Many hot tub dealers have been circling the wagons for the past few years, looking inward to find sustainable business practices and focusing on survival. However, as we move into the 2011 swim season and a stronger financial foothold, many are once again taking tubs out of the showroom to display at off-site events.

“We had a couple of tough years in 2009 and ’10,” says Doug Carlson, co-owner of Dolphin Pool Supply and Service in Dallas. “But our [off-site event] season this year has been unbelievable — off the charts. It seems like there’s a bit more consumer confidence.”

Some dealers in relatively more robust markets never halted their off-site sales efforts.

“We had the opportunity to either die on the vine or take our mobile showroom on the road,” says Shawn Maynard, co-owner of Bullfrog Spas of Ogden (Utah). “Last year I could directly attribute 40 percent of our sales to off-site events, either at the event or because they saw the spa there and later bought it in our store.”

To enjoy such success at an off-site sale, retailers must ensure all arrangements are made and any contingencies planned for well in advance. Finding a suitable location is paramount, as is scheduling, staffing and securing all necessary equipment and permits.

Location, location, location

Most business owners understand their markets and know which pockets see the most activity, as well as where affluent consumers tend to shop. Finding a site for your event shouldn’t be too difficult, but a few key factors must be considered.

In general, off-site events should be near an expressway, off-ramp or other main artery. This allows drivers to easily spot your wares — or, in Carlson’s case, a 20-foot inflatable duck provided by Chino, Calif.-based Jacuzzi Hot Tubs. 

Shopping centers and strip malls are natural retail destinations and make ideal candidates for tent sales.

First, locate the center’s property owner. Signs advertising space for lease often include contact information, and existing tenants should have those details handy as well.

Also, get creative — Carlson investigates vacant plots of land or corner properties for sale. He’s even been known to check out a shuttered gas station, provided the location is good.

Joe Mahoney, president of Hot Spring Spa of Washington in Clarksburg, Md., settled on a shopping center anchored by a Home Depot.

“We tell them that we don’t compete for the same client, but that people are going to spend thousands of dollars at their store to make their hot tubs look nice,” he says.

Look for untapped areas within five to seven miles of your store, which can help reduce commute times and gas use. The event will inform the consumer that your store is close by. However, a few events in farther-flung areas of your market also may be viable opportunities to get your name out there.

“We have a smaller town not big enough to support a full spa store presence,” Maynard says. “Our mobile showroom brings our presence to a 100-mile radius.”

Once you’ve chosen a site, establish an ongoing presence there. Your event will gain credibility if customers see you returning to the same spot. Be sure to introduce yourself to the surrounding tenants, and keep your space clean.

“Many stores ask us when we are coming back,” Maynard says.

Some locations don’t even charge him for event space because they like the “carnival atmosphere” of his sales.

Plan ahead

Mahoney prefers all arrangements be made at least six months prior to his first event of the season. At the start of the year, he and his employees scout locations and chat up property owners. He determines ahead of time how many spas he must move to cover the event’s cost, as well as the official forms he will need.

Your local city hall can provide information on necessary permits. These are often less than $100 each, but must be secured ahead of time. Requirements tend to vary by location, and smaller municipalities usually are more restrictive.

In Leesburg, Va., for instance, Mahoney had to secure three separate permits — one to run the tent function, a temporary merchant’s license and one for fire inspection. He spent less than $100 on all three.

The length of each off-site sale is also something to consider well in advance, depending on what you hope to accomplish.

“A shorter event gives the impression of short-term offer,” Maynard says. “People have a sense of urgency that they need to buy today.” Weekend sales also allow a dealer to hold more events per season.

Other firms opt for fewer events that are a week or two long, which allow consumers to drop by multiple times. Additionally, setting up and outfitting a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot tent for only three days simply isn’t cost-effective for some.

“It is a fairly large expense, and it takes a lot of effort,” Carlson says. Each dealer should determine what makes sense for his or her market.

What to offer

Aim for a grand, yet comprehensive, presentation to attract customers. It isn’t enough to simply bring mass quantities of whatever spas you have on hand.

Customer finances vary, as does taste. As a result, you’ll never know what may catch one client’s attention, or fit snugly into another’s budget. Offer a range of hot tub models, from the high-end through the economical, and multiple options in between. This also is a golden opportunity to boost sales on everything from patio furniture to chemicals.

Aside from stocking the right products, your tent sale should be as interactive as possible. Shoppers want to test equipment, inspect jet action and check out interesting features. Be sure to fill and run at least a handful of tubs. You typically can fill the demo spas through an on-site irrigation system if you’re renting space.

Off-site events also can require a generator and extension cords. Mahoney typically spends $150 to rent one small generator, which can power two tubs simultaneously.

Protect your investment

Once the salespeople have left for the day, ensure that nobody damages or pilfers your merchandise after-hours. Many firms retain hourly security guards for this purpose, while Mahoney invested $50,000 in a truck camper for his off-site events. After closing down for the day, one of his salespeople guards the spas overnight and sleeps in the vehicle.

“It’s like having another store location,” he says. The facility brings the added convenience of an air-conditioned office, ideal for closing sales.

Strategic staffing

Some companies hire a traveling sales team or part-time workers for tent events. Most, though, just use their regular employees.

Staffing in-house gives you tighter control over customer service. A store employee also will be better equipped to handle delivery concerns and special orders.

And because many salespeople work on commission, there’s incentive to get out there and sell aggressively. Some employers have even seen staff volunteer to work extra days during a tent sale. They enjoy the change of pace as well.

A positive attitude among managers also goes a long way toward inspiring sales. “Everyone needs to work together to pull it off,” Mahoney says. “You need to be able to roll with the punches and say, even when it’s raining, ‘Hey, this is going to work out — it’s going to be a good day.’”