From staff recruitment to retention and product retail to spa revenue, no issue was left untouched when Spa Manager united some of the UAE's leading spa experts.What sort of training do spa managers require and what is available?
Russell:I think having been the spa manger without the training, I would certainly have benefited if I'd had more training. As a therapist, you're really isolated. It's a one-on-one relationship, so you don't actually have a lot of team-building skills, nor do you have the business acumen.
Antoniouk:To become a good spa manager you definitely need an experience and you gain this experience within the spa or recreation department. You have to be a therapist to be a good spa manager, because if you're not a therapist yourself and someone complains about a treatment, you will face the problem of how to deal with this.
Grew:I beg to differ on that one. I am a therapist and I have studied therapies, but my specialism is sports injury management, which has got nothing to do with the spa industry.
However, over the years I have worked alongside therapists and understand a little about therapists and their requirements. When I was a spa manager I had a good team of therapists that could assist me in that too.
I have more of a business background, and have been able to drive the business forward and create more of a professional environment.
I think five years ago everything was being geared towards a therapist becoming an assistant manager and then a manager; there needs to be a shift now because of the industry changing and becoming a much more professional industry.
There is a need to bring in business managers as opposed to therapists.
There is a lot that outside business experience can bring to spas and I think that needs to be the focus for the spa industry over the next five years.
It's changing from a spa to a business, and becoming a business leader within a hotel.
All the time that spa is seen as a secondary item to the hotel, it's never going to be anything more than that, whereas if we can change that cycle and create a more professional environment with structured career paths for everybody - from attendants right through to spa managers - then we will be able to drive the industry in a strengthened way and actually support our industry better.
Antoniouk:I agree with you, but it's easier if you understand the work from inside. I absolutely agree that a good manager with a business background who will know how to lead and motivate a team - somebody from food and beverage (F&B) or sales and marketing - can run the spa, but it will be more difficult for them if they don't have knowledge of anatomy and physiology.
Grew:I think there is a huge opportunity for business people from any walk of business to take on spas and actually start to lead them in a slightly different way and look at developing business trends and maximising profitability of spas.
Barcock:There's not a great deal of training available for spa managers.
The industry is now starting to move into this field - the International Spa Association (ISPA) and other contingencies are starting to develop courses - but if you really look at the industry as a whole everything is mainly geared up to the therapist, with CIBTAC and CIDESCO for example.
Historically, people haven't wanted to invest in training for spa managers generally because the retention can be quite low. People move on after a year, or maybe two years if you're lucky.
What are the specific challenges facing hotel spa managers?
Antoniouk:It depends how the GM looks at the spa. We are lucky because our gym and spa is not a secondary division; it's a profit-running department.It's not just a service we run for the guests, it's an important department like F&B and housekeeping.
Russell:It seems to be that where gyms used to be the amenity that hotel's had to have, spas have become that too, and if you're lucky you'll get some GMs who are very receptive to that.
However, there's others to whom you're almost a pain and where you'll have to report to the rooms division or F&B so you're not party to the executive level.
Often then, marketing use the spa as their saving grace, so it ends up being offered as a free outing if a guest has had a bad evening, which the spa can't afford to do.
Ong-Wee:There is a big emphasis on the spa itself. We are a profit centre and we are a recovery centre - if the guest is not happy they go to the spa, but the expenses for that go to the relevant department. So if a marketing person has an unhappy guest, then their expenses become our revenue.
Russell:It's just taken a long time to get that thought through, but it's good now that it's finally there.
Ong-Wee:I think that if the spa has the support of the GM then things work much more easily. If you show them the money, any hotel management will support you.
Castignani:I think it's a really important part of the brand that depends on the individual brand's philosophies behind the spa. We obviously are the first Heavenly spa brand within the Middle East region and our spa is probably relatively small in comparison to many, but as a brand philosophy it's a very important part of what we do throughout the entire hotel.
Starwood has identified the need for spas and how important they are for the branding of the business today, so I believe that we have treated it as being as important as F&B and housekeeping. Certainly within our hotel it is given that importance.
Barcock:It's a little bit different for us because Mandara manages the spa for The Moanarch so it's very much about building a relationship between the two parties. So the management is more receptive from the hotel because they don't necessarily have the headache of having to think about the spa - we are the experts and they've really opened their eyes to that.
The only challenge I would say that we experience is that when it comes down to budgets they are controlled by the hotel, so then it's down to how open-minded the hotel GM is when it comes to where revenue or the expenses need to go.
We're very fortunate; we have a great GM at The Monarch who has a very good vision and who certainly wants to see every aspect of the hotel develop, including the spa.
However, we still struggle with departments like the sales and PR teams who again, like Daniella said, see spa as the nicety. So we've really been on a seven-month training programme trying to educate them that we are here to make money, we can make money and we can make a difference to the hotel as long as you support us. It has been a very slow process and gradually we're changing their way of thinking.
What can spa managers do to improve staff recruitment and retention?
Barcock:Finding staff is the biggest headache here. We've got the benefit of having sales and recruitment agencies in Dubai, but the other battle associated with having staff is that you have to pretty much provide everything for them. People are coming for the whole package. It's a very competitive market and people are aware that there are more options for them now.
Antoniouk:There is the mentality that staff coming from Asia is really money oriented. They will leave and move for a higher salary - AED 300 (US $ 82) and they will move.
Russell:We don't always incentivise with money. We try and do other things, like education. A lot of our team members have actually grown all the way through and become very key members of our management team because they're shown their ability.
Grew:We invest a lot of effort into succession planning and always train from the bottom level. Train attendants to be receptionists so it gives them a focus and shows that the steps are always there for them. I think that's more beneficial than letting someone go for AED 300 ($82).
This is even more important now with the new labour laws and visa restrictions - we have to now focus on incentivising and development. It's much cheaper to bring someone in at AED 1000 ($272) or AED 500 ($136) as an attendant and train them to be a therapist, than hire a therapist that would cost you AED 3000-plus ($817) and leave you a year later.
Antoniouk:Of course you're right and succession planning is very important and we also do that - it depends on the person and if they want to grow. There are some people who are therapists and they want to be therapists their whole life.
Russell:Another issue is what peripheries we offer. Is the housing ok? Do they get other benefits? It's becoming so expensive and more difficult for all of us. Where a therapist's money used to be very much their own, now they have to invest more in expenditure and I think that's where they tend to jump.
Sometimes you can give them little extras in terms of privileges of the property because you're right, they will jump for that AED 500 ($136) - if that's what they're losing a month in expenses then maybe it has to be compensated. Either way we still have to give them AED 500 ($136), whether it's in taxi fares or hard cash.
The cost of our spas has increased hugely because of the staffing and all the benefits that go with that. It's moved quite substantially - in this last year our costs have risen hugely.
As a pie chart of what we're doing I think our staffing and added benefits used to run at about 36% but it must be at about 42% now. That's a big increase.
Ong-Wee:Our retention rates are really good because we do a lot of transfers with the new properties. We do transfers, cross-training and when a new spa opens we have a task force where therapists will go into the new property to do training for the spa, which helps them as they experience another property - but they come back.
Castignani:We've been very fortunate; we've had our therapists for three or four years. Now they've moved over to The Westin and they're still with us. We've done a lot of team-building and if they're concerned about making more money we try and do more training on retail and selling products - it's easy commission and they can make more money doing that.
There seems to be reluctance from spas in the region to focus on retail though. Why is this and how can spa managers overcome this issue?
Antoniouk:Retail is always a challenge!
Ong-Wee:Yes, therapists don't like to sell very much because they feel guilty to the guest - they're not natural sales people and they lack the motivation to do it.
Barcock:A lot of the time therapists are scared of selling; they don't want to step over the fact the client is coming to relax and they don't know when the appropriate time to talk about products is.
Ong-Wee:And that's why they need to understand that consultations are important. They can find out from the guest what they are looking for and what they believe in.
Antoniouk:Another aspect is really believing that the product is going to benefit the customer. In our spa, they are able to try the products and it really brings confidence. I think now our profit is about 30% retail. It took me three years to bring it there. We use Phytomer, Vie Collection and I am looking for another line.
Barcock:It comes down to having a very good relationship with your product supplier, making sure you are bringing in trainers for refresher training. These therapists are often dealing with multiple product ranges and that's a lot to remember.
I think we could definitely make more money from retail.
What technology is available to help spa managers and how important is it?
Barcock:We've taken on Premier spa and there's many other systems now available. I think a lot of spas have and still work manually, but as operations have got bigger, maybe combining fitness, it has been essential from a reporting point of view and to give guests the best service possible that we have the software system in place.
Castignani:We're using Concept; before we were doing it manually. The system is really good at reports - it's really helped.
Russell:We've just installed Gumnut from Australia. It will encompass our fitness, spa, hair and medi spa facilities, which is good because then it does great reporting systems.
It's taken 10 years to find a decent system for us as a varied business, not just as a spa business. We started with a couple of others that failed, and we went back to manual, but it's so time consuming and there's a lot of staff required just to draw out simple reports.
We tried making our own and didn't do that very well, so fingers crossed that Gumnut seems to be producing what we need.
Barcock:That's the problem - very often systems don't give you what you need, they're preset so you can't put in the variances you want and you go back to the manual.
Russell:That's a very valid point. As a consultant, we have looked at hundreds of systems for clients and most of them are so rigid because they're hospitality-driven from the start. Gumnut was actually devised by spa people so that's where I felt it had an edge.
A good system frees the team up to allow you to create a much better customer relationship. I don't think we're brilliant at CRM; it's not quite there in the spa world yet. Again, that goes back to the manual bookings - you're so busy rubbing appointments out that you never get round to phoning your clients.
Grew:I think up until the last year, spas have been pretty much at capacity so there has not been much need to drive an outside market. Now that there are starting to be gaps in bookings, people will focus back on retaining their own customers and the importance of marketing back to them. That's a good thing for the industry.
How is spa management regulated?
Antoniouk:We all have regular checks from Dubai Municipality on health and safety standards, hygiene and sterilisation.
Grew:A lot of the time they're not people with any knowledge though - they're officials that come in and look at what is on their clipboard. Are they actually checking to make sure that there is no salmonella around the water tap?
Russell:We've actually offered to train testers to CIDESCO for free so they can have a better understanding of what our industry states and they still haven't done it.
Grew:I think that to protect our industry we should be focusing as a group to really drive the standards up. There are regulations in the fitness industry and I think we should be moving that way for the spa industry in the UAE. There is better access to formal qualifications here, but not everyone has them.
Russell:That's our next mission as a group. We have tried a couple of times to set up an association, but it's difficult to get commitment from people because Dubai is so fast paced. Forming an association is a challenge still worth trying to do but getting commitment is difficult - our biggest challenge is to get everything moving.
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