POND STARS: The making of our reality

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channels
Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channels

If I could go back in time and give
myself one piece of advice, here’s what
I’d say: “It will all work out in the end.”
I’m a firm believer that everything happens
for a reason. With over 35 years as a water
feature hobbyist, 23 of them as the owner
of Aquascape, I’ve experienced a lot — if
not the birth of water features in the U.S.,
then certainly its infancy. I was there during
the booming years of 1997 to 2007, when a
business I started out of my parents’ garage
was recognized four times as one of the top
500 fastest-growing privately held companies.
And I was there for the bust years
corresponding with the economic crash
beginning in 2008.

Through all the highs and all the lows, I can honestly look back and say that every
experience was meant to happen and there
were lessons in all of them. Not always
was that apparent at the time, but without
fail I eventually found the lesson in each
and every trial. I wonder how much pain
and worry I could have avoided if I knew
everything would work out in the end?
Then again, if I knew then what I know
now, I might not have experienced the
lessons I needed to! Which, I guess, is why
I believe everything happens for a reason.

A typical backyard in Florida sets the stage for the transformation that becomes the “sizzle reel” to pitch our show. A little blood and lots of sweat produce joyful tears from the homeowners once their amazing backyard oasis is revealed, much to William’s delight
A typical backyard in Florida sets the stage for the transformation that becomes the “sizzle reel” to pitch our show. A little blood and lots of sweat produce joyful tears from the homeowners once their amazing backyard oasis is revealed, much to William’s delight

So it is with much excitement — along
with a healthy dose of trepidation — that
I look forward to the premiere of our
reality TV series, “Pond Stars.” On Sept.
5 Nat Geo Wild will effectively trump all
my previous efforts to get the word out
about the benefits of the water feature
lifestyle when they debut “Pond Stars,”
a show chronicling our exploits as water
feature contractors. When this show hits
the airwaves, it will be over two decades
in the making. Nothing would personify
Aquascape’s efforts over that time frame
more than my almost-maniacal obsession
to get the word out there about the joys
of decorative water features and the meaningful
profession it is for all who choose to
pursue it. That drumbeat is about to get
louder and more audible than ever before!

Conceiving a Show

In December of 2011, we were
contacted by a television production
company based in Hollywood. An executive
producer there had seen some of the
videos that we posted on our YouTube
profile, “Aquascape4.” With each video
she saw, she became more and more
convinced that we could carry our own
reality show for a major network. As flattering
as her enthusiasm was, we tempered
it with the reality that there wasn’t much
likelihood that it would actually come to
fruition. This wasn’t the first time we had
been approached by a “Hollywood” type
of firm interested in producing a show to
showcase our purported talents. In fact,
it was a scenario that occurred multiple
times a year. The nature of the business,
combined with our own marketing and
promotional efforts, exposes us to those
whose sole job is to fill the talent pool for
networks to choose from.

14-year-old William
14-year-old William

Before we knew how the game works
— something we are still learning today
— our hopes would rise with each opportunity
we had to get our message out
there to the masses. We even went so far
as to produce an entire episode for a show
pitched as “The Pond Squad” to various
“How-To” networks. It’s been said one out of 2,500 shows that get pitched makes
it to series. And then only 17 percent
of those that do get made are successful
enough to earn a season two. The journey
from concept to reality for our reality
show mirrors those numbers.

After signing an exclusive representation
deal, we heard little to nothing from
the production company that was busy
pitching our show to various networks. By
the time fall rolled around I was frustrated,
seeing that our window for shooting projects
was closing. Every time I checked in,
I was assured by the production company
that they understood our concern and told
us that things were “heating up.”

Finally a Bite

In November, I was informed that
Animal Planet loved our show concept,
which they had seen on a promotional reel
the production company had compiled
from our footage. Then nothing.
On Jan. 4, 2013, I received notice that Animal Planet had picked up our show and
had hired a different production company to
produce a sizzle reel of what an actual episode
could look like! In fact, they wanted to send
a team to Chicago
in a month to shoot
our crew in action. I
quickly did the math.
They wanted to shoot
us building a water
feature in February …
in Chicago! Exactly
what I was worried
about — exactly what
I was afraid would
happen — was happening!
They were ready to
film us doing our thing
at a time of year that
we aren’t doing our
thing!

But a problem is
just an opportunity in disguise, which is
just the sort of thing we’ve been figuring
out since Aquascape’s inception. Snow and a
frozen ground might prevent us from building
ponds in Chicago in February, but there
were parts of the country that weren’t frozen
over. The key was to find not just one of
those areas, but also someone with an interesting
story and the budget to fund it.

14-year-old William’s pond greets us upon arrival with cameramen on hand to capture our reaction.
14-year-old William’s pond greets us upon arrival with cameramen on hand to capture our reaction.

CAC Network to the Rescue

Fortunately, we have a North Americawide
network of Certified Aquascape
Contractors (CACs), including plenty of
them located in the South. We tapped into
Jason Duffney, who is a landscape architect
at Earth Works, a design, build and
maintenance firm with a retail location in
Jacksonville, Florida. Another CAC, Saundra
Springer, had a 14-year-old nephew who had
built his own pond and whose parents agreed
to fund a surprise makeover by the Pond
Stars. The concept was agreed upon, and we
booked our tickets to travel to Florida the
first week of February 2013.

Joining me were my two longest tenured
team members, Ed Beaulieu and
Brian Helfrich. Ed, a degreed zoologist and
Aquascape’s Chief Sustainability Officer, has
been with me since 1993. Brian, Aquascape’s
Head of Chicagoland Construction, started with me in 1985 straight out of high
school.

The next 48 hours were a whirlwind.
Working together with Jason and his crew
and Saundra pitching in, we not only
designed and built a 40-foot by 12-foot
pond, but a 300-square-foot patio as well
— and fully landscaped the whole thing
for good measure.

William, Saundra’s nephew, slept at
a friend’s house as we worked under a
light tower until midnight (a foreshadowing
of things to come). When he
came home from school the next day,
his aunt told him she had a surprise for
him. Blindfolding him, she led him into
his completely transformed backyard.
As the cameras rolled, the blindfold was
lifted and a completely shocked William
exclaimed, “OMG!” as he took in the
entire scene. It was a priceless moment —
and sadly, one “Pond Star” viewers will
never see.

Tropical plants frame the new waterfall created by Aquascape Inc. and CACs Jason Duffney and Saundra Springer.
Tropical plants frame the new waterfall created by Aquascape Inc. and CACs Jason Duffney and Saundra Springer.

A Programming Change

Animal Planet passed on our show on
the final round of selections. An executive
at Animal Planet was quoted as saying,
“People dream about pools, not ponds!”
They then went out and signed a very
talented and eccentric pond designer,
Anthony Archer-Wills, and created a
show called “Pool Master” that debuted
to rave reviews this past June. Anthony’s
creations, which we
would say qualify more
as “recreation ponds”
than swimming pools,
will undoubtedly further
the European trend of
naturally designed and
filtered bodies of water.
As for Pond Stars,
we found a new home
on Nat Geo Wild.
Everything happens for
a reason, right? We are
extremely honored to be
on a network owned by
the National Geographic
Society. Nat Geo Wild
is one of their bestperforming
networks and
is one of the highest-ranking
networks for family viewing. Water
features provide something for young
and old alike, and soon enough we get to
expose the world to that with our show.

The team that toiled to create the backyard paradise: Aquascape Inc., Earth Works and Saundra Springer.
The team that toiled to create the backyard paradise: Aquascape Inc., Earth Works and Saundra Springer.

The Long and Winding Road

Not only was the process to land our
show long and hard, but filming each
episode has been more of the same. If it
were not for our systematic approach to
water feature construction, which lets
the designer focus on the aesthetics by standardizing the construction process, we would
never have been able to shoot this series. In total
we installed a dozen water features in four states,
with the Aquascape home team not seeing the
majority of the properties until we showed up.
But since every water feature we install is built
with the same sequential process, we were confident
we could pull it off.

As for how good they looked — well, we
will leave that up to the viewers to decide. If
they like our work and our show, we will soon
need every Certified Aquascape Contractor
possible! Not only will we need them as a
network for future episodes, but also to handle
the increased consumer demand for water
features.

35 years from now I will be 79 years old —
and God willing, still living the water feature
dream. I truly love this industry, which I believe
is poised for the next uptick led by the latest
wave of reality shows chronicling our unique
world. “Pool Master” and “Pond Stars” might
be the first of their kind, but I’m believing and
hoping more are to follow. This industry, and
the work that all of us Pond Guys and Gals do,
needs and deserves all the attention it can get.
I’m proud of the organization Aquascape has
become and excited to see how we will evolve
with this continuing, evolving hobby and lifestyle.
One thing’s for certain: through it all, it
won’t be boring … and it most certainly will
all be worth it!

Greg Wittstock
Greg Wittstock

Bonus thoughts with Greg Wittstock

1) You mention in your story that you were there to see the industry’s infancy. What large-scale changes have you seen in the pond business since those early years?

When I first began as a hobbyist with water features in 1982, all the information available
about water features came from Europe — primarily England. It was, and still is, heavily
plant-based. All the books recommended concrete construction as the absolute best
and longest-lasting construction method. Well, as I soon found out, building a concrete
pond that doesn’t crack in zone 5 Chicago is more than challenging and far from the most
pragmatic [solution], cost- or aesthetic-wise. I purchased my hard goods from some of
the original aquatic plant pioneers in America: Trickers out of Ohio and Lilypons out of
Maryland. Boy, have times changed. In the early ‘90s Firestone started manufacturing
a fish-grade version of its EPDM liner, a huge upgrade over PVC. EPDM rubber laid the
foundation for professionals to install liner water features. In 1991 I began installing ponds
for others, and soon landscapers would sub me out for their projects. It wasn’t long before
those same landscape contractors wanted to start building ponds with my products. By
1995 I had my first patents for the industry for the first commercial pond skimmer and
waterfall filter.

Patents in hand and our beautiful, rotationally-molded skimmers and falls in our first warehouse,
we mailed out our first supply catalog touting the benefits of Ecosystem Ponds
and our 20/20 approach to systematizing water feature construction. Nobody had targeted
professionals with water feature products before, so our approach then, as it is today,
was to train and educate our customers on what we do and how we do it as contractors
ourselves.

We began traveling North America doing hundreds of classroom and hands-on seminars
annually demonstrating our products, philosophies and practices. The industry had never
seen anything like it and our business grew accordingly. Sadly, my father, who had always
been a vital partner to me, became my first competitor when he formed Pond Supplies
of America. Simply put, I was a big-dreaming entrepreneur and my dad was a measured,
pragmatic engineer. My next few competitors were distributors who broke away from
Aquascape to manufacture their own versions of our designs. The professional water
feature industry was new and it had a Wild West mentality to it. I never got into a gunfight,
but as a brash twenty-something-year-old with visions of changing the world, I became
a polarizing figure — especially to the old guard, and certainly to my competitors. Today
many, if not most, of the companies that entered the professional water feature supply
game are gone, retired or on to conquer the next great thing. As for my Dad, I’m happy
to say that in 2006 he came back to work with me at Aquascape and we get along swimmingly.
Today I see no new competitors entering this space and few innovations from
those who remain. The investment in product and infrastructure to enter the market today
versus when the industry was in its infancy is enormous. I don’t see new competitors of
any significant size and scale entering the market successfully unless another innovation
on the scale of skimmers and waterfall filters takes the industry by storm.

2) Before all the attention from producers began, did you ever have a sense that the pond business might be good material for a TV show? Why?

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “You guys should have your own reality
show.” Why? Because we create cool things people love and we love what we do! Our
byline — “Your Paradise, Our Passion” — says it all. This is actually the third time we’ve
worked with a production company to land a show. The sun, the stars and the moon aligned and we landed with Nat Geo Wild. It’s been a long journey and we are ecstatic it’s
finally come to fruition.

3) Will the sudden boost of exposure that a television show provides change Aquascape’s approach to its other marketing efforts? How?

Yes! We are going to milk this cow for all it’s worth! Simply put, the television show is the
golden key into the consumers’ living rooms and right into their backyards! We don’t want
to leave a single stone unturned in turning “Pond Stars” fans into water feature owners.
We redesigned our entire website and call tree to direct new consumers to our Certified
Aquascape Contractors for those that want to hire it done, and to our retailers for the
DIYers. We are working with our close to 500 Distributor Partners to parlay this renewed
interest in water features into attracting new contractors to service the increased demand
for professional water features.

We’ve retained a Hollywood P.R. firm to represent our interests in leveraging the exposure
“Pond Stars” affords us into other mainstream media outlets. My new role will be educating
the masses on the joys of water features, rather than training the trade on the whys and
how-tos. In short, everything Aquascape does from a promotional and marketing effort
will be filtered through the exposure of the TV show.

4) Why are you honored to be on a network owned by the National Geographic Society? What are the implications of that relationship?

National Geographic is a worldwide, century-old institution. Nat Geo Wild is their fastestgrowing
channel. For our little niche of an industry to even be mentioned in the same
breath as National Geographic is something I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest (pun
intended) dreams.

5) When you know a project is going to be filmed, is there added pressure to make it grander and more impressive? Does the pressure add risks?

We are pond and water feature designers and builders. For the show, we have to also
be landscape designers and contractors. Every water feature needs decoration before
it’s done. That always involves plants and, more often than not, a patio, fire pit or other
hardscape. It’s one thing to coordinate that with our suppliers in Chicago and a whole
other challenge to do that with our out-of-state builds. Landscapes take time to mature.
Television audiences want to see a mature pond now! Any questions? Almost every project
required 14- to 16-hour days, six days a week. The camera crews were long gone by
the time we finished up every day.

6) What kind of communication goes on between a Certified Aquascape Contractor and the “home office” during a build? Is there additional involvement when the project will be on the show?

Honestly, we wouldn’t have been able to film Season One without our Certified Aquascape
Contractors coming through for us. For starters, we spent January, February and March
working in Florida and California, with Georgia thrown in for good measure. Not only did
our Certified guys in those areas find us the projects, but they came together on each
one, with multiple companies assisting with the build and corresponding landscaping.
It’s great when we film in Chicago with our crews and suppliers, but we love the diversity
of shooting regionally. The Certified Aquascape Contractors coordinate all aspects of the
project with us back in the home office prior to us landing in their markets. We couldn’t
have produced this show without this network of professionals.

7) A fun one: What’s your favorite Aquascape water feature? Does one stand out in your memory as the most exciting, the most fun to build, the most impressive?

The pond that started it all! My first pond I installed in 1982 is still alive and well today. I
visit it every year and have a far greater connection to it than the home I grew up in. Not
only was it my classroom, but it became my inspiration for my career and those of tens
of thousands of others. Millions now enjoy the beauty of water features because of the
inspiration that backyard pond provided. No other water feature can come close to making
those claims, so by far that’s my favorite water feature of all time!

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