A Dummy's Guide to Opening and Managing a Day Spa | Athletic Business

A Dummy's Guide to Opening and Managing a Day Spa

No idea how to run a spa? No problem! Let the experts talk you through the challenging, exciting and lucrative process of adding a spa to your fitness center.

You're good at what you do. You know the fitness industry like the back of your hand, you're on top of new trends and have the intricacies of managing your staff down cold. Your fitness center is successful, and confidence is your middle name. As is the case with most things in life, once you've climbed one mountain, you're always on the lookout for higher peaks. What's next for your facility? An expansion? Additional location? Or perhaps you're ready to tackle something totally different, like adding a day spa to your fitness facility.

The Day Spa Association, Union City, N.J., estimates that there are more than 12,000 day spas/salons in the U.S. This is one trend that doesn't seem to be losing steam. "At some point we will begin to see a consolidation within the industry, and those left standing can and will provide one-stop-shopping health and beauty services and products," predicts Michael A. Carter Sr., president and CEO of Athena Health Club and Day Spa, Brentwood, Tenn.

Hedging your bets

As with any new venture, there is a twinge of uncertainty for those involved in this process. By adding a day spa, you will be altering your brand -- in essence, changing what your members think of you. Conducting research can help alleviate some of that discomfort by providing lots of reasons why a day spa will succeed in your facility -- or by revealing that your members just aren't ready for that kind of change.

However, telling someone to research a new project is a common, if not particularly helpful, bit of advice. It's like telling someone to study for a big test. Study what, exactly? What will the test cover? Is it multiple choice or essay? Studying usually doesn't do much good unless you know what you're being tested on. Having an idea of what to look for when conducting your research is not only helpful, it's essential. Luckily, there are those who have already taken the day spa plunge. Consider them your human study guides.

Back to basics

There are some basic things to consider before sinking lots of time and money into a day spa project, such as the physical space available in your facility. "[Owners] definitely have to find a location that is quiet," says Hannalore Leavy, founder and executive director of the Day Spa Association. "They need to be separated -- that's the more important thing." So, finding an area that can provide the atmosphere any kind of spa needs to succeed -- one that is, above all, nurturing and relaxing -- is essential. However, if that means an addition or expansion, consider that a red light. Stop and think about how committed you want to be to a day spa. Would an addition better serve your fitness center (and your members) as a group cycling studio or yoga room? This is a good time to figure out if you're really ready to tackle a whole new business -- or if enhancing your current brand is a better way to go.

Regarding research

There are lots of ways to go about gathering information, and your fitness center probably has its own system. There's no need to reinvent the process -- stick with what you know, but add a few new spa-specific resources to the mix. For Athena Health Club and Day Spa, "the primary research document used to develop the program, project design, revenue and cost projections was The Day Spa Business Bible, a publication of the Day Spa Association," says Carter. "Additionally, we relied on our experienced day spa and health club consultants, who provided business templates and forecasting models that we utilized during the planning process." Here are some other things to consider when researching your day spa venture:

Take your time. Getting the facts about if and how a day spa can succeed in your facility will take time. We're not talking weeks or months -- our experts say it can take years to get the whole story. Karen Erickson, spa director at PRO Sports Club, Bellevue, Wash., says her facility spent more than five years on research, which included organizing focus groups, traveling to other luxury spas and attending industry conferences.

Define your demographic. "The most important factor[s are] the demographics and marketing to your target customer," says Erickson. "The spa environment should match those of the fitness facility (and vice versa)." It stands to reason that, if you're planning on adding a day spa component to your facility, you want to not only attract new members, but please those you already serve. Therefore, applying information you already know about your current membership is important.

Pay attention to the nitty gritty. Planning a new project can be exciting, and it's tempting to spend the most time making fun decisions, like picking paint colors and thinking up treatment names. Instead, pay attention to the basics, or your day spa may never see the light of day. "State laws and requirements in licensing, sanitation, building permits, etc.," are nothing to brush aside, says Erickson.

Pick the right product line. Of course, you shouldn't ignore the fun stuff altogether. People can become attached to certain product lines, and picking the one that suits your clients is important. "The right product lines for clients are extremely important, so find out what [your] clients want," says Erickson. Dig a little to learn what your members already use, then find a higher-end line that complements their choices. This can also be an indicator of what treatments will be successful at your day spa. Do your members purchase tried-and-true fragrances? If so, a stinky mud wrap treatment might be a little out of their comfort zone. "[People should] educate themselves on what services they want to offer," says Erickson. Consider massage, skincare, wet treatments, medical aesthetics, etc.

A new language

This may be a good time to point out that not everyone understands what Erickson just said. Wet treatments? Medical aesthetics? Just as the fitness industry has its own lingo, the spa industry has a special shorthand for discussion of its products and services. Unfortunately, there is no spa-to-fitness translation manual currently in print -- but there are other ways to communicate with the spa world and learn to speak its language.

One of those ways involves hiring a consultant. If you or your staff members don't have experience running a spa, then a consultant may be the fastest way to get a clue. Consultants can translate the technical terms into everyday language. They can take the guess-work out of the new venture, and leave you free to focus on other things.

However, there are many other avenues to educate yourself about the ins and outs of running a spa. "Begin attending educational day spa seminars, conferences, workshops," recommends Carter. "These conference and workshop settings are wonderful learning experiences."

The truth is, just because you're terrific at managing a fitness facility, doesn't mean you'll knock 'em dead running a day spa. "Day spas and health clubs are distinctively two different businesses, and new entrants into the marketplace must recognize and take into account the differences in energy, facility aesthetics and personnel required for each business," explains Carter.

The good news

Sure, spas are a different world from what you're used to. Spas have less sweat and more scented lotion, fluffier towels and prettier hand soap. Many owners and managers may feel out of their element in this confusing (but admittedly nice-smelling) new world. But the good news is, for all their differences, in a basic way, fitness centers and spas are run the same way.

"Management intricacies for spas versus health clubs, in my view, is no different than any other business model," says Carter. "Each area might require a different skill set for the personnel you hire, but the process for addressing the managerial functions of planning, organizing, directing and control is the same for each area." Happily, this means all of your expertise as a fitness center manager should serve you well, and provide an excellent basis for reaching new professional heights.

"Uniquely, however, for small business concerns, it is not uncommon for senior management to have multiple reporting departments and large span of personnel control," Carter continues. Athena established a new position: a chief operation officer and general manager (COO/GM) who provides oversight for both the day spa and fitness center. The front desk manager, health club director, director of membership, aerobic coordinator, building maintenance and all day spa department heads report to the COO/GM. The chief financial officer and the COO/GM report to the president and chief operating officer. It was the only way, according to Carter, "to achieve synergy and effective working relationships between the two businesses."

Building a staff

No matter how little experience you have running a spa, any new hires should have prior experience working at a spa. "Hands-on experience in working in the day spa arena as a service provider, accountant/bookkeeper, day spa or front desk manager, or receptionist [is a must]," says Carter. However, if you aren't (yet) a spa expert, knowing what to look for can be tricky -- after all, anyone can say they're experienced working at a spa on their application. Will you ask the right questions to weed out the phonies? Can you tell the difference between an expert in new spray-on tanning techniques and someone who's just really tan?

Never fear -- there are companies galore that are more than willing to guide you through the hiring process. The best technicians are in high demand, but your best bet might be to seek out skilled up-and-comers. An outside company can save you some headaches and fill open positions quickly.

Neither Athena nor PRO Sports Club went that route, however. "We hire our own staff and we have not used an outside agency for recruitment," says Carter. "Our associates have come to us via word-of-mouth and through our website." According to Erickson, "PRO Sports Club hires all its own staff for spa service providers and support. The pros are company loyalty, teamwork and ownership. The cons are higher payroll expenses and less flexibility in scheduling staff."

If you do decide to hire staff on your own, Leavy has some tips for recognizing talent. "Anyone who hires a bodyworker, be it for massage or facials, should get a treatment from that person," she says. Also, be aware that the personality of a spa employee is very different than what you look for in your fitness staff. Instead of upbeat, look for calm. Instead of high-energy, think nurturing. "Their nature is to want to help people to feel better," Leavy explains. Good personal hygiene, including short, well-groomed fingernails, is also important for spa staff, according to Leavy.

Taking the plunge

Adding spa services to your fitness facility is a risk, just like all business ventures, but it's your job to determine if it's a risk worth taking. There are practical issues to consider: Can the software system you've sunk thousands of dollars into for your fitness center be adapted for a spa? Will you make the whole spa coed, or have separate areas for each gender? Does your current staff have any spa expertise, or will you be hunting for someone to show you (and everyone else) the ropes?

There are other, emotional issues to face: Will your client base think you've watched too many Sex and the City reruns and lost your mind? Will the new spa expert you've hired make you look like a fool or a hero? Will the day-to-day stress of managing two separate, but connected, businesses drive you slowly but surely insane?

Only time will tell, but success isn't an impossibility. And confidence is your middle name, right?

Take It From Us

Michael Carter's Top-Five Tips
Athena Health Club and Spa (www.athenahealthclub.com) is a 15,000-square-foot, three-story, $3.5 million facility. It is middle Tennessee's largest combined European-style health club and day spa.
1. Have a clear, concise written reason/objective for adding a day spa to your existing facility.
2. Consider hiring a day spa consultant.
3. Establish a written mission/vision statement.
4. Begin developing a program project document (initial architect planning document).

5. Assess your financial position. If you launch a new day spa, where will you secure the capital?

Karen Erickson's Top-Five Tips

PRO Sports Club (www.proclub.com) has two locations in Washington state, and features a world-class spa and expansive fitness facilities.
1. Have the same or compatible software system(s) so all members' information is accessible in one location.
2. Build a co-ed relaxation area for couples to be together before and after services.
3. Ask members and guests of your fitness facility what they would look for in a spa (what type of services, products, etc.) through focus groups and mailers.
4. Create packages that combine spa and fitness services in order to cross-market different areas throughout the facility.
5. Hire a spa manager who has experience opening a spa, and knows about equipment, sucpplies and product lines.
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