Readying for the Holidays
by Ryan O'Gara
When Kelleye Martin looks at the numbers from last year, she doesn’t mince words. “It’s soul-crushing,” she says.
In 2019, The Edgewater Spa in Madison, Wisconsin, had its best year in history, and Martin, the spa director, knows that 2020 won’t come anywhere near those numbers. It’s a situation to which nearly all spas can relate. In ISPA’s July Snapshot Survey, 70 percent of respondents indicated their revenue was down at least 16 percent from this time last year, and 36 percent of respondents had seen at least a 51 percent drop in year-over-year revenue.
Of course, this massive drop-off in revenue is not the fault of any spa director. The COVID-19 pandemic has crushed 2020 projections, necessitating creative solutions. As fall and winter approach, spas have an opportunity to recoup some of those losses by capitalizing on the holiday shopping season, a time when consumers typically spend abundantly on gifts for family and friends or just as a reward at the end of the year.
Given the economic toll of the pandemic, this winter might be the most important holiday season in the industry’s history. Still, many in the industry recognize that merely getting into the black would be a victory.
“It’s defnitely on everyone’s mind right now,” says Samika Traboulay, the director of spa at Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa in Montgomery, AL. “Even at my property, we aren’t looking to make a profit, we’re just looking to break even. Everything is in flux right now. You never know if the government will shut you down again.”
So, what are spas’ strategies for such an important time that in all likelihood will still be impacted by the pandemic?
Ordinarily, the holidays are a time when family and friends come together to reflect and and joy at the end of the year, but the pandemic has cast doubt on how those usual traditions will be observed this year. That includes the holiday shopping season, which begins in earnest in late November.
However, as Suzy Bordeaux-Johlfs, the spa director at Silverado Resort & Spa in Napa Valley, California, notes, just because this holiday season will be different than any we’ve experienced, some things never change.
“Gift giving is not going to go away,” she says. “People are inspired to give, but what are they going to give? Everyone has their basic needs covered, so if you want to drive traffic, you have to do more engaging things to make it fun. What can they buy from you that they can’t get from somewhere else that makes them feel good?”
That need to differentiate is why Bordeaux-Johlfs is prioritizing “meaningful merchandise.” If guests are buying from a vendor who cares about the environment or is giving back, they can make a purchase with the mindset that they are helping to make the world a better place. In a time when consumers likely won’t have as much disposable income, that could make all the difference in spending decisions. Bordeaux-Johlfs has found that highlighting vendors in this way or joining in on the cause with your own donation is effective in incentivizing certain purchases for consumers.
“We have so many vendors in our industry that have meaningful merchandise,” Bordeaux-Johlfs says. “Find them and showcase the good they do for the planet or to help fund an important cause. People are craving good news, [so] make the good news.”
Get creative beyond festive options
The spa directors that spoke with Pulse were adamant that it’s important not to go overboard on holiday-themed offerings. Of course, spas may want to be festive and make that time of year feel special, but when no one is certain what consumer spending will look like, they risk being left with holiday-themed products that will be outdated before the new year. As Traboulay says, she won’t be heavily marketing “mistletoe mud baths.”
Instead, Traboulay is looking to pivot to immune-boosting products and services, which are rising in popularity during the pandemic. She suggests treatments with natural products that increase immunity and give off that warm, cozy feeling many customers crave during the winter, like ginger turmeric shots or a tea collection. Most importantly, they won’t lose their appeal in January and February.
Though some regular customers may not feel comfortable returning to the spa quite yet, those who do are looking for a refuge from a chaotic year. It’s important that they feel rejuvenated after a trip to the spa.
Martin says The Edgewater will have that concept in mind this holiday season. Many parents will be working at home while their kids attend school remotely, which is likely to add stress at an already stressful time. That’s why The Edgewater is staying open late one night per week (closing at 8 pm instead of 6 pm) to give those overworked parents a chance for a night out. They are partnering with a local restaurant to offer food and drinks as well.
It’s these sorts of creative solutions that can fill a need, but what about the big holiday parties that many are accustomed to? The strangest part of this holiday season may be the lack of those large gatherings, whether for corporate outings or group events that provide selling opportunities.
The Edgewater, for example, usually likes to have a big event on its property leading up to the holidays. This year, those plans will have to be adjusted slightly. That includes expanding the space, if possible, and scheduling specific times when guests can visit. Instead of buffet-style food, a better option is individual to-go boxes. Martin is also considering pre-packaged goodie bags with snacks and products.
It’s going to be a lot of work for spas to come up with plans for each of the many scenarios possible during the pandemic. An important part of the planning process that shouldn’t be overlooked is disinfection efforts—and communicating them to customers.
“It’s important that we are honest with guests of what we’re doing to keep everything clean,” Traboulay says. “We’re doing so much work on the back end, but if they don’t know, it doesn’t make a difference. We have to show them the visual cleaning process, so they feel safe.”
Occupancy limits and distancing accommodations may sharply alter the kinds of in-person gatherings that typically drive additional revenue opportunities during the holidays. It’s critical, then, that spas be flexible and look for creative ways to take advantage of digital platforms and include opportunities for virtual connection into any plans. It’s an approach many spas and resource partners have already warmed to during the pandemic.
Silverado, for example, is planning a Zoom trunk show in which it offers exclusive deals on products to registrants. The Edgewater is doing something similar in shipping a box of product samples to those who preregister, then leading a session in which recipients will use the products together over Zoom. At the end of the event, there may be a discount code to buy full-sized versions of the products.
“Vendors are into trying new things and want to do new things soon,” Bordeaux-Johlfs says. “Businesses get an opportunity for exposure, so there is some shared commission. It’s important to partner with vendors right now, and I hate saying this all the time, but we’re all in this together.”
While so much has been done through virtual meeting platforms during the pandemic, everyday communication and marketing still lives on social media. Without as many guests coming into the spa, Traboulay plans to continue highlighting her therapists on social media (as long as they are comfortable), so when customers are ready to come back to the spa, they feel like they already have that familiarity with the staff.
“It’s a good chance to foster that community,” Traboulay says. “It’s harder to build relationships when the customer isn’t walking into the spa every two weeks. Even if we don’t build it on our end where we don’t see them, it needs to feel like we’re in their living room talking to them, so people recognize them and feel comfortable when they do come in.”
‘Normal is going to look different’
This holiday season may look a lot different, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still feel like the holidays. That’s an important distinction. Specially packaged gift cards and festive promotions that tie in with the season aren’t going anywhere, even if the communal punch bowl stays in storage this year.
Through it all, spas can continue to be the place for inspiration and wellness. “We want to get normalcy, but we know normal is going to look different,” Martin says.
“There is pressure to make sure you’re coming up with something that they know, but you can also ensure that it’s still safe. People will still want to come out. I was working the desk recently, and I saw how much people really want to come out to the spa and get a treatment. If we can provide a safe environment to do some of the normal, there will be less apprehension. It’ll just look different.”