by Christoph Hilscher

Running a Profitable Spa Business with High Service Levels in a Difficult Economy, by Christoph Hilscher, MASSAGE MagazineRunning a spa business is always a challenge-–one that carries inherent risk. However, operating a spa in today’s difficult economy is more challenging than ever, especially if the spa is fairly new and lacking a broad loyal client base. How can a small spa survive in times like this, and how can employees, including receptionists, massage therapists and estheticians, play a role in this survival strategy?

Understanding client needs
First, the spa industry must understand its services and products are subject to discretionary income. According to Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” spa treatments would fall into a top category of the pyramid called “Esteem Needs.” Spa services are not considered a high-priority need and will only be fulfilled when clients have the means.

This may sound like doom and gloom for an industry based on pampering, relaxation and allowing people a few hours of bliss, but in reality there is an upside to the down economy. Yes, many spas will lose some clients and some won’t continue weekly regular spa services, but spa owner and operators have a new opportunity to show their customers that every individual who comes through the door is valued. In today’s environment, those who will thrive are dedicated to creating unique, memorable experiences, rather than the simple, basic service a client requested. If ever the spa industry needed to return to its roots in providing over-and-above client service, the time is now. 

For example, consider the basic need of a customer is massage. If a spa meets this basic need with a straightforward, no-frills massage, the treatment will be regarded as a product and the customer will be somewhat satisfied by average service. However, if you fulfill a more specialized service—for example, a client-requested sports massage—this customer will be highly satisfied and will consider this a good service rendered. What ultimately creates the highest economic value is the provision of exceptional personalized services.

“Wow” factor wins repeat business, referrals
Today’s spas must “wow” customers, surprising them and creating memorable experiences. A spa doesn’t have to be known for being the most fancy and exclusive spa in town, but if it is known as a place where employees create memorable experiences and customers receive the highest perceived economic value, then it will prevail-–even amidst a sluggish economy.

Every employee of a spa should engage with customers, get to know them, learn about their needs, as well as their likes and dislikes. Understand why they have come for the service; why they chose the massage therapist or esthetician they requested; or if no one was requested, learn how to go above and beyond to ensure their repeat business.

Small things can make a huge difference, such as a personalized thank-you card after the service or even a small product sample of the lotion used. Spa therapists are judged by their skills first, and then by what makes them stand out from others in the industry. The level of service provided and ability to genuinely engage with clients create memorable experiences and more loyal customers-–customers who will incite referral business.

The little things count
What else can be done to ensure a spa business will survive difficult economic times? How about a “spa-cation” package?

Many customers have been accustomed to spending their discretionary income on vacations or other expenses they can no longer afford. Now with less money to spend, you can offer them new ways to get a break or take a mini-vacation with half-day or full-day “spa-cation” packages at your spa. The perks below can add to the creation of a truly successful mini-retreat:

• Pick clients up at their home to take away any stress of driving and finding a parking spot. 
• Ensure customers’ favorite coffee drink or beverage is awaiting them.
• Play their favorite music on the way to the spa, so they are already relaxed and at the same time excited and in high anticipation of the services.
• Include in these “spa-cation” packages (depending on the preferences and time of day) a spa lunch or cocktail appetizers, wellness drinks or even drinks after the service.
• Partner with a nearby restaurant to provide these services and build a relationship with other businesses who will appreciate additional revenue resources. After all, they are surely hurting, too.

Christoph Hilscher, MASSAGE MagazineChristoph Hilscher, P.H.R., is owner of Synergos Training and Consulting ( He has worked for more than 20 years in the hospitality, fitness and spa industry in Germany, England and the U.S. for private owners, Hilton International and Ritz-Carlton. A member of the Spa and HR Advisory board at University of California-Irvine (UCI), he teaches classes for the UCI Extension in Spa and HR Certification programs. As a certified ACE personal trainer, certified speaker and presenter, and SHRM (Society of Human Resources)-Certified Professional, he combines his vast experience in operations and human resources in the hospitality industry with his fitness and spa background to help individual clients reach their personal (fitness) goals and companies to enhance their customer and employee engagement through engagement training and the application of sound human resources practices.