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The Two Sides of Spa

September 28, 2012 | 6:44 AM
This decade’s explosive growth of the medical spa has forced us to reconsider the role of the spa. Should we offer healing or relaxing? Do our clients seek to improve how they look or how they feel? Are we concerned with length of life, quality of life, both or neither? Is spa a niche within some larger market, or a specialty of its own?

Here in the last part of the decade, one answer seems to surface time after time, no matter what the question: Yes. Spa is all of that and more. Seemingly opposite trends are coexisting by expanding the spa industry parameters like yin and yang—meaning variety, balance and a whole new array of options for spa professionals.

three big trends of 2007:

customization, food and sleep
The spa landscape is so dotted partly because, in aiming to grant the wishes of each and every client, even narrowly branded spas are faced with a diversity of requests. In response, spas are customizing their services. It’s against the conventional thinking, but trying to please everyone just may work.
“Customization is the direction every industry is going,” says Shauna Raisch, owner of Twiggs Salonspa in Wayzata, Minnesota. “When you talk about luxury services, people expect customization.”


At Twiggs, clients purchase the technician’s time and work with the professional to design the service. “The client’s 60- or 90-minute facial will be whatever we can do best for her skin,” says Raisch.
Individualizing the experience extends to product selection as well. At Atelier, An Aveda Lifestyle Salon Spa in San Jose, California, co-owner Karie Bennett says the philosophy harkens back to the old Burger King commercial: Have it your way. “Today’s clients want more cho ices,” says Bennett. “We can add any one of 12 essential oils to a product in order to address different skin types.”
There’s nothing we’re all more individual about than our food. Intensified attention to spa cuisine, identified as a trend this year by the International Spa Association, is likely part of the “whole foods” movement and clients’ increasing pickiness about what they put in their body. The more holistic the spa, the more pressure to offer delicacies that don’t bite back; you can’t have a nutritionist on staff and then serve french fries, even if you call them pommes frites.
The third trend, creeping in 2007 but poised to be sweeping in 2008, is a spa response to sleep deprivation. ISPA includes sleep issues as one of the niches in which spas are developing expertise.


“Spas will begin to offer sleep pods,” predicts Christi Cano, director of spa development at Creative Spa Concepts. “For one spa, we’re already designing a beautiful outdoor napping area with birds and old trees.” When consulting in Malaysia, Cano found “sleep huts” fairly common.

customer service intensifies
With the 2008 spa climate able to accommodate different approaches, the distinguishing factor will be, as usual, customer service. But even this aspect of the spa will link to customization.


“In order to define customer service, we have to know the values of our customers,” says Douglas Preston, founder of Preston, Inc. “But it’s different for each person.” He recommends defining every situation that can arise in the spa, then training your staff on how you want them to respond.


Bennett places customer service training at the top of her agenda. “I think we all just forgot what the point of our business was,” she says. “Now we’re getting back to customer service. We cannot take any of our business for granted.”

the challenge of profitability
Bennett views her staff as her customers, too, and follows through by offering them a benefits package that rivals that of the high-tech professionals in her Silicon Valley location. “Our clients sit in our chairs and talk about paid vacation and all of the cool things they have,” she notes. “My staff hears that. Still, you have to decide what’s profitable for your business. You can’t give away the store.”

Owners are maintaining the store by keeping commission rates in check. The days of 60-percent commission are being replaced by salary structures and sliding commission scales that start as low as 35 percent. The addition of benefits softens that blow, and periodic price raises provide an income boost.
Retail continues to deliver a solid profit center, which owners recognize. “We know that our spa requires a huge retail component, because the attrition rate on spa services is 30 percent more than on hair services,” says Phil Fennell, owner/consultant of Experience: Salon Spa Esthetics in Pensacola, Florida. “If you can get a facial client into products, she may not come back for the monthly facial but she will come back for that eye creme.”

Preston owns a private label company and believes in private label products as the simplest way to keep more of your revenue. “When you’re selling under your own name,” says Preston, “the clients can’t price compare.”

Keep in mind that the stretch in spa boundaries is largely client-driven: the client’s heart wants what it wants. Spas that listen to their clients, both anecdotally and through formal surveying, have flourished and will continue to do well this coming year, say the experts. Spas that follow a trend because they’re afraid to get left behind, however, could find themselves in a tubful of trouble. Their clientele, space, staff capabilities and general brand must support the direction in which they’re heading.

Right now, the market seems open to lots of ways to present spa services. No winner needs to emerge, at least not yet. Individual spa clients are not necessarily confining themselves to one way or another, so why should the entire industry? Varying concepts can coexist in peace.

YIN/YANG of EXPANSE
Accommodating the blurring lines can generate growth. Spas are adding retail square footage and lounging areas. They’re medispas, hair salons and luxurious havens all rolled into one. Yet some owner-technicians are going in just the opposite direction, downsizing staff, space and services in order to narrow their market and limit both their financial and legal liability.

Spread Out
As large corporate players enter the game, the landscape is changing and more hybrids like Equinox Fitness Plus Spa will emerge in the next year or two. Preston points out that Cold Water Creek is just one company rolling out spas as an extension of its brand.

“We’re now a multibillion-dollar spa industry,” Cano says. “As any industry grows, it begins to consolidate and significant brands enter the market. Why more major players haven’t realized how financially good the industry has become, I don’t know. But they’ll have to take notice. It will give clients more confidence in the spa because of the name recognition.”

Stay Small
Preston sees a lot of opportunity in offering top quality within a restricted service range and in a small space. He says tiny boutique spas like Christopher Watt Esthetics in West Hollywood, California, will always do well because they have little overhead and lots of word-of-mouth cache.

“It keeps your costs low, and you can charge high prices because you’re
better than other spas at that one story you tell,” Preston notes. “Do what you do well. The narrower you make it, the easier it gets.”

YIN/YANG of PHILOSOPHY
On one side sits medispa, the dominant trend of the 2000s, with lasers, needles and cosmeceuticals. On the other side sits the holistic, natural approach to wellness. You’d think these trends are so divergent that they’d have to box it out until one scores a knock-out. But even these lines are subject to interpretation.

“We do a huge amount of gray coverage, and yet we have a natural spa,” notes Bennett. “To clients, covering gray doesn’t seem aggressive in the way that injecting fillers does. We talk about holistic therapies being ‘alternative,’ but I agree with [author] Dr. Andrew Weil. He says it’s not alternative; it’s integrative. You wouldn’t use herbs to cure a broken leg. In the spa we can integrate natural treatments with high-tech services. I’m glad people aren’t going 100 percent into one or the other.”

Cano concurs that the industry makes distinctions that clients never really do. She uses herself as an example, saying, “For my daily skin care routine, I
prefer naturally based products. But I get Botox and microdermabrasion and probably represent the feelings of a lot of people. Everyone wants the freedom to make their own personal decision.”

Medispa
Figures point to the medispa boom reaching a plateau. “The concept of medical spa with high-ticket, high-volume services is exciting and glamorous, but the market has become saturated,” says Preston. “The medical spa is still trying to find out what it is and how to define itself as a money-making business. Clients want to remove hair permanently or have a collagen injection to correct a problem; they don’t want to keep coming back.” Further, since the very nature of the medispa is to be not only high-tech but cutting-edge, the rapid pace of technology development can signal a high turnover of equipment. “If you bought a laser several years ago,” says Preston, “you may be stuck with a lease for an outdated product.”

Nevertheless, physicians are not through looking over their options just yet. “This has been a huge trend because doctors, with their deep pockets, can market aggressively,” says Phil Fennell, co-owner of Experience: Salon Spa Esthetics in Pensacola, Florida. “Medispas that have a doctor onboard but still incorporate relaxation will be the ones to reap the benefits in this business.”
Observers expect that 2008 will bring increased legislation to spell out what can and cannot be done without a licensed physician onsite. The cosmeceutical products that go along with medispa are receiving similar scrutiny. As part of this movement, industry consultant Bonnie Canavino, owner of Spa Specifics in Park Ridge, Illinois, predicts that states will create a new license level. “They aren’t calling it a medical esthetics license,” she says, “but that’s essentially what it is.”

Natural and Green
As quick as their growth has been, medispas have not snuffed out the natural, holistic market segment. “In some cases, clients go green out of necessity,” comments Bennett, citing clients who return to waxing after their skin proves too sensitive for laser hair removal. For others, it can be a matter of medispas just feeling too clinical. “Medispas are high-tech,” Bennett adds. “Natural spas are high-touch.”

Natural spas are staying true to their brand, while incorporating medicine, by reaching back to ancient, indigenous medical influences.
“These treatments stimulate healing mechanisms in the body,” says Canavino. “They’re soothing and work with the body’s chakras and energy levels to trigger wellness from the inside out.”

A more wide-ranging opportunity on the natural side may lie in products. As “organic” becomes the golden word in what we put in our
bodies, the appeal is carrying over what we put on our bodies as well.
Canavino manufactures a line of nail products called Spa Specifics and recently founded Red Cherry, a certified, fully organic cosmetics laboratory. “The consumer is ahead of us,” she notes. “Recently I walked into Urban Chic and asked whether customers were asking for organics. The manager said, ‘Not exactly, but they’re asking for products that have no toxins in them.’ Well, if they’re asking for ‘no toxins,’ they’re asking for organics.”

“We’re seeing a lot more botanicals and green packaging,” agrees Preston. “While the majority of the public doesn’t demand that, it’s becoming more than just a boutique market.” Another green target, decor, will find a permanent home at the spa, forecasts Cano. “People are feeling a greater responsibility to use sustainable materials in all areas of their lives,” she explains. “We’re seeing bamboo flooring, natural finishes and more efficient light bulbs. As consultants, we’re being asked not only to choose materials that are beautiful but to consider the impact that choice will have on the earth.”

YIN/YANG of ACTIVITY
It seems that people fall into two categories: those who are so harried and stressed that all they want is time to themselves, and isolated souls who yearn for social situations. The spa always catered to the former; in 2007, the industry reached out to the latter.

Solitude
“Relaxation and relieving stress are universally cited as the primary reasons for visiting spas,” states the 2007 ISPA Global Consumer Report. The industry loses sight of that crucial fact, says Preston. “If you ask estheticians what’s most important in a facial, they’ll say ‘technique’ and ‘product quality,’” he notes. “Ask clients, and they’ll say ‘relaxation,’ which is just the opposite.”

Spas are providing ways to let clients hang out in peace. “In the past, the focus has been on how many treatment rooms we could put in a space,” says Cano. “But now we’re noticing that amenity areas are contributing as much to the clients’ wellbeing as the treatment rooms are. So we’re seeing more experiential areas like meditation rooms.”

Socializing
The “Martinis and Manicures” evening is practically a fixture in spa marketing. Bring your friends, be loud, get your nails done. Building on that idea, spas are partnering with businesses that know a lot about hobnobbing. Cano cites an urban tea bar with spa treatments available within a social, coffeehouse-like atmosphere. Up a notch is New York City’s posh Hotel Gansevoort, which, during daylight hours, turns its hot-spot dance club into the highly social G Spa.
“Spa owners will start utilizing space in new ways to produce revenue,” Cano concludes. “It’s up to each owner to decide whether this is right for your business; it can be a natural progression if it’s what your clients are demanding.”

YIN/YANG of PRICING
Among their new options, clients can choose their price points. The past few years have given us the budget spa; at the same time, mounting costs have many spa owners searching for reasons to raise prices, not lower them.

Charge More
“The extreme high-end market is a tiny sliver of the market, but it exists,” says Preston. “Maybe it’s a customized body treatment based on both skin type and personality. Or it’s a $750 facial that’s truly a whole experience.”
To attract this market, you need what Preston calls “a story.” Why would someone want to come to you? Make your story good enough, and you can follow the high-end trend.

Charge Less
The $39 massage store has its fan base, says Cano, who does not see the trend threatening the mainstream spa. “This can be great to introduce new clients to the industry,” she remarks. “It allows more people to enjoy the spa experience. They may start with a $39 massage, realize how much they enjoy the experience and move to more full-service spas.”

A more palatable way spas are able to save their clients money is to offer multiple functions from one service. Customization again figures into this, as you design one treatment that addresses all of the client’s needs. For instance, Canavino sees spas combining body treatments with massage. “We can treat the client’s body and work it right into massage,” she says. “It becomes a whole package based on wellness.”

YIN/YANG of DEMOGRAPHICS
Men may not be the new thing, but they’re not going away, either. The latest ISPA report counts men as 31 percent of the total U.S. spa client base. Newer profit centers like hair restoration, sleep support and methods to improve athletes’ per-sport performance are attracting a large male clientele.
If the gender-inclusive pattern is now well-established, an age-inclusive model is garnering interest. The typical spa client, a woman between 30 and 50 years old, is sharing her spa haven with her children—and her parents.

Teens
As spas began holding Sweet 16 parties, prepping for prom and tackling teenaged acne, they discovered an open, wide-eyed market. Now spas are creating separate teen menus and conducting educational evenings that address grooming, skin care and nutrition. Eyebrow-arching, group pedicures and make-up application continue to draw them in, but lately teens are testing the extent of their welcome.

“Teens and even preteens are requesting anti-aging services!” observes Canavino. “They ask for dermabrasion or want to remove the lines around their eyes. That’s too young. Cell turnover is so rapid at that age; it doesn’t slow down until the early 20s.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t market to teens, Canavino is quick to add. “They need to learn how to cleanse and tone their face, fight acne, groom their nails and wash their body. They don’t always want to listen to their mothers, but they’ll listen to an esthetician. Educate teens by appealing emotionally.”

Seniors
At the other end of the life span spectrum, baby boomers are not giving up the spa just because they’re hitting their 60s. “Even those who aren’t trying to look younger are taking good care of themselves and want to feel beautiful,” says Bennett. “ These women have dollars to spend, and there’s a lot of competition for their skin care business, especially in products.”
As an alternative, neighborhood spas can provide transportation for seniors or send therapists to local facilities that have no spa. Although anti-aging is bound to be an issue, Cano says there’s so much more that spa professionals can provide for older Americans, including the simple gift of touch.
“The manicurist or massage therapist may be the only one touching a widowed client on a regular basis,” says Cano. “Some older people are unable to bend down to clean their feet and groom their toenails, and then it becomes a health concern. Being well-groomed gives people dignity.”

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