Tell me about your career history
I studied corporate finance at the Université Paris Dauphine in France. I then went to the University of New York to complete my MBA as part of an exchange programme. After graduating, I worked for Time Warner for 10 years as a marketing executive, before moving to France in 1999 to take up the position of general managers of several divisions of music software provider MakeMusic. In 2004, I left to start working on the YeloSpa concept.
How was the idea for YeloSpa born?
The idea was born because I was persuaded by a customer – myself! When I worked for MakeMusic, I travelled a lot. When you’re under pressure and you’re away from home, you want to find a space where you can recharge your batteries quickly. A spa seems like the most natural option, but in reality I found the whole spa process in the US and Europe very frustrating. You often have to book treatments a long time in advance, the quality can be hit and miss, it’s very expensive and – as a man – I often felt out of place in an environment that felt quite female-orientated.
I travelled a lot to Asia and I noticed that a many the issues I was having were really well mitigated there – the access to spas was much easier, the prices were more reasonable and the consistency of service was good.
An idea popped into my head: why can’t we create a brand in the US that would address the resistance people have to spas? Seventy five per cent of US consumers don’t go to spas. Why not? The four main objections people have to going to spas are that it’s too expensive, people aren’t sure how effective the treatments are, spas can be intimidating and men often feel as though it’s a ‘woman thing’.
How did you come up with the concept?
We started by creating a place where the offer and the booking process were very easy. We eliminated the traditional spa menu, which can be very confusing and overwhelming, and replaced it with three categories – massage, skincare and sleep. When customers book, they just choose from those three categories, which makes it very easy to understand.
To combat the worries people have about the expense of visiting a spa, we decided to establish a price per minute. This lets people decide how much time they want to give themselves and allows them to control their budget. We charge a straight price per minute – $2.4 per minute for a massage, $2.5 for skincare and $1 for sleep. People can then decide they want 30 minutes of massage and 20 minutes of nap, for example. It’s super easy, and takes less than a minute to book online.
Spas can be quite inflexible – people might book a Balinese ritual a week before the treatment, but when it gets to the day they realise they actually need a deep tissue massage because they’ve been running and have muscle ache, but it’s too late to change. At YeloSpa, all of our massage therapists are trained in all disciplines. Customers book 30 minutes of massage and 20 minutes of nap, for example. When they come in they’ll sit down with a therapist who will ask how they are and what issues they want to address, and will advise on the best type of massage on the day.
Where did you get the idea to offer naps?
I grew up in Tunisia in the 1970s, when we didn’t have air conditioning, so people had to take naps because it was impossible to focus during the hottest part of the day. I saw my father come back from the office and take a nap, and we did the same from school. It was something that was really integrated into our lifestyles.
I continued to nap when I was working for Time Warner in New York. I escaped the office at lunchtime, went home, ate a sandwich and had a 20 minute nap. I really saw the difference in my productivity as a result of taking a nap compared to other people who didn’t. Between 3pm and 5pm the people around me were falling apart, while I was alive and enjoying the meetings I was in. I was fortunate that I lived very close to the office, but I thought, what about the people who have to commute or who live further away? There’s no place for people to take refuge.
It made me think there must be something in our natural circadian cycle that encourages us to nap, and when I started reading the literature I realised that really was the case. Scientific studies show that taking a nap three times a week for 20 minutes can reduce your rate of heart attack by 37 per cent. It also helps with learning and creativity. If you feel stuck and are trying to work on a problem, taking a nap is extremely efficient – you will start making mental connections during that time.
If people book in for a nap at YeloSpa, what happens?
We designed a special pod called the YeloCab, which simulates being in the womb and features chromotherapy, aromatherapy and music and sound that customers choose. Our YeloChairs elevate the legs above the heart to slow down the heart rate and decrease body temperature. This produces a relaxation response, and encourages sleep.
Customers choose how long they would like to nap for (between 20 and 40 minutes), and at the end of the nap we wake them up with a simulated sunrise. The light decreases the level of melatonin in their brain through the effect on the optical nerve and they wake up very slowly and gently.
At Yelo we offer naps for two reasons – the first is for mental and physical health. The second reason was from a spa experience standpoint. The worst time in a treatment is when the therapist comes to you at the end, gives you a glass of water, and says ‘I’ll be waiting outside, take your time’. You’re on cloud nine and suddenly you have to come back to reality. We offer the option to take a nap at the end of treatments, which really completes the whole cycle in a very nice way.
How did you get YeloSpa off the ground?
My first instinct was to go back to my alma mater, Time Warner, set out my vision and ask them if they thought their employees would benefit from it. They were very enthusiastic and told me, ‘if you build it, we’ll send our employees there’. Based on that I created a business plan, then spoke to investors and started raising money. At that point, we really started working properly on the business – we found a very talented designer, Stefan Boublil, and we also worked with someone with a Phd from Harvard to help us design our nap programme.
We opened the first YeloSpa in 2007 in midtown Manhattan, New York.
The vision has changed since the early days. The original idea was to keep the concept very simple and just offer naps and reflexology, which I thought would be cool because it would be very efficient. The problem was that a lot of people weren’t familiar with reflexology and were a bit skittish about taking naps. For the first six months we had a tremendous amount of press, but not a lot of traffic. We started offering regular spa treatments such as massage and skincare, and that’s when the business really took off.
How is business now?
It’s really good. The location in New York, which is on 57th Street between 5th and Madison Avenue, is fantastic, and gets a lot of customers. Our customers are different during the week and on the weekend – during the week it’s a lot of Type A guys taking naps and having reflexology, whereas on the weekend there are more women, and our customers want to take more time and really be pampered. The majority – about 65 per cent – of our customers are active women in their thirties. Right now naps represent eight per cent of our revenue and around 15 per cent of the treatments we do. The figure is quite low because the rest of our treatments have grown so quickly, while naps have stayed stable.
How did the business evolve?
Last year we opened our second facility, which is a franchise, in Sao Paulo in Brazil. It’s a 3,000sq ft facility with 10 treatment rooms in a two storey house in a beautiful location – it’s very Yelo in terms of design but also very cozy and adapted to the Brazilian market.
In May this year, we opened our third facility – another franchise – in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a large 5,000sq ft facility with nine treatment rooms, a couples’ room and thermal facilities including a salt-water flotarium, a steamroom and a rainfall hallway. Together with the franchisee, we‘ve created a new treatment called Waterology, which is very exciting. The therapists perform reflexology on your feet while you’re floating in a warm pool of salt water – it’s a bit like having reflexology in your mother’s womb. We also launched a blow dry brand, YeloDry Blo, which has been doing very well. It’s a really fun and unique place.
Each one has a different local feel, but because our brand is so strong, you immediately recognise them as being Yelo spas.
We’re working on a licensing agreement for a YeloSpa in London. It’s not signed yet, but it could be exciting.
Our next big push is to expand our franchising in the US. We’re looking at Florida, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston, Texas. We’re currently going through the legal requirements to become a franchisor in the States. In the long term, we’d like to have around 100 – 150 locations in the US.
We’re also looking at product development. We’d like to develop a range of products under the Yelo brand – aromatherapy products, apps and homeware – different pillows and mattresses and sheets made with sustainable materials. There’s going to be a big focus on sleep and wellbeing.
We’re also going to open another YeloSpa in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris some time in 2016.
You’ve just starting offering memberships. How does that work?
We started offering memberships in April and it’s been way more successful than we thought it would be. We thought we’d be selling 300 memberships a year for our New York facility – instead we sold 100 memberships in just one month.
We’re making it very easy for people to leave because that makes it easy for them to join. Our philosophy is that people will stay because they love the service we offer, not because we put in impediments for them to leave. Our membership is $99 a month; for that you get a 60 minute treatment of either skincare or a massage, 20 per cent off an additional treatment during the same month and a 10 per cent discount on products. You can cancel your membership at any time, you can roll over your treatments indefinitely and you can gift them to a friend or family member if you’re not able to use them.
We also launched two membership offers in May – a nap membership for $29 a month and a waxing membership for $39 a month.
What’s been the most challenging thing about launching YeloSpa?
Getting people to understand what we were was a challenge at the start. We didn’t call ourselves a spa, because we didn’t offer the full range of treatments, so people didn’t understand what we did. Once we started calling ourselves YeloSpa people began to understand the business a lot better.
And the highlight?
The highlight has been getting customer feedback and realising that some of our customers understand my concept better than I do. Also our licensees really get it. In Puerto Rico, our licensees have pushed the concept even further, for example with the development of the waterology and the blow dry treatments. When people see and expand on your original vision that’s very rewarding.
How would you describe yourself? And how would others describe you?
I’d describe myself as pretty driven. Some people describe me as a bull in a china shop because I say exactly what’s on my mind – I’m not the most diplomatic person. At the same time, my vision is very pure. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in my personal life and I’ve taken a lot of financial risks – with both mine and other people’s money. You don’t do that unless you have a real passion for what you’re doing and a real sense of purpose.
What is the philosophy of YeloSpa?
My realisation when I worked in the corporate world is that we really live insane lives and it’s taking a huge toll on us that we don’t fully realise until we have our first heart attack or get burned out or get some nasty disease. I want to introduce a measure of sanity into people’s lives.
Another thing that really disturbs me – particularly in the US – is how addicted people are to substances. They’re addicted to prescription medication, anti depressants, sleeping pills, medication for ADHD. It’s a really scary trend and it affects younger people as well. Certain doctors, the medical establishments and the big pharma companies are all complicit because they spend billions of dollars developing new medications and protecting patents. It’s a huge industry.
At YeloSpa we are trying to wean people off much of this medication; we’ve removed a lot of sleeping medication from people’s lives, for example, because they know they have a place to nap.
What are the biggest challenges for the spa industry?
One of the big challenges for the industry is demonstrating that it has a purpose above and beyond just pampering rich ladies – that’s still a common perception among many people who don’t go to spas.
Where is your favourite place on earth?
Bahia in Brazil. It’s a place where nature is very powerful and I find it very healing. Every time I need some sanity I escape there.
What is your favourite book?
One of my favourite books of all time is a French book called Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen. It’s about human nature and where the excess of human nature can really lead you. It’s an absolutely beautiful book.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Everything in moderation, especially moderation.