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Navigating the Long Road to Full Scale Operations
by Josh Corman

LAYOFFS, FURLOUGHS, ATTRITION AND HEALTH CONCERNS have upended the spa industry workforce in the last 12 months. Spa leaders have made a seemingly endless number of difficult staffing decisions, juggling their team’s needs and an array of restrictions and new proce-dures, usually while extending their own professional responsibilities well beyond the limits of their job descriptions. Now, as spa directors and operators look ahead to bringing more em-ployees back into the spa and scaling up operations, they must navigate the delicate balance of maintaining their staff’s health and safety, forecasting demand and rehiring or reconstructing their teams as efficiently and effectively as possible.

To better understand the talent and workforce challenges spa leaders will face in the coming months, and how they can address those challenges, Pulse spoke with Andrea Zemel, whose title at spa management company Trilogy Spa Holdings is simply “People and Culture.”

Pulse: As spa leaders strategize about rehiring and recon-structing their teams and operations return to “full-scale” status, what factors are key to keep top-of-mind?
ANDREA ZEMEL: It starts with mindset. Asking, “How will this be successful?” and truly diving in deep with your current processes and SOPs. Not only, obviously, from a sani-tation guidelines standpoint—I think we in the spa industry did that well, but making sure you’re following your state’s guidelines, even as things return to “normal,” will be impor-tant. From an employee standpoint, communication is key. Creating those guidelines and SOPs, creating those train-ings, really setting those key expectations from a spa stand-point so they have the lay of the land even before they come on board and the employees feel comfortable coming back. What will the spa look like? What will employees be doing that’s different? There’s a lot of back end work to make sure they feel comfortable, but at the end of the day, if they feel comfortable, then they’re going to create a comfortable ex-perience for the guests.

P: What did you learn from reopening your spas that might help others plan to return to full-scale operations?
Z: One big thing is flexibility. We opened seven days a week following the shutdown due to COVID-19, but that may not be realistic. Maybe it’s best to open Thursday or Friday through Sunday. Be flexible with your hours of operation, which in turn affects your employees. Assess your space and create guidelines for 25 percent occupancy, 50 percent occupancy, and so on. Another thing to think about is, will there be enough business? What kind of business will you have? What does local business look like at that particular spa? How do you scale back a business if you were used to opening seven days a week, ten hours a day, for example? Really, you’re strategizing for the unknown.

P: We know that, even before the pandemic, there was a talent shortage in the spa industry. There has been some worry in the industry about the talent pool shrinking due to attrition. Do you see that having an effect on implementing a talent strategy going forward?
Z: You know, I feel that those service providers who have been in this line of work for a very long time will continue to stick around even after the pandemic. I think we need to be cognizant of those new individuals who just came out of school. They may look at the effects on the industry and say, ‘I don’t know if this is such a good deal.’ They might be hesitant with the uncertainty. But really investing in your people helps. That was a main focus for us. We offered extended medical benefits, even to employees who didn’t work a full schedule. We wanted them to know we still wanted them here with us. Keeping employees engaged with who you are as a company, your values, your culture—you have to really connect with your people, because everybody is dealing with this differently. Some people are really freaked out, and people deal with stress differently. We can’t put those personal touches, like those check-in emails and spa directors asking how everybody is doing, sending notes of encourage-ment, because we’re busy.

P: Speaking of those benefits, do you think therapists and service providers will place more value on those things that give them more stability—different compen-sation models, health benefits and so forth? Will spas have to rethink some of those things to attract high-qual-ity service providers?
Z: Absolutely. One hundred percent. That’s very different than it was even two years ago. Our focus has always been on what else we can offer. We started offering 401(k) matches for everybody. And it’s funny, because I mentioned the younger generation—they’re very much about doing philanthropic things, so we also started offering “VTO” or voluntary time off, where they get paid for a few hours to do volunteer work. So it’s really just out-of-the-box thinking and reinventing toward what people are more interested in. It’s definitely changed our culture, for our company and for the people who continue to work here. And I think, again, the opportunity to focus on the health and wellness of our employee partners is big. Before COVID, a guest would be able to come in sick, and a therapist might still have to perform a massage, right? There was no mask-wearing; there was nothing. Just empowering employees to say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel comfortable with this situ-ation. I’m going to walk away and get my manager.’ It’s giv-ing them the empowerment to say ‘no,’ when maybe in the past they didn’t feel comfortable doing that. And when you say that to an employee, they truly value that and know that you care about them.

P: What guidance would you share for those who oversee spa directors—many of whom have been going above and beyond for months now—or for spa directors them-selves?
Z: Three things come to mind: patience, flexibility and empathy. Have patience in the process. This is definitely a marathon, not a sprint, and we let people fail because it’s okay to fail! I found that in this pandemic, we failed a lot, but we also learned, so making our spa directors feel that they can make mistakes, and that’s okay, because tomorrow might be completely different. Then, having the flexibility to really focus on what’s working for them professionally and, mostly, personally, and that leads into empathy. We had weekly calls with all of our leaders, and we would go around the room, asking, ‘What’s keeping you up at night? What’s good in your day? How can we help you?’ Like with our other employee partners, making them feel that they are heard and they’re valued. And if somebody was going through a lot of hard times—either because of COVID or they’re just really burned out, we gave them time off. We said, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to go a vacation, at at least for now, just to decompress.’ I remember coming into the spa industry and thinking, ‘Wow, everybody must be so relaxed.’ It’s the complete opposite! So, we have to walk the walk—if we’re a company of spa and wellness, we have to look in the mirror and make sure we’re being consistent for our leaders and our employee partners. We’re all about helping other people and making them feel good. Well, what are we doing for ourselves? We sometimes just need a little reminder.