Since 1993, ESPA has grown from a small UK-based concern into an undisputed leader in the global spa industry, its brand synonymous with cutting edge design, peerless spa management and the highest quality natural products. With more than 450 spas across almost 60 countries, and top-drawer clients ranging from Peninsula Hotels and Mandarin Oriental to Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, the modest products and consultancy business founded by Sue Harmsworth 21 years ago has certainly come of age.
But while ESPA is arguably at the top of its game, it has by no means finished playing. Over the past couple of years, not only has the company reshaped its business model to offer a flexible, solutions-based portfolio – introducing product only partnerships and tailored support for existing businesses alongside design, development and management services – but it has continued to pioneer groundbreaking products, treatments and spa concepts.
Here, Harmsworth talks about the company’s flexible approach, the importance of cultural sensitivity and how, with the right guidance, spas can deliver both an unparalleled guest experience and a strong commercial return.
Over the last few years, ESPA’s business model has become increasingly flexible. Why is this?
When the economic crisis hit in 2008, a huge number of projects were put on hold across the spa industry, and this presented us with the opportunity to work with our spa partners and analyse every detail of their service offering in order to establish clear objectives on which to measure success. It could be that a spa is amazingly well designed, but not being marketed properly, or there are issues with the finances. Or it might be very good from a therapist perspective, but the equipment or treatment menu is letting it down.
As a company, we were coming across so many variables that we decided the time had come to offer our hotel partners a solutions-based, à la carte approach rather than focusing solely on design, development and management.
The fact that we have such a broadly experienced team is very unusual for the industry and makes us uniquely positioned to do this. Most of our senior managers have been with us for over a decade and have grown through the system, making them the very best in their field, and all of our 200-plus staff worldwide have experience in operations. So we can go in and teach teams, we can do high-level financial and quality audits, review marketing strategies and advise on recruitment – in essence, we really look at what needs to be done to make a business successful. We know what works and what doesn’t, and in quite a short time we can impart that knowledge to our clients. And while there are a lot of great product companies and a lot of great spa consultants, there are very few that can offer all those different options as effectively as we can.
How do you make sure the solution you’re offering is culturally appropriate?
Working in so many countries and with so many markets has given us a genuine understanding of the varying requirements of different cultures.
Wherever we’re working in the world, we employ as many staff as we can from that region and we try to preserve the skills inherent to that culture, while also teaching them international standards.
But being culturally sensitive is not just about considering the host country; it’s about considering the nationality of your guests. For example, you could have a spa in London with a very big Middle Eastern clientele, which means paying extra attention to separate sex areas and issues around privacy and nudity, as these are very important to these guests. Of course, markets sometimes change. You might start off expecting a largely Russian clientele and end up with more Chinese guests, so you have to be prepared to modify your design, treatment menu and therapist training to account for that.
There’s a lot of talk in the industry just now about whether or not spas can really make money. What’s your view?
Spa financial planning has particular challenges. Whereas a hotel will base its business plan on the number of bedrooms, it’s more complicated with a spa. One of the most common questions I’m asked is, ‘If I’ve got a 120-bedroom hotel, how many treatment rooms do I need?’ But there just isn’t a correlation there. It depends on whether you’ve got a leisure market, whether you’ve got MICE business, whether you’re seasonal… There are so many differentials involved that coming up with a profitable model is not easy.
That said, from the very start of every partnership, commercial considerations underpin everything we do to ensure our spas make money. We have weekly conference calls with our spa directors, we do the budgets and we work closely with them on promotions and marketing activities. We have the expertise to do all this and it more than pays for itself.
With the spas we design from scratch, we think very carefully about non-revenue producing areas and whether and how we incorporate them; this includes relaxation areas and also wet thermal areas, which are very expensive to build.
With all the spas we work with, including those we did not design, we look very closely at the breakdown of male versus female guests, whether there’s a local market and whether or not we’re going to off er memberships. We make sure the treatment menu is succinct, and that every member of the team is trained to deliver a consistently excellent guest experience. We emphasise the importance of building customer loyalty and efficient database management.
Obviously, retail is crucial and we’ve got some very interesting concepts in that area that are working very well. These include employing retail specialists, emphasising touch and feel in displays, and rewarding both spa customers and our own clients for online retailing, then driving those customers back into the spa. And we’ve also got an in-room spa amenities range, which further promotes both our products and the spa.
Have you opened any stand-out spas recently?
With so many projects opening over the last year, it’s hard to pick just one or two, though we have had some firsts. ESPA at Fairmont Baku is our fi rst spa in Azerbaijan. It’s part of the Flame Towers complex overlooking the Caspian Sea and is just breathtaking. And we’ve opened our first spa in Saudi Arabia: the Al Faisaliah Spa by ESPA in Riyadh, designed in partnership with Her Highness Princess Al Anoud Bint Khaled Bin Abdullah Al Saud. It’s located within the Al Faisaliah Hotel, managed by Rosewood, and is the
first five-star ladies’ spa in the country.
Other new branded spas include Ritz-Carlton Spas in Kyoto, Bangalore and Abu Dhabi; ESPA at The Joule in Dallas; and Nizuc Spa by ESPA in Punta Nizuc, Mexico. We’ve also opened some really lovely partnership spas, such as Spa Mont Blanc at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva and The Peninsula Spa at the Peninsula Paris.
What new products and treatments have you launched recently?
We’ve just launched Optimal Skin ProCleanser, a beautifully versatile threein-one product combining a gel cleanser, exfoliator and mask; and in January we’ll launch SuperActive™ Skin Radiance Intensive Serum, a potent super serum to lighten, brighten and firm the complexion. We’re also about to launch a new facial incorporating both ProCleanser and Skin Radiance Serum at our spa at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Called the Advanced Pro-Radiance Facial, it’s a 90-minute treatment incorporating a deep brush cleanse and brightening mask.
You’ve also just launched a new treatment programme called Nurture and Support for people recovering from cancer – what’s the thinking behind this?
We were one of the first companies to do pre-natal treatments 20 years ago, when we saw that there was an increase in the market of pregnant women wanting treatments, yet most therapists were scared stiff to do them. The same now applies to people with cancer.
Several people I’m close to have had cancer, so I understand how psychologically damaging it can be for someone in recovery to feel they are clear of the disease only to be told by a spa therapist, “Sorry, we can’t treat you.”
Over the years, we’ve treated many people with cancer and worked with numerous health-related organisations. Drawing on this experience, we’ve come up with six specialised treatments, all of which been carefully developed around the philosophy of nurturing, soothing and relaxing, without any aggressive products or procedures. The programme is based on the understanding that each individual will have different symptoms, degrees and stages of cancer, and that each cancer will manifest differently in each person.
We have worked with several specialists to make sure these treatments are completely safe, but we’re not making any medical claims for them: the emphasis is very much on helping people to relax and feel cherished. Every treatment begins with breath work and visualisation, and guests can choose from a facial, body envelopment, energy balancing treatment, full body massage, scalp massage, and hand and foot ritual.
The most advanced therapists will deliver these treatments and they will only go into select locations that have the necessary support systems in place and that are willing to invest in training. This has been a huge investment for us, and we don’t necessarily expect to see a large return on it, but that’s not why we’re doing it.
What’s next for ESPA?
We’ll continue to work hard to surpass guests’ expectations, both in the spas that we manage and those that we partner. Wellness remains close to my heart, so we’ll continue to roll out ESPA Life – our wellness concept for hotels – and we’ll continue to push the envelope when it comes to new product and treatment development, particularly in the areas of ageing and women’s health. As a company, we do feel that we are leaders and innovators, and while we don’t want to be the biggest, we do want to continue to be the best.