Great Expectations

Planning your spa for a successful launch

By Gary Henkin

f you're thinking about adding a spa to your facility, you must make sure that a well-thought-out plan for a successful launch is already in place. All too many developers, owners and property firms embark on the inclusion of a spa without first crafting a plan to design and open the facility appropriately. Developing a spa for operational and financial success can be a daunting task-one that requires significant investment.

Growth in the spa industry during the past five years has been dramatic. Today the spa business is the fourth largest leisure industry in the United States, with more than $11 billion in annual revenues. There are an estimated 12,000 spas in the United States, up 25 percent from only three years ago. Consumers can now find spa treatments at hotels and resorts, residential developments, doctor's offices, athletic clubs, golf clubs, airports, cruise ships and malls. Women account for slightly more than 70 percent of the market, but spa utilization by men also has been growing at a rapid rate during the past several years.

With this as a backdrop, many hotels, resorts and other facilities are seeking better ways to delineate themselves in the marketplace, while others simply want to keep up with competition. The development of a spa has become, in many projects, a required amenity.

It wasn't long ago that the typical hotel or club "spa" consisted of one or two treatment rooms offering a limited selection of services. That has changed dramatically. Spas have undergone a significant transformation. This includes design, equipment and treatment menu upgrades.

In today's extraordinarily competitive and stressful environment, travelers are often weary when they arrive at their destination and have come to expect a certain level of sophistication in leisure facilities. The inclusion of a spa can assist in achieving these expectations.

Should you add a spa?

How can you best determine whether to add a spa? What size and scope represent the most viable financial and operational modality? Putting it another way, how can you prepare a spa for operational and financial success?

It all starts with the planning process.

Before taking a "dart throw" approach, consider the potential benefits that can be derived from a needs analysis or feasibility study. This step should receive due consideration prior to expending significant capital on design, equipment procurement and construction.

A needs-analysis study will typically offer valuable information upon which the owner, developer or board can best decide whether to build the spa and what size, scope of services and location would be most viable. The report should include a market study, a competitive analysis, recommended space allocation and a preliminary operating pro forma. If a decision is made to proceed, the spa planning and design process can then move forward.

Concept development

A spa is qualitatively different from other property development amenities. In the end, what is delivered to the patron is more than a service-it is an "experience." As such, design aesthetics will play an all-important role in the consumer's mind and in how the spa will eventually perform from a financial and operational perspective.

Before the design process has begun, it is beneficial to develop a concept or "theme" for the spa. Remember that a successful spa appeals first and foremost to the senses. Research should be done to develop the spa theme with regard to unique features in the surrounding locale, including possible use of indigenous products in the creation of signature treatments and what the most appropriate "story" for the spa might be.

Determining design parameters

Spa design should begin with discussions and meetings between the owner, the architecture and interior design firm(s), a qualified spa consultant and others on the project team. The spa business is management-intensive, and operational decisions should be incorporated into the design process. A clear vision as to how the spa will operate and what treatments and services it will offer are necessary to develop an optimal facility design.

Treatment rooms are the heart of any spa facility. A basic treatment room is typically 120 to 140 square feet and includes appropriate lighting, a hand sink, a countertop and storage cabinets. All treatment-room walls should be constructed to minimize the impact of sound, vibration and odor from neighboring spaces. The basic construction cost of a massage treatment room ranges from $40 to $55 per square foot (excluding the specialized furniture, fixtures and equipment); wet rooms are more expensive.

Massage rooms will be the most numerous since this treatment normally accounts for about 55 to 65 percent of spa services. An FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) package costing between $2,500 and $3,500 should be sufficient to make a treatment room suitable for massage.

Beginning with the basic treatment room template introduced above, a facial room can be created with a slightly more expensive treatment table and specialized equipment to administer skin-care treatments.

Other services such as herbal wraps, mud treatment and hydrotherapy require a greater investment in both construction and equipment. While room size will remain unchanged, these rooms will require floor drains, ceramic tile floors and walls, and more extensive plumbing. Construction costs for these rooms approximate those of restrooms and locker rooms-roughly $90 to $110 per square foot. Equipment packages for wraps, mud and other body treatments can cost from $3,000 to $4,500, depending on what specific treatments the spa offers. Hydrotherapy equipment packages are the most costly. They usually include a tub (with pumps and a water purification system), Vichy showers and a Scots hose. An equipment package such as this can cost from $20,000 to $30,000.

Manicures and pedicures are commonly offered in spas and require a dedicated space. Depending on the number of stations, the nail center can range in size from 300 to 500 square feet. A manicure station occupies about 30 square feet and a pedicure station about 50 square feet. Typical equipment packages for these services range from about $2,000 to $3,500.

Hair services are a variable that should also be considered as a part of the spa's strategic business planning. This may include several styling stations at 35 to 45 square feet each. The hair-styling needs of a typical vacationing spa patron are modest. Three to five stations for shampoo, blow-drying and makeup application should be sufficient for most hotel or resort spas.

Locker rooms and administrative areas

Locker rooms with changing areas, toilet facilities, showers and the like are also important components, since spa treatments usually leave patrons with little desire to travel any appreciable distance before they have had a chance to recuperate and clean up a bit. Comfortable locker rooms with a quiet area and ample bathing facilities will be necessary to complete the "spa experience." Such areas usually cost between $85 and $100 per square foot to build (including fixtures), but can cost significantly more if high-end finishes (e.g., marble, water features) and lavish furnishings are chosen.

Sanitation and housekeeping are also crucial to a spa's success. Spa treatments require a steady supply of fresh linens, sheets, pillowcases, towels, slippers, bathrobes and so on.

Further, your spa should also include a reception area, retail display areas, adequate laundry and storage areas, a dispensary, an employee break room, administrative offices and a robe/relaxation lounge.

Other critical factors

Aside from planning and design, there are a variety of other critical factors that impact the overall success of any spa. These include the quality and experience of the spa staff, training, product selection, operating procedures, promotion and marketing, maintenance, financial controls and the consistency of customer service to name just a few.

The pre-opening process should proceed under a detailed timeline, which should outline each step and a time for completion. It is critical to plan for the acquisition of required licenses and permits, product selection, the treatment menu and budget finalization, standard operating procedures, a marketing plan and a detailed organization chart for staffing well before the spa ever opens.

Appropriate planning and design, concept development and consistency in the delivery of quality treatments and services are crucial to success. There are many variables to consider in the design, construction and equipping of a spa. The capital investment must be justified by the projected financial performance of the facility and by the more "intangible" impact that the spa will have, for example on hotel occupancy levels, competitive advantage and property delineation.

Spas are important magnets for hotel guests, club members, residents, meeting and conference groups and local day-spa patrons. An aesthetically pleasing spa that delivers a relaxing, memorable experience can be extremely profitable if operated and promoted correctly while offering an opportunity to delineate the property from others.


Gary Henkin is president of WTS International Inc. Based in Rockville, Md., WTS is a spa, fitness and leisure consulting and management firm, with clients including hotels and resorts, luxury condo and condo hotel sites, day spas, master-planned communities and private golf clubs worldwide. For more information, visit

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