When it comes to buying hot tubs, women rule the retail spa market—they tend to be the most active customers, generating as much as 70% of sales by some estimates. When it comes to owning stores, managing operations, roaming the sales floor, or service and delivery, however, it’s a different story. Women seem to be a bit more scarce.
A casual survey of spa retailers reveals a majority of hot tub dealerships are owned and operated by men. That’s not entirely surprising to anyone familiar with the business—or with small business demographics in general. According the U.S. Small Business Administration, men owned 55% of all small businesses in 2017. In contrast, 36% were owned by women, with 9% co-owned by men and women.
I think that women make great salespeople. We have just not broken into the industry as of yet in significant numbers.
Spa retailing is evolving, however. Insiders sense a demographic shift in some segments of the business—primarily sales and back-office. That said, female service technicians and delivery experts remain rarities.
So in this H2Insider article, we’re giving you more of a feature story rather than our usual how-to or best practices take on all things related to the hot tub business. We’ve talked to a number of women in spa retail about their jobs, their journeys, their challenges, and their triumphs—celebrating the paths they and other women in our industry continue to carve for generations to come.
Retailer of the Year
“As business owners, we all wear a lot of hats, but the one that I love is director of business development,” says Jennifer Clements, who started Pla-Mor Pools in Mechanicsville, Virginia with her husband Kenny three decades and four now-grown children ago. And that hat, it turns out, fits pretty well—Clements was given the first-ever Retailer of the Year award by the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals in 2017.
Her journey to receiving the honor started 33 years ago, soon after marrying Kenny, a second-generation pool-builder. “We were selling pool chemicals out of our warehouse,” explains Clements, “and a chemical company told us if we didn’t open a store, then we were going to lose the chemical line. Kenny and I were very in favor of getting into retail. We saw that it was an opportunity for me to continue participating in the business even as we had children.”
The rest is history. They opened the first store, added spas three years later, and then opened a second store. “We recognized that the company needed to continue to grow [as] the marketplace changed. Our company had to change. So my joy has always been in networking, following trends, and forecasting.”
Asked if she would describe the spa retail sector as predominantly male, Clements says, “I’m so glad you asked that question. Absolutely it is a male-dominated industry.” But Clements says she feels that being a woman has never been an obstacle for her in the business. “I have brothers. I raised four sons. We work with two NFL football teams. So being around men, I don’t see it as a challenge.”
I have brothers. I raised four sons. We work with two NFL football teams. So being around men, I don't see it as a challenge.
But she does offer up her secret to success: “Not to step on any men’s toes because I’m not a basher, but frequently in these businesses, the men are the face of the business, but the women, the wives behind those men, are the ones that are motivating growth and change.”
The demographics of the business are changing, though, observes Clements. “For many years, most of the folks attending the trade shows were men. I have seen a lot more women in the last 10 years. I’ve seen an increase in the number of sales reps who are women. I’ve seen an increase in the number of women who sit on councils within our governing bodies.”
But as far as Pla-Mor’s success, Clements credits her relationship with her business partner. “I am very blessed that my husband is not the type of man who [puts] limitations or restrictions or defined what my place was. We have always worked as a team.”
That spirit of teamwork is catching on in the industry as a whole. “There are a lot of really talented, smart, hardworking women out there. So I think our industry has been progressive in that they have recognized and embraced that.”
Operations Manager Tracy Campbell wears many hats, too. For one thing, she’s the unofficial voice of Isaacs Pools & Spas in Johnson City, Tennessee. “I answer all the phone calls. If something’s wrong, I take the calls. If our guys haven’t gotten to a service job or a delivery yet—usually because of traffic—I get all the ‘Where are you guys?’ calls.”
Fortunately, Campbell exudes a calm, unflappable demeanor of someone who has seen it all. That makes sense, considering she’s worked at the store longer than the business owner has. “I started as a part-timer, working for David’s mom and dad when David was still in high school,” she recalls. “I would answer the phones and help do whatever was needed.”
Now she manages the four service techs, maps their service routes, checks in inventory, and is the go-to wizard of the software system the store uses to track its ever-growing customer database. It’s been a significant change from the years spent tracking service requests and completes in a small appointment book.
With over two decades of experience, Campbell says she’s noticed an increase of women in the retailing sector. “At the retail summit. you don’t have any of the construction guys or the service guys there, so you notice an increase in women office workers.”
The Birth of a Salesperson
A veteran of 20 years in the restaurant industry—starting at Subway and eventually managing upscale eateries—Leya Bonorris has been Store Manager at Aqua Paradise in Carlsbad, California for about a year. And, no, she doesn’t miss her old business.
With only a small staff to manage, Bonorris often finds herself working as the saleswoman-in-chief. That means ensuring the showroom is in perfect shape, all the paperwork is complete, following up on leads, and updating the store’s social media presence. Luckily, she loves having a broad range of responsibilities—especially the marketing aspect. As a military spouse stationed in Okinawa, Japan, she worked as a marketing account executive. “So it’s been really nice to be able to actually continue my marketing skills,” she says.
She notes that answering the phone can be frustrating, though. “I’m automatically pegged as the secretary when I answer the phone…‘hey, is there, is there anyone else that can help me?’ That’s a phrase I hear all the time.” says Bonorris. While that refrain may rankle a bit, Bonorris doesn’t take it personally. “It’s nothing against me or necessarily negative against women. That’s the traditional role—women were secretaries, they answered the phone.” Add in the fact that she’s selling a large piece of backyard equipment and it’s not surprising that customers just assume the man is the one with the answers.
In the end, she thinks being a saleswoman is an advantage when it comes to bonding with the most frequent buyers. “I definitely feel like I get more men in the showroom. But it’s usually women who make the final decision, and I think that’s a plus in my wheelhouse,” she says. “I do feel like I have an advantage because even though I’m a salesman, there’s [that sense] I might be a little bit more trustworthy, have a little bit more integrity and be more empathetic to the woman’s concerns.”
When it comes to innovative retailing models, Krista Naylor and her husband Brandon have carved out a business that fits with their lifestyle requirements and their location. As the company name suggests, Back Acres Hot Tubs operates in a sparsely populated area in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s a home-based mom-and-pop shop. Literally,” says Krista.
The Naylors have a complete office/retail set up in a portion of their home. But they also use the space outside to show off spas. Just what is displayed and where can depend on the time of year. Having spas set up on the family property helps reduce operating costs—rent, signage, construction, utilities—that confront traditional retailers.
For Krista, a former waitress, moving into retail was a smart way to build on the spa repair, installation, and carpentry work of her husband while also building a family. “It does allow us a lot of flexibility with our customers. We’re not your typical 9 to 5 store. So if I have a customer that’s calling me at 7 at night, I can answer it and help troubleshoot issues.” Krista can also operate in real time with her family. “The business has definitely allowed me the time to be a mom. If the kids are sick, I’m here for them. If I wanted to attend a school function or something along those lines, I could do that.”
Being home-based doesn’t stop Krista from taking the business on the road. Back Acres Hot Tubs regularly sets up shop at fairs in Pennsylvania and nearby in New York to drum-up business and increase awareness. Depending on the available space, they’ll showcase between three and six spas—and the mobile-marketing has been a real success, perhaps because she’s there offering more of the comforting, educational, soft-sell approach. “You see a lot of people with what we call the deer-in-the-headlights look because you can get overwhelmed with information while hot tub shopping. So, you know, I try to help them out on that journey,” she says.
Anything on the technical side, that's him. If it comes to the computer, that's definitely me. I guess there's sometimes a Mars versus Venus in how our minds work.
While Krista has gone out on service and delivery jobs with Brandon, she credits their success to a division of labor that plays to both spouses’ success. “Anything on the technical side, that’s him. If it comes to the computer, that’s definitely me. I guess there’s sometimes a Mars versus Venus in how our minds work.” As for the retailing industry, Krista notes there’s a bit of a Mars and Venus divide in the sales teams that reach out to her. The sales reps for spa manufacturers “are mainly men,” she says. “I probably talk to more women selling spot accessories—vendors selling spa-related chemicals or things along those lines.”
Fourteen years into the business, Krista has no regrets. “Not every husband and wife can work together. And we hear it many times from customers—’How can you work together?’ Somehow we make it work. It’s been a great experience.”
The Spa Girls
Bavette Vizzolini has driven forklifts, made service calls, done installations, answered the phone, and hauled more boxes of chemical supplies than she can count. But that comes with the territory: She owns Premium Hot Tubs with her sister, Natalie Brauner, in Fresno, California.
According to Vizzolini, she owes her spa career to being a beloved bartender. One of her customers, the store manager of Premium Hot Tubs of Fresno, was convinced the drink slinger would make a great salesperson and offered her a tryout. She liked the job so much, she and her sister eventually bought the store in 2007. Nearly 20 years later, Vizzolini and her sister are still driving sales. “We’re the face of the company. We’re out there at that counter greeting our customers every day. But I had to prove myself in the beginning.”
And she had to prove herself again when she purchased the store. “Unfortunately, we bought it right before the recession, and we were all scared for a while. We made it work. I started selling used spas and focused on a different part of the market. We started picking up used units and selling them for a discounted price and kept ourselves in there.”
Connecting with people is the best part of the job.
The diligence and focus has paid off—the store has repeatedly been named Best Spa Retailer in California’s Central Valley. And Vizzolini and Brauer are well known throughout the industry—thanks, in part, to the demographics of the business. “They call us the Jacuzzi Girls,” she says with a laugh. “That’s how male-dominated this business is!” Still, the sisters aren’t bothered by their nickname. “In no way does this offend us. The thing is, there aren’t really many other ‘girls’ [in the industry] to confuse us with.”
“I think that women make great salespeople. We have just not broken into the industry as of yet in significant numbers.” says the spa veteran who still comes to work with a spring in her step. “Connecting with people is the best part of the job,” she says. “Putting people in the right hot tub for their needs and knowing how much they are going to enjoy it—that’s the best feeling for me.”