After a week at a gorgeous resort in St. Thomas three years ago, Jacuzzi’s then-new president and CEO had a question about the hot-tub company’s annual International Dealer Conference: Is that all there is?
It was January 2014, and by every measure the conference had been a success — well attended and well received. But Robert Rowan, who had just become president and CEO the previous April, wasn’t so sure. “He challenged me and others within our leadership team and sales organization to say, ‘What are you trying to get out of the meeting?’” said Patrick Williams, Jacuzzi’s senior director of marketing. “He said, ‘I’m not interested in going to some beach resort for a week, where all we do is sun and fun, but we don’t advance our objectives and we don’t help the dealers to build their businesses.’”
Three years and three dealer conferences later, Jacuzzi has activated the jets on its program, adding a steady stream of business content while still maintaining its sudsy incentive-trip nature. Here’s how:
1. DEEPER WATER
Jacuzzi had always approached its International Dealer Conference — which averages 250 attendees — as a traditional recognition event, with an awards program and an agenda heavy on leisure activities. After St. Thomas, that began to change. “We wanted to give our dealers access to experiences and access to people — to speakers, to thought leaders — that they likely couldn’t get on their own,” Williams said.
At the 2015 conference in Anaheim, that included presentations by Brian O’Neil, vice president of Simmons mattress company (“It’s a well understood product, but it’s a difficult-to-shop product,” Williams said. “A lot of similarities to our business being hot tubs”); Max Joseph, who works in sales and market-ing for Google (“A lot of that was the thought leadership within Google, and then ZMOT, which is zero moment of truth — how consumers are shopping online and what that means for brick and mortar”); Joe Webb, founder and president of DealerKnows (“They actually are experts in lead handling and lead follow-up in the auto industry”); and Afterburner, made up of “retired military aviators and special operatives, who talk about how teams need to plan, brief, execute, and debrief, and how that leads to long-term success.”
Something the conference didn’t do, even though it was being held in Anaheim: visit Disneyland. “Half the audience said, ‘This is great, this is exactly what we need. If I’m going to give you a week of my time, I want it to really affect my business,’” Williams said. “The other half said things like, ‘You brought me to Southern California and we didn’t even go to Disneyland.’
‘This hotel was ﬁne, but we’re 15 miles from the beach.’” The following year, for the 2016 dealer conference, Jacuzzi split the difference, opting for an exotic destination — Panama City, Panama — while continuing to up its content, including speakers from Salesforce.com, plus a return appearance by Joe Webb and a keynote presentation from Apollo astro-naut Buzz Aldrin. This year, Jacuzzi was back in the United States, at the Omni Nashville on Jan. 13–19, for a program that only went deeper. “Our presenters were not going to present from the stage,” Williams said. “Instead, we challenged them to be workshop facilitators. Dealers registered for the sessions that were most interesting to them — each day had four unique workshops, and we did this across three days.”
2. SPILLOVER EFFECT
The dealer conference used to encompass two separate programs, held one immediately after the other — ﬁrst for Jacuzzi, then for Sundance Spas, one of Jacuzzi’s brands. But as the company rethought its content, it began to realize that separation was counterproductive. “My argument to the organization was, if we are going to make this a meaningful meeting and we want to invest in content, we have to bring the two brands together,” Williams said. “Given the cost of bringing in the thought leaders and the speakers we have, it doesn’t make sense to have them ﬂy in for a night, present the next day [at the ﬁrst dealer conference], leave, and then come back four days later [for the second conference].”
Nor did the two conferences work for the deeper, richer experience that Jacuzzi was trying to create. “If you’re running a small-sized family business in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, you probably have a lot in common with a small-sized family business operating out of Gadsden, Alabama,” Williams said. “You may not carry the same brands, but you probably have a lot of the same challenges. So when you come to a meeting, are you going to be polarized because that person carries Sundance and you carry Jacuzzi, or are you going to say, ‘You know what, we’ve got a lot in common and I can probably learn a little bit from you and teach you a few things, too’?”
In Nashville, Sundance attendees arrived on the ﬁrst day of the conference, Jan. 13, and had their awards program that night, followed by a marketing program the following day. Jacuzzi attendees arrived that second night, when there was a social event for both groups. Over the next three days — Jan. 15–17 — everyone participated in content sessions and activities together. The wrap party was on Jan. 18, the Jacuzzi marketing program and awards were on Jan. 19, and everyone departed on Jan. 20.
“The feedback has been wildly positive,” Williams said. “Our dealers have said, ‘You’ve brought in this breath of fresh air — people who I haven’t met before but whose lives and businesses and careers are very similar to my own.’”
3. SOAKING IT IN
Not that Jacuzzi has turned its back completely on its previous conference model. There are still lots of fun things for attendees to do, but they’re richer, more singular. Williams calls them “iconic experiences.” In Panama City, there was a meet and greet with Buzz Aldrin. This year in Nashville, the awards nights were staged in the Country Music Hall of Fame, while the wrap party was at the city’s legendary Ryman Auditorium — “the mother church of country music,” Williams said — with private performances by Grammy-winning songwriter Luke Laird, and John Rich of the superstar duo Big & Rich. There was also a Jack Daniel’s tour; Jacuzzi bought a barrel of the famous Tennessee whiskey and gave each attendee a bottle from it, garnished with a custom label.
“That’s some of the things that we haven’t lost — those nice touches that make our dealers feel special,” Williams said. “At the same time, we’ve absolutely elevated the level of business content of this meeting.”
As the 50/50 split among attendees in Anaheim demonstrated, not everyone is thrilled with the new direction of the conference. But a lot of Jacuzzi dealers seem to get it. As this year’s show wrapped, one of them came up to Williams and thanked him. “He said, ‘Patrick, I’ve been in this business more than 25 years. It takes a lot to teach me something, and you’ve taught me a lot in the last couple years,’” Williams said. “And then he .said, ‘You’ve also made me a lot of money.’”