How to Wow the First-Time Spa Goer
by: Josh Corman

Spas around the world spent a significant portion of 2020 working to prepare for reopening. Grappling with the always-evolving challenges of the COVID-19 crisis meant implementing new sanitation protocols, rethinking budgets, streamlining the guest experience and, in many instances, simply finding a way to survive. Of course, the goal of all that hard work was to create the kind of safe, relaxing, rejuvenating environments that have led millions of people to make spa visits a core part of their wellness routines.

Broadly speaking, that goal has been achieved. Most spas are open, and guests have returned. Despite limitations on occupancy, many spas are even hiring therapists and service providers to keep up with demand. After lockdown periods ended, avid spa-goers were eager to receive the services and treatments that they had been forced to go without.

But what about the portion of the population that doesn’t already have an established spa-going routine? What about those who are enduring the strain and stress of life during the pandemic but haven’t yet sought relief in the form of a spa visit? Attracting the uninitiated and transforming them into repeat spa-goers may be a critical component of the spa industry’s road to recovery. Thankfully, those first-timers are a group that is never very far from the minds of spa leaders and their marketing teams.

“Yes, [first-time spa-goers] are always on our radar,” says Mark Kennedy Smith, spa director at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith notes that though his spa is part of a larger resort that draws tourists from around the world, reaching first-timers requires a combination of tactics, some of which would be par for the course at many day spas around the country. This is largely due to the combination of out-of-towners and locals that Spa of Colonial Williamsburg serves, which includes students from nearby university William & Mary, as well as residents of Richmond and Virginia Beach, the two nearest metropolitan areas. “We find that working with third parties really helps. We typically do a Groupon here, and we find that we’re able to introduce first-time spa-goers to the spa that way. It works for that base of guests.” The spa also offers a discount directly to students from the college, many of whom might otherwise refrain from visiting a spa because they view it as a luxury beyond their means.

Like many resort spas, the Spa at Colonial Williamsburg also draws a number of guests visiting the area for reasons that, at least initially, may have nothing to do with a massage or nail service. Smith credits the strong connection between the spa and the resort—which stocks soaps, shower gels, shampoos and conditioners from the spa in its rooms—for driving some of that traffic. “The partnership here [between] our spa and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been great. We have such exposure within the hotels and the rooms. When the guests are here and they’re taking a shower, they’re reading ‘Spa of Colonial Williamsburg’ on the products they’re using. Quite often we’ll have guests calling who stay at the hotel requesting our products, and they drive the curiosity that brings people into the spa.”

TIME TO TEACH

Discounts and well-placed spa products are not, of course, the only ways to encourage potential guests to come in for a service. Erin Stremcha, vice president of marketing for Trilogy Spa Holdings, points out that education is often central to attracting spa new-comers. In fact, the same educational efforts that have led more and more people view spa visits not as a luxury, but as part of a well-rounded approach to overall health and wellness, are key to winning over non-spa-goers. “The way that we have marketed to that group is to not be as salesy, but to come from an approach of education. If I know [a guest] is new, I might send them some information over email about the benefits of getting a mas-sage or the benefits of getting a facial. They haven’t booked yet, but they’re inquisitive. Maybe they’ve used a skin care line, but they’ve never had a facial or a massage and that was their entry point. Once the first-time spa-goer sees the benefits, they’re hooked!”

Education for first-time guests is especially important because so many of them may have only a passing notion of which services will provide the greatest benefit. “That’s where we come in,” says Mark Kennedy Smith. “We have quite a comprehensive service menu, so people ask, ‘What do I do?’ Our guest service agents and receptionists are very knowledgeable about the services we offer. We include them in all of our vendor trainings so that they can really speak to it. Someone who has never had a massage before doesn’t know the difference between a Swedish massage and our Alpine Arnica Deep Tissue Massage. It’s really up to us to educate the guest, because they may not want a lot of pressure or their neck really hurts. If they have specific areas of concern, we want to focus on that.”

In addition to informing new guests about the value of the services they might receive at a spa, it is also critical for spas to speak to the moment as they encourage newcomers to visit.

A big part of that is understanding the particular kinds of stress that have risen during the pandemic and identifying the ways in which spas can provide some relief. “[Market] to guests in a way that’s of the times,” says Erin Stremcha. “One example: a blog post asking, ‘How’s your skin under the mask?’ It’s a way to get someone who may or may not be a first-time spa-goer who says, ‘Oh wow, yeah, my skin is suffering. That’s how you fix it? You get a facial?’ This time, during the pandemic, has given people a chance to reflect more on themselves and that has naturally put us in a place of thinking, ‘I want to take care of myself.’” In particular, Stremcha cites women with children at home—a group that the American Psychological Association has noted is enduring higher levels of stress than the population in general—as a demographic that may now see a spa visit as a part of looking after their own mental well-being.

THE INTIMIDATION FACTOR

Even before the COVID-19 crisis,
first-time spa-goers were likely to have at least a few questions about the experience. But now, those questions often go well beyond whether gratuity is included in the price of their service. Spas have put a tremendous amount of time and effort into the sanitation practices that keep guests safe and give them peace of mind about returning, but people with no previous spa experience may not know just how stringent most spas’ protocols are. Overcommunicating those details (something spas are likely used to at this point) can help reduce any feelings of anxiousness or intimidation a newcomer might experience.

“The communication that’s happening up front is what helps them feel comfortable,” Stremcha says. “On all of our spas’ websites, we’ve added a safety section. In our pre-arrival and our confirmation emails, we’re touching on safety in general—what the protocols are, what you can expect to see, what we expect of guests, what we expect of staff.”

COVID-19 has certainly changed the substance of those initial conversations with guests. However, that first connection remains an opportunity to start the guest journey off right, especially for those who might have no previous positive spa experience to compare it to. “A point of focus for me is that first connection we have, which is typically on the phone with the guest,” says Mark Kennedy Smith. “It’s so important that we’re starting an experience for them right then and there. [The pandemic] has added layers of experience for the guest, and our goal during that initial contact is letting them know that we handle it in a way that’s very thorough. For the newcomer to the spa, it can be quite overwhelming.”

Although the reservation process may now include a few additional steps, Smith says that the extra work,which includes an online intake form and details about the spa’s mandatory mask policy, leads to a more pleasant experience once the guest arrives. “We want them to get all that done before so that they can have a seamless check-in and avoid paperwork. That way, they can come in and totally relax. The last thing a guest wants to think about when they arrive is having to fill out this form.”

END-TO-END EXPERIENCE

Attracting first-time spa-goers requires spa leaders and marketers to under-stand the barriers which often prevent potential guests from taking that first step. Some may still see a spa visit as a luxury beyond their means. Others may not have had a spa-going parent or friend who can help demystify the experience.

But no matter what has prevented that first-time spa-goer from visiting in the past, or what steps a spa takes to encourage them to come in, the key to retaining them as a return guest is simple: give them a great experience. As in most cases, a newcomer’s first impression of the spa experience is highly likely to affect their plans to return, so taking that extra care is particularly vital when working with a new guest.

“That’s the important thing, always,” Smith says. “It’s so important for the team to stay focused on the guest and creating the experience and making sure we understand what their needs are. Newcomers come and they don’t really know what they want. We know what we do, but they don’t, so it’s really important, especially when they’re coming for the first time and they have those questions, that we’re able to guide them through and cultivate an experience that’s going to be memorable.”

Erin Stremcha agrees, noting that effective messaging and guest education won’t outweigh the way a spa experience makes them feel. “Marketing is only as good as what’s being delivered on the other side of it,” she says. They’re not just going to remember the massage; they’re going to remember every aspect of it. Did they feel like they were taken care of from the very first touch point of an email to the time that they left and were thanked for their visit?”

Providing that high-level guest experience is, in itself, a key part of the cycle of bringing a steady stream of first-timers into a spa, because those who aren’t being referred by a friend or family member rely so heavily on other word-of-mouth sources, such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. “For new spa-goers, [reviews are] so important,” says Stremcha. “If you’re a new spa-goer, you’re going to do your homework. [You’re] going to investigate and see what other people are saying and what their experience is about.” Despite spas’ best efforts, the occasional negative review can still pop up. And because potential first-time spa-goers rely so heavily on those reviews, it’s up to spa leaders to monitor them and take steps to acknowledge and address the reviewers who had less-than-stellar experiences. “You have to respond to both the good and the bad. In fact, it’s more important to respond to the bad than the good.”

From their initial contact with a spa’s marketing materials to the moment they walk out the door, a spa-goer’s first experience is certain to play a huge role in their likelihood to return. The stakes of those first visits, then, are particularly high in cultivating an ever-broadening clientele. But spas are used to setting—and exceeding—high expectations for themselves, and that moment when a newcomer makes spa-going a part of their routine, it’s more than worth it. “That’s what we love,” says Mark Kennedy Smith. “When we hear back from someone who was here for the first time that they loved the spa, loved the products, and they’re going to come back every year.”