Spa and wellness has been one of the biggest growth areas in hospitality over the past 10 years, but is this rapid success partly responsible for the staffing issues the industry is now experiencing, asks James Stephen.

The spa and wellness sector has been one of hospitality’s brightest stars in recent years. There’s a seemingly endless appetite for the exotic oils, fragrant candles and relaxing treatments that makes the experience not only therapeutic but also enjoyable and recreational. The proof is in the bottom line: 50 percent faster growth than mainstream tourism.

The flipside is that huge numbers of experienced spa staff are required by the industry at every level. But while there are already an estimated 2.8 million people employed by spas worldwide in 2018, according to the Global Wellness Institute, an additional half a million therapists and spa managers and directors will be needed by 2020.

It’s clear, however, that the industry is struggling to persuade bright young hospitality trainees that spa and wellness represents a viable route to career advancement as more traditional areas such as front office and F&B. And if the industry fails to massage out these recruitment issues, they could prove a threat to its stability and further expansion.

Talent acquisition

“This is a huge problem,” agrees Jeremy McCarthy, group director of spa, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. “Spas are complex businesses and require experienced directors for them to run well. As the industry continues to grow we always need to be grooming the next generation of talent.

“With only a few exceptions most of the hospitality school programmes give limited attention to spa and wellness on their curriculum. The students who come into the industry are groomed from the beginning to focus on rooms or food and beverage.”

“It’s a serious problem,” concurs spa specialist Barry White, “and I already see it eroding the potential of the industry. There are obviously companies doing great work in attracting, developing and retaining staff, but sadly I feel there is a lot of ‘sugar coating’.”

White has more than 25 years of global leadership experience with luxury and lifestyle brands including Conrad Hotels and Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, and in 2016 founded WHITE to offer business solutions for the hospitality and wellness industry.

“I do not know any hotel manager who started as a spa or fitness manager. I don’t see hospitality management trainees really interested in spa and wellness, and I get the impression they are not positively guided towards this path as a route to success.”

In terms of retention, Mandarin Oriental’s McCarthy suggests there are a number of solutions.

“Leadership, compensation, authenticity, passion, meaning, collaboration. Probably the most important aspect is the connection established between the colleague and the brand. We believe strongly we need to grow our future spa directors from within, identify them early in their careers and give them opportunities to be exposed to experiences that will help develop the skills they will need down the line. To that end we have launched spa internship and management trainee programmes for our spa and wellness division.

“In these programmes, junior colleagues are given the opportunity for accelerated learning and development. We also have a ‘cultural exchange ambassador’ programme, which allows our top employees the chance to travel and experience another hotel in the group. These opportunities to a new operation are invaluable for their career development.”

Keep it real

“My advice is simple: demonstrate real interest and express true value in spa or fitness managers’ contribution to the overall business,” says White. “People often leave when the person they report to demonstrates no meaningful interest, understanding or desire to understand their role.

“Hospitality companies need to determine what their health, fitness, wellness and spa offering should be and what the market can support. In many cases this still seems to be an afterthought. This planning sets the tone for its ability to sustainably attract and retain talent, which will be a major contributor to the success of the business.

“We need to see more staff given opportunities to grow to senior positions. A good spa or wellness manager shares many of the same skills as other managers, so why are we not seeing the same career growth?”

Finally White offers the following: when applying for a job, ask what corporate structure there is for the wellness division, when the last regional or group directors’ meeting was, what regional directors are already in place, how often there are functional business reviews with regional or corporate offices and when the last time a property director was promoted to a cluster, regional or corporate position.

“The answers to these questions will tell you how dedicated they really are to careers in wellness within their company.”

Expanding challenges

“As the hospitality industry in Asia continues to expand, it is inevitable there will be a high demand for all hospitality staff, including spa staff. We do have challenges, especially in some remote locations, and are proactive with our recruitment efforts,” said Celeste How, Six Senses Hotels, Resorts and Spas vice president of human resources.

Six Senses believes that from an industry perspective, spas are an important guest offering and revenue generator, extending the guest stay and providing international career opportunities. Outside the industry, however, there can be a different perception, and this can prove challenging when attracting staff.

“We also need to consider the different generations in our employ and how we attract them, especially as our global workforce is changing,” suggests Six Senses director of technical services – spas & wellness, Melinda Yon. “By 2020, 59 percent of the workforce will be predominantly Generation Z and Generation Y and that by 2025, Generation Y will comprise three-quarters of the workforce.

“To assist with encouraging the spa and wellness industry as a career path, we need to better understand Generation Y and review our strategies for attracting, retaining and developing them. The top five priorities for Generation Y include money, security, holidays, time off, great people and flexible working.”

“Turnover is inevitable these days with a change of generation and increased choices. But we recognise people are core to our business and we retain them by empowering them, through succession planning, and our workplace wellness programme,” says Karla Raine, Six Senses Corporate director of human resources and training. “We believe training is important at all levels.”