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It’s almost here — another season of industry trade shows in which we gather and do our best to train our sights on the future.

For nearly five decades, I’ve been attending these events and have had countless positive experiences both professionally and personally. After all, it’s great to see old friends, make some new ones, introduce and check out new products and take advantage of various educational offerings.

For all of the positives, however, looking back I’m struck by how little our shows have changed. Sure, many have grown in size, some have come and gone, and the cast of characters has slowly changed along with some of the products. Still, by and large, pool and spa trade shows from the early 70s wouldn’t look all that much different from those we’ll be attending over the next few months. The process is so ingrained in our industry culture that the whole thing seems almost reflexive. It’s just what we do.

Through it all, the thing about our trade shows that stands out the most to me is how the entire scene is an exercise in selling to ourselves. From a manufacturer’s perspective, I fully understand why that’s so, but nowhere in this massive undertaking do we give any attention to the category of person most crucial to our businesses — the consumer. It’s a huge void.

Now, I’m not suggesting we open up our trade shows to the general public, because frankly I just don’t see consumers having any interest in looking at displays of pumps, filters, chemicals or leaf nets. What I am saying, however, is that this insular culture of purely business-to-business marketing has ultimately lulled us into under-valuing the importance of consumer outreach.

Think about it. We spend time and resources selling to each other as though clients will always be there as if by osmosis. Yet at the same time, we always acknowledge the need to grow the pie. It all reminds me of that old saying about the nature of insanity — we are always caught up doing the same things while hoping for different results.

That’s why, when we look at the issue of innovation, there’s nowhere I see a greater need for reinvention than the way we market pools and spas. Let’s face it: We are in a constant war with other industries that are doing a much better job of defining the consumer experience. That’s not to say that RV, boating or vacation industries don’t have concerns such as government relations, industry politics or product standards, but they all sure as heck have a much better balance when it comes to taking their messages about fun and enjoyment to the consumer.

Our industry, on the other hand, seems content to just let the chips fall where they may where the consumer is concerned. In fact, if anything, we do ourselves a disservice with the way we fall on our sword over safety, ADA regulations and distasteful concerns over levels of fecal matter in pools. Even as someone who loves pools and spas, when I step back and look at the downbeat face that dominates our public image, I too just might think twice about spending my hard-earned dollars on a pool or spa and instead book a trip to Maui or Bora Bora. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.)

When you look at it that way, is it any wonder our industry has been so slow in recovering from the depths of the recent recession?

The tough part of this whole discussion is that while it’s pretty easy to identify the problem, coming up with answers is a whole different matter. Returning to the question of our trade shows, for example, the nature of our end product and the regional nature of the markets have everything to do with why the status quo has been so immovable. For the most part, our manufacturers, the lifeblood of our trade shows, “make the things that make the thing,” so to speak. Yet consumers by and large don’t care in the least about what I call the “spark plugs.”

Fact is, it’s the builders, service techs and retailers who buy from the manufacturers, not the consumer. Therefore, manufacturer marketing is naturally trained on the trade.

Dealers, for the most part, are concerned with marketing in their region and have no interest in a consumer event that draws people from a broad geographical spread. If you compare that to the boating or RV industry, they have it easier in that an end product manufactured in Seattle might very well be sold to a consumer in Miami. Pools don’t work that way. Spas and hot tubs do, which is almost certainly why you see those products sold at home and garden shows and county fairs. But pools are an aggregate product that, with the exception of package pools, are not portable.

How we overcome that issue is certainly not to try to force our industry into some sort of unnatural pattern where we stage full-blown consumer shows or open our existing shows to homeowners. Both things have been tried in the past and in every case I’m aware of, have fallen flat, all for the exact reasons described above.

So, wherein lies the answer to our lack of collective consumer focus? Although that’s a tough question, this much I do know for sure: Nothing will ever change until we change – innovate – our mindset. So long as we stay focused primarily on ourselves and allow the problematic issues of safety and health hazards to lead the way on the consumer front, the pie we share will never grow the way we want it to. On the contrary, if we alter our focus to a more consumer-driven form of messaging, then the answers will inevitably emerge.

Bottom line: We must think differently.

I do believe that kind of change requires a shift in leadership mindset, and isn’t that what our industry associations are for? I personally believe the primary role of our association should be the positive promotion and marketing of the pool/spa experience.

Go to the boating or RV industry web sites and you’ll find very consumer-oriented messages. Yes, the boating industry is rightfully concerned with safety, but its collective focus is really all about the fun that happens when consumers step onto a boat and leave their cares behind. Shouldn’t we be primarily promoting that same kind of healthy escapism and lifestyle panache?

In terms of bringing this hypothetically retooled message to the public in the context of live events, my best thought is that our association currently goes where consumers already are instead of trying to draw them to us. That might mean taking part in events for related industries, such as those staged for landscape architects, architects, home builders or general contractors.

In other words, we need to fan out into the big world beyond the borders of our industry. But that’s really a tactical issue that would only have meaning in serving a broader consumer-oriented strategy, and wouldn’t be worth much without a new way of thinking about what we’re selling and how to promote it. That does not mean abandoning our internal concerns about safety, product standards and industry education, but it does mean finding a different balance where our outward message is one that celebrates the amazing benefits and value of the pool and spa ownership experience.

The good news is that we have a product that provides profound benefits to the consumer. We don’t need to somehow invent the daily luxury, prestige, beauty and sheer fun that comes with pool and spa ownership. Those all exist. We must, however, reinvent the collective image we project and speak more directly to the people we ultimately rely upon for our industry’s very existence.

To my mind, that’s an innovation long past due.

Vance Gillette is an outspoken proponent of the pool and spa experience. An industry leader with 47 years of experience, he has traveled extensively through the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia representing such prominent firms as Arneson Products, Jandy Products, Teledyne Laars, Waterpik Technologies, Zodiac Pool Systems and now…Vance Gillette Ventures.

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