Mind the Gap

Given the country’s record levels  of unemployment, it seems unlikely that there would be staff shortages of any kind, but according to a recent study conducted by SRI International, that’s just the issue facing the spa world. The report revealed a lack of qualified candidates to fill the ever-growing global demand for spa managers, a market gap that presents the industry with a fundamental obstacle. Though the recent rapid expansion of spa and massage is partly to blame, the response to the economic downturn can also be considered a factor, says Maggy Dunphy, director of spa and wellness for Destination Hotels & Resorts and The Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge (VT). “When the economy was on the decline, many spas downsized their management in order to reduce costs, eliminating spa manager or assistant spa director positions,” says Dunphy. “These positions were the future spa directors in training, so in essence, we eliminated our bench strength.”

Lori Hutchinson, founder of global recruiting firm Hutchinson Consulting, says her peers are well aware of staffing complications. “As spas become more complex, general managers want more business-oriented people with the education and technical experience to manage a large, multifaceted spa environment,” says Hutchinson. Companies such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts look for candidates with an array of skills who “know how to lead a team; deliver excellent customer service; understand the financial operations of the business; know how to use marketing, public relations, and social media to create buzz; understand their software systems; drive the retail side of the business; and understand the holistic nature of spa wellbeing,” says Jeremy McCarthy, director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. 

That combination is proving difficult to find, thanks to a dearth of spa-specific college-level courses and training programs. According to the SRI report, there are 4,000-some students currently enrolled in just 64 spa-management-related degree programs worldwide, while an estimated 130,000 to 180,000 global spa managers and directors work in spa businesses—a figure that will only increase as the industry grows.


Promoting a Career in Management

The study also found that many companies fail to invest in the education and training necessary to prepare their staff for promotion. To address these deficiencies, the Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS) formed a spa-management education committee, co-chaired by Hutchinson and McCarthy, that surveyed 548 managers about their professional paths. The results revealed several strong selling points for a career in spa, chief among them the potential for growth and the contentment of people in the industry. The majority of respondents said their career growth had been vast; 80 percent would recommend a career in spa management to their best friend, and 86 percent reported satisfaction in their current position. “Those are huge statistics that highlight people’s happiness with their jobs,” says Hutchinson. When wooing candidates, spa owners should also emphasize factors such as spa as a growth industry, the variety of positions and responsibilities available, and the mobility of a spa career, especially for an experienced candidate, says CG Funk, vice president of industry relations for Massage Envy (multiple locations) and co-chair of the GSWS spa management education committee.

In order to foster those potential careers, it is crucial to create a network of local and regional spa associations, says Hutchinson. Form partnerships with local high schools, colleges (areas of study that lack a defined career track are a good place to start), and massage- and esthetician-training programs to offer internships and recruit promising graduates, and host job fairs and open houses to increase community interest. “The first step is education—educating people about the careers themselves through a cohesive marketing and PR campaign,” says Funk, who proposes that spas use their marketing dollars to create and place ads that give the full scope of spa careers, looking outside of the obvious advertising venues to penetrate other markets.


Hiring from Within

Though it can be necessary to hire from other fields when the open position requires innovation, Funk stresses that the best person to manage a spa is often someone from the spa world. “Massage therapists, skincare therapists, and nail technicians love their work and deeply believe that it makes a difference in peoples’ lives, so they need a manager who also believes this to be true,” she says. “Taking managers from other industries requires additional training, because those are the folks who drive the business at the end of the day.” As such, many spas have found that it’s best to look internally to develop quality candidates who understand the technical skills necessary to manage a spa team. “Our clients, when they ask us to find them a manager or director, lean heavily toward people who have a massage or esthetician background,” says Hutchinson. Starwood, for example, promotes from within whenever possible. The company has a talent-review process, as well as a database to which any spa manager can post a career profile, long-term goals, and desired next step. “This database serves as a tool that our regional and global teams can draw on to find suitable internal candidates,” says McCarthy.


Mentoring for Success

Destination Hotels & Resorts also prefers to promote internally, says Dunphy, who began her career there as a massage therapist. “I believe in working through the various levels of a spa organization to learn and truly understand the spa business,” says Dunphy. “Of our 17 current spa directors and managers, nine were promoted from within—either from the spa environment or another discipline within the hotel.” She cites the company’s hands-on MIT (Manager in Training) program as a factor in this success, as well as its reliance on mentoring for the growth and development of future spa professionals. “The day-to-day experience one gets in the spa is priceless,” says Dunphy.

     Mentoring can also help circumvent the industry’s educational shortcomings, and it offers a vast array of additional benefits, says Beth Carvin, president and CEO of Nobscot Corporation, a human-resources technology company that specializes in employee retention and development. For program participants, that means sharpened skills, increased confidence, networking opportunities, and an expanded understanding of and increased commitment to the organization. Companies that implement a mentoring program see better qualified workers, more engaged employees, reduced staff turnover, and decreased absenteeism. “With close to 350,000 employees working in the spa industry, there is a wonderful opportunity for more experienced workers to mentor those who are new to the field,” says Carvin. “Programs with mentors and mentees working in a one-to-one relationship have proven to be one of the most effective methods for training and development and employee retention.”

Mentoring and continuing education programs are a win for spa owners and employees alike. “People in the spa world want to have a mentor to work with, they want to have some educational opportunities, and they want to be able to attend spa-related conferences, where they can learn more outside of their jobs versus just learning while they go along,” says Hutchinson. Ultimately, though, people are the most important asset to any company. It’s back to basics, she says: “Providing better benefits, better pay, and enticing perks will attract the very best people.”—Maya Stanton