Hotel News ME asks spa and wellness professionals to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the Middle East’s spa management sector
Today, spas are much more than the afterthoughts of a decade ago. They are a chance to add value, impress regular guests and attract new clients; and with dedicated destination spas and wellness retreats cropping up across the region, competition is increasing rapidly. As a result, excellent management is vital to ensuring a concept’s success – as these experts explain.
INTRODUCING THE PANEL
Susan Harmsworth, chairperson at ESPA
“ESPA has spent more than 20 years sharing its visionary spa design, management, training and pre-opening services with some of the finest hotels, creating award-winning spas of distinction in five continents. This expertise also extends to our high-performance, natural spa products and treatments.”
Vladi Kovanic, visiting lecturer in spa and health management at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management, and founder of VK Organisation
“Les Roches International School of Hotel Management is an accredited university in the fields of hospitality, tourism and events management based in Switzerland, with branch campuses in Spain, China and Jordan. Since summer 2014, Les Roches has offered a specialisation in spa and health management for its bachelor programme in International Hotel Management.”
Stephan Wagner, director of spa and wellness at Talise Spa Madinat Jumeirah
“The essence of Talise is the belief that in order to look and feel good from the outside, one must go to the source – and focus on changing the way one feels on the inside. No single element can effect this change, but when fitness, relaxation and nutrition are addressed together, the overall effect is to promote optimal wellbeing.”
How important is the role of spas in today’s Middle East hospitality industry?
Harmsworth: The Middle East is a popular destination for some of the most discerning business and leisure travellers, which has resulted in the growth of some truly distinctive and luxurious hotels. Whereas 10 years ago hotel spas here were very much an afterthought, today they are a primary consideration, as hotels have come to realise that offering their guests an exceptional spa experience is a perfect and highly complementary addition, enriching their experience and engendering a real sense of loyalty. What’s more, these spas easily reach out to the local population – whose love of grooming is growing rapidly – offering them a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Kovanic: Hotel spas help properties to generate additional overnights, either through retaining clients or extended stays – which ultimately leads to increased revenue, providing the spa offerings comply with international standards and are globally competitive. Many guests in ME are frequent travellers and come with high expectations.
How has the field of spa management evolved in this region over the past decade?
Kovanic: As with the hospitality industry, the spa sector in the Middle East has seen strong growth over the past decade, with every luxury property offering some sort of spa and wellness service. Client expectations have also evolved, with more and more consumers understanding wellbeing in connection with appearance and beauty. Spas must manage these demands accordingly.
Wagner: Today most spa mangers are hired with previous overseas management experience. Nevertheless, the industry still needs to adopt a more professional management approach with regards to strategy and long-term development.
What are the key areas of focus when it comes to managing a spa?
Harmsworth: First and foremos, it’s about ensuring and driving commercial management and consistency of standards across both on-site and off-site operations. But really it’s an all-encompassing role, covering everything from setting business objectives and operating principles, to recruitment, marketing planning and budgeting, and understanding staff, customers and current industry trends.
Kovanic: Every hotel owner or manager must have a clear vision, when developing the spa sector of his property. What type of spa it will be, what services it will offer, and which clients it will target.
Then there’s the team: from the manager down to the cleaning crew, each member of the spa staff must be a trained professional with a clear understanding of their role. And the final essential ingredient is a sound understanding of the local market. Establishing a spa in this region requires expertise in spa tradition and local customs, to create an authentic wellness experience.
Wagner: There are several factors: knowing your goals and financial targets is key, as well as understanding what your guests want, along with managing the diversity of your team.
What training and experience do successful spa managers require?
Harmsworth: To name a few, you are looking at covering aspects such as specialist commercial training for operational spa management, commercial scheduling, yield management, customer care and, of course, people management. Some of this can be taught through formal training and some just comes over time.
Kovanic: In my capacity as a visiting lecturer at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management, it’s my duty to prepare students for the exciting spa and health industry. Apart from the knowledge of different treatments and procedures, students need a great sense of authenticity and an in-depth understanding of the luxury service industry. Once they graduate, it is crucial that they learn on the job and absorb their surroundings.
Unfortunately, there’s currently a serious global skills gap when it comes to qualified spa management staff, which is why Les Roches has created a new Spa and Health Management specialization for their Bachelor Degree in International Hotel Management.
Wagner: Passion for the industry is vital, as well as a dedication to continuous study and self-improvement. Prior experience in sales and marketing can also be a big advantage.
What are the particular challenges facing managers in the Middle East’s spa industry today?
Harmsworth: Recruiting and retaining the right talent and expertise is an on-going issue in the spa industry. It’s vital the spa manager sets clear objectives and career paths, continually assesses staff and meets their training needs and works closely with the entire team to keep them engaged. It’s a huge investment, but will ensure longevity over more short-term incentive schemes.
Then there’s the issue of adding value. There’s a delicate balance to be struck between meeting your clients’ demands and ensuring continued commercial success. There’s no doubting that today’s stress-filled lifestyle is driving the market for recovery holidays, and holistic wellness experiences. But you can’t be all things to all people, so it’s important that you look to your location and your customer base, to ensure that your spa proposition is clear, distinctive and the best it can be.
Wagner: The spa scene here is diverse and fast-moving, with new projects announced almost every day. This speed naturally affects staff turnover, with therapists tempted away by more attractive opportunities and salaries.
With a quick turnover of colleagues it’s challenging to maintain the same high standards. But the best part about this job is when you feel everything is well-balanced: colleagues are happy, clients feel special and your stakeholders satisfied with the results.
With increasing competition in the spa field, how can managers ensure the success of their establishment?
Kovanic: Today’s spa manager needs all the characteristics of a psychologist: they have to understand and consolidate the expectations of both the owner and customer, in order to constantly evolve and develop their treatments and experiences. This also requires close monitoring of competing providers and their offerings, in order to innovate rather than duplicate, and retain a competitive edge.
Wagner: There has to be a strong focus on training and career opportunities. Each member of staff must feel content with their role and place in the team, as well as seeing opportunities to grow.
Reaching out to potential new clients is another key to success. This is closely connected to the variety of treatments you are able to offer: the wider your selection, the more markets you can attract.
How important is a spa’s design to its operational success – and what factors should be taken into account when designing a new hotel spa?
Harmsworth: Design is obviously important, but there are many beautifully designed spas which simply don’t work. A spa’s layout and style must take into account many factors – the detail is what’s important.
It must involve a clear understanding of your customers, the market you serve and your own capabilities. And of course, it must work for your guests from an operational point of view. Their journey through the spa must also be optimised, so the different zones are easy for them to locate and use – there’s nothing worse than getting lost in a spa! Think about every detail from the guest perspective.
Kovanic: Design is a crucial aspect of the entire planning of a spa and its future practicality. It’s down to the spa consultant to make sure the architect not only focuses on aesthetics, but provides enough space for the more functional elements of a spa property, such as the back offices, changing rooms for staff, laundry facilities and rooms for the customers to relax after their treatment.
What spa product trends are you witnessing in this region?
Harmsworth: ESPA spa guests and consumers in the Middle East are demanding products that deliver instant results, feel and smell fantastic and have authentic credibility behind them.
This latter point has been a key area of debate for some years. As competition in the spa industry continues to heighten, many naturally pursue a signature, own-label spa brand as a way to achieve a unique point of difference. We have, on occasion, fulfilled these requests for partners – but the truth is that private label is not in line with consumer demand. We conduct a great deal of consumer research and receive the same response worldwide: spa guests seek a credible, trustworthy brand that is known to deliver exceptional results. Own-label ticks none of these boxes, so generally falls at the first hurdle.
Kovanic: A recent regional trend in terms of products is a return to authenticity. Providers and manufacturers are falling back on the historical and cultural heritage of the region, developing treatments with hot sand, local plants and of course the hammam tradition.
What would your advice be to up-and-coming spa professionals looking to progress their careers?
Harmsworth: Spa managers and directors these days are expected to have all-round skills in areas such as marketing, finance and HR, since managing a spa is almost like running a mini-hotel. However Spa P&Ls are very different to hotel P&Ls, so it’s worth taking the time to learn and understand spa financial models.
People management is a huge issue in the spa industry at present. Conventional management techniques and HR skills are often not as suitable for wellness experts and therapists, who require a more empathic approach.
Kovanic: Be a psychologist, be a businessperson, understand the needs of the spa owner and the expectations of the client, and when possible liaise with the architect to help ensure a unique spa experience.
In terms of product, make sure you know your market, your region and the competition in order keep ahead and be successful.
Wagner: Make sure you work on your social skills, as this is a people-focused role. Also, on the business side, ensure you have a full understanding of your targets, so as to make the right decisions going forward.