Staying afloat in the hot tub biz

04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Islandia Pools owner John Wysoczanski explains the features of a new energy-efficient Bullfrog spa, which include adjustable inflatable headrests and interchangeable jet packs. He said the new line has drawn foot traffic to the Riverhead store he’s operated for 24 years.

Have the snowy winter and soggy early spring left you stressed and dreaming of a backyard spa? If so, that $800 inflatable hot tub might still be available at Home Depot.

But if you want to give your frazzled back a real treat this summer and are willing to invest more money to do it, you don’t have to go too far: The North Fork has several full-service pool and spa dealers who can help you unwind.

At Islandia Pools in Riverhead, patrons are welcome to strip down to their bathing suits and take a trial soak in a demo Bullfrog spa, a new energy-efficient line of hot tubs featuring interchangeable jet sections.

“You just melt in these things,” said John Wysoczanski, standing in his sweet-smelling showroom Saturday afternoon. “And you sleep like a baby afterward.” The nice scents were from tubs that contained aromatherapy potions.

Mr. Wysoczanski, who has owned Islandia for 24 years with his wife, Boanne, recently replaced his line of Saratoga spas with the Bullfrogs, which he said range in price from about $5,600 to $7,200.

The jet packs in the Bullfrogs have names like “neckblaster,” “stormshower” and “spinal’ssage” that help relax different parts of the body. Scents can be poured into the jets for aromatherapy and each jet pack comes with a lifetime warranty.

Mr. Wysoczanski tells his clients they’ll never have to buy another spa after a Bullfrog. And people have taken notice.

“We’ve gotten a lot of foot traffic this early in the season,” he said.

But the switch to a line of spas on the cutting edge isn’t the only reason why someone like Mr. Wysoczanski can continue dealing hot tubs in a market still in decline from its heyday in the mid-SSRq80s. He also stocks Dream Maker spas, lower-end spas that start at about $3,500, and takes trade-ins. Used hot tubs sell like hotcakes if they’re in good shape, Mr. Wysoczanski said.

Like other North Fork pool and spa establishments, Islandia Pools is a full-service dealer — a spa retailer and installer, a pool installation center and a service center complete with an in-house certified technician.

“We’re really several businesses in one,” Mr. Wysoczanski said.

Bud Handel, manager of East End Spa, Sauna and Wine Storage in Jamesport, said that he, too, has had to diversify to stay afloat in the spa business, incorporating wine racks into his spa packages. Nationwide, he said, the pool and spa industry has been “off about 50 percent” since about 2007.

“It really started to go that way, because by the mid-2000s there were just so many spa manufacturers,” said Mr. Handel, a pool and spa retailer and technician on Long Island for 35 years. “Some manufacturers got thinned out, but as a result others gained more market share.”

Mr. Handel said the spa industry as a whole has also been under “enormous pressure” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create more energy-efficient units, which adds to the cost of production.

“And some of those weaker manufacturers can’t meet those costs, which takes them out of the market,” he said.

Even in the midst of a slump in hot tub sales in early 2008, Bill Birkmier decided to open Eastern Long Island Pool and Spa in Cutchogue to supplement his established pool-care service with retail sales.

In only two years, he outgrew that space and recently moved to the old Dickerson’s Marine building on the corner of Route 25 and Sigsbee Road in Mattituck, where he can display more than double the hot tubs as before.

“There isn’t too much on the North Fork,” he said. But the area is “definitely growing with second homes, and many of those have hot tubs. We are becoming higher-end, like the Hamptons.”

Orders to install high-end Caldera spas on rooftops on the South Fork overlooking the ocean have certainly continued for East End Spa, Mr. Handel added.

“There is a certain clientele that is not affected by this economy like it affects everyone else,” he said. “People are still building some pretty big houses and want all the amenities.”

Mr. Handel said he’s seen the spa industry swing from “the ridiculous to the sublime” in his 35 years.

“In the mid-SSRq80s up into the SSRq90s, it was a wild period for us,” he said. “It was almost impossible not to make money. Now, I think it’s just another adjustment period.”

Adjusting to limited financing options in a tighter credit market these days has been another challenge for both retailers and clients, Mr. Wysoczanski said. But surrounded by high-tech spas and the sound of bubbling water at Islandia, he said he’s confident he’ll sell a lot of tubs this summer.

A hot tub is “nice to have year-round, and in the summer you just turn the temperature down a little,” he said. “We’re selling relaxation. That’s what I really love about this business.”

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