Three ISPA Members Share Their Stories
by Jamison Stoike

The past four months have brought a whirlwind of change in the face of COVID-19. Few spa directors would say that they fully anticipated the scope of the challenges that have arisen: economic distress, mandatory closures and a fear of ongoing apprehension on returning to spa.

During this time, many spas around the world have been forced to temporarily shutter, lay off staff and pivot to new business models—curbside retail pick-up, touchless services and more—to stay afloat. At The Spa at Kilaga Springs, Spa Manager Trudy Smith quickly pivoted to offer curbside retail service. Outside Phoenix, Arizona, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess hotel remained open while the spa was forced to close—although they’re now partially reopen. And across the Atlantic in Switzerland, the Dolder Grand Spa shut its doors but is now fully reopen, albeit with reduced capacity. Pulse spoke with each of these three ISPA members to learn more about how they’ve tackled the obstacles of the past several months.

Near the Initial Hotspot The Spa at Kilaga Springs is located in Lincoln, California, a suburban community outside Sacramento that’s just 100 miles from San Francisco, an early COVID-19 hotspot in the United States. The spa is at the core of a Del Webb retirement community, which means that it caters primarily to a local customer base of senior citizens and retirees. Given that both age and underlying health issues are significant risk factors for severe COVID-19 symptoms, the community responded quickly to the growing pandemic.

“On March 12, I got a call from the management team at Sun City Lincoln Hills that they had decided to close [the community] on March 13,” says Spa Director Trudy Smith. There was virtually no time to react, and Smith was admittedly surprised by the sudden closure. “I think they saw the writing on the wall and they wanted to protect their residents,” Smith notes. “We didn’t really have a chance to prep the staff, so it was really a shock.”

Immediately, Smith started making decisions necessary to the financial stability of the spa. She furloughed her staff of 22 service providers but kept on a few front-desk staff to assist with phone calls and cancellations, then to help ready the facility for closure. Once their work was done, however, Smith had to reduce the staff further—at the time of the interview, it was just her and one other employee. Like many spa directors, Smith had to choose between furloughs and lay-offs, a choice which was influenced by local and state regulations. Smith says that she furloughed staff to enable them to use any vacation and/or sick time so that they remained paid as long as possible, while also being able to collect unemployment benefits. This decision was made after consulting with the spa’s HR management service, ADP TotalSource.

Before the final reduction in staff, however, Smith and her team began designing and implementing a curbside retail service. “One customer called in and asked to get her skin care. We created it for her and then just launched it,” Smith says. She promoted the service with signage, a banner announcement on the spa’s website and an e-blast. The spa’s retail met budget for March, was just below in April and sprung back up in May. “We’ve actually had to reorder retail just to meet demand,” adds Smith; most sales are for CBD and skin care products. The Spa at Kilaga Springs is particularly well-suited for this service. Not only is the spa located within a residential community, but most of its customers are retirees and therefore have incomes that are not dependent on employment, giving them little or no drop in disposable income despite the larger economic trends.

Smith has also filled the spa’s downtime by deep-cleaning the facility and renovating its six treatment rooms with new cabinetry and more. Smith is still working on adjustments to the spa’s menu and pricing. With the rising cost of disinfectant and PPE, “it’s a huge expense to do these services now and keep clean,” Smith says. “We can’t absorb it, we would lose money.” This is particularly true for lower-margin service such as pedicures and manicures, which will likely be among the first services to reopen. Smith is considering adding a short-time ‘sanitation surcharge’ and reevaluating pricing in several months once more data is available.

Although there was still no definitive reopening date in sight when we spoke, Smith was hopeful that the nail salon would reopen soon, noting that customers are champing at the bit for nail services. The Spa at Kilaga Springs will likely try to incentivize customers to return through value-add promotions and an increased emphasis on wellness, health screenings and a stronger “medical spa component,” according to Smith.

When the time does come to reopen, Smith says that she and her staff will be ready: “We already have all the cleaning protocols in place, and there will be very minor things we’ll do differently. There will be no changes in the nail salon of any protocols except that every guest and employee will be wearing a mask.”

New Challenges, Creative Solutions

The story of Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Princess is similar to the stories of countless hotel spas over the past few months: mandatory spa closure, an open but virtually empty hotel, and incredible resourcefulness in the face of this tremendous challenge.

Much like Trudy Smith, Carrie Kennedy was caught off-guard by the speed with which the situation evolved. As the hotel’s Director of Wellness & Being, Kennedy was proactively briefed along with other managers on the potential outcomes of the growing pandemic. Still, says Kennedy, the spread of COVID-19 felt distant until it “very quickly became a reality to hospitality and spa. It was a ‘whoa’ moment.” Groups began to cancel, but the spa and hotel remained busy right until closure. “We had four virtually sold-out days before we got to a situation where we had to shut down,” Kennedy says. During that time, Well & Being Spa quickly changed its protocols and instituted more stringent sanitization procedures: double-sheeting blankets, adjusting treatment schedules, creating hand sanitizer stations and more. Then, on March 20, the spa closed.

Kennedy’s thoughts immediately went to the spa’s more than 200 members and how to continue adding value to their lives. Since the spa closed, Well & Being has held two virtual fitness classes a day featuring its most popular instructors. They’ve offered Saturday workshops on a variety of topics; weekly Wednesday sound therapy; a virtual smudging with curbside pick-ups of smudging kits; a skin care presentation with a raffle. The goal has been to stay front-of-mind for the spa’s members and to “let them know that we miss them and that we’re looking forward to having them back,” Kennedy says.

Much of the spa’s staff is furloughed and will be brought back as business demands; Fairmont ownership has supported the furloughed staff with insurance, however. The remaining hotel staff and leadership have also strived to help out furloughed employees in other ways, too—for example, drive-through staff meals funded by drive-in movies hosted by the hotel in its parking lot. “The whole staff feels connected and they know we’re going to do everything we can to come back,” notes Kennedy.

At the time of the interview, Well & Being’s salon was reopening within days, and Kennedy shared many of the changes that customers will expect to encounter. Nail techs will have to wear either a plastic face shield or a mask, and guests will have to wear masks as well. Says Kennedy: “Every protocol for the spa has been updated, from how you pick up your guest to how you greet them, how you begin your service. Everything.” Service providers will wash hands before treatments and ask customers if they’d like to do the same. Before they return, service providers will also be required to complete an online training about the new protocols. Lastly, the spa will continue to alternate rooms as it was doing immediately before closure—as a service provider works in one room, a second will be sanitized.

“We’re hoping to start facials soon,” notes Kennedy, “without the locker room experience. That’s the last thing we’re going to open.” She compared the gradual reopening process to learning to walk: “We’re ready to crawl, walk, run. We have a run plan; we’re just not there yet.”

Insights from a Reopened Spa

The Dolder Grand Spa, much like Well & Being Spa, closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike Well & Being, however, this Swiss hotel spa had fully reopened by late May and is currently following stringent sanitation and hygiene guidelines. Because the spa is critical to the overall experience of this luxurious destination, the Dolder Grand felt it was imperative to reopen its spa facilities as soon as possible, in accordance with Swiss guidelines. “The spa has a huge impact as an added value for our guests…it was important to increase room sales,” says Therese Martirena, director of spa. In essence, people visit The Dolder Grand to visit the spa. Without the spa, there would be no bookings at the hotel.

While closed, the spa set up a small fitness area in the hotel’s ballroom with physical-distance-compliant spacing between the equipment. Now that the spa has reopened, Martirena’s team has taken a number of precautions to maximize the safety of both staff and guests. “We’ve reorganized the loungers so that there is more space between them, and we’ve ensured proper distance between the fitness equipment.” They have reduced the spa’s capacity—currently, only hotel guests are allowed to visit the spa. Day spa and external guests are prohibited, a restriction which has had “a huge impact on revenue,” according to Martirena.

Many of the spa’s guests have requested information on the spa’s sanitation guidelines before they visit; others request to see the guidelines upon arrival. In either case, it’s recommended that any reopening spas have a codified list of guidelines to present to guests upon request. Martirena also adds that this will likely be, as others have said, a ‘new normal’ for the industry. “You can’t think, ‘Let’s just do it for the next few weeks.’ We believe these standards will remain in place for longer than half a year. We have to be transparent with our guests in terms of next steps.”

If your spa is still closed or about to reopen, Martirena also suggests beginning the process with fitness while continuing to offer curbside retail pick-up. If your spa has frozen its memberships while closed, she further recommends waiting to unfreeze them until the spa is fully open.