Feature Article - January/February 2002
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There’s No Business Like Spa Business

With some rec centers and health clubs adding or converting space for spas, how do you plan a successful place for pampering?

By Jenny E. Beeh

Make a plan

A spa is a distinct business, and by no means a small undertaking.

Sage Spa is a full-service day spa adjacent to the
Boston Sports Clubs Wellesley Fitness Center

"It's on the level of adding a restaurant to your facility," Acunzo says. "It's not a department; it has to be seen as another business you're investing in—though integrated as much as possible."

One of Acunzo's spas, Sage Spa, is a 1,200-square-foot facility attached to the 55,000 square-foot Boston Sports Clubs Wellesley Fitness Center.

Many clubs decide to take existing internal space that is underutilized—like racquetball courts—and convert it into a spa. All and all, experts estimate it might cost anywhere from $100 to $250 per square foot to build your spa, with the process taking about a year, from the planning stages to the first facial.

Whether you are converting old space or adding new space, one of the selling points for starting a spa at a health club is the fact that it seems like the club's members will translate into instant spa customers. Maybe.

"I wouldn't build a spa without a minimum of 2,000 female adult members over 30," Acunzo says. The fewer members you have that fit your spa demographics, the more you will have to spend to market yourself to the general public.

Of course, a good business plan calls for outside customers as well.

"For a spa business to be successful, it has to tap into a market that is larger than the member population," says Hervey Lavoie, an architect and president of Ohlson Lavoie Corporation based in Denver, which has designed recreation facilities all over the world. "There's just not enough traffic. A spa also has to be accessible to the outside public." As a rule of thumb, he estimates that about 50 percent of the spa's business will be nonmenbers.

Which is why a spa should have its own outdoor entrance to the street as well as an entrance inside the club.

Sage Spa

"You want members constantly exposed to that opportunity," Lavoie says.

Planning exactly what opportunities a spa will offer is also a key business decision. Some experts say there's no need to attempt elaborate or exotic services from the get-go; you can always add more later.

"The first thing you need to decide is if you're going to have hair styling," Lavoie says. Again, you have to be careful of properly separating spaces. Hair styling tends to be a high-energy, high-odor area, very different from a massage area, for example.

"Stick to the basics," Acunzo advises. "Think facials, massages, manicures and pedicures. Focus on the highest quality of services possible. Start small. I don't recommend starting with hair first—that's a whole other business: the beauty business."

Other treatments like acupuncture and aromatherapy cross the line and tend to fall under the alternative medicine category, a whole other undertaking.

Whatever services you start with, always remember, atmosphere counts—a lot. It's not just the warm towels or the rainforest music but the combination of everything you offer.

"It's the entire experience that makes it a quality experience," Acunzo says. From the warm greetings clients receive from the moment they walk in the door, supreme customer care is essential. Spas are very much a service industry.

"A good spa creates its own ambience," Lavoie says. "Something distinct and more relaxing. There's a passage, a gateway into the spa that sends a message."

While creating a spa design to have access to member locker rooms can be good move for convenience—and marketing strategy—Lavoie warns that you should be careful when designing that transition. Locker rooms and gyms tend to be active, noisy, high-energy spaces.

Sage Spa

"That's contrary to the experience you want your spa to be," he says. It's OK if convenience prevails, just control the transition.

Spa spaces continue to grow in health clubs and rec centers, in general ranging from about 600 to 1,500 square feet. In contrast, quintessential destination or resort spas are much, much bigger.

Of course, site plans vary significantly, but typical spa elements can include one or two massage rooms, two or three nail stations, one pedicure station, a facial room, a body treatment room, a separate bathroom and shower. Many club spas are located next to the locker rooms, also providing access to the club's steam room and sauna.

DĂ©cor-wise, upscale materials, serene color schemes, subdued lights and fancy fixtures are common in the more passive spa spaces in contrast to the rest of a club, which are usually bright and active spaces.

Obviously spas are different design creatures.

Which is why Acunzo recommends contracting an architect who specializes in spas. Often, he says, people make a mistake by turning back to the architect who designed the entire sports facility, who may not have any experience with spa design.

Acunzo also recommends considering doing a joint venture with a local spa or leasing the space to a local spa.

"Every time we've had someone build a spa, they think they will run it in-house but end up renting it out to someone in the spa business," Meus adds.

If you do decide to take the plunge, don't overlook the challenge of finding quality service providers like technicians and therapists.

"Labor is our business's biggest problem," Acunzo says. "There's a labor shortage."

Before you make any big plans you would be wise to test the labor market by running ads and conducting interviews.