Updated: Jan 26
WHAT CAN WE DO TO ALIGN CULTURES AND UNIFY THE HOTEL AND THE SPA TEAM?
As I've mentioned lately, in the past 8 months I have been talking to many people in the industry, to understand if and who I could help in any way, even just by discussing something that wasn't been discussed.
My dear friend and fellow hotelier Silvia and I, have had many conversations about the current situation and about the future of our roles. She is one like me who had lost her position months ago, but who kept her resilience and who is waiting for things to turn around. I've given her as much support as I could, but I have to acknowledge her area is one that is in a very tough position - perhaps tougher than others - and it will need more time and more help to recover: she is in the world of Spa and Wellness.
Talking to her got me thinking I haven't noticed much discussion about what's happening with spas and wellness in present times, and I certainly wonder how a business completely based on close contact and touch is doing in a world that currently doesn't allow that.
But it also got me thinking about hotel spas, about the challenges spa workers face in regular times as well, about the issues they deal with - quite different than those we deal with on the hotel side, and about the fact that as hotel management we should think about the disconnect sometimes present between the property and the spa department. The same disconnect that fogs spa awareness in a hotel, and that prevents unity between this and the rest of the team.
When thinking about hotel spas I've often asked myself: what is the convenience of being part of a hotel? How do we successfully promote it within the brand? How do we align the culture of the two?
When a spa is operated by a hotel or a resort it earns better visibility and greater reputation. The alignment with the hotel vision, motivation of spa employees, talk and promotion of the spa among hotel staff are all perks of being a piece of the property. Guests will have an emotional connection with the brand, and the spa success will help increase the guest satisfaction ratings for the hotel. Also, the easy access to housekeeping, engineering and IT services represent an offering that would otherwise cause higher cost for an independent operation.
When you don’t have the expertise, then it’s better to find an operator to run the facilities.
If the spa is outsourced, you might run into some challenges such as a separate vision; spa employees may not feel part of the hotel and hotel employees will not pay the necessary attention to the spa; there will be a gap between spa management and hotel senior management, and the focus will be mainly on revenue.
All interesting aspects for someone like me who works in the rooms division and is often exposed to spa operations, so as usual I would like to hear on these aspects from the experts.
Today, my friend - Treatment and Wellbeing Manager Silvia Ammesso - gives us some insights on her day to day and on how her industry has evolved, what her team needs to succeed, what we should know on the hotel side to build more awareness and a stronger cooperation.
Let's start by talking about accessibility: considering the typically elevated cost of access and treatments, would you say spas are only designed for a niche, or are they becoming more affordable to everyone?
Obviously depending on the type of Spa you choose, cost and affordability is going to be different. Spas that are part of 5 star hotels certainly tend to be the most expensive ones, in terms of treatment price. Regular guests of hotel spas are definitely wealthy, but it is also nice to see how all kind of people are appreciating the importance of a wellness day, and to see more and more guests coming for special occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries. Everyone loves a good spa visit, and nowadays everyone can afford one, the difference is in the frequency. Only a niche of people can sustain the cost of regular appointments, while the majority of people will enjoy it occasionally.
What’s the biggest focus of a luxury hotel spa nowadays? Is it the products? Is it the facilities and the design? is it the level of knowledge and training of the therapists? Is it customer service?
Spas that are part of luxury hotels are required to comply with the same standards as the property, so a high quality of service will definitively need to be at its core. Guests visiting 5 star properties are also looking for quality, and great therapists with high skills and knowledge make a tremendous difference. A guest is more likely to return because they received an amazing treatment and service, rather than just for a beautiful pool.
However the focus really depends on the goal the brand wants to achieve: some spas are not focusing on returning guests and on building loyalty, but on the product.
So it really depends on the specific operation and on the goal the company set for itself.
An important focus of luxury spa is the attention to finest points: beds, products, linen, music, lighting, view, amenities... details, details, details.
In a luxurious spa everything needs to be spotless. The first impression is very important for a guest when entering the facility: the flowers need to be fresh, the fragrance present but not overwhelming, the receptionists’ grooming impeccable - including a luxurious uniform.
When choosing items for the operation and presentation it’s important to think about what impression it will give, so everything is chosen carefully.
The treatment room must look flawless: linen of the highest quality, well maintained décor, comfortable and brand new beds, regularly updated music selection.
In a changing room the display of amenities is generous, items are of expensive finish, and accessories like hairdryers or hair products are of leading brands.
Having a deluxe and impeccable product and presentation is essential, but ultimately the level of service you offer is - as it always is - what really makes it luxury: the standards, the attitude, the quality of treatments, the hospitality you are able to provide.
What’s more important for guests: an effective treatment from a wellness/technical point of view, or a relaxing luxury experience? Is it about beauty or is it about health and wellness?
These are two separate markets, and they cannot be compared.
Different guests are looking for different things, and will therefore utilize different wellness facilities depending on their needs and goals.
When you invest in expensive electrical equipment and you focus on result-driven beauty treatments, you know that your guest will need to undergo 5 to 6 session minimum to see the result they are looking for. You are therefore focusing on local clients, and the type of clients who are looking for result, not necessarily for pamper or me-time.
In a Hotel Spa we know these treatments will not help increase our capture rate. We work instead with people who travel a lot, and therefore who are most likely to be in need of a jet-lag treatment or a muscle tensions treatment, and help with maintaining a healthy routine (which is extremely difficult when travelling!).
As for any other business, the Spa decides from the get-go in which direction it wants to go.
In some properties I have sometimes heard or noticed of the spa being in inconvenient locations or suffering from a poor design. What is the ideal layout and a functional arrangement?
Location and lay-out are important points for a spa to run successfully. Having a reception and a lobby area is crucial, as this is where the guest’s journey starts and where the mood is set for the whole experience.
Before every treatment, therapists are required to have a questionnaire signed by the guest, to ensure that there aren't any medical condition which could be affected by a treatment, or any product to be avoided. As it typically takes 5-10 minutes, this is normally where a welcome drink is offered, so the area must look luxurious, cozy, and represents the spa.
The importance of silence is key in the spa and especially around the treatment rooms. That's why these areas should always be located away from loud spots such as reception, gym or pool, or from back of the house sections where staff can compromise tranquility.
You also want to prevent the guest from getting lost, and you want them to have a smooth experience, so the spa lay-out should be easily understandable and the facilities should come in the order of a visit: reception, changing rooms, gym, pool, treatment rooms…
How have spas evolved compared to 10 years ago?
When I started my first job in a spa - more than 10 years ago - treatments in luxury establishments were meant for wealthy people only, and the concept of self care was not as appreciated as it is now. The spa and beauty world is a very fast growing industry, especially with the help of technology. We can now have non-invasive treatments, advance skincare ranges and state of the art spa and fitness facilities.
An extremely interesting aspect of the evolution of spas is how we actually went back to the basics.
We have come to appreciate once again the power of ancient therapies such as aromatherapy, acupuncture, reiki, Ayurveda, yoga (to name a few), all types of treatments that also help taking a break from the fast paced, digital, screen-bombarded lives we all live now.
What’s the biggest challenge for your therapists? I find the emotional component of your customer service particularly interesting, tell us about that.
Being a spa therapist is very physically and mentally demanding.
The most popular treatments remain massages. For a therapists it can be exhausting to have a full day of massages back to back. For this reason, many spas have a massage limit per day that usually goes from 4.5 to 5.5 hours. Despite these limitations, it's still very important that therapists take very good care of their body to prevent back/neck pain and wrist strains, by doing stretches during the day and making sure they exercise to strengthen the muscles that help support a good posture during treatments.
On the other hand, customers visit spas when they feel tired, in pain, in need of pamper, stressed… in short: when they are not at their best. Therefore, therapists performing treatments need to have the ability to listen, being empathetic, comforting, and on top of this they need to perform the best treatment for each and every client. In such an intimate, non-threatening environment, clients feel comfortable to strip off, they know they are in good hands, and they feel serene enough to open up about their personal situation: a problem with their partner, work stress, loss of loved ones. For many people it's also much easier to open up to a stranger, knowing that there will be no judgment and they will probably never see them again.
So it's not uncommon for therapists to have to deal with high emotions, and it can have a big impact on one’s mood and mental health, as beauty therapists are not trained to deal with such feelings. I find this to be one of the highest expectations from the job that therapists should be talked to and prepared for.
How do we make the spa more involved in the hotel product and culture?
The culture comes directly from the brand's vision and from the company's mission. Certain hotel organizations - for example Mandarin Oriental - are highly focused on their spas, therefore it is a big part of the brand's core, investment and training.
In this type of environment a spa worker feels like they are part of the vision and that they are one with the hotel's team.
When it comes to properties whose wellness facilities are not amongst the main focus points, that's where we risk that therapists get lost in their day and not feel part of something bigger.
There are things that can help close this gap, and obviously this cohesion cannot exist without the support of our upper management.
To increase the spa visibility and make it more incorporated with the culture of the hotel, we should involve everyone in celebrating the success of its team. We should take spa related concerns seriously, starting from the staff needs all the way to the guest's comments and reviews. In a spa environment, we don't necessarily appreciate seeing the General Manager only when a complaint needs to be resolved.
It's always a good idea to try and involve the spa team in activities that will help them connect to the rest of the hotel: trainings, staff meetings, team activities. The other way around also represents a good trick: rather than therapists practicing massages and new treatments on each other, I arrange people from other departments to come and be the guests.
In my experience I found it vital to engage with other departments and really help them understand what the spa is all about and what is the offering. We need to think of ways that create interaction moments between the staff.
From the reservation agent to the front office clerk, hotel workers should be aware and knowledgeable about the spa and able to sell it properly. Giving team members a little treatment every now and then is a very good way to train them, and to guarantee a genuine selling point. Many people have never even visited the spa after many months of working in a property, so an essential component of the onboarding process should be a tour of the facility. It can be challenging to have a group of people walking around an environment that needs to be quiet and intimate, but it will look pretty normal to a guest to see a member of the staff walking for a couple of minutes with someone in a hotel uniform.
Other than the front of the house employees, Engineering and Room Service are departments we work with constantly and therefore we need to have a strong communication and cooperation with. We can't guarantee a quality product and a stress free visit if the conditions of the facility and the offering are not up to par at all times. Maintenance, housekeeping, and food & beverage staff are important partners for a good spa experience.
We need to do it all together, everybody should therefore understand the value of their work in our business and the contribution they bring to a pleasant and satisfying spa visit.
We will continue looking into the fascinating world of Spa & Wellness in a second article, this time with focus on the consequences of the pandemic on spa operations and guests, and on the actions taken by the business professionals to survive and adapt to the new normal. Stay tuned for more expert contributions and for some useful information.
For this article and interview I praise and thank Silvia Ammesso - Spa Manager, hospitality professional, and my dear friend through the years.
Silvia has been a qualified beauty therapist for 15 years, and has 13 years of experience working in established and well know luxury hotel Spas. She started her path at Park Hyatt Milan as Spa Therapist, and after 3 and a half years she decided to embark upon a new journey and move to London, to pursue new career opportunities. London has been her home since, where she has worked in renowned luxury spas and properties such as One Aldwych, Mandarin Oriental and Akasha Holistic Wellbeing at Cafe' Royal Hotel, working her way from therapist to supervisor to Treatment and Wellbeing Manager.
Silvia is a passionate spa and hospitality professional, who puts customer satisfaction and team development at the core of her work ethic. She is currently looking for a new opportunity following the pandemic circumstances, and she is still extremely focused on the hotel business, and excited to come back to her beloved place in the luxury spa world.