The Talent Challenge
Discussing ISPA's Talent Toolkit Plans with Michelle Adams Somerville
by Josh Corman

For years, the spa industry has faced challenges related to its workforce. Many spa leaders have long sought effective methods for responding to these challenges, which include everything from talent shortages to recruitment and retention issues. At the spa level, many leaders have effectively addressed those needs, establishing talent strategies that allow them to find and keep strong employees, reducing turnover and contributing to attractive cultures.

And though no single spa can alleviate the impact of those workforce issues that span the industry. But ISPA Vice Chairman and Michelle Adams Somerville—who is also executive vice president at Billings Farm & Museum and advisor to the Spa at the Woodstock Inn & Resort—has a plan.

With 30 years of experience in the industry, many of which she has spent in leadership roles, Michelle is well-versed in the challenges spas face on the workforce front. Pulse spoke to Michelle about those challenges—and how the industry might overcome them.

Pulse: Talent and Workforce issues have long been present in the spa industry. Have those issues become even more pressing? If so, why?
MICHELLE ADAMS SOMERVILLE: Well, we had a challenge prior to the pandemic, and it’s still a challenge, but it has a little bit of a different spin to it right now. During the pandemic, people have been changing—or thinking about changing—jobs. We saw that happen after 9/11, quite honestly. People chose to leave jobs that they had as they were reflecting and making changes, and people chose spa jobs. We’re seeing a shift, so it’s an opportunity for us to look at that and say, if people are making a shift, why not the spa? Could spa be a choice for people in second careers? Why aren’t spa businesses and positions more of a first choice for graduating high school students?

P: What can spas be doing to market themselves as that kind of landing spot?
AS: I think it starts with culture. That’s how you’re going to connect—people are looking for a connection, they’re looking for a place to belong. They want to know that your company cares. We’ve seen that during the pandemic, and I that’s gotten to our members—the ISPA Reopening Toolkit was really balanced with safety of the employees and the safety of the guests. I think, going forward, we need to keep that narrative, that it’s not just about the guests, its about the staff taking care of each other. I’ve always built teams from a culture standpoint, and I’ve worked on this for the last 30 years and I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but culture and the power of “why” is a really strong reason why people want to join you.

P: Is that the same recipe spas should use to retain employees as well?
AS: One-hundred percent. The best tool to avoid having to go out and look for staff is to take care of the current staff. That really affects you if you’re continually short staffed. What if we weren’t? To keep good staff takes work. I always say that first because I think people think some leaders are just lucky, or it’s just the demographics. There’s not really luck—it’s work, and then you’ll get good fortune from putting in the work. When I say ‘work,’ I mean you take the time to give your team the tools to be successful. That means you have to ask them what that means. When I have strong people that I have nurtured and taken the time to talk to and ask them what they need, I can then spend my time providing processes that work, looking at technology that could make their job better. Those things take time, but if those are the things the staff needs, that’s where I need to spend my time.

Some spa directors or managers will spend the time just standing next to the staff and helping them in the moment, which is fine in the short term. But if a spa leader continually just says I’m standing here and helping you, without really taking the time to look at what the problems are and solve them, you’re going to have the same problem. It’s a continuous cycle that’s not only bad for the employee, it’s bad for the leader because that leader, even if they are effective in general, they’ll end up being burnt out and not being their best selves because nobody can operate like that on a continual basis.

P: Aside from communicating the culture of their spa or brand in an attractive way, what might spa leaders do to bring more people into the talent pipeline?
AS: There have been a couple of high school students that I interviewed for the locker room, and what they told me in the interview is that they were interested in looking at spa—they were taking some classes on cosmetology. They wanted to have this exposure while they were still in high school, and that triggered me to reach out to the guidance counselors at the high school and ask, ‘Hey, can I give you some flyers to post?’ They posted them for me, and I thought that was awesome because it gave this kid a chance to see what working in a spa is all about.

I think hospitality and spa both have to show that you can move up to higher levels. There are not a lot of barriers to entrance in that respect, which I think is attractive to some. I didn’t go to college right out of high school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Long story short, I entered [the industry] as a fitness instructor, and within 12 years I was at Canyon Ranch as the Fitness Director and moved into Spa Director from there, so I started on that trajectory. You’ve got to look at your audience. [Some leaders] might think, ‘I’ll post a job and if they’re interested they’ll come,’ but it’s about framing when you’re putting your job postings out there. This is a marketing opportunity; it’s a branding opportunity. You’ve got to make it sound attractive.

P: You mentioned a potential ISPA “talent toolkit” for spa leaders earlier. What do you envision that would entail?
AS: I envision some videos of operators who have had some successes, something for people to take away or get inspired or think about things differently. But I also want the tangible part. I want email templates. I want to know if I go to a job fair, what are the things that I need to bring—I want to have that listed out with all the possible tools. And then I want to know how to recruit and interview. In the toolkit, I want to talk about all that. I want to talk about how to put together a successful intern program.

When I said, ‘This is work,’ this is work, and you have to think about it. I’m living proof that it works because most of this stuff I do. And I tell my managers, ‘This is self-serving.’ I do it for myself, so that I don’t bang my head against the wall every day when I come to work. But if it was so easy, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.