Investing in Education: Member Approaches to Tuition Reimbursement
By Jamison Stoike
THE LABOR MARKET IN THE SPA INDUSTRY remains competitive, and the only real barrier to greater revenues is a spa’s ability to staff its treatment rooms. Now more than ever, investing in education may be the move you need to make to break through the workforce wall, help you retain employees longer and more easily attract new ones.
Many ISPA members already have programs in place to fully or partially fund the education of new massage therapists and estheticians. If you’re looking to begin providing financial support for education, the diverse approaches of these five ISPA member spas offer a wealth of ideas and approaches to help you get started.
Polo Club of Boca Raton
Location: Boca Raton, Florida
Type: Country Club Spa
WHAT THEY OFFER: Full tuition reimbursement to any employee or dependent.
WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: Funds can be used towards any educational program, not just ones that advance an employee further on their current career path.
THE FULL STORY: The Polo Club is a country club in South Florida with two golf courses, 26 clay tennis courts and, of course, world-class spa and fitness facilities. With such a large facility, the spa’s tuition reimbursement program is part of a larger property-wide initiative and a collaboration with the George Snow Scholarship Fund, a South Florida charity that disburses educational support for a variety of benefactors. The Polo Club raises donations for the Scholarship Fund from its members through a variety of activities and fundraisers; in turn, this money funds the program. The George Snow Scholarship Fund then handles the administrative challenges of disbursing the financial aid.
Any employee or dependent of an employee at the club can apply for the scholarship by submitting an application, writing a short essay and completing an interview process. Allocation of funds is determined by the George Snow Scholarship Fund on the basis of need.
THE BENEFITS: Tuition reimbursement has helped with recruitment; Director of Spa and Fitness Eric Wilkinson says he always mentions it in interviews with job applicants. “You can see their face light up,” says Wilkinson. It’s brought in new employees in other ways, too, he says: “Some of the scholarship recipients who were dependents of our employees have actually taken positions at the club.”
THE TAKEAWAYS: If funds are limited, try reaching out to local charitable organizations or scholarship groups to see if you can partner with them on educational funding.
The Lodge at Woodloch
Location: Hawley, Pennsylvania
Type: Destination Spa
WHAT THEY OFFER: 50 percent reimbursement for massage therapy school.
WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: Close partnership with their local school, Lackawanna College.
THE FULL STORY: The Lodge at Woodloch was struggling to find enough massage therapists in its rural area, so the spa tackled the problem head-on. After establishing a close relationship with its local massage therapy program, Spa Director Nancy Deaton set up a tuition reimbursement system. Once an employee has been with The Lodge at Woodloch (or either of its sister properties situated onsite) for 90 days, they are eligible to apply for financial assistance to attend the local massage therapy program. Applicants submit a letter of reference from their current manager and three professional references, plus meet with the spa’s treatments manager. Upon completion of the program, the applicant must pass the MBLEx, receive licensure and sign a two-year contract with the spa in order to receive the 50% reimbursement. The goal of the program is to attract current non-service-provider employees to the field of massage therapy.
THE BENEFITS: Three current spa employees arrived through this program, and two more are starting school in August. The spa expects to lean more heavily on this program in the years to come, too. It has also deepened the spa’s existing relationship with Lackawanna College—The Lodge at Woodloch been the location of the school’s hands-on training for several years, and a handful of Deaton’s staff serve as guest instructors at the school.
THE TAKEAWAYS: “I think a must-do is to have a really close relationship with the massage therapy program,” says Deaton. “It benefits you in a couple of ways. You start forming a closer connection with the employees you have in the program, but also with the rest of the students who aren’t employees.” This familiarity has led to many graduates naturally seeking positions at the spa—without The Lodge at Woodloch having to resort to funding their education.
Sea Island Resort
Location: Sea Island, Georgia
Type: Resort Spa
WHAT THEY OFFER: Broadly applicable annual funding for education.
WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: A tiered structure that allocates more annual education funding the longer you’ve been with Sea Island Resort.
THE FULL STORY: Once an employee has been with Sea Island for six months they are eligible for up to $1000 annually of financial support for education. In the third year, that number increases to $2500; in the sixth, $4000. After ten years or more at Sea Island, employees can receive $5000 annually. The courses or certifications have to be approved by the employee’s manager, such as Director of Spa & Wellness Cecilia Hercik. This empowers the managers— who know the employees best—to decide how to help the employees pursue their dreams. The spa has also worked on a case-by-case basis to assist incoming employees with the costs of recertification when, for example, a new employee arrives from another state. “Sometimes we hire them until they are able to finalize their paperwork and then we can transfer them to the provider position that they were hoping for,” says Hercik.
THE BENEFITS: Sea Island Resort’s tenure-based approach to education funding accomplishes two things. First, it incentivizes employees to stick around longer. Second, it provides more funding to those who are likely to need it more—an older, veteran service provider could likely use more training on the latest modalities than a relatively recent entrant to the industry.
THE TAKEAWAYS: If your spa operates as part of a larger resort, club, hotel or property, talk to your HR department about setting up a tuition reimbursement program. “Many people think the funds come from your operations budget, and a program like this can be very costly at a spa like ours,” says Hercik. “However, the human resources teams can put it in their budget and support not only the spa, but also the entire property.”
Fusions Spa and Wellness
Location: Sylva, North Carolina
Type: Single-location Day Spa
WHAT THEY OFFER: Individualized support for continuing education.
WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: Local conditions mean Fusions doesn’t need to provide reimbursement for massage therapy programs.
THE FULL STORY: Every market is unique. Some spas might need to offer tuition reimbursement, while others may not. Fusions Spa and Wellness falls into the latter category. Though it has offered reimbursement for massage therapy in the past, it simply doesn’t have to do so at present. “For the most part,” says Lead Massage Therapist Jessica McCauley, “people are getting their schooling almost entirely covered right now through Pell Grants.” Instead, the spa is pouring its resources into continuing education by bringing in small-class CE trainings to the spa and providing financial assistance for those taking classes elsewhere. If the spa is seeking to fill a particular need—say, to train an additional therapist in Thai massage—it will pay 100% of the cost for a service provider to receive certification. In all other cases, the spa reimburses at least half of the cost of the course.
THE BENEFITS: “A well-educated staff is also a stronger staff,” McCauley says. “You’re going to have fewer potential issues with clients and issues with injuries. As continuing education shifts towards longevity and body mechanics, you’re building a staff that is going to be with you much longer.” Education pays for itself in the longterm not only through increased add-on revenue, but also reduced staff turnover and missed days due to injury.
THE TAKEAWAYS: Pay attention to your market. It may seem great to reimburse tuition, but it’s important to build a business case for it. If it doesn’t solve a problem you’re currently facing, it may be best to evaluate other ways to support education.
White Elm Day Spa
Location: College Station, Texas
Type: Spa and School
WHAT THEY OFFER: Comprehensive support for careerboosting education.
WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: White Elm Day Spa also operates its own massage therapy and esthetics training programs at the White Elm Wellness Institute and Training Spa.
THE FULL STORY: Educational support has been a part of White Elm Day Spa since Owner Hanna Hart launched the spa in 2017: when early employees mentioned that they wanted to learn a new technique, Hart reimbursed 100% of the cost of those certifications. Eventually, Hart noticed that the nearest massage therapy or esthetics school was 80 miles away, requiring a three-hour round trip for any kind of service provider. In response, she decided to launch her own school. The White Elm Wellness Institute and Training Spa opened in 2020, providing programs in massage therapy and esthetics; it also hosts ongoing CE classes for the spa’s employees. Any spa employee can take any class at the school or pursue certification in massage therapy or esthetics for free after a 90-day probationary period.
THE BENEFITS: White Elm’s generous educational support has spread like wildfire through the local service provider community and drawn job applicants to the spa. This has created a relatively large staff and unlocked seemingly unlimited revenue for White Elm, the revenues of which rose by 56% from 2019 to 2021.
THE TAKEAWAY: Not everyone can open their own school, but everyone can provide some type of support for those who are pursuing further education. Doing so often requires a mindset shift away from a fear that the employee will ‘train themselves out’ of your business. Says Hart, “If you hold on to someone so tight that you can’t let them out to blossom, you’re going to be in a non-growth cycle. I think I come at it differently because I’ve not been a massage therapist; it’s helped open my eyes and others’ eyes to the potential of what may be out there.”
Should they sign a contract?
To protect an investment in an employee’s education, many spas require the employee to sign a contract ensuring a certain amount of employment—typically two years, though one year is also common. However, not all the spas featured in this story require this because in some cases they simply have not had an issue with employees leaving early. It makes sense: employees are happier when they’re invested in by the spa and therefore less likely to leave. Much like tuition reimbursement in general, it’s best to have employees sign a contract only after employees leaving has proven to be an issue.
IDEAS FOR CONTINUING EDUCATION
Providing tuition reimbursement for massage therapy or esthetics programs is a big step, but financially supporting continuing education is often lower-cost and lower-risk. All of the spas featured in this story make it a point to allocate funds to CE courses and training.
Here are a few of their top tips:
1. RUN A CONTEST. White Elm Day Spa recently held a challenge to see which staff member could complete the most online webinars through their resource partners in a single month. The winner knocked out 25 seminars and, in addition to being paid for the training time, received a $20 bonus per certificate.
2. BRING CLASSES TO YOU. Polo Club of Boca Raton, Sea Island Resort, the Lodge at Woodloch, and Fusions Spa and Wellness are radically different spas, yet all four mentioned bringing CE classes directly into the spa. Whether you’re the smallest day spa or the largest destination spa, talk to training providers to see if they’re willing to bring the training to you: It’s likely that they are.
3. WORK WITH YOUR RESOURCE PARTNERS. Many resource partners offer free online trainings, seminars and certifications, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The online nature of these educational resources makes them easy to access and complete, even for timepressed service providers. Reach out to your spa’s resource partners and see what they have on offer—there’s no price better than “free.”