By her own admission, Wipawadee Sirimongkolkasem is a detail person. Working as an assistant to the executive director at Thai hospitality company Dusit International, she was involved in numerous projects from helping with due diligence in acquisitions to co-ordinating with Goldman Sachs on executive shares.
But when the chance came to really take ownership of something from the ground up she embraced the challenge. It just so happens that spa was that opportunity. It felt special being able to “build up something from zero,” she says, “it’s like my baby!”
That was back in 2000. Sixteen years on and she’s the managing director of Dusit’s Devarana Spa brand that’s now in 11 of properties worldwide and is expanding into new markets. But how did she create the concept, how is the spa team structured and what new ventures will she be focusing on next?
Dusit is a well known Thai-based group which owns and/or manages hotels under five brands, including the luxury Dusit Thani concept. It was founded by businesswoman Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui in 1948 and in 1970 it launched the 510-bed Dusit Thani Bangkok – one of the city’s first five-star properties.
Today, Dusit’s portfolio comprises 29 hotels and resorts and there are ambitions to add nearly 50 more. And while the company has a large base in Asia, especially Thailand and a growing presence in China, it’s also establishing itself in the Middle East.
With a strong history in Thailand, Dusit is a popular choice for many natives who want to get into hospitality and Sirimongkolkasem is no exception. Returning home from business school in the US in the early 90s, and after working in the family chicken business for a few years, she secured a role as assistant to Chanin Donavanik – Piyaoui’s son and Dusit’s then executive director. “It was great to work on so many things,” she says about being involved with Donavanik’s various business development projects, “kind of an eye-opener”.
One such project was creating an in-house spa concept for the flagship Dusit Thani Bangkok with the intention of rolling it out. The rationale for the addition was threefold Sirimongkolkasem says. “We had the space from a number of guestrooms which were too small for modern hotels and we saw potential for driving revenue apart from just selling rooms and F&B.”
However, the other main reason for introducing a spa was for it to maintain position as a leading hotel against other major players in the market such as Mandarin Oriental and Banyan Tree which both had a strong wellness offering.
A spa is born
With Dusit’s own philosophy based on Thai culture and tradition – Dusit Thani means ‘town in heaven’ in Thai sanskrit – it was an obvious move to have the spa concept follow suit, especially given the country’s long-standing focus on wellness. But Sirimongkolkasem says: “We wanted to do something different to other people [competitors], so we hired an outside consultant.”
The group enlisted the help of Ploy Chariyaves, a creative concept designer and consumer lifestyle columnist. “She read a lot of Thai literature and related our concept to the Tribhumphraruang text which describes the ‘gardens of heaven’ – or Devarana,” says Sirimongkolkasem, adding that brand strives to offer a nurturing, soothing environment.
To get a feel for the market, Sirimongkolkasem toured spas in Bali, Hong Kong and Phuket and got operational advice from Spa of Siam. While no longer in business, the consultancy worked with Devarana Spa for three years on technical aspects such as management and staff training and one of its key employees was industry figure Samantha Foster, who Sirimongkolkasem has nothing but praise for.
The three of them, along with Donavanik, were able to make some quick decisions and by late 2001 – just a year after sitting down with a blank canvas – the first Devarana Spa opened. A general manager was initially drafted in to head up the spa department to help introduce the concept in other Dusit hotels. But when she left in 2002, Sirimongkolkasem was an obvious choice to take the lead instead.
Consistency is key
There are two distinguishing features of the Devarana Spa brand according to Sirimongkolkasem. The first is its back to basics, authentic take on Thai therapies which are deliberately machine free. “We wouldn’t even use a Jacuzzi for water treatments,” she says. And despite consumer demands for instant results, which sees many spas turning to technology, she’s insistent that Devarana will remain hands-on only.
The second standout aspect is its strong focus on training in order to deliver outstanding services at each property. “When you have multiple operations, consistency is one of the most important factors,” says Sirimongkolkasem. To achieve this, every new therapist faces an intensive two-month training course and a practical exam. “Of course they know how to massage,” she says. “But they have their own standards and that of the company they used to work for and we have our own.” There’s also an annual five- to six-day refresher course to keep staff on track.
The standards of the 100-plus spa staff are overseen by a dedicated trainer at head office, who usually also picks out a therapist at each property to carry on with team development throughout the year. “One of the things that makes me feel most proud is when customers comment on how impressed they are that our service and quality is the same everywhere they go – and our guests say this to our staff a lot,” Sirimongkolkasem says.
Corporate spa team
While Dusit is rapidly adding hotels to its portfolio, Devarana Spas still have a relatively low profile in the global spa industry. This could be in part because the facilities are only in select properties – there are 11 to date and these are typically located in the top-end Dusit Thani hotels or those which have a high rack rate. “The average room rate of a hotel needs to be of a similar price point to the spa, otherwise it doesn’t make business sense,” says Sirimongkolkasem, adding that in Bangkok, the average room rate is THB3,000 (US$86, €77, £68), which is the same price as a 90-minute Swedish massage.
To overcome this issue in some locations, the company has developed a sub spa brand, Namm, which has a less extensive offering and lower price point. So far, there’s a Namm Spa in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but pitching Devarana remains the priority.
All Devarana Spas are run from head office in Bangkok on a third-party basis for hotel owners, although on-site managers also report into hotel GMs. The corporate spa team comprises nine people – Sirimongkolkasem who, as managing director, “tends to look at the bigger picture”, the group trainer and those working in operations, developments/new projects and marketing and PR.
Sirimongkolkasem says: “We look at it [the spa department] as an independent profit centre because we collect set management, marketing and incentive fees from the owners, but then on the expense side we have the payroll for our office and other expenses.”
With regards to spa performance, a close eye is kept on average spend per guest and room utilisation and Sirimongkolkasem feels business “in general is OK” but being dependent on the number and mix of hotel guests can prove troublesome. To tackle this in locales such as Bangkok and Manila three are membership schemes with about 40 active participants and discounts are sometimes offered elsewhere.
A time of change
Having focused on Devarana Spa for 14 years, Sirimongkolkasem actually left Dusit for 12 months in late 2014 to go back to the family business. But such was the pull of the brand that she “couldn’t resist coming back,” in earlier 2016
Her reunion coincided with a time of change for the company when Dusit appointed Suphajee Suthumpun as its first CEO outside of the family. Suthumpun, previously CEO of telecommunications firm Thaicom, stepped into the shoes of Chanin Donavanik – now vice chair and chair of the executive committee – to push the Dusit portfolio and its property development business even further.
“We’ve gone through a lot of changes,” says Sirimongkolkasem who, as part of the shake-up is excited to take on a new project as well as heading up the spa department. She’s currently researching a potential new market for Dusit. “Society is ageing so that’s something we want to look at. It’s a great opportunity to do something new, I love it. It’s the same feeling I had when I built-up Devarana because I can start something from scratch.”
Sirimongkolkasem will be splitting her time equally between the new venture and Devarana Spas and anticipates a very busy end to the year. “I’d like to push everything and get it approved by the end of 2016 so it’s quite tight right now.”
While relishing an opportunity to be involved with something new, Sirimongkolkasem still has a love of spa and is especially driven by seeing therapists flourish. “I like to grow the brand and to have a place where people can also grow,” she says. “We only recruit internally first so a receptionist could become a supervisor, then a manager. Or when we have a new opening, a therapist which shows potential can transfer to that country or even other countries.”
At present, the spa team in Bangkok have three new facilities that they’re working on directly. These include one in Vietnam (2017), Singapore (2018) and Australia (2018/19), representing a debut for Dusit in each of the countries.
Meanwhile, in China they’re also co-ordinating on a number of Devarana Spas in hot springs resorts which are being developed by Dusit in collaboration with Chinese partner the Fudu Hotel Investment Management Company. The thermal resorts – which are located in Fuzhou, Fuijan Province; Suzhou, Jiangsu Province; and Zhuzhou, Hunan Province – are scheduled to open in the next two to three years and make an interesting departure from Dusit’s staple hotel spa proposition.
Sirimongkolkasem explains that there’s a separate corporate spa person based in Dusit Fudu’s headquarters in Shanghai, who’s already worked on two Devarana Spas in China, who will be overseeing the wellness offering at the new hot springs. “She came to Bangkok for a couple of months for training, so she knows what all of our standards are,” says Sirimongkolkasem. She’ll have to follow our guidelines, but has input from a local perspective to keep it relevant. “When starting a new project, we [head office] will give feedback on the layout and planning and come up with the treatments with a local accent specifically for them. We’ll then discuss whatever extras they would like.”
All of this aside, Sirimongkolkasem still has even greater aspirations for the spa brand she loves so much. “At the moment, we only have Devarana Spas in Dusit properties – I wish that we could go outside [to other hotels as a third-party spa operator],” she concludes. “It’s not easy these days because all the major chains have their own spa departments, but I’d love to see that happen.”