Passage to India

This month, two decidedly different spas create a splash under the California sun. In San Francisco, an Indian-themed retreat makes its Ayurvedic debut, while a Palm Springs classic gets a retro renovation. Pictured, the hand and foot treatment area at Kamalaspa.

The Real Estate Boom Has Fueled Much Of The Economic Growth In The United States in the last five years. For those who have found new wealth in property, the boom has created business opportunities that otherwise may not have been possible. For Chris and Amber Marie Bently, co-owners of Kamalaspa in San Francisco, a strategy of buying retail and office property in the Bay Area has been particularly lucrative. Real estate has always been their passion, but it has also been matched by their love of spas and travel. "We're spa junkies," says Amber Marie. "We've traveled the world looking for great spas and great architecture and enjoy that very much."

In early 2004, the couple decided to open their own spa when space in one of their commercial properties became vacant. The Bentlys had no experience in running a spa, but they understood something about the retail side of business from being commercial property owners. They also understood that San Francisco has a lot of spas and that, in a crowded market, success would hinge on finding a new concept to set the business apart from other spas.

"We tried to think of something different that hadn't been seen in San Francisco," says Amber Marie. "We'd seen Japanese spas, Spanish spas, Thai spas, and all sorts of other themed spas. But we had never seen something truly exotic." After researching the local market, the Bentlys noticed that there were no Indian-themed spas in San Francisco. "Indian spas are all about pomp and circumstance and luxury and paying attention to the body," notes Amber Marie. "We thought those things went hand in hand because people want to feel luxurious when they are being pampered. We decided to visit India and spent a month familiarizing ourselves with the treatments. We fell in love with the country and brought back what we learned."

Their approach from the start was to focus on creating a spa experience that was based on Indian Ayurvedic principles of balance and healing, emphasizing the exotic. From their years of travel and spa visits, and their success in real estate, the couple decided early on to rely on their own instincts and preferences instead of depending too much on consultants. Amber Marie developed the concept of a maharaja's tent, for example, where the spa is draped in long, flowing fabrics. Architects who tried to steer them away from the idea were promptly dismissed.

Unlike many newcomers to the spa business, the Bentlys didn't use a spa consultant to teach them about operations. "We used a retail-based foot-traffic analysis to run our financial projections," says Chris. "But we knew nothing about operations. We developed the business from a consumer's perspective, and we think it of it as an advantage because we put everything into it that we would want to see as clients." One criticism they had about many of the spas they'd been to was a lack of consistency in the quality of service. Sometimes a spa offers great treatments but lacks in receptionist etiquette, or vice versa. "Spas are rarely good at offering everything," says Amber Marie.

Kamalaspa focuses on its customers—mostly women in their 40s—giving them the VIP treatment from the moment they step into the spa until they walk out the door. The Bentlys have a rigorous six-day training program for staff, which is followed by monthly and quarterly seminars. Even certified massage therapists have to pass a three-phase interview process before being hired, including a demonstration of their massage skills. To relax them and imbue the spa with a sense of Indian luxury, guests are offered complimentary champagne when they arrive. They wait in the Tea Room, fitted with antique Indian furniture, Persian rugs, and a saltwater aquarium, or in the Razi Room, designed to feel like a sanctuary with a star-painted ceiling and recordings of the sound of chirping crickets.

Inside the six treatment rooms, guests receive a wide selection of Indian treatments that are sometimes difficult to find outside of Delhi or Bombay. Amber Marie says that while other spas in the city may offer a sampling of Ayurvedic treatments, Kamalaspa is one of the only ones to focus exclusively on the Ayurvedic approach. One of the spa's most popular treatments is the Abhyanga Four Hands treatment ($295, 120 minutes), an invigorating massage that is applied by two practitioners simultaneously with the intent of releasing toxins from the body. Another treatment preferred by customers is the Shirodhara ($270, 120 minutes), which involves dripping warm almond oil directly over the third-eye chakra, followed by a massage and a steam shower. "The oil dripping from side to side induces a really relaxed, meditative state," says Amber Marie.

The 3,500-square-foot Kamalaspa is located on the seventh floor of a building in San Francisco's Union Square. As the building's owners, the Bently's knew it had impressive foot traffic. (The day after Thanksgiving, 3,000 people passed by the front door in one hour.) But they also realized being on a high floor was a drawback. To compensate, they hung banners and installed sidewalk signage, which "increased traffic flow tremendously," says Chris. Overall, the Bentlys invested $2 million on the spa build-out. After one year, the business is chalking up $50,000 a month in revenue. Unfortunately, expenses from operations are $100,000 a month. So far, the couple has made up the deficit with their own funds. "We don't have illusions that we're going make a profit in the second year," says Amber Marie. "Of course, in the third year we hope to break even, and by year four we hope to be able to take out dividends."

What does this ambitious couple have planned beyond that? "We're passionately driven both by real estate and by the spa to look at properties from a viewpoint of something we love, but we're very interested in remaining hands-on owners," says Amber Marie. So any expansion, she notes, will be confined to California. "If we went national or international, we would lose sight of the reason we're doing it."