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Arthritics, ‘Cocooners’ Targeted by Hot Tub Makers

Times Staff Writer

“Climb into your hot tub with acquaintances,” read a recent advertisement for Almost Heaven hot tubs. “Communication is somehow easier, more relaxed. You laugh, smile, joke. You climb out of your hot tub with friends,” the ad continued.

Angela Gallidoro, an Eagle Rock housewife, has heard a lot about people who socialize in the hot tub--a leisure time activity that has become part and parcel of the California life style. Her three teen-aged children even once broached the idea of having some friends over for a fun soak in the family Jacuzzi. But mom wouldn’t hear of it. In the three years since she bought the Jacuzzi, Gallidoro said it never occurred to her that sitting in hot water shooting the breeze with a bunch of people was such a hot idea.

“A Jacuzzi is something personal,” she said. Besides, she added, the unit wasn’t purchased for fun and games. It was actually prescribed by a doctor who recommended hydrotherapy for back injuries suffered in an automobile accident, she said.

Although the hot tub industry was born and has thrived to some extent on the appeal of the notions expressed in the Almost Heaven promotion, many in the industry now think it is important to concentrate on appealing to people like Gallidoro. That sentiment reflects both the sophistication of what was once a cottage industry and the practical considerations of an industry worried that it is about to reach the saturation point with its original market.

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‘Cocooning’ Accessory

The term hot tub technically refers to the wooden tub, but most consumers also use the term to refer to spas. Spa is an industry term denoting vessels of assorted shapes and sizes that are made of acrylic, ceramic tiles and other substances. Similarly, Jacuzzi, a brand name of a spa maker that is also well known for its spa and hot tub fixtures, has also become a generic term for any kind of spa or whirlpool bath.

In recent years, there have been grand predictions of tremendous hot tub sales because of a trend toward “cocooning"--defined as a tendency to spend more time in a home with the latest conveniences. But predictions of a million hot tub sales a year haven’t materialized.

In fact, the industry, which was born in California nearly two decades ago, is in danger of stagnating. Its growth has been hampered by the inability to persuade many people outside of California and Hawaii to buy tubs. Climate is one factor, but some in the industry acknowledge that many potential customers outside the region think of hot tubs as a California fad associated with a certain freewheeling life style that they find somewhat unwholesome.

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That attitude is beginning to change, said Pat Ewing, spokeswoman for the National Spa & Pool Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade association. (In keeping track of sales, the institute counts spas and hot tubs in the same category.) The progress made so far is due to increased advertising and more awareness of the health benefits of hot water soaking, she said. “It’s been slow. At one time some of your more conservative areas, like the Midwest, weren’t buying at all. They were not sure it was a life style that they wanted to buy into,” she said.

The advent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome hasn’t helped either, said Donald Tusha, national spa product manager for Heldor Industries, a Morristown, N.J., maker of spas and prefabricated swimming pools. “There is absolutely no truth to it, but in some parts people believe that spas and hot tubs are carriers of AIDS,” he said.

The seeds of the industry were planted in the 1940s when Jacuzzi, then a water pump company, invented a portable hydrojet bathtub unit for a child with arthritis. The modern industry came into being after publicity about Californians genially soaking in hot-water-filled wooden wine casks that had been outfitted with water jets.

The wooden vessels that started it all are now a very small part of the hot tub industry. In 1987, wooden tubs accounted for just 4.4% of the 262,400 units sold across the country. Acrylic spas accounted for more than two-thirds of the total.

Concentrated in California, Hawaii

Industry officials are keeping close watch on overall sales figures. Sales have gone up and down since 1979. After two consecutive years of sales increases, 1988 sales are expected to decline, Ewing said.

Moreover, sales have become more concentrated in California and Hawaii. The region accounted for 35.5% of 1987 sales, up significantly from a 22.5% share in 1986, according to NSPI figures. The next largest concentration in any state was in Florida, which accounted for 7.3% of sales. The Middle South region, which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, recorded the fewest sales at 1.3% of the total.

Clearly, the future growth is away from the West Coast, said Barry Glick, president of Almost Heaven, a 12-year-old Renick, W.Va.-based maker of tubs, spas, saunas and whirlpool baths. “Sales have peaked and stabilized in California. Sales haven’t peaked east of the Rockies and they are just getting started overseas. Europe is where California was in the 1970s” said Glick, whose company sells to more than 1,200 dealers worldwide. Almost Heaven is also trying to broaden the appeal of its products by promoting them as vehicles for family togetherness and relaxation.

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Through its trade association, the industry is now trying to increase sales by building on the progress it has made in convincing people that hot tubs are good for one’s health. The NSPI has joined with the Arthritis Foundation to promote hot tubs for the treatment of arthritis, a potentially crippling disease that affects millions of people.

Relief for Arthritis

Hot tub sales people have long promoted the products as providing relief for painful joints and sore muscles, said Robert McDaniel, national director for corporate development at the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation. The foundation also believes that hot water therapy provides relief for arthritis victims, he said. One of its primary goals is to ensure that industry sales people “can talk intelligently” when they make such claims, he said. The program, which officially begins next spring, will include the distribution of informational brochures to spa and hot tub sales outlets, he said.

For its part, the industry has pledged to raise funds for arthritis research. Also, Daniels said, a design committee including physical therapists and industry designers has been created to produce guidelines for designing tubs for arthritis victims who have limited mobility.

James Sonoma, director of sales and marketing for Jet-Ster Inc.--the Rochester, Wash., maker of the Sonoma brand spa, said it is important that the industry expand the vision of the health benefits of hot tubs beyond relief for specific aches and pain. “The biggest thing that hot tubs will do is address extending the quality of life,” he said, citing the use of hot water therapy to reduce stress.


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