Posted: December 26, 2013, 1:10 p.m. EDT
Custom aquariums take fishkeeping to great heights; high-end tank maintenance can add to the bottom line.
By Patricia Morris Buckley
The recession came close to tanking many large aquarium businesses, but that’s all changed now, according to custom installer Ken Wingerter, aquatic specialist at House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn.
"During the recession, ostentatious displays of wealth weren’t in good taste,” he said. "Now, it’s OK to show off your tanks, but people want more than just their family looking at them. There’s definitely a competitive aspect to large aquariums.”
Many fish retailers attribute the upswing in business to TV shows such as Animal Planet’s "Tanked.” But several are concerned that the show doesn’t reflect the reality of their businesses.
"It’s sad because it misrepresents the industry,” said Karen Elder, president of Exotic Aquariums in Miami.
Still, the popularity of these programs, which show aquarium installers designing and building large custom tanks, has played a huge part in creating awareness of options in tank design, said Elder. As a result, post-recession business is booming.
The upswing has kept her busy, reported Elder.
"We’re doing extremely well with custom aquariums,” said Eddie Tanglao, store manager of Old Town Aquarium in Chicago.
All this comes with a caveat. Several custom tank designers said that they felt a change in volume and they attributed it to their location.
Brandon Moon, owner of Elite Aquarium Services in High Point, N.C., feels the area’s demographic has kept his install business as a side source of income.
"This just isn’t an area that feeds the industry,” he said. "You have to be somewhere where the income is higher and there are more people with funds to pay for [the hobby].”
Colleen Prue, co-owner of Krystal Clear Aquariums in Auburn, Mass., sees more customers purchasing prebuilt nano tanks than going for the custom options.
|Fish From the Depths|
Bells and whistles for custom aquariums now include more than just LED lighting and fancy filtration systems. According to several industry professionals, those who invest heavily in custom tanks also are looking for the most unusual and difficult-to-acquire fish.
"New technology in diving is changing how people collect fish,” said Ken Wingerter, aquatic specialist with House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn. Divers are now able to reach deep-water fish, such as peppermint angelfish, candy bass and rare wrasses, as well as many others, he added.
"Wealthy tank owners want something no one else has,” he said. "It’s still dangerous to dive, and people risk their lives to collect these fish. So these fish are expensive.”
For a tank enthusiast who is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a large aquarium, though, that’s a small price to pay, said Eddie Tanglao, store manager of Old Town Aquarium in Chicago.
"These fish have an air of exclusivity,” he said.
As an add-on sale, these expensive fish can make customers with custom tanks happy. And few retailers offer deep water livestock, said Tanglao.
Another thing people ask for is jellyfish, said Karen Elder, president of Exotic Aquariums in Miami.
"They’re cool and not everyone has them,” she said. "But they’re hard to care for. They have a one-year life span, are difficult to acquire, and need special maintenance and to be fed frequently. And you can’t have any other fish in the tank. We usually try to talk customers out of them.”—PMB
"The custom design can be very profitable,” she said. "But not a lot of people around here can afford the larger tanks.”
On the list of features that customers want in a tank, bigger is usually high on the list, said Elder, who added that her clients gravitate toward tanks that are 300 gallons and larger.
Martin Schapira, co-founder and aquarium designer for Okeanos Aquascaping, a custom tank design firm based in New York that creates aquariums valued at millions of dollars, said his firm is working on a 24-foot-long aquarium.
House of Fins currently is designing a half-ton tank that will have to be lifted many stories to fit into an office space in the Empire State Building, Wingerter said.
Whether clients prefer acrylic or glass, aquarium shapes are changing rapidly.
Living Art Aquatic Design in Los Angeles installed a tank into the floor.
Tanglao of Old Town Aquarium has worked on one tank designed to resemble a vase.
"Most clients want interesting shapes and the fish are secondary,” said Schapira. "We have one client who wanted two squares on top of each other, with the top square twisted. The trend is to architecturally have the aquarium fit into a house seamlessly. This has turned into a very design-oriented business. It’s becoming more of a fashion statement for the wealthy.”
Other shapes designers mentioned include floor-to-ceiling cylinders, room dividers, centerpieces, bar tops and others built in to mimic cabinetry.
Ron Rheingold, owner and president of Living Art Aquatic Design, sees the custom aquarium as more than a novelty.
"They become the focal point of the room,” he said. "They add so much color; they bring the room to life.”
Technology has changed as well, which helps designers make custom tanks fit where they never could before, such as in cabinetry, said Rheingold.
"The LED lighting is better because it draws less current, it is more efficient and it creates less heat,” he said. "Filtration has gotten better than before.”
Schapira has had several clients ask for remote tank control from a phone or another electronic device.
"That definitely makes their aquarium more appealing,” he added.
Custom Tank Service
Schapira estimated that 95 percent of the clients who purchase custom tanks don’t want to maintain them, creating lots of opportunity for custom installers.
"Most people go through the person they have install the aquarium to get maintenance,” Rheingold said. "We have hundreds of service accounts.”
Servicing is a large part of the business at House of Fins.
"It’s our bread and butter,” said Wingerter. "In fact, the shop is almost supplementary to the service department, which is the backbone of the company.”
Industry experts admitted that traditional marketing doesn’t work when it comes to this category.
Exotic Aquariums is a proponent of using Facebook, while House of Fins concentrates on a wide variety of social media.
"We don’t do any marketing,” said Tanglao. "We concentrate on the website, have a Facebook page we update as much as possible and a lot of word-of-mouth.”
Okeanos Aquascaping’s website gets about 40,000 hits a month, due to its size and photos of its hundreds of projects, Schapira said.
"We’ve been featured in so many design and architectural magazines; the website draws architects,” he said.
House of Fins places signage on its completed projects, especially those in the public eye, said Wingerter.
"Building a custom aquarium business doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. "It’s all about word-of-mouth and references. But we’re seeing people with larger amounts of income these days and they want large tanks. And the more options there are out there, the more they want to go custom.”
Why should fish retailers offer custom aquarium installations?
"There’s a demand for it out there. You have to know what you’re doing and have the expertise. But if you’re in the right area where there’s a demand, why not do it? It can be profitable.”—Ron Rheingold, owner and president of Living Art Aquatic Design in Los Angeles
"You have to be experienced to make it in this industry or you won’t make it. It’s a lot of work and it’s never ending. It’s not just plug-and-play. But at the end of the day, there’s no chandelier on the planet that can compete with an aquarium.”—Martin Schapira, owner of Okeanos Aquascaping in New York
"Retailers will be losing business if they don’t offer these services. If you have to say to a customer, ‘I can’t order that’ or ‘It doesn’t exist,’ the customer will go somewhere else. And that means you’re losing business.”—Ken Wingerter, aquatic specialist at House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn.
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