They’re called interior designers, but so much of their business these days involves the exterior.

Homeowners turn to these professionals to outfit their outdoor living spaces with the furniture and kitchens that complement an interior remodel or new build. For the growing number of pool and spa firms that are delving further into the leisure arena, this represents a ripe market to tap into.

Designers represent a modest part of business for retailer Imagine Backyard Living — somewhere between 6 and 8 percent. But that portion is growing.

“We’re a relatively new company, so we’re constantly having to remind them that we’re here,” says David Ghiz, owner of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based firm.

So, how do you get them into your showroom?

It takes a little marketing savvy and perhaps a new approach to showcasing inventory, but dealers who’ve developed relationships with this discerning niche say it’s worth the investment. Designers, after all, represent a pipeline to customers who are willing to spend more on premium products than your average do-it-yourselfer.

Here, dealers discuss ways to attract the design trade.

Marketing by design

Members of the American Society of Interior Designers (26,000 strong) are required to achieve 10 hours of continuing education credits every two years. You can leverage this to your benefit by offering your showroom as a venue for educational events.

Ghiz recently hosted a seminar on fabrics that attracted approximately 40 designers.

Not only do such events help designers earn the required continuing education credits, it helps them develop a better understanding of the products on offer.

“You can, in a more educated fashion, discuss the benefits of the pieces with your clients,” says Pamela O’Brien, the principal designer with Pamela Hope Designs, serving Greater Houston.

That’s especially important when homeowners are facing the prospect of paying $3,000 to $4,000 on a patio set.

Events, advertising in ASID’s local chapter newsletter, and good old-fashioned networking is helping Ghiz’s two-year-old retail operation make inroads.

Ryan Bloom, owner of Urban Bonfire
Urban Bonfire Ryan Bloom, owner of Urban Bonfire

Once you get your name circulating among architects and designers, the sky’s the limit. Take it from Ryan Bloom. He’s the owner of Urban Bonfire, a Montreal boutique with an exclusive focus on the outdoor cooking lifestyle. About 85 percent of his business is generated by the design/build community, he says.

The trick is to get architects and designers to begin thinking about outdoor living spaces within the scope of a remodel or building project — not as an afterthought. Maybe it’s a regional thing, given the chilly northern climate, but this is a part of the home that is often overlooked.

“Very often we see people spend a quarter of a million dollars on an exquisite kitchen with Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances and marble, and all these incredible things, and the outdoor cooking experience — which they’d probably enjoy more — is a 20-year-old rusted barbeque that they got at a hardware store sitting in the corner of their yard,” he says.

When connecting with designers from the onset of a project, they realize opportunities for relaxing and cooking beyond the interior. Ultimately, this benefits homeowners because it helps create cohesion between the indoors and outdoors. It makes economic sense, too: Outdoor projects fetch a significant RIO.

Here are several effective strategies Bloom uses to establish relationships with this community.

Lunch-and-learns: Once a month, Bloom invites a firm of architects or designers to his showroom, where he dishes out culinary delights. It’s all very casual — no hard sell here. “It’s done in an informal way, like I’m inviting you to my house and I’m cooking you lunch,” he says.

The idea is to whet their appetites for high-end cooking equipment. Once they get a taste of a pizza fresh from a wood-burning oven, they’ll be more likely to pitch it to their clients. Bloom keeps these affairs limited to 10 people. They’re more engaged and comfortable asking questions in an intimate setting.

Create a designer-friendly showroom: Designers want to able to demonstrate to their clients that they’re creative. So when it comes to options, the more the merrier.

Urban Bonfire displays six kitchen vignettes focusing on specific brands or configurations (i.e. L-shape, straight, micro island, 90-degree angle, etc.) along with samples of the various materials and color choices available. In his 4,000-square-foot showroom, “they can see 80 to 85 percent of the options out there, from size to configuration and budget,” Bloom says.

The same holds for furniture. Set up multiple groupings in various styles, O’Brien says. For example, arrange a French country look in one corner of your showroom, and in the other a more modern selection. This is helpful because some clients don’t know what they want until they see it in person.

If you’re afraid to invest in too many styles, then transitional furniture is a safe bet, O’Brien says. It tends to blend with traditional or contemporary furniture already in the home. You also can anchor these arrangements with an outdoor rug. And don’t be afraid to dress up the scene with props, such as candles and a bowl of fruit.

Be sure to have samples of finishes on hand as well as fabric books so that clients can explore all available design options. Let clients take samples and swatches home so they can see how it plays with the rest of the decor. (As a designer, O’Brien would prefer if you didn’t charge for this either.)

Beyond looks, it’s also important how the furniture feels. If you can present various cushion options, such as soft, firm, or medium, by all means do.

“If they sit and they’re really comfortable, they tend to be really excited about buying that piece,” O’Brien says.

Simply put, be prepared to demonstrate that your firm can achieve any look the client is seeking.

Get down to brass tacks: When trying to attract designers as regular retail clients, it often takes more than appealing to their dedication to the aesthetic. There’s also their business sense.

“Retailers or distributors who offer trade pricing are going to get our attention the fastest,” O'Brien advises.

Yes, that means providing some kind of a discount to accredited designers. While not a common practice in the pool and spa industry, some design-oriented dealers such as Imagine Backyard Living are doing just that.

“Designers absolutely need to feel like they’re getting some kind of value out of the relationship,” Ghiz says.

Often, those savings are passed on to the clients.

Urban Bonfire has a complete outdoor kitchen on a terrace in its Montreal showroom. It’s a place to demonstrate the cooking power of outdoor appliances, as well as  entertain customers.
Urban Bonfire Urban Bonfire has a complete outdoor kitchen on a terrace in its Montreal showroom. It’s a place to demonstrate the cooking power of outdoor appliances, as well as entertain customers.

Augment their expertise: Designers aren’t just looking for a supplier; they’re looking for a true project partner. That’s where dealers’ own in-house design teams will come in handy. While interior designers know color and material, they aren’t well versed in the intricacies of outdoor cooking equipment. Dealers can help fill in these knowledge gaps. Their input will be especially valuable in determining those critical, functional details such as the placement of the refrigerator door handle. Designers also will lean on you to show them all the available appliances, some of which they may not realize were options. Design pros often are surprised to learn that there are such things as outdoor dishwashers and icemakers.

“There’s a real excitement and almost exuberance when they find that they can have almost as many options outdoors as they have indoors,” Bloom says.

Publish a catalog: Not content to simply hand out brochures, Urban Bonfire publishes a 55-page catalog featuring all the brands it carries. It’s delivered to design/architecture firms throughout its service area.

“It’s a very effective reference tool for them,” he adds.

The takeaway?: Over time, through continued engagement with the design trade, dealers will be trusted to handle all aspects of an outdoor project, working with the homeowner directly to create the backyard of their dreams.

At least that’s been Bloom’s experience. “Eventually, designers say, ‘OK, we’ve earmarked 16 feet for the outdoor kitchen, have fun."