A Disconnect with Americans’ Fascination with Wellbeing

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It isn’t only Belinda, the beleaguered spa manager in HBO’s smash summer hit The White Lotus, who’s finding it exceedingly challenging to cater to the whims of stressed-out guests right now. According to findings of the 2021 ISPA U.S. Spa Industry Study, a recent survey of more than 2000 American spa owners, the total number of U.S. employees fell by more than 20 percent last year.

While it would be easy to attribute that fall-off to an overall decline in revenues and spa visits during Covid – each of those two vectors plummeted by a hefty 35 percent during 2020 – there’s a bigger issue at stake here: spas have been finding it harder and harder to staff up for years.

[callout]While it would be easy to attribute that fall-off to an overall decline in revenues and spa visits during Covid – each of those two vectors plummeted by a hefty 35 percent during 2020 – there’s a bigger issue at stake here: spas have been finding it harder and harder to staff up for years.[/callout]

In other words, the pandemic only exacerbated an existing problem.

Labor Woes

Despite what had to have been one of the worst times in recent memory (with the exception of the 2008 economic crisis), according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers study commissioned by ISPA (International Spa Association), only four percent of U.S. spas shuttered last year. And although many wary guests initially availed themselves of Covid-generated outdoor and curbside treatments, as well as at-home facials and virtual coaching, plenty of spas are reporting an uptick in in-person bookings in recent months.

Celeste Hilling, founder and CEO of Skin Authority, a tech-forward skincare brand sold in a wide range of destination and day spas, says some sectors are faring better than others. “The rebound varies by segment and geography,” she noted. “We are seeing strong growth and demand from spas at our destination travel hospitality partners who cater to recreational travelers. The spas at our conference and business travel partners are struggling due to cancellations. Most aren’t forecasting a return to pre-pandemic level activity until 2023. Our day spa/medi spa partners are rebounding positively with the exception of California, Pacific Northwest and New York, where there is still variant hesitancy.”

Clearly, in some pockets, the demand for wellness services is there. Now spas just need staff to meet it.

Trouble in Paradise

Given how beautiful most spas are (the Meadowood in Napa Valley and Mii Amo in Sedona are two American stunners that spring immediately to mind), it can be shocking to anyone outside the hospitality industry that there aren’t mile-long wait lists of potential employees clamoring for a spot.

But a gorgeous setting does not an ideal job make. And the reality of spa work is that it often entails long hours, many of which are on weekends and holidays to accommodate vacationers. The wages aren’t exactly stellar; according to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for spa workers is $35,616, or $17 per hour. And in the case of massage therapists, the physical labor involved in kneading all that flesh can be surprisingly grueling.

Psychologically, being pretty much trapped inside a 10’ x 10’ room for a lengthy shift of servicing back-to-back clients can start to feel claustrophobic, even for the most enlightened, heavily meditated facialist or reiki master.

Another spa-related occupational hazard you might not have thought of indoor air pollution. Hilling is so concerned about the health implications for staffers breathing in copious amounts of essential oils that she’s developed a pricey, turbo-charged air filter. Dubbed the DefenderPro, it’s a Class II medical device that lasers in on ultra-fine toxic particles of .1 microns, retails for $899, and has already been snapped up by the spa at The Beverly Hills Hotel, among many others. As a basis of comparison, traditional HEPA filters only capture particles larger than .3 microns.

All this to say: Working at even a five-star spa is considerably harder than it looks.

Meeting the Demand

By any measure, the wellness industry is booming. Per Statista, the global health and wellness market clocked-in at $4.4 trillion in 2019 and is expected to rise to $6 trillion by 2025. That’s a lot of volcanic ash body polishes and rose crystal lymphatic facials.

But unless you’re a next-level self-care expert, those treatments won’t happen by themselves. In a Zoom seminar that accompanied the release of ISPA’s study, analysts from PricewaterhouseCoopers who have been tracking the spa industry for 20 years discussed the “ongoing challenge” of staffing. Prior to Covid, the industry had endured a 12 percent vacancy rate for years. Now, when consumers are clamoring for stress relief via a trip to the spa, there are 36,000 job openings, including 2000 vacancies at the considerably higher-paying Manager and Director level.

“Staffing is an issue across the board with many feeling it will ease up when additional unemployment assistance ends,” said Skin Authority’s Hilling, an avid industry watcher. “However, most are concerned staffing may remain an issue into 2022. Many professionals have moved to operating as independents in their own suites and don’t plan to return to a staff position at a spa or resort because they like the flexibility, freedom and frankly the ability to operate without as much oversight should another shutdown occur.”

All that independence is not music to spa owners’ ears. To lend support and help, ISPA is actively developing a “Talent Toolkit” to help them get – and retain – new recruits. Until that’s been finalized, here are a few other ideas…

How to Staff Up

  1. Pay better.
    So basic, and yet so crucial. A more attractive compensation package could include higher wages, health insurance for part-time staff or a combination of the two. A few suggestions surfaced during the ISPA Zoom seminar to help spa owners boost their bottom line – and, in turn, pay their team better. One, analyze your treatment menu so you’re delivering the highest-margin services during peak demand times. And two, scale back on treatment lengths. Does everyone really need a 90-minute massage? Better to get two clients for 45-minutes at a pop, or three for 30.
  2. Define clear growth paths to management.
    The spa industry has a rep for “hiring from without” for more elevated positions such as Manager and Director. Chances are there are estheticians and massage therapists on the payroll who would eagerly hop into those roles. Train them to do exactly that.
  3. Schedule with quality of life in mind.
    There’s no getting around the fact that someone has to work all those nights, weekends and holidays servicing spa guests. But double down on ensuring there’s an equitable split of less-desirable shifts. Better yet, let your team have a say in who works when.
  4. Bake-in some WFH.
    To help guests “take the spa home,” smart brands like Skin Authority have long offered post-visit virtual coaching with estheticians. After all, if you buy the recommended skincare used during your spa stay, will you really know how to use it to achieve optimal results? During the pandemic, Skin Authority and other spa brands expanded these offerings to include at-home facial kits that are accompanied with a little virtual handholding with an expert. This is a convenient way for spa staff to work from home a few hours per week, as well as pad their incomes.

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