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Mon 25 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Opening the floodgates

How to unleash the profit potential of your spa and keep customers coming back.

Opening the floodgates
Customers must be aware of the exact health benefits of their treatments.
Opening the floodgates
PAVLOVA: The idea of a spa being an added luxury is no longer current.
Opening the floodgates
The wet area in the spa at the Ritz Carlton Doha’ was designed with comfort in mind.

How to unleash the profit potential of your spa and keep customers coming back.

Long, long ago, during a time few can remember, hotel spas functioned as a token add-on, attracting few guests and offering hastily-devised beauty treatments. Since then, the hotel spa has developed into a magnet for guests seeking luxury and wellness treatments, and has become a profit centre in its own right.


Many industry experts, however, admit that hoteliers still limit the profit potential of their spa well before they open for business. It may seem obvious, says managing director of spa engineering company Barr+Wray Peter Rietveld, that a hotel spa should have a clear idea of the treatments it plans to offer when it is still in the concept stage. “If you design a restaurant,” he explains, “you have to know what kind of food you’re serving, because if you have Japanese décor and serve Mexican food, it’s going to be a mess.” Because certain treatments require technical specifications, spas which formulate their treatment menu after construction has been completed often cut themselves off from the revenues different treatments can bring.

I find it hard to believe that there are hoteliers out there who don’t understand the importance of spas and the profit they are able to generate.

Managing director of spa consultants Raison D’Etre Monica Risenius agrees that an incomplete spa concept will have a direct impact on profitability. “You need to be very clear about where you’re going and what you want to deliver. That’s the only way to be sustainable, because once you know that, you can work at marketing and really satisfying your guests.”

In favouring design over functionality, albeit inadvertently, many hotel spas only pay attention to the operational flow of the spa after it has opened. “It’s what happens when people design things they don’t know about,” says Rietveld, giving the example of steam rooms. “People need to think about how quickly they’re going to turn the room around, because if they need half an hour to clean it, they’re going to lose a huge amount of money in the long term.

“Do they know what they want to do with the steam generator? Do they know what kind of water quality they need to get it working? They know what they want to do, but they don’t know how to do it and how to get there.”

Risenius adds that many hotels should engage spa professionals much earlier than they do. “It’s still very common for the developer to realise at a late stage that he needs a spa consultant. Sometimes the physical foundations on the site are already done, and then we have to work around that,” she says.

“We’ve experienced this so many times — the concept of the spa will not be complete, which will really impact on the operational flow, affecting the guest experience, the spa team, and, in the end, profitability.” Operational flow

Despite grand ambitions and even grander investments, there remain many cases where spas have been completed on a ‘build now, think later’ basis, says operations manager of turnkey spa solutions and management company Finex Spas Norma Nasr.

“If architects have never been to a spa, if they’ve never experienced it, they can’t imagine how the operational flow should go.

“I’ve seen spas where the changing area is next to the reception, so that guests have to go past reception in their robes and slippers to get to the treatment room. You also see the relaxation area next to the changing area or reception, so guests have to sit there and listen to the phone going all the time, which doesn’t give any kind of relaxing ambience.“If you don’t complete the whole experience of the spa,” she continues, “you’re going to lose it, even before its starts.”

The perfect scenario, adds Risenius, is to “do the background and research and create a pre-concept and design before the architects start, because that’s how everything can be tied together.”

Competitive advantage

Given the increased competition between operators in the region, hotel spas must go out of their way to make sure their facilities stand out from their competitors’. Conventional designs and treatments will do little to persuade guests spoilt for spa choice, says spa manager of Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa Claudia Pitsch. “A comfortable design, rather than one that’s just new and posh, really makes a difference. If you have 55 spas all being designed in the same way, there will be no attraction for the guest.” Hotel operators, continues Rietveld, should thoroughly assess their competition before starting the design on their own spa. “If I have a hotel, I’m going to look at neighbouring hotels to see what they’re offering and how I’m going to compete with them. I shouldn’t have the same kind of spas they do; I have to do something different, something better.”

You need to be very clear about what you want to deliver. That’s the only way to be sustainable, because then you can work at marketing and really satisfy your guests.

Those who do not recognise the hotel spa as a profit centre in its own right, akin to food and beverage outlets, will miss out on considerable revenues, says Ritz Carlton Doha spa director Tina Pavlova. “I think the old concept of a hotel spa being just an added luxury for the guest is no longer current in this market; it’s always a point of difference and it’s always a way in which the hotel can define itself.

“I find it hard to believe that there are hoteliers who don’t understand the importance of a spa and the profit they are able to generate. If you look at hotels these days, spa is discussed and promoted as one of its key areas.”

Health and wellness

While hotel spas have not been spared the impact of the financial crisis, the downturn has created new opportunities for enterprising spas to differentiate themselves.

“Looking at the current economic situation,” continues Pavlova, “you have to be really innovative and see how you can create an experience and treatments where guests can see the results. If you’re not able to provide these kinds of services, then you’re not going to have loyal guests.”

Specifically, adds Pitsch, spa guests should be able to see and feel the medical benefits of their visit. A detailed consultation before the treatment, she continues, is as important as the treatment itself. “The whole thing is getting a bit more intense, it’s going into more detail. It’s no longer a case of saying ‘ok, I have back pain, now let me go and have a Swedish massage.’ That’s not actually doing any good, because we have to look at the whole person. It’s more like a lifestyle consultation more than anything else.”

“We try not to have our guests in for just one treatment,” she continues. “What we do is create a package for them, which includes nutrition, exercise and a detoxification programme. We’re not trying to cover just one symptom, we’re actually trying to fix the problem.”

Spas regularly neglect wellness in favour of luxury and pampering, especially in their wet areas, says Rietveld. “Spa therapists don’t explain what a sauna does and how. They say ‘well, here’s the wet area, see you later.’ Nobody explains the health benefits, the reasons why a wet area is good. Nothing bad really happens, of course, but if you don’t use it correctly, if you don’t get any benefit, what’s the point?”


The health benefits of a spa can also be passed on to guests through its retail offerings, says Pavlova. “For us, retail is not about upselling — we look at it as part of the homecare package that guests take with them, to let them continue with their treatments when they’re not here.”Pitsch employs the same strategy, and has seen retail sales increase as a result. “Our treatment packages are created from the consultation, and already incorporate retail, so it’s not so much that we’re selling something, but more that we’re giving guests a complete homecare package.

“We also put different treatments together and incorporate the products into the price. It essentially means that we discount the treatment and charge for the product, which actually works quite well.”


The key to addressing guests’ needs in such a way, Pitsch insists, lies in the regular and effective training of spa therapists. “We have people who come in and do product, treatment and consultation training, and I do a lot of the training myself as well.”

We’ve not had time recently with the constant pressure of growth, but now is a perfect time to upgrade training and development.

Because the nature of spa retail has changed, adds Risenius, so must the way sales training is delivered. “The sales procedure today is very different from what it used to be,” she explains. “The trend today is longer treatments and tying in different treatments together, which of course means bringing more products to the guests.

“From the shop floor to the management levels, you see that the team is very good with their treatments, but don’t have the sales experience and understanding. This might take some time to overcome, but the only way to do that is through training, because then you get product knowledge and become more comfortable in communicating with your guest.”

Though a spa may have a health-focused treatments, the benefits it offers guests will be lost if the spa therapists feel uncomfortable performing them. Effective training, therefore, must take cultural differences into account, and explore ways to empower therapists, Risenius continues.

“When we are asked to come in and troubleshoot, this is normally an area where training is really lacking. It’s really important to invest both time and money in training, so that the spa team feels comfortable in delivering the concept and so works more efficiently.”

Therapists’ productivity and customer service skills, likewise, will be negatively impacted if they are not given all-round training, says Pavlova. “Although they may enjoy a particular kind of therapy, or be more specialised in a certain area, they must be able to perform all the treatments listed on the spa menu.”

While spa therapists may be adept at performing treatments, says Director of Dubai’s Wafi Health and Leisure Daniella Russell, many have not been adequately trained in the theory behind the treatment. “Theoretical knowledge can be weak; often it’s not there or is not being applied by the therapist.”

The economic downturn, she continues, is the perfect time for spa operators to provide extra training and fill the gaps in their therapists’ knowledge. “We’ve not had time recently with the constant pressure of growth that was with us for the past few years, but now is a perfect time to upgrade training and development programmes.”

This, she adds, is “paramount, as clients are becoming more and more savvy, and expect high standards wherever they go.”

On the management side, it is becoming crucial that spa managers and directors have a thorough understanding of both wellness treatments and business practices. “We feel this is a weak area,” says Risenius. “Achieving that balance is very important. Spa managers are really craving the skill set, and hoteliers’ demand for this skill set is also growing.”

With more and more guests throughout the region choosing their hotel based on its spa, the need to have a facility that shows innovation in design, treatments and operations is crucial. A successful spa, must also, above all, lead the way in its health and profit-making potential.

Top ten trends to profit

• Know your treatment menu before starting construction

• Find out about the technical specifications of your spa

• Have clear ideas about operational flow at the concept stage

• Focus on comfort, not luxury

• Research your competitors in the area

• Make guests aware how treatments will improve their health

• Incorporate retail into all your treatment packages

• Deliver regular practical and theoretical training to all staff

• Have a vision for your spa, and never stop chasing it

• Believe in your spa as a dynamic profit centre

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