Finding Qualified Spa Directors Becomes Increasingly Difficult

Evolving Qualification Standards for the Spa Industry  (9/29/2000)

By Sara Eavenson

This article first appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Pulse.

As we move into an age where "spa-ing" has become as commonplace as it once was during the reign of the ancient Romans, spa facilities and their operators are being faced with the challenge of providing superior service for an increasingly knowledgeable and demanding spa consumer. While just a decade ago, American spa ideology was understood to be the ultimate in luxury and pampering, today perception has shifted. We now understand that luxury is a given at any spa, but that "spa-ing," according to Deborah Evans, spa consultant and GM of Red Mountain Resort & Spa, is a "component of long term, healthy living." "Consumers are now turning to the spa for Information about health, wellness and self- or at-home care, in order to maintain a balanced lifestyle," adds Anne Bramham, Director of the Bramham Institute.

This market niche is a position that ISPA, spa managers and owners have worked hard to create through their public relations efforts. However, as we continue to feel the accelerated growth and popularity of our industry, and all it promises the consumer, industry employers looking for staff are now experiencing the problems associated with inconsistent (or, rather, barely existent) standards of spa education, and a subsequent shrinking gap of knowledge between the average spa consumer and the average spa manager or therapist. Put simply, the spa Industry does not have recognized education modules for any specific area of spa operations in place. We are an industry that has developed out of demand and we have managed to maintain by literally borrowing from existing disciplines such as massage therapy and salon or hotel management, in order to staff and grow spa systems and ideology into what they are today.

By talking with a small cross section of spa management, consultants and educators, I find surprisingly similar views and frustrations with the spa educational system. The acquisition of a qualified spa director is so much in demand that we find positions are often being filled through internal promotions from front desk, massage therapy, esthetics or salon departments, as well as other internal hotel or retail positions. One management hiring philosophy takes the position that perhaps a candidate with minimal experience in overall spa operations is better than a candidate with a basic business background and no spa experience at all. Kristin Chou, spa consultant, comments that "The biggest educational hole in the industry is the spa director." She emphasizes "the importance of a business background in a spa manager, but" she says, "equally as essential is that they are -what I call 'spa savvy.' That is, do they reflect an interest in spa philosophies and wellness in their personal lifestyle?" Continues Chou, "If they show that interest, the rest can be learned."

Deborah Evans agrees that a spa manager must have some business background, mixed with strong interpersonal skills and good analysis and judgement skills. However, she adds that "a lot of that does come from experience, so to have been in a spa environment, gaining that general spa knowledge before stepping into a management position can be extremely helpful."

Perhaps there is a happy medium within the current system. Remarks Diane Trieste, spa consultant and trainer, "the ultimate manager is licensed in the profession that they are managing and has a background in business management." This does seem to be occurring. And Chou maintains that once she has hired a manager with "spa savvy," she can then rely on a strong support team of professionals—from therapists to front desk to retail staff—to lead the new manager to an understanding of what it means to successfully direct a spa. "Team" being the key word.

Although we have some success stories where innovative managers and consultants are tying the pieces together, the truth of the matter is that the current system just isn't working for the industry as a whole. Says Anne Bramham, "I get at least two or three calls a month from a wide range of industry consultants and spa owners who are looking to place an experienced spa director." We are still scrambling for spa leaders who are competent In business and retail, well-versed in spa philosophy and expected treatment outcomes, and who have an understanding of all the spa components or departments they are managing or working integrally with, particularly as the spa consumer becomes more and more educated.

These qualities are essential not only to make sure individual spas run smoothly, but also to keep our industry running smoothly. Continues Bramham, "although spa managers are not performing the actual hands-on treatments or leading our meditation workshops, they are responsible for creating an image for their guests and the general public." Informed decisions such as menu design and implementation, which trainers to bring in and why, which product to bring in and why, and which therapists to hire and why are all part of an industry-wide moral and ethical management responsibility code that has remained unwritten.

Moving into the heart of what drives the spa industry— spa treatments—we discover again that there is another educational mishap occurring in training therapists. Reflecting on Kristin Chou's management suggestion, hiring an inexperienced director width a basic business background and "spa savvy," we should note that what facilitates her solution is the supporting individual spa field experts who work as a team In order to integrate spa systems for optimal functioning. But as Diane Trieste comments, finding a knowledgeable spa therapist to meet expert requirements, even in the base field of massage, is unfortunately "way too random" in the spa industry. In fact she says, "it's hit or miss." For expert support staff, as is the situation with management education, the spa industry is again "relying on fragmented pre-existing education models that have been designed without our industry in mind. Standardization and regulation only exists in subordinate—but admittedly crucial—professions that cross over into the spa industry: massage therapy and esthetics" says Anne Bramham.

The existing standards we do have are through general state regulations, which are inconsistent from state to state. For massage therapists, there is National Certification (NCBTMB), an optional test which requires completion of a minimum of 500 hours at a massage school and a passing score on their written test. According to Diane Trieste, who Is also a board member for the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA), these standards do not necessarily benefit the industry, as written examination procedures do not police massage school curricula or "measure competencies of massage schools" and the practical massage ability of graduating students, but rather "measure competencies of knowledge."

Essentially, this means that neither industry employers nor the general public have many (if any) guidelines by which to measure the hands-on competency of a massage therapist or esthetician. Interestingly enough, COMTA has recently received permission from ISPA to write a letter to all ISPA membership to begin a survey on the expectations of spa employers looking to hire massage therapists. The survey results will allow the commission to account for spa industry needs in re-structuring its national accreditation requirements.

But In addition to taking steps towards stabilizing some of the basic areas of spa education, such as massage, Anne Bramham remarks, "advanced or post-graduate spa therapy education, where therapists are required by our industry or any regulatory agency to have a strong theoretical and manual background so that they are thoroughly familiar with the indications, contra-indications, applications and effects of spa services, other than basic massage, are still non-existent." Although our industry is building media campaigns on the positive effects of spa services, there is neither an organized educational standard nor any structured research instilled to back us up. Adds Deborah Evans, "If we do not regulate our industry with some documentation as to the efficacies of our treatments, we do stand to lose some ground in the future."

"The reality" of the spa therapist education system in many cases, observes Kristin Chou, "is that product vendors are doing the training. It is not advanced training. It is the easiest way." With product and equipment vendors supplying in many cases "complementary" training with the purchase of their wares, management has been able to train a previously uninformed staff on the procedures of various treatments. In general, what product vendors teach are basic product or equipment knowledge, broad and general effects of their specific treatments and a structured sequence application of the treatment. Adds Diane Trieste, "Oftentimes product vendors aren't qualified Massage Therapists or Estheticians. If they are, it's a bonus!" So, in many cases, our spa therapists are receiving advanced training from someone who has little to no experience with the physiological effects and contra-indications for a treatment as dangerous as, for example, hydrotherapy could be if used in the wrong context.