26 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2012 issue 2

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Leisure Management - The learning curve – part one

Spa management training

The learning curve – part one

As our industry grows, so does the array of spa management courses. But is the education on offer really in-step with the industry’s needs? On the eve of the publication of a new global study into the state of spa management training, Spa Business launches a three-part series to investigate

Rhianon Howells
Cornell, US, introduced a spa degree module over 25 years ago. Its graduates have strong business skills and are encouraged to get operational experience
Derby has an on-site commercial spa to help students with crucial operational skills
The University of Derby Buxton, UK, launched its international spa management degree in 2001

The rapid growth of our industry – combined with the changing face of hotel spas from amenities to profit centres – has created a demand for business-savvy spa managers who can communicate effectively: not only with the feelings-oriented therapists who they manage, but also with the finance-oriented corporate managers who they report to.

Over the last decade, a wealth of universities, colleges and private training providers have responded to this need, either by developing dedicated spa management courses or by incorporating spa elements into existing business or management courses. However, while the proliferation of such courses has been rapid, it has also been fragmented, unregulated and largely not in consultation with the industry. The result is a melting-pot of degree, diploma, certificate and short courses – aimed at both school-leavers and those already in work – that is not only confusing, but which according to many spa professionals still largely fails to meet the needs of the industry. “A lot of people ask me which course they should do, and I don’t have a clue,” admits Samir Patel, managing director of Six Senses Spas. “What I do know is that there is an absolutely imperative need to create industry leaders, and for that we need proper management training.”

To gain a better understanding of what’s out there – and how it can be improved – the Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS) has commissioned research organisation SRI International to conduct a study into spa management training worldwide, the results of which will be unveiled at the summit in Aspen, Colorado, this June. “The current system is a nightmare for anyone to make sense of,” says Anna Bjurstam, managing director of spa consultancy Raison d’Etre and one of the GSWS board members who pushed for the study. “First, we’d like to get an overview of what courses are out there and what, if anything, they have in common… and then get some kind of standardisation [by getting] the industry and training providers talking more.”

In this series, we aim to complement the SRI study by asking what educators and employers are doing to meet the shortfall of quality spa managers – and what they can do better. In part one, we look at the full-time degree and diploma courses aimed at those looking for entry-level spa management jobs.

Degree of success
Historically, spa managers have either risen through the therapy ranks or segued into the sector from other areas of hospitality. But with business acumen increasingly a basic requirement of the role, many employers have in recent years started to look directly to the universities to find their spa managers of the future – complete with degrees in hospitality, leisure, tourism or business administration. In turn, many of these schools have added spa elements to their degree programmes to cater for this new demand, albeit to varying degrees.

One of the pioneers in this field is Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the US, which introduced a spa-specific module to its hospitality management offerings as far back as 1985 (sb10/1 p52). Today, students studying for bachelor’s or master’s degrees at Cornell can choose from three semester-long spa modules taught by industry stalwart Professor Mary Tabacchi, and can also opt to do their mandatory summer-break internships in the spa industry. But it’s no longer the only university with the spa industry on its radar – other examples abound, from Florida Gulf Coast University and Arizona State University in the US, which offer degrees with a spa concentration and certificate extension respectively, to Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland, which touches on spa more generally in their wider curriculums.

So what exactly can these young graduates bring to the spa management table? “Our biggest advantage is the strong business grounding that our students have to have before we turn them over to employers,” says Tabacchi. Patel, who has recruited from Cornell, EHL and Les Roches, agrees. “These are highly educated, smart young men and women with a thorough understanding of hotel management, so we don’t need to teach them the basics of our business,” he says. “As the spa industry grows, we’re going to need more managers, and what better time to groom them than when they’re fresh from education?”

Despite this, many in the spa industry feel there is a disconnect between what these courses offer and the real world of employment, with new graduates ill prepared for the day-to-day challenges of running a spa, too inexperienced for corporate roles and subsequently unsure of where they fit in. “We have a difficult time recruiting hospitality graduates who haven’t previously worked in the spa industry,” says Bjurstam. “Unlike those specialising in rooms or F&B, they have not usually had any practical experience of working in a spa. Even if they choose to do internships as part of their course, they’re typically only for two weeks, and often they don’t want to do them in a spa. They’re aiming for higher: corporate management or consultancy. But we’ll only take interns if they’ve worked in spa operations before their studies – otherwise there’s really nothing they can do for us.”

Tabacchi agrees her students sometimes have unrealistic expectations. “I urge anybody interested in corporate or consulting work to get some operational experience first,” she says. “You never really get it until you’ve been in the trenches.” However, even graduates with spa manager roles in their sights often find it difficult to get their foot in the door due to their lack of practical experience. “Too often the feedback from employers is that some people think that just because they’ve got a [management] degree they should be able to walk into spa management jobs,” says Suki Kalirai, director of UK-based training provider the Carlton Institute and chair of British trade body the Spa Business Association. “But if they don’t understand day-to-day operations, that’s not always feasible.”

Not everyone, however, thinks the fault lies with the universities. “I love what the universities are doing, and I’ve hired lots of people from Cornell,” says Elaine Fenard, managing partner of spa consultancy Spa Strategy and previously vice-president of spa operations for Starwood Hotels. “But graduates are not able to hit the ground running. There’s no entry into spa… I’ve seen some people get a foot in the door by doing some modality training, or starting on the front desk, but that’s a hard call when you’ve spent that much money on a degree.”

Rather than blaming universities, says Fenard, the industry should work with educators to provide clearer career paths for graduates, as well as ongoing support – possibly through a postgraduate follow-up course or coaching or mentoring schemes. Patel agrees the industry could do more: “These are students who’ve only just graduated. They need a lot of support and guidance.”

With this in mind, Six Senses has invested in a fast-track spa management trainee scheme for up to 10 graduate recruits a year. During the programme, the graduates spend a year shadowing and assisting a spa manager for a small stipend. After this, they join a pre-opening crew, before finally moving into an assistant spa manager role within the company. However, in contrast with other sectors of the hospitality industry – such as rooms or F&B – such opportunities for graduates in the spa industry remain rare.

Best of both worlds
Although the lack of a clear career path for graduates is a problem, many spa employers believe that the universities themselves could also do more to prepare graduates for the real world of spa operations. As well as better management of expectations, says Bjurstam, there needs to be more vocational training. This means mandatory work placements of at least a month and more emphasis on practical skills, including not only ‘live’ business assignments in partnership with spas – something that’s integral to Tabacchi’s spa modules – but also hands-on training in massage and beauty therapy.

Raoul Andrews Sudre, founder of Florida-based consultancy Aspen Spa Management and the International Hotel Spa Academy – a training company helping government ministries in Morocco and Nicaragua develop wellness tourism strategies – agrees that hospitality degree courses do not provide enough practical training to turn out viable spa managers. “The academic institutions baulk at the fact that hands-on is a very important part of the business,” he says. “And until they recognise that and offer some training in that direction, the education they’re offering is incomplete.”

It’s a divisive issue, however. “I don’t think therapy training is needed,” says Fenard. “How many CEOs know the technical detail of how the people on the ground provide services within the business? Success in spa depends on teamwork and that requires drawing on everyone’s core competencies. Therapists provide a service that they train hard, and are qualified, for, whereas the role of a leader is to lead. The most important quality in a spa manager is the business acumen that comes with a college degree.”

The ideal solution, believes Tabacchi, is a degree programme that combines MBA-level business input with vocational skills in massage, beauty, health and healing. While there are certificate and diploma courses offered by colleges in North America that combine therapy with management training, all too often the business education they offer is insubstantial. “They may get an adjunct professor to talk about basic accounting or marketing,” she says. “But that doesn’t get you through in today’s business world.”

Across the Atlantic, the landscape is a little different, as the last decade has seen the introduction and rise of a number of dedicated spa management degrees, offered by UK universities in particular. Yet even within this emerging niche, there are huge variations in the ratio of vocational versus business education on offer. University College Birmingham, for example, offers a three-year bachelor’s degree in spa management with hospitality that includes no vocational training, in contrast with a number of two-year foundation degrees offered by other UK institutions, which focus predominately on practical skills with some basic business classes thrown in.

One UK degree programme that does strive to achieve the best of both worlds is the course in international spa management at the University of Derby Buxton – the first of its kind in the UK, if not the world, when it was launched in 2001 (sb05/4 p60). The programme currently has an intake of 60 students a year, who can choose to complete either a two-year foundation degree or a three-year bachelor’s degree. According to course leader Isobel Stockdale, around half go on to the final year, and around 20 per cent of all students come from overseas.

The course at Derby certainly appears to be equally split between business and vocational training, with modules ranging from strategic management and international spa design and development to massage techniques and balanced nutrition and spa cuisine. And when it comes to performing treatments, students are expected to reach a commercial level of competency by the end of year one. But why do they need these skills if they’re not planning on becoming therapists? “Spa managers sometimes have hands-on responsibilities, and [therapy training] enables them to understand and develop the staff they’re managing,” says Stockdale firmly. “It helps them to understand client care and the importance of touch during treatment, and enables them to trade-test staff effectively.”

Experiential learning
What really sets Derby apart is its on-site, commercial spa – supplied by Elemis, Dermalogica and Dalesuana – which is wholly operated by the students. Every student is required to do at least one six-hour shift in the spa each week, in addition to any external work placements, and over the course of the programme they have the opportunity to take on a variety of roles, from receptionist, attendant and therapist through to marketing manager, HR manager, financial manager and assistant spa manager. The spa manager – a recent graduate of the university’s masters programme in international spa management – and two trainers are the only paid professionals.

The spa not only gives the students plenty of hands-on experience, says Stockdale, but also puts all the business and management knowledge they’re assimilating into context. “A lot of our assessments are designed around real case studies or activities in the spa, rather than something from a textbook,” she says. “It’s very much experiential learning – they learn by doing and reflecting, then putting it into practice again.”

Jane Crebbin-Bailey, partner of international spa consultants HCB Associates and a visiting lecturer at Derby, agrees. “It’s all very well [teaching management theory], but to really understand how to manage therapists you need to actually do it,” she says. “I think that’s the key to success for spa management training courses – they have to have a spa.”

The end result, says Stockdale, is graduates who are ready and able to work. Many have subsequently been employed by leading companies – including global players such as Danubius, Mandarin Oriental, Sofitel and Hilton – and frequently rise to spa manager roles, albeit after an initial stint as a therapist or supervisor. Stockdale would like to see employers provide clearer career paths for her students, however, believing that most would feel happier about starting at the bottom if they were assured of a quicker progression up the ranks.

Although Derby has been a trailblazer in integrating vocational spa training into a management degree, it’s no longer the only university in the region to do so. Warwickshire College, also in the UK, offers a two-year foundation degree in spa management with a strong emphasis on both management education and hands-on skills. Crucially, it not only stipulates that students get a vocational therapy qualification before they apply, but also that they complete at least 400 hours of work experience – and like Derby, it also has an on-site commercial spa. In Ireland, the Athlone Institute of Technology offers a three-year bachelor’s degree in spa management with modules ranging from financial accounting, HR and revenue management through to massage, complementary treatments and spa tourism. It also includes a mandatory six-month work placement.

Emerging markets
Although the UK seems to be leading the pack when it comes to dedicated spa management degrees, an increasing number of universities in mainland Europe are also moving into spa in a big way – from the University of Tartu Pärnu College in Estonia, which has launched a two-year masters degree in wellness and spa service design and management, to Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, which headed up a pan-European research project to develop four extensive spa management modules that can be incorporated into tourism and hospitality degree courses on an ad hoc basis as well as accessed online (more of that in part two).

But while the West already has a tertiary educational infrastructure in place to meet spa management training needs – albeit one that’s rather piecemeal – it’s a different story in other parts of the world, especially in newer markets where the spa industry is growing most rapidly. Vanessa Main, director of spa operations and development for Hilton in the Asia-Pacific (sb11/3 p28) says: “If you look at America and Europe and even Australia, those regions have now got some quite solid educational solutions available at universities and elsewhere. In Asia, that is still somewhat missing.”

It’s inevitable, then, that emerging markets are already looking for alternative solutions to university or college education to meet the increasing demand for educated spa managers. Nowhere is this truer than in India, where commercial academies set up by top spa operators – initially to meet the need for trained therapists – are now offering full-time spa management diploma courses. Among the highest profile of these are the Ananda Spa Institute – a subsidiary of IHHR Hospitality, developed in consultation with spa consultant Crebbin-Bailey (sb08/3 p36) – and the Orient Spa Academy, which is a subsidiary of the Neesa Group. Affiliated with international examination boards CIBTAC and ITEC respectively, these academies may not be able to offer the in-depth business content or international clout of a degree – but they are meeting a growing need for focused spa management education in the region.

For anyone looking for a full-time degree or diploma course to get them started on a career in spa management, one thing is certain: the number and diversity of options out there is truly overwhelming. If the forthcoming results of the SRI study can start to make sense of the picture, for both spa employers and aspiring employees, that can only be a good thing.

In part two: we look at the management training options for those already in work, from therapists to career-changers

Originally published in Spa Business 2012 issue 2

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