Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 5.1 | Service and the Spa Experience

Service is generally defined as “work done for others.” However, most people in the industry would impose a quality factor into that definition. There is an expectation that the service is done well and appropriately and even beyond that, quality service means exceeding the guests’ expectations.

Spa guests arrive with unarticulated needs or expectations. According to the International SPA Association 2006 Spa-Goer Study, approximately one-quarter of the total U.S. population has been to a spa and spa-goers have become more savvy and far more discerning about what they expect from a spa and its services.

“People are becoming much more educated,” said Jason de Caprio, hair stylist and manager at Noelle Spa for Beauty and Wellness in Stamford, Connecticut. “I don’t know if it is because of the computer age or they’re more fickle with where they spend their money, but before they spend their money, they really look into things. They Google it or check it out on the web or talk with their friends a little bit more.”


The elements of good service at a spa include everything from the first impression made during a website preview, the initial phone contact, or just driving by the spa itself:

  • Is the website easy to navigate and designed in a way that is in harmony with the spa’s environment?
  • How do people at the spa answer the phone?
  • Are receptionists able to explain the services and help guests select the proper experience for their needs?
  • Is there a quiet relaxation area where guests can unwind and simply exhale while preparing for their service?
  • Are the treatment rooms peaceful and impeccably clean?
  • Do the therapists and technicians deliver the service in a competent and warm manner?
  • Are spa policies explained?
  • Is billing done accurately and proficiently with no surprises?
  • Are retail products suggested that can help a guest continue the benefits of the spa experience at home?


These are just some of the standards guests use to form opinions about the spa. If all of the parts of this process are performed better than expected—that is, if reality exceeds expectations—then guests subconsciously rate each element of their experience as better than average or high. If reality matches expectations—the guests get what they expected, no more and no less—then service is satisfactory and they may or may not return. But if reality is less than what is expected, the service is considered poor and not only will that guest not return, but he or she will surely tell others about the poor experience.

Spas in the United States have grown tremendously over the past ten years. From 1999 to 2006, the spa industry grew by an average of 1,600 locations per year, according to the ISPA 2007 Spa Industry Study. However, that spa growth should not give a spa operator a false sense of insulation from the laws of supply and demand. Spas that fail to provide consistently engaging experiences or overprice the experience relative to the perceived value by the spa-goer will ultimately lose market share to other spa facilities entering the market. Of course, price also plays an important part in how a spa experience is evaluated, because spa treatments can be expensive and thus amplify guest expectations. When guests pay more for a service, they expect more in return. The amenities and environment must support the prices paid.

The expectation for service at a spa is tied to the expectation of the experience. From the beginning, spas existed for purposes other than providing a service in exchange for money. Spas were and are about health and wellness. Spa staff in quality spas are committed to providing an experience that promotes the health and welfare of the guest in mind, body, and spirit. Spa service providers carry an extra layer of responsibility when it comes to service. Not only must they create memorable experiences, but they must also care for guests and help enrich their lives.

One approach to the service experience is to look at it as a performance directed at satisfying the needs of guests. Compare what guests experience in a spa to what they experience in a theater. In a theater, the audience or theater guest sees only what happens on stage. In this way, spa employees can be compared to actors on a stage who are expected to perform according to the standards of the script in a way that the audience—or guests—expect them to act, not the way they may feel like acting. In live theater, audience members play an active role in that the energy they bring to the theater can affect the quality of the performance. So too, the spa guest’s active participation in the spa service means that the quality of the physical and emotional response will be deeply affected by their participation in the service.

While good service is often defined as “meeting guest needs in the way that they want and expect them to be met,” spa guests often do not know what they want or what to expect. This is particularly true of first-time or new spa-goers who have had their expectations set by magazine articles, friends, or television feature stories. The expectations they have might be for an experience very different than what a particular spa typically provides. This can make the provision of good service a challenge. Some spas now book time instead of specific treatments so that the therapist can consult with the guest on what treatments would be best to help the guest reach his or her goals. The treatments would then be chosen together to help meet those goals.

While spas can stage guest experiences and manage all the details the way a director would a show, they must be wary of some of the same traps that theatrical directors fight against. How does an acting troupe ensure that each performance is as fresh and compelling for each audience as it was the first time they read and spoke the words? How do they keep it from losing its passion? Likewise, spa experiences that are carefully scripted run the risk that they will lack authenticity. If the actors and spa employees don’t believe in the words that they are speaking, it becomes an immediate turn-off. Think of the greeting in a restaurant when a server arrives at the table saying, “Good evening, my name is Justin and I will be your server this evening.” It can come across as authentic or as stilted and rehearsed; it all depends on the delivery.

Also, just as a room full of people all experience the same play, it is inevitable that some will say it was outstanding while others will say it was poor. In a spa, individuals have their own expectations and each comes with unique baggage. Likewise, an individual’s chemistry with spa staff varies. Some people may offer feedback with praises for a particular staff member while another guest may complain that the same staff member is intrusive or too bubbly. Providing the best experience is seldom a one-size-fits-all undertaking and it emphasizes the importance of finding out what the client needs at the particular time of the visit—which can also vary from visit to visit for the same client.

Today’s experienced spa-goer is well traveled and savvy and will instantly see through artificial communication and experiences. They will greet with skepticism a claim that a jar of night cream will take years off their appearance—they simply know better. If the therapist asks the same old question, “Is there anything specific you want me to work on today?” the experience may seem staged. The goal is for the guest to experience authentic communication with the employees of the spa in a way that distinguishes one experience from another and that develops a sense of genuine care and a long-term relationship.

How guests feel when they have a spa experience also makes a difference in whether they will return and in whether a spa is successfully fulfilling its purpose. Spas can help provide healing and regeneration, but to do so, guests must have transformative experiences that take them to the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


There are several critical touchpoints in the spa experience. Each stage is experienced slightly differently depending on whether the spa-goer is a periphery spa-goer (someone who is a first-timer or an infrequent user of spas), mid-level spa-goer (someone who uses spa services occasionally but for whom spas are not a part of their regular lifestyle), or a core spa-goer who embraces the spa lifestyle and is an advocate for spas.

Pre-Visit. Savvy spa professionals know that the consumer experience begins the moment a potential guest learns about the spa opportunity. It could be when the guest calls the spa to set up an appointment. It is critical for all spas to make new and repeat guests feel special. Guests don’t expect or desire the kind of phone reception they get at a car dealership. The reservation call should reflect the mood expected by guests in their spa experiences: calm, soothing, and peaceful, because these emotional cues symbolize the indulgence guests expect at the spa. The spa professionals who take reservations must be knowledgeable, accurate, and polite. They should not leave people on hold, drop their calls, or be unable to answer guest questions—these create a stressful situation for the guest, not the calm, soothing one that a spa should be providing. Spa professionals should also treat e-mail reservations as if the person were standing in front of them. It is very helpful if the staff member who is taking reservations and phone calls has personally experienced a full range of spa treatments so that he or she is able to speak to guests from experience.

Arrival and intake. Once guests get beyond the periphery of the spa world, assessing the operational smoothness and efficiency of the arrival process becomes important. The sheer, indulgent fun of being at a spa has worn off and the focus becomes more and more on work or escape. Although there is always room for personality variation, core spa-goers are much more likely than periphery spa-goers to write off a spa based on a poor arrival experience alone. Combined with a poor transition experience, these guests may never return and begin to spread negative buzz in their social network. When possible, first-time guests should be given a tour of the facility after they have been greeted and had a chance to consult with a service staff member.


Transitional moments. Guests will be more comfortable if they are accompanied from the registration desk to the men’s or ladies’ lounge and then greeted by an attendant. The area needs to be clean, with a place for guests to store their clothes. Donning the ritual costume—robes and slippers—becomes an important identifying factor for spas. Robes and slippers are often associated with the spa world in general and offering them can fulfill common expectations of the spa as a luxurious and indulgent experience. Mid-level and core guests also usually expect a sauna, steam room, or whirlpool and perhaps a cold plunge as an essential part of any body experience at a resort or destination spa. Whirlpools and mineral waters are desired prior to most spa treatments as they warm the body. At a day spa, guests may experience a foot bath before their treatment or be served water or tea.

The lounge area also says a lot to guests about what kind of spa they are in. It is a place where guests want to have a quiet, secluded feeling as they prepare for their spa treatment. It is also in this area that many spas will offer perks that are becoming increasingly expected by core guests. These include teas and herbal elixirs, foot soaks, foot massages, chaise lounge chairs for total recline and relaxation, and hot towels for the face.

It is often difficult for day spas to provide lounge areas. Many day spas rent the building that they are in and are under pressure to have as much space as possible generating revenue. Space at a day spa is often very tight. In these cases, spas must plan for how they can overcome these obstacles without compromising the spa experience.

Treatment. Truly experienced therapists have a knack for figuring out what is driving a particular consumer on a given occasion. Knowing what is bringing a guest to a spa on a particular day can help therapists customize their language and their treatment. Most spa-goers prefer the treatment room to be extremely quiet and secluded. Most prefer discussions on product to take place after the treatment. The treatment is the heart of the service experience. Therapists need to be focused on the guest and providing them with the best experience possible. Ideally when guests leave, they are feeling that they’ve just received the best treatment they’ve ever had.


Exiting. The more spa-goers seek transformation within the spa experience, the more valuable they find an exit transition that allows them to savor what has just happened. Abrupt return to street clothes and everyday life can easily kill the emotional benefits of treatments before they have had time to sink in. Many guests say they wish for a return to the lounge or to the sauna as a way to feel like they’re not being dumped at the register. Who wants to think about money a few minutes after a glorious massage? Some spas have responded to this concern by either having guests sign the ticket before the service or signing their credit card slip before entering the treatment room. Retail sales are also part of the exiting experience and can be used to encourage guests to extend their experience into their daily home life. 


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