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Family Sitting at Table in Park

 From playgrounds and ballfield areas to picnic shelters and poolside, the great outdoors where we engage in sports, recreation and fitness are made more inviting with the right mixture of furnishings. We sit on benches and watch our kids at play on the playground or ballfield. We picnic at tables and maybe even fire up the park grills or light a fire in the firepit at family reunions and 4th of July celebrations. We stop at a drinking fountain and bottle-filling station to quench our thirst along the bike trail. And we look for receptacles where we can toss our recyclables and trash.

The recreational furnishing industry has seen advancements in technology, trends in style, and challenges with availability of materials, labor and supply chain obstacles. Two supply-side executives shared their thoughts recently on the segment that is easy to overlook in the scope of all that a facility needs. A third addressed pool-deck furniture.

Supply & Demand

Most site furnishing manufacturers offer a broad array of furnishing types, made from materials and in varying styles to meet the aesthetic, environment and use of the site.

“The overall breadth of offerings has increased substantially over the years,” said Bryan Marousek, director of product design and marketing for a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of site furnishings. “More styles and materials are offered.”

Austin Miller, product manager for a site furnishings manufacturer based in Red Bud, Ill., said his company offers “a wide range of products to meet anyone’s taste and style. We offer everything from a simplistic player’s style bench all the way up to architect and designer-style benches or tables. We offer a thermoplastic coating on many style benches that is the most resistant coating to damage/vandalism.”

Marousek said that two big changes he’s seen include the use of recycled plastic lumber and powder coating. “Both of these processes have also continued to improve throughout the years; for instance recycled plastic is now available in a textured and comingled variety that is much closer to the look and feel of real wood but without the greying over,” he said. “One of the most recent additions to our industry is thermally modified lumber, essentially using a heat treatment to take common woods like red oak and extend their outdoor lifespan to 15 to 20 years.”

Miller added that the CARES Act has led to a push for more outdoor furnishings. This act, formally known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020—a $2.2 trillion injection of funds meant to help address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen more outdoor learning and outdoor tables and benches being configured into outdoor classrooms,” Miller said. “Commercial shades are often used in these configurations to allow more time outdoors in a comfortable climate.”

John Good, general manager for a distributor of site and pool deck furnishings based in Lexington, Va., agreed. “Since the pandemic, schools—particularly K-12—have spent significant resources reimagining their learning environments,” he said. “We have supplied many school systems with large outdoor shade structures as well as tables and benches as they look to create outdoor learning spaces.  Even though the pandemic was the catalyst for this movement, I believe the value was recognized and it is now becoming the new normal in many school systems.”

HOAs with playground space are also keeping furniture manufacturers and distributors busy. Playgrounds and dog parks need benches and trash cans and picnic tables, said Good.

“New home-buyers are considering activities for their kids that are inclusive, safe and challenging,” he said. “This is driving HOA management to find playground units that are beyond the typical slides and swings. New home buyers are also very interested in spaces that promote exercise and play for their pets. We offer a wide variety of dog park amenities and these are becoming a must-have for many HOA communities.”

At the same time that the industry is seeing some of this increased demand, there have been challenges.

“All manufacturers in our industry have been hurt by material shortages, increased costs and extended lead times,” Miller said. “In addition to raw material disruptions, most have also experienced significant labor shortages. In the height of the pandemic, most manufacturers were forced to double lead times and issue material surcharges. The end result has been an increase in product cost due to labor and material increases.”

Recently, suppliers have had to be experts on supply chain, procurement and logistics, said Good. About three years ago, said Good, raw material access became quite
an issue. Aluminum, steel, anything petroleum based
like plastic or thermoplastic, became very difficult for manufacturers to get their hands on. Following that were labor issues, as employers struggled to get people back to work during the pandemic.

“Costs for raw material were all over the place, up mostly,” he said. “But in some cases price increases were coming every couple of months and that’s just a crazy challenge to keep up with. Prices have stabilized. Labor is still on the problem side of the page. What it amounts to is lead times.”

Before the difficulties, Memorial Day pool openings boasted new furniture that was ordered in February and March, said Good. The traditional six- to eight-week lead time is now more in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 weeks and as many as 20. “We’re asking people to put orders in January for May delivery,” he said.

Clients can smooth the ordering process by having a budget and as many details as possible about the space to be filled and the user demographic. “A lot are non-professional buyers, and they don’t often know what they’re looking at in terms of cost,” he said. “It will shorten the whole process if they have an idea of what they want to spend. We’re not trying to sell more than they need but it’s troubling when they get hit with sticker shock right off the bat and it adds to the length of the process.”

Because of lead times, Good recommended buyers call sooner than later to “stay ahead of the curve.”

“Understand the freight aspect,” said Good. “Not the cost, but the logistics of loading and unloading. They’re used to Amazon dropping things off at their front porch.”

Marousek added that supply chain problems and associated inflation are improving, but added that “it could take some time. If the product you are interested in is unavailable, see if there’s a substitute.”

Smart Decisions

How can you make smart decisions when it comes to purchasing furnishings for your site?

Marousek said start off on the right foot by buying high-quality site furnishings in the first place. “Not only will park-goers notice, but you won’t incur the expenses of having to replace or repair a product after only a few years,” he explained.

Rely on your manufacturer or representative to help you understand your options better, he added. “Many times the manufacturer or representative is very knowledgeable about the product so if you were to explain your needs and expectations for the product, they can help you—especially if your space is in a challenging area, like on a seashore.”

Miller advises educating yourself on the materials and finishes of your selections. “How the product is coated is a very important part of the recreational furnishing industry,” he said. “A thermoplastic coating has many advantages that keep the metal encapsulated and increases the longevity of the product. Powder-coat is a very popular coating option that gives a uniform, durable and attractive finish, but is more prone to scratch or chip over time.”

While you can find more options than you can imagine in Sidebarthe manufacturers’ catalogs, many also offer custom design and fabrication.

“There are so many ways a furnishing can be customized,” Marousek said. “On a basic level you can usually have it powder-coated a specific color. You could also have a plaque placed on nearly anything that could either be a dedication or show the town or park’s name/logo. In many ways customization is endless since it’s almost anything someone can think of and budget. One of the most popular custom products for us is custom curved benches of various lengths, and many times those are built space-specific. These benches, for instance, follow the curves of the designed space or encircle a tree.”

Miller agreed that adding lettering or a logo is a popular way to customize park furnishings. “Many benches have the option of putting letters in the backs of the bench that spell out school names, mascots or park names,” he said. “Logos or more complex shapes can often be included as well. Customers also have a variety of colors, materials and mounting options they can choose from to customize their furnishings to their space.”

What’s On Deck?

If your parks feature pools and other aquatic facilities, you’ll have even more site furnishing options to consider.

Good’s company is known mainly for its work providing pool-deck furniture like lounges, chairs, side tables, dining tables and umbrellas. “Everyone has picnic tables, benches and trash cans, as do we, but we tend to have a better selection of pool furniture and people migrate to us for that reason,” Good said.

Good said the market for his company has expanded from apartment complexes and beachside hotels to pools run by homeowners associations. Because enough orders come from people without much experience with pool furniture buying experience, Good’s company plays the role of
adviser, consultant and educator. “We have been doing it long enough that when someone calls us for chaise lounges or chairs, we’ll get into a conversation that expands into tables, side tables, tables you would dine on, the umbrellas that go into those tables, lifeguard chairs,” he said.

“So what we call pool-deck furnishings is a fairly comprehensive variety of all the types of furniture you would find on a pool deck. We have added lifeguard chairs and umbrellas and dining tables and towel valets because they’re all necessary, even if people don’t think about them when they give us a call. They have been tasked with upgrading or furnishing their pool but this is not something they have background in so they do need a lot of consulting.”

Good said he gets a lot of questions about the difference between commercial grade furniture and residential pool furniture. “It’s important because to the untrained eye it’s not easy to note the difference,” he said. “You can go to Home Depot to buy a chaise lounge and wonder, ‘Why is that $95 and the one you’re selling is $375?’ It’s important to somebody who’s got the public to take care of at their pool, the liability and legal issues when a public venue doesn’t have furniture up to the standard that would prevent a problem should something or somebody get damaged.”

Good said details like color and style are not as important right away because his staff can advise on that during the ordering process. Places that want to brand, like resorts or restaurants, will come equipped with those requests but anyone not interested
in logos or lettering can be more open to suggestion.

“Get into a relationship with a supplier that’s going to be honest and get (clients) what they need, not what they’d like to sell them,” he said. “A problem-solver will bring back business.”

Much of that advice applies whether you’re outfitting a pool deck or a park: Look for commercial-quality furnishings, and consider your manufacturer or distributor a partner who can help educate you on the options that will best suit the need and demand of your site.

What’s on deck for the site furnishings industry at large?

A strong future, Miller said. “Outdoor recreation and outdoor engagement continue to grow, and outdoor furnishings with continue to increase with this rising trend.”

Marousek added: “I think over the past few years more people have come to see how important and essential parks are for society. We want to continue to make those spaces more inviting and comfortable for everyone.”     RM