Event Review: Hotelier Middle East Spa Forum
The first event of its kind in the UAE raises the need for education
The first Hotelier Middle East Spa & Wellness Forum raises the need for more knowledge and training at all levels across the industry and urges spa managers to address their revenue and retail sales
More than 150 spa directors, managers and owners attended the Hotelier Middle East Spa & Wellness Forum in Dubai last month, which highlighted the urgent need for more education at all levels across the industry.
The event, which was held at Ritz-Carlton DIFC in Dubai on March 18, comprised a series of panel sessions and workshops featuring 25 top level speakers with extensive regional and global experience in the spa industry.
These included Kathryn Moore, director of operations and international project manager, MSPA International; Neil Hewerdine, vice president spa services, Atlantis The Palm; Galina Antoniouk, complex director of spas, Grosvenor House and Le Royal Meridien Dubai; Sharon Barcock, director of spa operations and development MEA, Hilton Worldwide; and Paul Hawco, group director of spa at Jumeirah.
Debates covered a variety of topics such as the potential of the UAE as a spa destination, how to speak the language of spas and business, and raising the bar to meet savvy consumer expectations, but one theme dominated — the requirement for training, education and communication in every facet of the spa business.
Speakers highlighted the need for therapists to upskill and acquire more knowledge, for spa managers to learn how to maximise revenue and understand profit and loss, and for spa directors and owners to understand how to promote and grow their business through marketing and differentiation.
In the opening session, DR Global director Daniella Russell said there was a “mis-match” between the skills of therapists and the expectations of international travellers coming to Dubai.
“I think we have to be very careful because since the recession we have actually lowered our salaries and yet the salaries internationally have still maintained themselves, so we’ve actually lowered our standards somewhat, but of course education is becoming an issue internationally,” said Russell.
“Generally I think our staffing is becoming a little bit of a fine line for us, we’re bringing in a lot of excellent therapists but not necessarily qualified – they are fantastic therapists by touch but often their knowledge base and communication skills are somewhat limited and the international market are so astute, so conscious of what they want, their knowledge is sometimes beyond that of our therapists and they’re mismatching.
“If we are going to be an international spa country, we need to have international standards and that means communication, knowledge and skills, not just a beautiful hand touch which is certainly not enough,” asserted Russell.
Anantara Spas – MSPA international regional spa director UAE Lindsay Madden-Nadeau said she sat “on the same bench in that respect”.
“I think we all face similar challenges with hiring and the communication of the staff and it’s about bringing that education back to beyond basics and starting from scratch again,” said Madden-Nadeau.
Business and budgets
In a later session focused on spa management — entitled Speaking The Language of Spas and Business and moderated by Atlantis’ Neil Hewerdine — Hilton Worldwide’s Sharon Barcock said there was also an issue with training at senior levels.
With regard to hotel spas, one of the main problems is the battle between the spa manager and the finance manager or general manager, with a lack of understanding on both sides causing barriers to spa directors getting the support they need.
“There’s a huge divide in the level of knowledge; if you talk about a hotel operator you have the finance team, and spa people do speak a different language to the hotel,” said Barcock.
“One of the things I have noticed is that you have the finance team working along the same lines as the hotel when preparing spa budgets, then the spa manager comes in and looks at the detail and realises they do not have enough team members to achieve the budget that has been set. So there’s a lack of synergy and that comes down to hotel teams and spa people.”
She admitted salaries offered for spa managers and the skill levels of these people also caused issues.
“Sometimes because of low pay spa managers don’t have the experience we’d like them to have. There is a requirement that we provide suitable training for our teams so we can develop people,” said Barcock.
“Working in the hotel sector we should be focused on hotel guests, but we can’t rely on full hotel occupancy making a full spa and we need to look outside that. Everything is geared towards the bottom line, but very often spa managers come in and — especially if they’ve been a therapist— want to make it a nice environment but forget it’s a business, and owners want to see that ROI.
“Another question is, who is doing the reporting for the spa?” she continued. “We’re finding more and more that there’s no reporting on the statistics. The budget is done, P&L done, but it would be nice to see spa managers taking more accountability for end of month results, how they’ve done and how they can improve.
“It is very important to understand what percentage of hotel guests are coming into the spa and different ways of driving the business forward, i.e. what’s the average cheque, average revenue per minute,” said Barcock.
Michael Monsod, director of spa & recreation at Sofitel The Palm, Dubai, which is opening later this year, said the onus was on the spa manager to prove to their superiors that they know what they are talking about when it comes to the performance of their operation.
“It’s important for you to know what language the finance team is speaking and make them realise what you mean by statistics you have collected, and if they understand that you know more about the spa business, they’ll listen. The other thing is managing expectations, explaining capacity – number of therapists versus treatment rooms.
“You give a forecast for next month and they say ‘why is it low?’ and you say you’ve had resignation from a therapist. And they don’t always get it but we need to explain to the management team and the general manager [that spas cannot forecast by number of rooms alone],” Monsod continued.
“For each management team they have different priorities – not everyone has the same metrics. You have to do your homework and they have to know you know what you’re talking about — if they see a gap in your argument they jump in with numbers,” Monsod warned.
Retail key to revenue
The afternoon’s events kicked off with a panel of spa professionals analysing ‘the spa journey’, concluding that selling spa products is a crucial step of that journey in order to increase revenue.
The Product House founder and managing director Janette Gladstone-Watts, who moderated the panel, said: “Part of the spa journey is retail sales, taking the products home. This can extend the value and benefit of the treatment, and acts as a reminder for guests to come back to the spa”.
However, the panelists comprising Burj Al Arab director of spa and retail Gopal Kumar Dogra; Grosvenor House, Luxury collection, Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa complex director of spas Galina Antoniouk; Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas Zoe Wall and Esadore chief executive officer Ebrahim Malekzadeh said that therapists and clients needed more product education to sell.
“If I’m not aware of what the product is and how to use it, there’s no point [trying to sell it to the guest]. Also the product training tends to be lost after a few months so it’s important to refresh the knowledge for the therapists,” said Burj Al Arab’s Dogra.
Gladstone-Watts said spa therapists, who typically spend at least an hour one-on-one with with the client are well placed to pitch the products.
“But we have to take into consideration the therapists look of shock and horror when you say ‘retail’. I come from a background where it’s drummed into you to sell products. The key to therapists is making them understand it’s not a hard sell, it’s a recommendation,” commented Anantara’s Wall.
“So when you give a sales target, show the therapist how to break it down and how they can achieve it each and every day and how to track their revenue - what are the sales figures for the month? Show them how it can be done step by step, that makes it a lot easier for the therapist,” she added.
However, Dogra said that it’s important to recognise that “at the end of the day they’re not sales people, they’re therapists so we need to empower them”.
Antoniouk revealed that Starwood Hotels & Resorts had introduced a system that is designed to incentivise retail sales across the Dubai spas she oversees.
“One great tool I’ve found is when we have a certain retail target that is achieved, they [the therapists] receives a product as a gift which they can use themselves and experience the benefits. This is one of the best tools for increasing the sales,” Antoniouk explained.
“It’s not only educating the staff, it’s educating the client on how to use the products so they see the results. We need to teach the guest it’s not enough just to come for a facial, you have to use the products as well and when they believe this they come back and buy the products,” she added.
The Hotelier Middle East Spa & Wellness Forum attendees took the opportunity to discuss the various issues raised further, and tackled other challenges such as ‘developing winning spa concepts’, ‘mastering the business of spa’, ‘staff needs’ and ‘spa marketing’ in the afternoon’s series of interactive workshops.
Meet the sponsors
The Hotelier Middle East Spa & Wellness Forum was supported by:
Official Wellness sponsor Technogym:
Today, Technogym is a leading company in the global wellness and fitness field. Vision and a commitment to promoting wellness, a better lifestyle through regular physical activity, a healthy diet and a positive mental approach have been the ethos of Technogym for more than two decades.
The Product House:
Working in partnership with the most exclusive spa brands in the world, including Aromatherapy Associates, Kerstin Florian, Eve Lom and Anne Semonin, The Product House continues to build on its passion for wellness and creativity. The company has partnered with more than 50 leading spas and hotels in the region and continues to grow.
Merchant Star International:
The specialist F&B distributor is focused on bringing innovative, high-quality brands to the MENA region, including Berry White Organic Drinks and Julius Meinl Coffee — both of which kept attendees feeling refreshed at the spa forum. The Dubai-based firm has built a strong reputation for the quality of its products, service and expertise.
Diversey GULF FZE:
A global leader in food safety, security, facility hygiene and product production, Diversey creates value by enhancing the quality of life for consumers and providing a cleaner and healthier environment. Sealed Air, Diversey Gulf FZE water treatment specialist Ravi Chhachia showcased the firm’s new Divergard pool upkeep solutions at the event.
Are spa salaries enough?
Nadia Kokoshkova-Mansour, spa and health club manager, Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort & Residences
This amount of money we’re offering is quite challenging but it’s not impossible – yes, we need to educate them. If you don’t teach them they don’t learn or develop. The salary hasn’t gone down, but it’s all about incentive – what we offer on top of the salary.
Gopal Kumar, director of spa and retail, Assawan Spa & Health Club, Burj Al Arab
Everybody says that people don’t have qualifications but you’ve got to understand this region isn’t a cultural spa region. Asia is a cultural place because if you go to Thailand, Indonesia they do massage as part of their culture which is why they have nicer hands.
You can’t compare western therapists to Asian therapists because both have different specialities. The service culture and good technical skills is what you want. The Middle East is an expensive region to live in and people are here to support their families, so you can’t compare salaries to Asia – it has to be a little higher in the Middle East.
BASSEM EL JAWHARI recreation and spa manager Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort
The spa doesn’t get the attention that hotels give food and beverage and rooms departments, so that’s why the budget is always limited. As a result, spa salaries are low and this can make it difficult to find staff with the right skills, and to retain these staff.
luis molina spa and recreational manager Luis Molina, Rosewood Abu Dhabi at Sowwah Square
We’re working on a structure for salaries to be slightly higher than the rest of the hotels to make it more attractive, because we’re the new guys in Abu Dhabi we’ve got to offer something different.
We have some staff from Dubai and also international staff from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Russia. It was interesting when someone was saying you need Russian receptionists for the growing number of Russians coming to the spas as we’ve just recruited one.