Trips, education, marketing assistance, discounts, networking opportunities. They’re all part of the lure for dealers to sign on to carry a specific chemical line at their retail store. Let’s be honest, though: The incentive package a chemical manufacturer offers isn’t the primary motivator for store owners to stock the line on their shelves. For retailers, it’s all about what their customers need for their pools and what will sell well in their area.

Those manufacturer incentives don’t hurt, though.

From business and product education to a vacation break from the store, dealers have many choices in what they earn from the makers of the products they stock.

As the Great Recession has transformed the face of the pool and spa business, dealer feedback has shaped changes to the programs being offered.

Going through distributors
Not every retailer buys chemicals direct from the manufacturer. Many purchase their supplies through the combined power of a buying group or through a distributor.

Chemical manufacturers know this and, depending on their structures, they either have extended their dealer incentive programs through distribution or support the distributor’s programs for dealers.

“We do offer a couple of small incentive programs like free product-display offers that reach the dealers, but as primarily a seller through distribution, our incentive programs are really more focused on financially supporting [distribution] efforts,” says John Bereza, marketing manager of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Haviland Enterprises.

SEE MORE: Manufacturer Incentives for Pool Store Improvements

The company, which has offered pool products for more than 40 years, supports its product lines through distributors.

“When you have manufacturers or repackers that sell to both distribution and dealer-direct, there always seems to be some confusion on fulfillment and undercutting of pricing,” says Dave O’Brien, national sales manager. “We choose to stay away from that and only support distribution.”

Instead, Haviland uses several distributors who offer incentive programs for dealers.

Though large chemical manufacturer Lonza, based in Alpharetta, Ga., offers its incentive program to dealers who buy from it directly, the company has programs available for those who buy lines through distribution.

“Retailers who support our national brands sold through distribution are able to access a variety of programs, reward packages, marketing support and technical training similar to that in our dealer channel,” says Jana Wright, senior marketing manager.

Jack’s Magic, based in Largo, Fla., supports distribution, offering all dealers a rebate on their purchases of the chemicals through distribution.

“We base this rebate on the purchases of our products through our distributor partners,” says Barry Driks, general manager of the company.

The travel
The aspects of each program vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but training, trips and education play a central role for many of the makers.

Trips traditionally have been the top-of-mind incentive for dealers when thinking about what manufacturers offer.

For decades, the programs offered credit, through the form of “points” or “dollars” that dealers could use to offset the cost of a once-a-year trip to a relaxing destination. The annual sojourn for these incentive programs usually occurred in January, taking advantage of what is generally a slow month for sales at a pool and spa store. The Christmas season, which some dealers stock merchandise for, is over, and stores haven’t yet started gearing up for the season — that often comes in February.

But manufacturers have been trying ways to offer additional business and personal enrichment through these trips, and the efforts have received very positive feedback.

This year, for instance, dealers in Lonza’s ClearFund program made their way to El Jobo, Costa Rica, to experience planned activities such as tours, tubing and white water rafting. But they also were given a vehicle for making a difference: They could volunteer to refurbish the Escuela Gil Tablada Corea, an elementary school. The project included painting three classrooms and the exterior of six buildings; improving the landscaping; remodeling the library/computer center; remodeling the old cafeteria to accommodate special needs students; and providing bookshelves for the library, as well as school desks and computers. The team also removed old playground equipment and installed new equipment.

The dealers who participated joined with Lonza employees as part of the company’s PEACH (People Extending a Caring Hand) program.

“The annual PEACH project happens during our loyalty trip,” Wright says. “Response to this has been outstanding; it consistently rates as a highlight of the trip for many of our dealers.”

In years past, the traditional incentive trip for Lawrenceville, Ga.-based BioLab would feature a marketing presentation or brand offerings in the morning, then time for dealers to lay out on the beach or do activities in the Dominican Republic, Hawaii and other leisure destinations in the afternoon.

But for the company’s BioGuard Platinum dealers, 2015 was the year that the winter trip wasn’t to a tropical location, complete with sand, drinks and a little networking tossed in. Instead, the chemical manufacturer announced in the fall that the annual trip would be revamped as the BioGuard Leadership Conference, with an emphasis on giving the dealers case studies of brick-and-mortar companies that are thriving, despite competition from big box stores and Internet retailers. It was held in BioLab’s stomping grounds in Atlanta.

“We did learn some things,” says Kathy Bales, who owns Isaacs Pools & Spas LLC, based in Johnson City, Tenn., with her son, William David Isaacs III. “I felt like we left there with information.”

Because the planning involved in the incentive trips include booking locations more than a year in advance, the 2016 event already was planned before this year’s conference took place. So next year, the event returns to the sun and sand dealers enjoyed in previous years — the Riviera Maya, Mexico — with probably a hybrid of a leisure trip and the business-oriented experience this year.

But the feedback from this year’s event in Atlanta made an impression on BioGuard leadership.

“We heard so loud and clear that this is what they’re wanting,” says Deirdre Gallagher, assistant marketing manager at BioLab.

Attendee comments point to the success of the event.

“I’ve never heard such rave reviews, and I’ve been here for 28 years,” Gallagher says. “It was so well received from our dealers of just how these topics and these speakers can help them going forward.”

Less sun, more education
In these post-recession days, striving to retain customers and compete in a changing market is ever-present on retailers’ minds.

Knowledge is power, and that’s why training and education rank so high in what chemical manufacturers offer to its dealers, sometimes in response to dealer feedback.

“The economy’s not what it once was,” Gallagher says. “We find that our dealers are really interested in knowing how to grow their business and be good businesspeople.”

The change this year to a more business-oriented retreat from a fun, surf and sand-type trip was at the request of BioGuard’s dealer base.

“I’m not a big traveler,” Bales says. “I have gone on some of the out-of-the-country trips, but I much preferred the one in Atlanta. It was very informative. We worked hard, but we had enjoyment, too, and to me, that’s the way we should do it all the time.”

The conference included sessions about marketing strategy, the use of data, and improving the store experience, as well as case studies from successful small retail business owners in other industries.

“They talked about making your business unique, something different that would bring people in and keep them from online shopping,” Bales says. “Just one thing, one little thing, that would set you apart from everyone else.”

Her company has already instituted a change based on information gleaned from the sessions.

“That caused us to start thinking about that, and we decided actually to have a greeter here.” The employee acts as a welcoming committee, giving customers water, finding out what they’re shopping for and guiding them to the right area or salesperson.

Even for those with tropical destinations on their calendars, educating retailers is a priority. In-store training is just one way that happens, and Bales’ service staff recently took a day with her store rep to do a school.

“I wanted them to be a little more familiar with things of how to treat the water and what to look for,” Bales says. “They all really enjoyed it. Matter of fact, they said they wished it could have gone longer. We had it all day long.”

Manufacturers such as Jack’s Magic take the education a step further. In addition to keeping employees up-to-date, they offer certification as an incentive.

“Since Jack himself could not be in all the places that needed training, we took his years of experience with identifying, removing and preventing stains and discoloration and created a comprehensive training program,” Driks says.

The eight-year-old program allows all dealer employees to become Certified Stain Specialists. After a dealer has at least one CSS, Jack’s Magic lists the dealer as a CSS on its website.

“Dealers like the CSS program because one, they can get comprehensive stain/discoloration/water chemistry training for the staff; two, they create more value for their business with knowledgeable staff; three, they get a rebate on our products for being a CSS; and four, they get leads sent to them from our website,” Driks says.

Ensuring both in-store staff and store managers have the targeted training they need has been a focus of instruction offered by Lonza.

For in-store sales professionals, the manufacturer offers Super R.I.T.E. (Regional Intensive Training Event) sessions each year. “They are very well attended and focus on advanced product knowledge and sales training,” Wright says.

Lonza’s Aquanology event, which focuses on sales and marketing topics, is geared toward pool store owners and managers and started about seven years ago. In addition, Lonza territory sales representatives offer personalized marketing consulting and chemical training at the store level.

“[Reps] come in and help us with the chemical trainings for our individual employees,” says Jeff Kirsch, owner of Kirsplash Pools in Lake City, Fla. “They’ll do in on a one-on-one if necessary or they’ll do it as a class. They’re fully at our disposal if we need them for any training at all. They’re happy to do it.”

More and more, though, chemical manufacturers are realizing that flexibility is what dealers need most to tailor the incentive offerings to what helps optimize their individual businesses.

“Dealers can use their funds for traditional advertising and merchandising as well as travel and fees associated with attending our training events and incentive trips,” Wright says.