For the fun of it

0814Pool-Works

From making recreational gear to spirits, region has leisurely pursuits covered

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

When was the last time you had fun?  Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but how much did it cost?

It’s appropriate that the word “leisure” comes from a 700-year-old Old French word meaning “time at one’s disposal” because, in today’s world, it usually requires disposable income, too.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical household spends 8.74 percent of its pre-tax income on entertainment, restaurants and alcohol. That’s around $5,734 for a couple earning $65,596 per year before taxes.

Alcohol and restaurant-eating consume more than half of that sum – $3,129. The rest – $2,605 – covers everything from campground fees to concert tickets.

With its water and wildlife and all of the recreation that goes with it, Wisconsin wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t partake in liberating discretionary dollars from the pocketbooks that imprison them.

Luckily, the New North region has many businesses that exist to help people kick back a little.

Tabulating leisure spending can be a rather squishy ordeal. In 2010, visitors to the Fox Cities area added $363 million to that year’s tourism coffers, according to the state Department of Tourism.

But tourism and leisure time aren’t necessarily the same: That sum reflects things like hotel stays and restaurant meals, but it doesn’t take into account the accoutrements of American leisure time: the Joneses new hot tub, your son’s soccer-league dues or the new flat screen TV you just bought.

So who are these purveyors of pleasure, and what do they have to say about figuring so prominently in the spending of northeast Wisconsin’s disposable income? They run the gamut from sports bars to pool installers, and even if they’re not manufacturing goods in the tangible, factory-line sense of the word, they’re making something more durable: Memories. Good times with family and friends – even when times are tough.

As the co-owner of Green Bay Distillery put it, “It’s a quality of life thing.”

Keeping heads above water

Swimmers have been dipping into Pool Works pools for 27 years.

Kim Sanders’ parents, Connie and Dave Kubiak, launched the De Pere-based company in 1987 after years in the pool business with Dave’s father and brothers. Sanders’ brother Matt Kubiak, her husband Nate and their oldest son, Tyler Sanders, all work there together, making it a three-generation enterprise.

Sanders has seen the family business grow from a smaller showroom to a larger one with three inground pools, an inground spa, above ground pools, chemicals and a full service department.

“We’re doing the things we always did,” Sanders said. “We’ve always had a store and a service department; we’re just doing more.”

Pool buyers don’t fall into a tight demographic, Sanders said, other than they’re people who like the convenience of recreation in their backyards.

“If you have a cottage, you have to pack and drive up there, but if you have a pool, it’s right here out your back door,” Sanders said. “How can you beat that.”

Buyers are young families and septuagenarian grandparents.

“The young parents love that they know where their kids are and who they’re with, and their kids want to play in the water and exercise,” Sanders said.

Grandparents see it as a way to see their grandkids more often.

“It’s a good way for parents to get their kids off the computer,” she said.

Some clients grew up with Pool Works pools and want their own.

Often, those with pools also have outdoor kitchens, Sanders said. “They go hand in hand – these are people who like to entertain.”

The real change has been with shoppers, thanks to the Internet.

“People are much more informed, and that can be good,” she said, adding that sometimes the information they glean online isn’t correct.

Or they’ll want Pool Works to price-match an online seller. “Sometimes we can’t do it, and that’s just the way it is,” she said.

Sometimes a cut-rate online retailer is “just a guy in his garage” but the website is so slick it looks like a big company. “We know that, but the customer doesn’t always know that,” Sanders said.

Some manufacturers have begun warrantying their products only if they’re sold by registered dealers.

“The manufacturers have to start supporting dealers, because otherwise we won’t be here anymore,” Sanders said.

Pool owners have long complained about maintenance. But even that’s gotten easier over the last three decades, from improved chemicals and filter systems to automatic covers. There’s even software that enables owners to manage their pools from their smart phones.

More people use pools or spas for medical reasons than in the past, Sanders said. Recently, Pool Works installed a therapy pool for a family with a son with a disability. Sometimes insurance covers part of the costs, Sanders said.

Pools with resistance-swimming capabilities can be good therapy for those with arthritis, fibromyalgia and other conditions.

But swimming itself hasn’t changed. “At the end of the day, it’s still a nice way to get outside and enjoy some exercise,” Sanders said.

Boiling life down to its essence

The owners of Green Bay Distillery opened their venue in 2011, not merely amidst an economic downturn, but smack dab in the middle of the National Football League’s lockout. No one could dispute that it wasn’t an optimal time to start a sports bar.

But friends Josh Kozinski and Mike McNerney plunged in, optimistically believing that if they provided good food, a good time and a gathering spot for music lovers, the product would sell itself.

Thus, Green Bay Distillery restaurant and sports bar came into the world, ready to take on any challenge.

Luckily for them the NFL lockout ended within a short time.

“Certainly there’s no time like Packer time for us,” Kozinski said.

But there still was another problem: The economy.

Kozinski and McNerney paid no heed. They know their audience: Nothing stands in the way of a Packers fan.

“Regardless of how the economy is doing, there’s still going to be a sold-out stadium and people are going to come from near or far away,” Kozinski said. “They want to have a good time, a good weekend.”

So prime-time for them on home-game weekends starts on Thursdays. “There will be people in our establishment and at the bar from open till close,” he said.

Kozinski admits that in bad economic stretches, things tighten up on the restaurant side. People might not eat out as often, or if they do, they might not order the whole nine yards.

But when it comes to reasons to celebrate, Green Bay Distillery customers don’t hold back. Whether it’s a concert by a national act or sports (like the Wisconsin Badgers or the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s basketball during March Madness) people come out ready to shed some of those discretionary dollars as well as spreading good cheer.

Diversifying products never hurts, so last summer, Green Bay Distillery launched its line of bottled vodka. It’s currently in 300 outlets around the state.

“By late this year, we’ll be introducing Green Bay Gin and after that, whiskey, and probably a rum,” Kozinski said.

The next phase is to build its own distillery and make the vodka onsite. Right now Green Bay Distillery uses a third party.

So why do people scrape their couch cushions to visit Green Bay Distillery?

It’s that quality-of-life thing.

“Regardless of how the economy is doing, even if somebody doesn’t have tickets for the Packers game, just to be down in the stadium district and to kind of experience the game from a distance, we have a lot of people in our building trying to experience that game feeling together,” Kozinski said. “People have to find a way to entertain themselves.”

Staying afloat

Wisconsin is known for its lakes, so it’s not too surprising boat manufacturers have established themselves in the state.

One is Marquis Yachts, the parent company of Carver Yachts of Pulaski.

CEO Rob Parmentier says his company caters to the “richest two percent” in the country.

But even they have tightened their alligator belts.

“The boating industry had one of its most devastating eras; it was hit extremely hard,” he said. Some sectors – pontoons and fishing powerboats — were hit harder than others, with sales down 75 to 80 percent.

They’re also the first to start showing signs of recovery.

But that’s all relative, Parmentier said. “This is (recovery) coming back from falling off a cliff,” he said.

Parmentier said he’s seen five or six recessions during his 32 years in the yacht business.

Marquis makes boats for several market segments: fiberglass inboard outboards, freshwater fishing (aluminum and fiberglass), saltwater fishing (mostly fiberglass), till boats or ski boats, pontoons, sporting yachts and yachts.

It’s mostly Baby Boomers who buy their boats, he said. “It’s said that today’s 50 is yesterday’s 40, and it’s true,” Parmentier said. “A lot of Baby Boomers are taking good care of themselves, working out and watching what they eat. And they like to have fun.”

Most of those boat-buying boomers are self-made people, business owners and entrepreneurs, people Parmentier believes, “built America.”

“We don’t sell a lot of boats to doctors and lawyers and people who work for companies,” he said.

But the way people entertain themselves on the water has changed, and Parmentier worries for the future.

“These millennials, who are 18 to 34 now, a lot of them have unfortunately graduated during one of greatest recessions since 1929. They’ve got a lot of school debt, and there aren’t a lot of jobs out there,” Parmentier said. “You have a lot of college-educated kids having to settle for much less than they expected. And they don’t have the discretionary income as their grandparents and parents.”

That generation likes different things – they grew up with iPhones, electronics and different activities than the Boomers did. “They have a different activity mindset.”

Parmentier says he hopes they grow up with “the water gene.”

“Whether they grew up fishing, boating, or being pulled round on skis, once you’ve established that inside a person, they never forget,” he said.

Aren’t we all just kids?

Between carnival seasons is an eternity for a kid who loves those colorful midway games of skill and chance.

Bay Tek Games of Pulaski isn’t the first to come up with a fix for that, but it’s provided ways for kids and adults to escape their everyday concerns for 37 years.

Its two founders were electrical engineers who stumbled upon a niche. “Somebody from their church operated carnival games, and somebody had to stand there and add it up on paper,” Ozarowicz said. “He said ‘If you could automate that, you’d save me a lot of time and effort.’” So they did, and they realized the world of games needed them.

Ozarowicz says his company ships containers of games all around the world. “You name it – Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Australia, South America, Europe, the United Kingdom, we run the gamut,” he said.

Many up to six feet tall and over 500 pounds, these games populate Walmart lobbies, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Happy Joe’s Pizzas, Funset Boulevard, Tundra Lodge and dozens of other places.

They’re all conceived and manufactured in Pulaski.

In an age of weightless and size-less iPhone games, it might seem surprising that a company still makes such ginormous pieces of equipment.

But Ozarowicz says their bulk is a plus.

“We still can leverage the novelty of it,” he said. “You don’t play any of our games anywhere but at a location. It’s novel, it’s not something you can play at home or online or can get sick of; the only place you can play that equipment is at that Walmart or at that Happy Joe’s Pizza.”

One of their hottest games is Road Trip, which has caught on with grownups.

“An adult might put in $1 every time they go to Walmart; they may put $5 or $10 trying to win a specific prize,” Ozarowicz said. “Our games go from 25 cents to $1 a play. The average spend would be from $4 or $5 a person on up.”

To make players (and their parents) feel like they’re getting something for their money, many games offer prizes.

“Based on the skill you have and how well you play, you’ll get either a prize directly out of the machine,” or a ticket that can be redeemed at the prize counter.

“One of the reasons why parents are able to allow their kids to play the games is they can get something for their time,” Ozarowicz said. “There’s play value there, it keeps them busy, it takes time and some level of interactivity, and they get something for their time, a piece of candy or plastic trinket or maybe a little bit bigger – a lava lamp or remote-control car.”

It’s good for us

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reported that moods lift, and aches and pains feel better on weekends, even in people who say they love their jobs.

So rather than kicking ourselves for the greenbacks that fly out of our pockets in the name of a frivolous concept like fun, we should all just lighten up and remember that life’s too short not to enjoy ourselves.

Like the Green Bay Distillery’s Kozinski says, it’s that “quality of life thing.”

Lee Marie Reinsch worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgeWise, in 2007. She lives and recreates in Green Bay.