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High Culture: Three Spas Whose Company Culture Stand Out
by Jamison Stoike

Company culture—it's that hard-to-describe, all-important key to retaining spa talent and delivering an excellent experience to every customer. Beyond just perks and pay, a positive company culture is the modus operandi of your spa, the understood and expected pattern of behaviors and attitudes that permeate every interaction between employees, leadership and spa-goers.

In essence, company culture is that “feel-good” feeling that makes employees want to go above and beyond for you and for your customers. But developing and maintaining a strong, consistent company culture can be difficult, especially given the high turnover in our industry.

This month, Pulse learned how three exemplary spas (from Silverado resort & Spa, The Kahala hotel and resort and The Don cesar resort hotel) create, maintain and take advantage of strong, unique workplace cultures.

Data-Driven Culture

The idea of company culture may seem “soft;” that is, difficult to quantify. Yet Silverado Resort & Spa, tucked into the hills of Napa, California, takes a data-driven approach to monitoring its culture.

According to Spa Director Suzy Bordeaux-Johlfs, every employee is given an “Associate Engagement Survey,” which is administered once a year by the resort’s Human Resources staff for every resort employee. The surveys contain ten openended questions; for instance, “Do you feel like we could better recognize employees? What does that recognition look like to you?” After scores and comments are compiled, reports are distributed to the resort’s department heads, who then create action plans to address problem areas.

Bordeaux-Johlfs says that these reports help them discover what parts of their culture can be improved: “Since a spa is a place of care, it’s fitting to care for your team… We create ‘Smart Plans’, which are targeted improvement plans that address the top two areas.” Both communication and recognition are often named as areas that could be improved, and Bordeaux-Johlfs sees the overall process as a blessing, saying “feedback is a gift that can help your department run optimally, for the benefit of everyone involved.”

When her department scores low in an area of the survey, Bordeaux-Johlfs takes time to speak to her employees one-on-one about their work life and “how they’re doing” in a general sense. Often times, she says, something occurring beyond the workplace is negatively impacting the attitude they bring to work, and, therefore, the overall workplace culture. “I ask if there’s anything I can do for them,” comments Bordeaux-Johlfs. “You have to approach it from a place of good intention, showing that you care and are concerned.”

Integrating contract workers into a unique company culture can be difficult, often leading to a culture clash with the rest of a spa’s staff. Bordeaux-Johlfs says that Silverado uses contracted massage therapists, but only after they’ve been given a two-hour orientation on the company’s policy and workplace culture. This helps ensure that all employees—whether full-time, part-time or contracted—contribute positively to the culture.

In the end, Bordeaux-Johlfs strives to create a “count on me” culture that emphasizes respect, responsiveness and compassion. Through a combination of empirical data and heartfelt one-on-ones, this caring culture has led to consistently high customer reviews and employees who enjoy working at Silverado. “If you feel respected, trusted and valued, you will stay,” says Bordeaux-Johlfs.

Permanence in Paradise

The Kahala Hotel and Resort, located in Honolulu, Hawaii, has been around since 1964 and hosted every sitting United States President from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. The spa prides itself on the dedication and commitment of its staff, a great number of whom have worked for the spa for well over a decade.

“We have a culture that is totally devoted to our employees and the long-term health of the spa,” states Gloria ah Sam, director of spa and wellness. ah Sam attributes this strong, permanent company culture to three key factors: a culture of recognition, meaningful perks and effective communication.

Every month, Kahala hotel and resort hosts a “Legendary Service Luncheon” for exemplary staff members in both the front and back of house. Staff members are nominated by other staff members or managers; then, the resort’s executive committee chooses the two winners, who are recognized at a “beautiful three-course luncheon” in one of the resort’s ballrooms. at the end of the year, all 24 winners are reevaluated by the executive committee, which then choses the employee who most exemplified the spa’s culture of caring, dedication and cooperation. Last year, the overall winner was flown on a one-week trip to a sister property in Japan, says ah Sam. This type of recognition incentivizes employees to go above and beyond to serve customers; and, because a positive attitude is infectious, the entire staff is lifted up.

The spa’s culture of good-natured giving is cemented by the frequent volunteer opportunities for staff, who participate in beach cleanups together. additionally, spa staffers walk together in a yearly charity walk to raise money for travelers in distress. “There’s a lot of camaraderie,” according to ah Sam, which improves retention. Staff who stay for years and years develop strong bonds with recurring customers, which then leads to exceptional service: “we have therapists who will come in on a day off to provide a service for a guest that they know from prior visits,” ah Sam says. in that way, Kahala’s strong company culture is directly linked to a world-class guest experience.

The Kahala also offers a number of benefits and perks to employees, including complimentary meals for staff— a benefit that the vast majority of employees take advantage of, according to ah Sam. The company also pays for its employees’ health insurance premiums. although perks like these may not be feasible for every spa, the core idea is widely applicable: thinking outside the box to reward your employees creates a happier, more positive culture in the spa.

Lastly, ah Sam notes that “good communication is absolutely key to a good culture,” especially when it reinforces other unique aspects of the spa’s culture. for example, ah Sam strives for the spa to have a “local Hawaiian” culture and attitude; appropriately, each weekly employee newsletter features a cultural hawaiian phrase, picked out by the resort’s cultural advisor, that employees are encourage to learn, understand and use to guide their workplace attitude.

Prioritizing Culture from the Start

Of course, there’s only so much that one can do to build a culture on their own. To create a strong spa culture that drives bottom-line success, you have to find people who fit the right mold and will contribute positively to the culture from day one, rather than being a drain on a  workplace’s energy.

This is why Lindsey Sappenfield, assistant spa director at the Don cesar resort hotel, thinks about culture fit throughout the hiring process. “it’s essential to identify with whom on our team this new team member will connect,” says Sappenfield. if she’s unsure of what their “tribe” will be, then it’s unlikely that they’ll be a good fit. Sappenfield also looks for “excitement for the industry and our location” when interviewing candidates, as well.

While one can teach skills and processes, it is much more difficult—if not impossible—to teach attitude, personality and optimism, according to Sappenfield. Therefore, she’s willing to take on “someone fresh out of school with passion and a good personality” over “a qualified therapist who may not be a good fit due to their attitude.” This ‘culture-first’ approach has led to a staff with tremendous longevity—several employees have spent more than two decades working at the Don cesar.

Once the right employees are in place, Sappenfield fosters a culture of camaraderie by organizing several staff outings every year, encouraging the team to volunteer together and including a teamwork-based game in every staff meeting.

In the end, Sappenfield wants the spa at the Don cesar resort hotel to have a culture that emphasizes a feeling of family, teamwork and laughter. “We don’t
expect perfection, but we do expect honesty and respect,” says Sappenfield.

That idea was echoed by both Bordeaux-Johlfs and ah Sam. for each of them, the ideal spa culture cultivates a feeling of family between staff members. This caring camaraderie then radiates outward to the spa’s guests, resulting in exceptional service and inspiring repeat customers. in that way, developing a positive workplace culture doesn’t just make working in the spa industry more meaningful, fun and rewarding: it makes it more profitable, too.


Three Keys to a Strong Culture:

1. LOOK FOR CULTURE FIT. The most foolproof way to ensure that everyone meshes with your spa’s culture? Only hire those who will be a fit from the very start. Try to get a feel for a job candidate during the interview. What is their attitude? Are they outgoing or introverted? Do they seem passionate about spa?

2. RECOGNIZE SUCCESS. Recognizing and celebrating exceptional employees is essential. Not only does this improve their morale and make them work harder, but it also makes those around them want to go above and beyond as well.

3. SEEK OUT AND FIX PROBLEMS. If someone is contributing negatively to your spa’s culture, talk to them about it. See if there’s anything that you can adjust to help bring them in line with the workplace culture and company values.