Filling the Void

Most spa-goers know that not all treatments are created equally. In fact, oftentimes it can be difficult to get a similar experience from the exact same treatment. Much of the inconsistency found in spas today stems from a lack of education and training. If the expression, "good help is hard to find," is an all too familiar lament, you're not alone. It's that challenge that is spurring many hotel companies with branded spas to create their own training academies and programs.

 Guests residing in the Spa Pool Villa at the Banyan Tree Phuket (Thailand) benefit from the on-site Spa Academy and its rigorously trained therapists.
Guests residing in the Spa Pool Villa at the Banyan Tree Phuket (Thailand) benefit from the on-site Spa Academy and its rigorously trained therapists.

Although product education and training were once considered the domain of product manufacturers, it should come as no surprise that spas are taking a more active role in educating their staff members. It makes perfect sense when you consider all the necessary skills a well-rounded employee needs to have for a spa to survive in this competitive market. There's also the fact that most spas offer multiple product lines, some of which are created by the spas themselves.

The Banyan Tree Spa Academy ensures that each therapist has mastered all of the necessary skills and techniques.
The Banyan Tree Spa Academy ensures that each therapist has mastered all of the necessary skills and techniques.

According to Ravi Chandran, managing director of spa operations at Banyan Tree, it's not enough to rely on product manufacturers for your staff's educational needs, particularly when there are so many other factors that need to be addressed through proper training. "To maintain our competitive edge, we place special emphasis on the spa's service concept, consistency, and the quality of services provided by our therapists," says Chandran. "This was the driving force behind our decision to launch Banyan Tree Spa Academy in 2001."

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (AZ) is the setting for many of the company's spa training programs.
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (AZ) is the setting for many of the company's spa training programs.


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Located in Phuket, Thailand, the academy was created five years after Banyan Tree Spa Phuket was introduced. The primary objective in creating the academy was to train competent therapists to meet Banyan Tree's rapid worldwide expansion and to ensure that the experience spa-goers received was consistent with the quality service and consistency for which the brand is known. "The Banyan Tree Spa Academy is also responsible for spotting international trends, training professional spa therapists, and carrying out research and development for new treatments, recipes, techniques, and products," says Chandran. "The launch of the academy enables Banyan Tree Spa to formalize this unique school of thought and maintain its leadership position in the spa industry."

Hands-on sessions help therapists advance to the next level.
Hands-on sessions help therapists advance to the next level.

Accredited by Thailand's Ministry of Education in 2002, the academy provides education on standard greeting procedures, human anatomy, pressure points, modern and traditional massage techniques, skincare, properties of various herbs and spices, treatment room setup, and more. It also offers therapists an opportunity to learn authentic Thai spa values and skills. "Tasked with ensuring a high level of standards and consistency, our spa therapists undergo more than 300 hours of rigorous theoretical and practical training," says Chandran.

Guests at Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali can also participate in Spa Academy sessions, as did spa consultant Sylvia Sepielli
Guests at Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali can also participate in Spa Academy sessions, as did spa consultant Sylvia Sepielli

In addition to training, the academy also helps identify exceptionally talented therapists. Those who show promise are put on the Therapist Fast Track Programme, which prepares them to move up the ranks to senior therapist and Banyan Tree's Management Trainee Programme, which prepares potential leaders to take on a management role within two years. "Continuous training is essential so that our therapists are well equipped to deliver the high standards of the Banyan Tree Spa experience that our guests expect," says Chandran. To that end, the company introduced a new Spa Academy in 2007 in Bangkok.

With 74 spas worldwide and more on the way, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts employs a substantial number of spa employees. Helping to meet the Four Seasons's current and future spa management needs, the company recently began offering a competitive Spa Management Career Development Program. Each year, a maximum of four candidates are chosen to receive formal on-the-job training at several Four Seasons properties in Asia over the course of a year. The program addresses company knowledge and philosophy, spa theory, management development, departmental and functional knowledge, technical knowledge, and technical application. Candidates are tested on the latter two. Upon completion of the program, candidates should be prepared to step into the role of assistant spa director or even spa director.

To qualify for the program, interested applicants must complete an application form, which is available in all Four Seasons Hotels, and submit a résumé along with a 400-word essay explaining why they should be considered for the program. Each application must be approved by the hotel from which it is sent before being evaluated by corporate human resources; Luisa Anderson, a senior spa director in Asia Pacific; and John O'Sullivan, general manager of the Four Seasons Resorts Bali. Already, four candidates from hotels in Costa Rica, Italy, and the U.S. have completed the program. "With the incredible growth of spas within the Four Seasons brand and the industry, we feel it is necessary to stay ahead of the trends and always be producing spa leaders," says O'Sullivan. "Additionally, Four Seasons has always been about people, and our employees are given the chance for advancement from within."

Spa education also plays a major role at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. The company's Willow Stream Spas offer four programs, each of which is designed to benefit different positions within the spa. Newly hired spa directors and assistant spa directors ready to move to the next level learn the ropes at Spa Director School, which is held at the flagship Willow Stream Spa-The Spa at Fairmont Scottsdale (AZ). According to Kenneth Ryan, executive director spas, the Americas, the program was introduced to bring new spa directors up to speed on the ways in which the Willow Stream Spas operate. "We felt when hiring new spa directors that even though they may have worked at other spas, that didn't necessarily mean they had the experience needed to run our operations," says Ryan. The program, which lasts one to two weeks, offers instruction on human resources, reservations, retail, back-of-house operations, revenue management, and more. It's held on an as-needed basis several times throughout the year.

To help fill the need for qualified management candidates, the company has also partnered with Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) to offer the Spa Management Training Program. Essentially, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts recruits graduates from Cornell's Spa Management Program and places them in a Willow Stream Spa for 12 to 16 months of training. They are mentored by the attending spa director and rotate through the spa's various management positions. At the conclusion of the program, they're offered a spa management position within the company. "We've been working with Cornell but expect to expand the program to include other institutions," says Ryan.

Because management doesn't make a successful spa all on its own, Fairmont also recently introduced a curriculum for its front desk staff and spa attendants. Going beyond a standard operating manual, the training addresses guest expectations, greetings, flow, reservations, and proper accounting practices. An on-site training champion is available at each spa to train new employees. "The idea behind the program is to create consistency at all of our spas," says Ryan. Therapists also benefit from a program of their own. Both full- and part-time therapists are automatically enrolled in the Energy Master Program, which awards credits for in-house courses, treatment audits, monthly quizzes, homecare sales, and more. To become an energy master, therapists must earn 250 credits, which takes approximately two years. According to Ryan, the program was introduced to help attain a best-in-class designation for both Willow Stream therapists and treatments.

Recently, YTL Hotels introduced the Spa Village Academy as a means to give both aspiring and professional therapists an opportunity to learn the traditional techniques used in Spa Village treatments. "We created Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali as one of our training centers to meet the exponential growth and development of Spa Village," says Melissa Mohan, marketing communications manager for YTL Hotels and Properties. With five Spa Villages in Malaysia, one in Bali, and another soon to open in Dubai, the brand is growing.

"Our vision was always to have our own source or pool of talent to service our guests," says Mohan. "Spa Academy was the obvious answer, as it helps us train and place therapists at all our Spa Villages. As we craft and develop treatments unique to the location, we are able to maintain the quality of the treatments trained and also able to monitor them in a timely manner."

What sets the Spa Village Academy apart from other spa academies is the fact that guests are also encouraged to take part in the lessons. "We wanted to share with our guests some of the traditional healing methods that we practice," says Mohan. "There is nothing like going for a holiday and taking a skill home to share with loved ones. It is very meaningful for us to know that the Spa Village philosophy is shared and treasured long after our guests have departed the resort."

A positive development for the industry, these programs allow spas to essentially create the type of employees they want. And at the heart of it, people are, without a doubt, the most valued resource in spas today. "Is it not time that we acknowledge our blatant responsibility that people are our most important asset?" asks O'Sullivan. "Unless we acquire, retain, invest, and grow with our best people, we simply are not maximizing our long-term ability to survive let alone achieve sustainable profit potential."

This focus on education is a win-win for everyone. Not only do hotel companies with branded spas profit, but employees also benefit with more marketable skills. And there is no question that spa-goers reap the ultimate rewards with better and more consistent service, treatments, and an overall experience. Says O'Sullivan, "In our industry, the ones who will survive and thrive are those who realize that the 'people factor' is the pivotal tipping point to our survival and ultimate growth." —Heather Mikesell

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