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How can spas plan experiences post-pandemic?

industry leader spa industry training Mar 19, 2021
Richard Clay from Spabreaks.com

Richard Clay is the Senior Product Manager at Spabreaks.com, the UK’s leading spa booking agency, working with more than 750 spa destinations across the UK and overseas. Their market knowledge and regular communications with both customers and spa businesses means that they have a unique insight into spa trends and consumer wants and needs as they change and evolve. As the industry looks forward to re-opening over the next couple of months, we spoke to Richard about their predictions for the industry and their recommendations when it comes to designing experiences that make spa guests feel safe, supported and excited to enjoy spa experiences once again.

Tell us a little about your background and your experience in the industry.

Having worked for Center Parcs for 15 years following university, I was initially employed in a leisure management capacity before working my way to the UK head office. There I got into the analytical and revenue management side of the business, managing the UK Revenue team. The brand was, and is, known for its strong occupancy targets - 98% all year round - as well as providing great value and delivering a great brand experience.

Wanting a new challenge, I then went on to become the Group Commercial and Revenue Manager for spa at Macdonald Hotels, specifically focusing on the spa strategy across the group. When I first started, there were 25 spa hotels across the UK, Ireland and Portugal. I worked on everything from creating the spa brand to spa residential accommodation packages and anything with a price point in the spa environment. I enjoyed five years at the group, working with some fantastic industry leaders and hopefully building the reputation of the group from a spa perspective.

That has ultimately led me to work with Abi Selby and the team at Spabreaks.com as Senior Product Manager - a role which I took on in November 2020, concentrating on geographical areas across the UK.

When working with spas, what are you looking for in product positioning and package design coming out of lockdown and looking forward?

First and foremost, we have to reassure guests about coming back to the spa market in terms of cleanliness, safe treatments and that alongside those precautions they will still have a great experience. It’s no secret that across hospitality we’re seeing a shift towards a staycation market at the moment. We’re already seeing the impact of that on spa bookings. People want longer spa breaks of two-, three- or even five-night breaks where before they might have been more likely to book a day or a one-night break.

I also think people will go on more short breaks throughout the year rather than having one or two long holidays because of less overseas travel. There’s a lot of interest in group getaways too. I think people are really looking forward to reunions with family and friends, which is something we can all relate to. People want that social aspect back in their lives, so it’s going to be really important that properties don’t just cater for spa but deliver experiences that cater for families and groups, like including rounds of golf or other activities.

With that in mind, what are you asking spas to include in packages?

The conversations I’m having at the moment are about stepping away from the traditional one-night bed and breakfast package with a 55-minute spa treatment. There’s an opportunity to tap into a new segment of people who might not have been to a spa before, and to be more creative with how we create packages. I have mentioned about families, groups and including more experiences that cater for them. I think that there is also a number of people who are looking for more luxury in the marketplace as well. There are those who have accumulated savings during the pandemic, and I think when things open up, they will want to treat themselves - spas are the perfect solution for that. Lots of people have had multiple birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Days and more that they haven’t been able to celebrate properly during lockdown - now they need making up for! My wife has ‘saved up’ hers so we’re going to do something extra special when we can go out again.

How can spa businesses create experiences around any social distancing rules, or any concerns people have without undermining the experience itself?

It’s about reassurance overall. We’re going to get two tribes coming back to the market - the people who have been directly affected by Covid and are perhaps more nervous about it, and the people who have not been affected as much and just want to get back to normality. You have to be able to manage the different levels of expectation and needs by offering a very personal level of service to support people.

It’s about finding out a client’s needs, seeing who needs support and of course observing government guidelines. I do, however, think that it also gives properties the opportunity to think outside the box and offer packages that enable people to use outdoor areas more with experiences like nature walks, forest bathing. It’s an opportunity to focus on those elements of spa that relate to connecting with nature and mental as well as physical wellbeing.

Spas will have to manage capacity and the number of people using pools and wet facilities over the next six months or longer, too. While it is absolutely about following protocols, it’s also about thinking about how an experience feels from the customer perspective. Even if you’re following the guidelines, think about whether it gives a sense of reassurance, safety and enjoyment too.

What are the key spa trends you’re predicting over the coming months?

I have mentioned more group breaks and longer stays. However, while we talk about the staycation boom that will only relate to specific properties - especially those that are on coast or in the countryside. It makes me think that there will be holes in the marketplace, for city and corporate hotels, for example, that rely on corporate guests or international tourism.

There’s an opportunity there for spas to fill hotel business segments and show that they’re profitable for the businesses as a whole by increasing incremental spend with guests who visit by encouraging them to book a room, dinner, have a treatment and buy into any spa retail products. It’s a chance to really emphasise the whole experience that the spa brings to a business where it may not have been the protagonist before.

Hotels might even pivot to attract more spa guests. I am having a lot of conversations with golf destinations that rely heavily on the American market normally. As that’s probably going to stay quiet for a while, they’re diverting more marketing spend to the spa side of the business to fill the gap. I think that will also have a really positive effect for spas in the long-term because hotel owners will understand better the incremental revenue and profits that spas can generate when they’re given the opportunity.

What are your travel predictions for this summer?

In addition to the staycation trend, I think luxury is going to be in high demand for spa experiences. I think longer treatments or more than one treatment, as well as therapies that are bespoke to your destination can be emphasised in packages. For example, a 90-minute signature treatment that has more provenance for the location by integrating products from local area. I think there’s an opportunity for spas to have fun creating packages that are really driven by experience instead of price. Perhaps they can include local food and wine, maybe it’s a more bespoke experience, perhaps there’s more flexibility of choice within the package - just really pushing that luxury element. Spabreaks.com's Elysium Collection is a really good example of that.

Given the economic climate, should there be a focus on driving prices down?

There’s always going to be people looking for basic experiences, so those definitely have a place in the market. However, statistics are showing that people have been saving over the last year because they haven’t been able to go out. Reports showed that the percentage of disposable income saved rose from 9.6% to 29.1% last year, but in addition to that I think a lot of us really want to feel spoiled.

So, there’s space to offer more luxurious experiences. Businesses should ever be frightened to provide packages that are not about being as cheap as possible. If you have the experiences and can offer an amazing service, you should never be afraid of setting the price for that as a luxury item. There are people willing to pay as long as you provide excellence.

What are the benefits of having specialist offerings within packages, like training in oncology massage?

I was part of the team who introduced Jennifer Young’s oncology training to therapists at Macdonald, and it’s a big part of the work that Spabreaks.com does as well. When Jennifer came to Macdonald, it was really important for me that I went to see her during the training to understand what she was doing and the impact it had.

Therapists were delivering the treatments they learned to guests who were living with cancer. Even in the short space of time that I was with those guests, getting first-hand feedback, you could see that it had instantly lifted their spirits and their mood - which is really the purpose of the spa experience. I thought it was amazing to see that and understand what it felt like for them. It’s so important and it should be an industry standard to have that level of inclusivity for everyone, including people living with cancer.

We’re seeing more and more properties where therapists have oncology training and hopefully there will be a tipping point where it’s unusual if you don’t offer that experience. I couldn’t believe the statistics - one in two people experience cancer in their lifetime, and Covid has created a time bomb for people who have not been to the doctor and got a timely diagnosis. So, there’s a lot of people who will unfortunately need that kind of wellness experience. We don’t want to hear those horror stories where people have been turned away, that’s not what this industry should be about.

As a manager, did you feel it was important to go to the training as well and understand the benefit it brought?

I have been directly impacted by cancer, as many people have, and it felt like a privilege for me at Macdonald at that time to be able to help bring those treatments into the brand offering and implement it into the group. I went to the training because I wanted to say thank you to Jennifer and to meet her, but I would definitely recommend that senior management do the same in order to understand the impact it has on guests and therapists.

Therapists often experience an overriding nervousness about touching a client with cancer because they’re worried about hurting them or not getting it right. Seeing how empowering that training is, is wonderful, and by someone operational being there as well, I think it gives reassurance to the team and shows how important it is.

Finally, how positive are you about people returning to spas post-lockdown?

We have definitely seen a bounce since Boris’s most recent announcements and there’s a lot of positivity in the air about everything, so we’re very confident about how the future looks at the moment.

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