Member Perspectives: Conquering Staffing Challenges During COVID-19
By: Ryan O'Gara

STAFFING HAS LONG BEEN AN ISSUE IN THE SPA INDUSTRY before the pandemic began: for years, data from the ISPA U.S. Spa Industry showed that there were more open positions than there were qualified applicants to fill them.

Once COVID-19 arrived, though, many spas closed and had to furlough or lay off employees, seemingly flooding the job market with spa professionals seeking employment. Despite this, some spas have had continued difficulty filling positions since reopening, indicating that the spa industry’s labor crunch remains, in spite of—or perhaps exacerbated by—COVID-19.

For this month’s Member Perspectives, Pulse spoke with a spa that has been growing its staff during the pandemic and another that is getting creative to make up for pandemic-related staffing reductions.

Growing a New Property During COVID-19
With four locations in the Northeast, Mirbeau Inn & Spa had a solid foundation in place when it opened up a new property in Rhinebeck, New York, in 2019. When COVID-19 arrived in 2020, Spa Director Pam Maes faced the unenviable task of growing a new property during a pandemic. While it was intimidating at first, Maes has helped the Rhinebeck location do quite well during the pandemic, as their staff of massage therapists has actually grown from 15 pre-pandemic to the 23 it has on staff now.

Rhinebeck itself is a small village located about 100 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley, and Maes understood the advantage her property had during a time when people were increasingly reluctant to work in heavily populated areas. It was already a growing area, but Maes noticed a lot of people going to the Hudson Valley as an escape.

The Mirbeau Inn and Spa, which is a small location that markets many of its activities to small groups and features a boutique hotel of 49 rooms, was closed for about three months, but once it reopened, it worked past the staffing issues that have plagued so many spas around the world. There were a few staff members who were initially hesitant to return. “As a company, we were considerate of that,” Maes says. “We didn’t want people to think that they had to either work or not work with us. We really paid a lot of close attention to each household and their personal situation.

“Part of our company’s success has been our engagement—with our guests in terms of understanding them, and with understanding our staff. COVID-19, more than ever before, demanded that we as a company supported the people we have employed.”

Once the spa reopened, Maes said the spa began receiving a high number of applications due to outreach on social media and job boards. Mirbeau targeted therapists in the metropolitan area who wanted a change of pace from a long commute into Manhattan. “People finally had the opportunity to kind of take a look at where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do and many times we found that our interests both overlapped,” Maes says. Mirbeau offered some incentives for moving costs to help relocate, since these applicants hadn’t been working for several months. There were some who were able to move within walking distance of the property and no longer had hour-long commutes into the city. “It was an incredibly positive change in their lives and their balance,” she says.

Mirbeau focused heavily on social media during the pandemic to meet consumers where they were, but the spa also continued efforts that began before the pandemic. The spa advanced its relationships with local schools, maintained referral incentives and monitored job boards to uphold its proactive staffing efforts. Maes’s next step was to carefully consider what kind of message to communicate with applicants. 

“Once we made that initial connection, it was always my directive to really have a conversation with them that wasn’t necessarily just about a job,” Maes says. “It was about how COVID has really changed a lot of things in your life. And would potentially changing things around with your work with us improve your life?

“Flexibility is key in terms of your staffing. It’s about helping people more than trying to fill a vacancy. We implemented a lot of different measures and cast a wide net. We didn’t always wait for people to come to us, we started to really go to people.”

Making Staff Multi-Functional
Like many other spas, Villa Del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto was forced to cut some staff during the pandemic. Theirs went from being a staff of 18 to a staff of seven. That meant the remaining staff had to come together to make sure the 39,000-square foot spa continued serving its guests to the high standard they expect.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to everybody realizing, ‘We need to pitch in to pull this off, or we’re not going to work ourselves,’” Spa Director Claudine Riemer says. “That’s a big thing to say, but it’s also unfortunately just reality. We’re the lucky ones to say, ‘okay, we can still do this and we can pull this off,’ but the only way we can pull this off is teamwork, because you can’t do it by yourself. It’s not a one-person job.”

One example is how therapists are no longer only performing massages; instead, their appointments are staggered so they have adequate time to disinfect their area. Not being able to schedule treatments back-to-back is obviously a detriment financially—Riemer says Villa Del Palmar is pulling in about half as much business as this time last year—but the therapists understand this is part of their new role. Spending a lot of time cleaning isn’t what a therapist went to school for, and the valets aren’t supposed to be spending their time cleaning, but everyone is chipping in.

Even Riemer, who has been in the spa industry for 25 years and worked her way up the ladder, is leading by example and working the reception desk. No task is beneath anyone on staff. Getting that kind of buy-in can be tricky when the staff is only used to performing their specific roles, but Riemer has made that part of the culture at Villa Del Palmar.

“I’ve always had the philosophy that everybody does everything,” Riemer says. “And we always have. This is not just here at the spa, the whole hotel is the same way.” Riemer proudly shared a story of when she saw a co-worker rushing off to somewhere. “Where are you going?” she asked. The co-worker answered, “We’re a little bit short-staffed right now in housekeeping, so I’m going to go help them.”

Before the pandemic, Riemer’s philosophy was to cross-train its employees so they knew how to perform a variety of roles. They didn’t need to necessarily be an expert in another area, but they could fill in if needed.

“It’s a great mentality,” Riemer says. “The leadership we have allows us to really be a team and work together in order to solidify our resort. And it applies to each department, as well. You just have to be humble and not use titles. Just because you’re a director, a receptionist or a valet, it doesn’t matter. You may be a director, but you can also be a valet or a receptionist.”

Riemer noted that this mindset is part of the culture in Mexico. It’s not uncommon for a valet or a butler to become a massage therapist. Riemer breaks it down into categories. The receptionists all have additional roles outside their department, the trainers have additional roles, and so on.

The Cross-Training is Paying Off Now
“Mexico is a country that lives off tourism, so it’s so important that we do this,” Riemer says. “At the end of the day, we’re lucky that people want to come here during this crazy time to vacation, so we need to be really humble and grateful for that and do what it what it takes to get the work done without your guests knowing what’s going on.”