintenance, repair and replacement,” said David Cook, a group vice president of the Covington, La.-based firm. “Not so much in full-scale renovations, but people will want to save money on energy or chlorine and make those kinds of adjustments to their pools. There are 5.5 million pools in this country, and they still have to run.”

Today, the U.S. pool segment generates $6.4 billion, PoolCorp’s numbers indicate. Of this, maintenance, repair and replacement (MRR) accounts for a whopping $5.6 billion, while new construction only brings $0.8 billion, the distributor’s research reveals.

These findings will direct PoolCorp in its own business strategy. Company officials reported that PoolCorp’s 2008 sales were off 6 percent from 2007. To grow the company during a historic industrywide downturn, it plans to concentrate on MRR while aggressively seeking market-share expansion.

Currently, with 270 branches, the firm enjoys a 37 percent share of the U.S. pool market. But in some areas its numbers are lower, and management has targeted those spots, aiming to increase share by 7 percent to 10 percent in the next five years.

In commenting on the current state of the industry, company representatives said PoolCorp’s research shows U.S. pool permits have dropped 65 percent since 2005, with home-equity extraction dipping to 1998 levels.

“In ’09, the building business will be soft, even though the banks will turn around,” Cook said. “It will take time for the money to trickle down. I think big-ticket items will remain soft for quite some time.”

Reps also discussed how much of the industry’s products are sold through distributors vs. other means. Of the $6.4 billion generated by the pool sector, PoolCorp found that $4.2 billion moves through distribution, with the rest sold through venues such as big-box stores, dealer-direct programs or buying groups.

Attendees also took in presentations about sales, sourcing, construction products, chemicals, spas, grills, aboveground pools and marketing tools. About 70 vendors exhibited at the trade show.

Erika Taylor provided the reporting for this story.