In a time when jobs are scarce, you wouldn’t think finding experienced help would be an issue. However, when it comes to hiring a new spa director, it can be a lengthy and labor-intensive process to find the right candidate. According to a recent study released by the Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS), it is an issue that many spas may soon experience. In fact, it’s not only one of the industry’s greatest challenges but also one of its largest obstacles to continued growth. Developed by SRI International, the “Spa Management Workforce & Education: Addressing Market Gaps” report was commissioned by GSWS after 95 percent of its 2011 delegates reported a lack of training and education as being a primary issue affecting the industry and hiring qualified spa managers and directors as the greatest impediment to growing their businesses. The study reported that although there are 130,000 to 180,000 spa managers working in the industry globally, there are only 4,000 students currently enrolled in some type of spa management education or training program. “The report has really been an industry wake-up call, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Susie Ellis, chairman and CEO of the GSWS. According to her, the study has really been received as a call to action for individuals from the three groups outlined in the report—spa managers and directors, spa business and industry leaders, and spa management-related educational institutions and training providers—to join together to address the issue. One of the first to raise the red flag, Anna Bjurstam, managing director of Raison d’Etre (Stockholm, Sweden) and a board member for the GSWS, is spearheading an advisory committee of volunteers to tackle the issue, and it’s not a moment too soon.
“We’re certainly feeling the effects of the management shortage in the spa industry,” says Su Gibson, lecturer at the University of Houston and head of the Houston Spa Association. “It’s leading to long gaps in management between spa directors or managers, which in turn is leading to high turnover of spa managers who are frequently poached by spas desperate to fill their positions.” Gibson, who teaches spa management at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, is a former spa director herself and has witnessed the results of the shortage firsthand. “In my last spa operations position, for example, I was filling a spa director post that had been vacant for almost eight months,” she says. “I recently met another spa director at the ISPA conference who similarly had just landed a position that had been empty for four months. Without stable management, these spas cannot provide the type of consistent quality that clients want or produce the improvement that’s important not just for the individual spa but also for our industry to continue its growth.”
According to Ann Brown, spa director at Spa Shiki (Lake Ozark, MO), part of the problem can be attributed to economics. “As a hands-on practitioner, it is economically challenging to go from a highly paid commission to a lower hourly wage,” she says. “Many simply can’t afford to move into management, because they cannot afford to take a pay cut. I think our industry is struggling in this area. Several of the employment websites are advertising lots of spa managerial opportunities, and one must assume these positions are open because the packages aren’t attractive.” Of course, it’s not only management-level candidates that are in short supply. “While we may be looking at a shortage of qualified spa managerial candidates, we are also experiencing a dearth of qualified spa therapists,” says Anne Bramham, president of The Bramham Institute and founder of ASTECC. “Unless we make a decision to train up to our potential as an industry, we are going to have difficulty attracting and keeping quality personnel.”
Although the management issue is certainly being talked about, it’s old news to some, including Jeremy McCarthy, director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, who sees it more as a symptom of the nature of the industry. “The reality is that spas are incredibly complex businesses, and managers are asked to do a great deal,” he says. “They have to lead different types of employees, many of whose work happens behind closed doors where they can’t be supervised. They have to manage a front desk operation, extensive facilities, a retail business, a laundry department and inventory, and sometimes food and beverage offerings. And, of course, they are responsible for the economic performance of the spa and often have to do their own marketing and public relations.” According to him, it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to find candidates who can fulfill all that the position demands.
Fortunately, solutions are in the works. McCarthy, for example, recently joined the advisory committee spearheaded by Bjurstam to attempt to develop a way forward. “I think education is important, but it is only one part of the solution,” he says. “What spa managers need more than education is experience. So this means incorporating hands-on or applied learnings into the educational curriculum, giving opportunities for internships and mentoring, and establishing a clear career path that helps people build the required skill sets along the way.”
Not surprisingly, many popular spa brands are looking inward when it comes to preparing potential candidates. With 81 spas throughout the world and more planned every year, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is certainly vested in the issue. As a result, it successfully piloted an internal program called Four Seasons Spa Director Internship Program five years ago. Up to five successful candidates are chosen each year from Four Seasons Spas worldwide after undergoing an extensive interview process. With start dates that are staggered throughout the year, they each work at up to six different spas throughout the world, developing specific skills at each location. “Since its inception, there have been more than 15 graduates of the program who are working in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts worldwide in assistant director or director positions,” says Todd Hewitt, senior spa director at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto. “The program costs approximately $40,000 per candidate, and this is an investment that Four Seasons believes is well worth the price to develop and train its future spa leaders.” In addition, Four Seasons also recently began working with schools that have spa management programs, introducing Managers in Training (MIT) to various spas in the U.S.
Ananda in the Himalayas (Rishikesh, India) established the Ananda Spa Institute in 2009. With state-of-the-art facilities for training and certification on international and Ayurvedic spa therapies, the institute also offers comprehensive spa management programs, including a Diploma in Spa Operations. Recognizing the shortage of manpower in the industry at all levels, general manager Jaideep Anand sees another challenge in the fact that many spa managers grow internally from spa therapist positions. “Along the way, very few skills are picked up in the area of spa operations management or business development,” says Anand. “As a result, most spa managers lack the administrative and business skills needed to be effective.” He recommends formal education that blends both therapy skills along with administration and business techniques to give spa managers the tools they need.
Because finding the right talent can make or break a business, it’s imperative that growing brands confront the issue head-on. To maintain the momentum Eforea: Spa at Hilton has maintained since its launch in late 2010 and support its worldwide growth, the company introduced an educational partnership with the William Angliss Institute in Australia. “We worked closely with the William Angliss Institute to introduce a graduate certificate in management for spa operations where spa managers from across Southeast Asia undergo training with the school’s specialized staff,” says Tyra Lowman, senior director of global spa, full service and luxury brands, Hilton Worldwide. “Featuring a combination of online training and in-person workshops, the nine-month program arms our professionals with management skills that focus on innovation and strategy.”
According to Bjurstam, the key is providing industry leaders with the right skills to succeed in their jobs. “What I find most disturbing about a lot of the managerial training is the fundamental disconnect between ‘managing’ and the ‘spa experience’ itself,” says Bramham. “The best trained managers are those who have an understanding of the therapeutic efficacy of treatments and are attuned to the needs of their associates and guests.” Clearly, the lack of education is already impacting the industry and will continue to affect the quality of service delivered. “What’s mission critical is that we as an industry recognize that there is a need for a lot more training,” says Ellis.
The success of any spa is based on the people it employs. “The bottom line is that companies need to dedicate far more resources to education and training than they currently do,” says Ellis. “Too many spas spend millions on facilities, leaving very few resources left over for staff training. And spending less on facilities and more on staff training for management and therapists, in my opinion, is going to be the formula for business success in the future.”