Resource Partner Real Talk
by Josh Corman

IN MARCH, ISPA HOSTED A SPECIAL TOWN HALL EVENT intended to enhance the dialogue between spa leaders and the many businesses that make up ISPA’s resource partner membership. More than 100 resource partners attended the virtual event, which featured ISPA Board Chairman Patrick Huey in conversation with a range of leaders representing large corporate spa groups, resort and hotel spas and day spas. Each panelist shared their insights on a range of important questions about fostering strong relationships with resource partners and working together to continue supporting the entire industry.

Do Your Homework
Jessica Shea, senior director of spa and wellness operations for Hilton, advised resource partners to follow a basic—but crucial—tenet of doing business: come prepared. “Everybody’s time is limited and valuable, so make sure you’ve looked into that particular spa and understand their business, their goals,” she said. “Go on the website, read the menu, look at where there [are] gaps, where there [are] holes. What can you offer instead of just a blanket pitch?”

Resource partners should take the time to learn about the spas they approach in order to make the evaluation process as efficient as possible for all parties, agreed Deirdre Strunk, vice president of spa, fitness and beauty for Canyon Ranch. “Currently, Canyon Ranch doesn’t do CBD,” she said, citing one example of a detail resource partners can easily overlook, “So I tell the CBD people ahead of time, if they want to send product, I’ll absolutely use it—because I feel like it’s really important to give everyone the opportunity and really seeing what the difference is—but it might not be something we can do right now.”

Extensive preparation should not, however, lead resource partners to make presumptions about where their product or service fits within the spas they approach, however. As Ella Kent, director of rooms at Sea Island, points out, there is a fine line between knowing your audience and coming on too strong: “I don’t like someone to analyze my property and think that they know how they’re going to fit right in,” she said, “Sometimes, it feels a little insulting. Come to us with a sense of humility, and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve seen work, and here’s why this has been successful.’ I think that approach is really important.”

Two Paths to Training
Though every spa leader on the panel agreed that effective training is an essential part of a strong spa-resource partner relationship, they had slightly different preferences for how it takes place. Deirdre Strunk, for one, cannot wait to get back to consistent in-person product training. “We’ve done the best we can this year with… video, but I really feel like that in-person training is so important,” she said. “Even though some passion can come through video, having the vendors there, and having the trainers there and the passion they have for their line is really important in person.”

While Ella Kent agreed that some forms of virtual training—such as prerecorded videos or those where the presenter is simply reading prepared language—miss the mark, she noted that well-executed interactive virtual training offers a couple of clear benefits. “If you can have an interactive class in a Zoom format, following what’s going on in the classroom, and you’re having a conversation, I think that’s going to be our reality for a while yet,” she explained. “I know our vendor partners aren’t going to have a lot of money to travel, certainly not to Sea Island.” Kent also noted that being able to record an interactive training makes future education that much simpler. “I love having an archive that we can then hold when we have a new esthetician come in, instead of having to come in and train them again. I think that’s asking too much, but when they can see their team interacting with your team and learn from what we did together, that can be very impactful.”

For Robert Vance, general manager at Burke Williams in San Jose, California, the training method is less important than the effect it has on his team. “I’m looking at [training] in two ways: one is I want to refresh our teams as quickly as possible, and the other part is re-energizing [them] as quickly as possible. While San Jose wasn’t down for too long [due to COVID-19], we haven’t been on the table playing with the products and having those conversations. That interaction, that energy for our team to feel really engaged to feel excited about what they’re doing again… it’s going to benefit us, and it’s going to benefit our guests and their experience.”

Across the board, the message to resource partners seems clear: spas are ready and willing to engage in staff training, whatever methods they prefer. The resource partners who can provide the most convenient, flexible and in-depth training stand to strengthen their relationships with spa partners and set the tone for their partnerships as recovery from COVID-19 continues.

Is This Exclusive?
One resource partner attendee asked the panel if shifts in business models—resulting in some previously exclusive to-spa brands selling directly to consumers—has affected spas’ desire to work with those brands. It was clear from the panelists’ answers that the business landscape created by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some shifts in traditional thinking. “It can be difficult when guests are standing in the store, and they’re Googling whatever skin care line it is, and they can get it maybe cheaper,” Deirdre Strunk told attendees. “So, I like it being exclusive, but at the same time, I like [the brand] to have recognition too. It’s a really fine line… and I think COVID put us even further into that, obviously, because resource partners have to stay alive in business too.”

Robert Vance agreed that, for spas, that balance can be difficult to strike and encouraged resource partners to be creative and flexible in how they work with spas going forward. “Help us sell your product. Help us to find ways, whether it’s value-adds, whether it’s packaging, whether it’s pricing, whatever it might be,” he said. “I get why you would need to go from a b2b to a b2c environment, and we want these brands to stick around, but we also have to figure out how we can make this work for both of us.”

One key to creating a mutually beneficial relationship between spas and resource partners, Jessica Shea added, is making sure that vendors have a holistic business strategy that allows the b2c component of a business to support or elevate the b2b side. “I’ve talked to vendor partners where the right hand doesn’t seem to be talking to the left,” said Shea. “Maybe they have a b2c team and they have a b2b team, and they’re not strategizing together. How can they be symbiotic versus competing against each other?”

It seems clear from spas’ perspective that navigating these business challenges in a landscape so deeply affected by COVID-19 will require flexibility and understanding on the part of both spas and resource partners as they seek inventive solutions.

Taking Stock of CBD
Anyone who has been part of the conversation around spa products in the last few years has likely had to consider where—if at all—CBD fits into their plans. But as the CBD market has become more saturated and consumer interest has spiked, the subject has never been more top of mind for spa leaders.

Burke Williams has developed—alongside their massage therapists—multiple services that utilize CBD products, and Robert Vance believes that education will be key to its continued adoption. “I think in many ways [CBD] will work like organic products we’ve seen in the past, which is, as we leaders and the hands-on people are learning more about CBD, learning more about the efficacy of it, the integrity of its development and the integrity of the companies that are developing it, we will find better and more interesting ways to utilize that,” Vance said. “But I think we’ll also rely a great deal on the producers, on these companies, to educate us too.”

Deirdre Strunk agreed, but noted that scientific research, in addition to education will be key to Canyon Ranch’s future consideration of CBD. “Our main concern currently is about how it will affect our team members long term, if they’re using it in three and four treatments a day. So we’re just really waiting for the science on that,” she said, adding, “I’ve used it and… really feel like there’s a benefit, but the staff piece is really important to me and the team.”

Over the last year, the dynamics between resource partners and spas have shifted considerably, as leaders on both sides of the equation strove to find workable solutions to the many challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. ISPA has worked to connect Conversations like the one held by this panel will continue to be essential to a strong recovery as the industry bounces back throughout 2021.