by Nelson Lane

Upcoming ISPA Conference & Expo keynote speaker and Marketing Hall of Fame inductee Seth Godin is known for calmly sharing concise, outside-the-box marketing insights with large audiences all over the world to great acclaim. However, his blog is where he really makes some noise. Posting once a day for multiple years now, the number of Seth’s blog posts has climbed to nearly 10,000.

Toward the top of Seth’s Top 100 posts is a piece entitled “Ode: How to tell a great story” from April 2006. In the post, he lays out the characteristics of great stories and what makes them so vital in marketing. With so many thousands of blog posts, it’s no wonder that this one ranks among Seth’s most popular. Seth’s readers are marketers, managers and executives of all industries looking to reach a consumer with the most effective and pointed methods available to them.

Consumers want great stories. They want a story they can believe—something they can grasp, invest and hold stake in. It is a spa professional’s responsibility, then, to define and tell a great story in the context of their spa. Great stories command attention, and when you can gain your consumer’s attention, their dollar is not far behind.

A spa’s retail space is all about telling a great story. If the retail space is a microcosm of the spa as a whole, then the implications of the products chosen to be featured cannot be overstated. More and more, spas are experiencing a trend toward incorporating boutique brands in their product lineup and finding that a tactful combination of both “small box” and “big box” products paints a comprehensive picture of the spa and aids spa directors in telling a great story.

The Best of Boutique Business

Caroline Cornish is a spa manager with some pretty compelling reasoning behind her decision to feature boutique brands in her retail space. Over the course of her nine years at The Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall, United Kingdom, boutique brands have always been a staple.

“All our products are from boutique brands and always have been,” says Cornish. “I think it’s one of Scarlet’s founding principles, that we’re a bit different and quirky. Our treatment rooms are uniquely furnished, and I think we want to encourage our guests to feel they’re somewhere they can be comfortable. When you enter the hotel, you come to a long, curved corridor that removes any feeling of being in an intimidating hotel environment. The same goes for the spa. When you’re here, you’re specifically here, enjoying your time here, with products and furnishings you don’t see everywhere. This atmosphere at Scarlet gives us an identity.”

The uniqueness of The Scarlet’s identity is matched by the strong identities of the brands they feature—and this is where “story” really comes into play for Cornish.

“The origin stories of the products are really important to us. We have a personal connection with the founders, and their passion is powerful. The connection we have with the products allows us to tell a lovely story to our guests as well. Knowing the motivation of the person who made the product and what led them to create it motivates us in our duties as a team. Our team really enjoys interacting with products in this way and understanding where they came from. It’s easier for staff to buy in when they know the humans behind the products. We treat the products with a little more respect because we feel connected to them, and we look after them.

“This approach has been with us since the beginning, and it is part of our culture. For me personally, it’s really nice to work with our product providers. They’re so interesting, passionate and supportive. They’re not just trying to sell their product. We’re all in it together to deliver an exceptional product experience and I really enjoy working with them in that way. [Building] a relationship with a smaller brand is special.”

One advantage of a tight-knit relationship is the collaborative nature that comes with it. Speaking on the impact of collaboration on The Scarlet Spa’s retail offerings, Cornish says that if she has an idea for a product to fill a gap in her retail space that requires development, “we can work with the product companies to cocreate products that meet our needs. For example, we really needed a seaweed bath massage oil, so we worked with a local company called Cornish Seaweed Bath (no relation of mine) to develop this product. It’s been lovely to see their business grow as a result, and to have those products that we can use to make our guest experience even more unique.”

Cornish’s desire to provide guests with an experience they can’t get anywhere else is motivated by the unique story that The Scarlet Spa seeks to tell each and every guest who comes through their doors.

“As they leave, I really want our guests to feel they’ve had an experience that is configured to them, and that we’ve chosen products that are unique and special to them—in short, that we’ve given them an experience they couldn’t have had anywhere else. And hopefully, they feel the passion we have for the interesting stories behind the products. We have lovely guests, and most of them come for special occasions. We want them to feel that they are special, and their experience needs to be equally special.”

If a spa’s purpose is to make a profit, and the best way to make a profit is to tell a story, then the main character of that story must be the guest. They must feel welcomed and at peace, as if they’re right where they should have been all along. Every spa director’s goal is to achieve this with every guest and every treatment, and the sentiment extends to every retail product as well.

How Retail Reflects Your Story

While some spas, like The Scarlet Spa,prefer to deliver a totally unique retail experience to their guests, many find it most advantageous to incorporate a hybridized approach that includes boutique brands alongside firmly established “big box” brands with a proven track record of excellence and dependability. Patrick Huey, corporate spa director of Montage Hotels & Resorts,
looks for this exact sort of excellence and dependability with a guest-first approach. Rather than defining the story of the spa and then telling that story to the guests, Huey seeks to define the stories of the guests and then mold the spa’s narrative to appeal to them.

“When I’m looking for a brand, Ilook for something that reinforces or highlights what the guest experience should be. I ask myself, ‘What is a brand match for the property I’m working for?’ I gauge the guest and try to decide on products based on how they would help the guest understand who the spa is based on the character of the products.

“I also look for brands that aren’t saturated. I think that nowadays when people are shopping, they’re looking for those unique products that aren’t readily available or easily seen. These
boutique brands also often have unique stories, as they’re born out of a passion and a unique reason. They’re not trying to be all things to all people, they want to be original and make their own statements.”

Huey was quick to praise boutique brands, yet also noted how necessary it is to partner with the boutique brands in joint development.

“If you’re looking for smaller brands, you have to be willing to work with them and help them develop their product. A lot of times, they’re still learning how to prepare and supply seasonal products. As a spa director, you have to be willing to work with the boutiques on the range and scope of their products. You have to engage in a partnership with them to achieve what you want to achieve. And sometimes, this works in your favor as boutique brands are generally more flexible to work with because they don’t yet have a formula in place for their success—they’re willing to work with you to reach success together.

“If you look at Montage specifically, we recently entered into a partnership with a small line called Lola’s Apothecary, a brand which has no footprint in the U.S. They come from a beautiful estate in Devon”—a rural region of southwest England—”and they source natural ingredients from all around the world. They check a lot of boxes in terms of the farm-to-table movement and giving back to the communities they’re sourcing from. The character and story of boutiques like Lola’s Apothecary enhance the story of Montage. It gives us a niche product that is very in line with our brand.”

Finding the Right Balance

Retail products should all work to enhance the story of your spa—and just like every story has multiple angles and themes that complement the story as a whole, the products in your retail space should all accent and highlight aspects of your spa that paint the richest picture of what you want the guest experience to be. Oftentimes, that works to not only improve the guest experience, but boost revenue as well.

“I find that we have better retail sales if people aren’t readily familiar with the brand we’re selling,” said Huey. “If the brand is international and not typically found in the states, the consumer will be more interested and more apt to buy it from you. Of course, we still use ‘big box’ products. You have to have a mix of products and a range of price points as well.”

When you think of products from established spa industry product-makers, you think of proven dependability over a long period of time. These brands can handle anything you could throw at
them with a high standard and imbue their products with a legacy of excellence— wouldn’t you like the same to be said of your spa?

When you think of boutique products, you think of items that complement and accentuate a unique story, reinforcing values and reigniting passion— wouldn’t you like to boost your spa’s story in this way?

According to Huey, you need to be incorporating products from both boutique brands and more established resource partners if you wish to build a strong retail space that highlights the longstanding integrity of your spa while also remaining trendy. As someone who has been spa director of numerous properties, Huey’s approach has proven its worth and profitability.

Let Your Story Be Told

In his blog post on how to tell a great story, Seth Godin writes: “Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. Average people are good at ignoring you. Average people have too many different points of view about life and average people are by and large satisfied. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one. The most effective stories match the world view of a tiny audience— and then that tiny audience spreads the story.”

The rise of boutique brands in spa retail spaces is due in large part to the demand for spas to have a story that appeals to their respective audience. What story do you want to tell? It’s up to you. Make it a good one and your guests will listen, enjoy, then go about their lives the same as they did before. Make it a great one and your guests will tell it for you long after they’ve gone.