21 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2015 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Kathy Van Ness


Kathy Van Ness

The new owner of Golden Door appointed a fashion expert to oversee the destination spa’s aesthetic and ethical makeover. Katie Barnes asks the COO about her plans to outshine the competition once more

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
With a background in fashion, Van Ness brings a new perspective to the spa business
Over the past two years, US$15m has been spent on the overhaul – even the famous golden doors had a makeover
Over the past two years, US$15m has been spent on the overhaul – even the famous golden doors had a makeover
Over the past two years, US$15m has been spent on the overhaul – even the famous golden doors had a makeover
Branded yoga matts and yukatas are all part of the plan to leverage the Golden Door name and boost business
The goal is for Golden Door to be known as a respected food brand
The new look Golden Door has attracted a younger clientele – busy executives who want to take care of themselves
Original pieces of Asian art (worth millions) have been brought out of storage to add a wow factor
An extra 200 acres have been added to the property for hiking and biodynamic farming
An extra 200 acres have been added to the property for hiking and biodynamic farming
The number of male-only weeks has doubled since the acquisition
Ninety-five per cent of guests come on a seven-day, all-inclusive package

The world-renowned Golden Door destination spa in Escondido, California, reopened in October following a two-year overhaul of both its property and business.

The luxury retreat, which lost its sparkle under 13 years of corporate ownership, was acquired in late 2012 by frequent visitor Joanne Conway – the wife of Carlyle Group co-founder, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Conway – for US$25m (€23m, £17m). “She was a guest for 22 years and knew that it needed a really special owner, she really felt passionate about saving it,” says Kathy Van Ness, the COO who Conway brought in to oversee its transformation. With new, extensive funds, the goal was to bring the 57-year-old Golden Door back in line with founder Deborah Szekely’s original vision – a spa experience that can empower guests ‘to reposition themselves at the centre of their own lives by tending to their bodies, their minds and their spirits’.

A diluted brand
Golden Door Spa as it was then called opened in 1958 as the upscale sister property to Rancho La Puerta – a health farm just over the Mexican border which Szekely set up with her husband in 1940. The ranch was one of the first destination spas in North America and Szekely, now in her 90s, is fondly referred to as the nation’s spa godmother (see SB13/1 p32).

While the rustic ranch was a place where people ate around a camp fire, slept in tents (in the very early days) and hiked the hills surrounding Tecate, Golden Door Spa was a destination for preening and pampering with an alluring Oriental twist. The property, themed around a traditional Japanese honjin (inn), attracted an exclusive clientele including stars such as Elizabeth Taylor who went there between films to get screen-ready.

In 1998 the Szekelys sold Golden Door Spa to Patriot American Hospitality (later renamed Wyndham International) which was bought by private equity giant Blackstone in 2005 (see SB08/1 p58). Under corporate ownership the gilded name was used strategically to brand four other hotel spas across the USA and the concept dwindled in popularity as its Asian authenticity became diluted.

As part of the Conway deal, the licence agreements with the other hotels expired at the time of acquisition. A one-property brand once more, the Golden Door Spa was ready for its makeover.

Different perspective
To restore the business, Conway turned not to a wellness aficionado, but to fashionista Kathy Van Ness who she’d been introduced to at the World Presidents’ Organization peer network. Having worked for names such as Diane von Furstenberg and Speedo, Van Ness was a specialist in brand DNA/development. She recalls “I initially helped Joanne with branding challenges at the time of acquisition because my background is in the high luxury status market. I worked on everything that had to do with the look and feel – from getting the perfect colour of gold and brush for the iconic pagoda [doors] to the paper collateral and uniforms.”

Shortly after, Conway asked Van Ness stay on to oversee the full refurbishment and operations. “A lot of people said ‘oh my god, she’s not from hospitality’, but fashion – like spas – is all about luxury and lifestyle. It’s just that I approach it with a slightly different perspective.”

A simple yet significant first change was to drop the ‘spa’ moniker from the title to solidify its repositioning as a lifestyle brand. “It’s not a spa, it’s not a wellness centre, nor a retreat, nor hotel,” says Van Ness. “It’s the Golden Door with its own iconic place in the universe.”

It’s a change which dovetails neatly with her future plans to leverage the Golden Door name in other ways. “Just like Ferragamo has gone into cars, cutlery and sheets and towels: the hospitality industry doesn’t really do that,” she says.

The aim is to create Golden Door jewellery and clothes (think stylish Japanese yukatas), while produce such as preserves, teas and spices are already sourced, made and sold on-site and online. “People go crazy about our gluten free ginger cookies, I’m not kidding!” says Van Ness. Golden Door has also teamed up with a local company to create a branded skin, body, bath and haircare line and this sits alongside products supplied by Éminence and Coola (suncare).

Another crossover from the fashion world Van Ness quickly implemented was a strict, no-discounting policy. “What I saw in the hospitality industry when I first came on board was a number of promotions or gimmicks to convince customers to choose your room over a neighbour’s room – much like the retail world,” says Van Ness. “But one of the things you also learn in retailing is that you don’t see the upstage luxury brands doing that. Even in the painful times and the worst crashes financially Prada and Louis Vuitton do not go on sale. You don’t denigrate your brand and I immediately took ‘discounting’ out of our vocabulary.”

Fair share
Of course, with a billionaire owner who has an interest in philanthropy, making money isn’t the only top concern. To this end, Conway has made a profound pledge to see 100 per cent of Golden Door’s profits given to charities. “It’s not a charitable trust where you save money on taxes” Van Ness is quick to point out. “It’s a business and we pay our taxes, we want to be involved with our community and pay our fair share.

Instead, she says that she and Joanne wanted to follow in the footsteps of Newman’s Own, the organic food company owned by actor Paul Newman which was one of the first businesses in the USA to donate all of its earnings to charity.

The Golden Door Foundation has already funded a trip for its land expert Jeff Dawson to set up sustainable gardening practices for the Global Health Committee’s Zahara Center in Ethiopia. The centre, backed by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, helps children with HIV/AIDS and TB. The foundation has also contributed US$75,000 (€68,970, £50,600) to keep a local centre which helps victims of child abuse and sex assault open. These charities, and others, have been chosen because they share Golden Door’s mission to transform peoples lives Van Ness says.

A lot of fab
Over the past two years, US$15m (€14m, £10m) has been spent on completely renovating the Golden Door property.

The 40 bungalow villas, as well as the bathhouse spa and lounge, exercise studios, lobby and dining room have been modernised while retaining the peaceful, Oriental feel that Golden Door is famous for. “It’s Zen, quiet, simplistic, chic and a lot of fab,” says Van Ness who had a hand in the design alongside Conway and New York-based interior designer Victoria Hagan. Hagan is known for her sophisticated, refined style and a key part of the new look was to redistribute original pieces of art hidden away in storage – Golden Door has an extensive Asian art collection worth millions – to the villas. “Every single room has these screens, some as big as 12 panels, that are gold and carved: they’re just rich, gorgeous pieces that are hundreds of years old,” enthuses Van Ness. “It’s like sleeping with art and this spills into the grounds from the statues and lanterns to the waterfalls that hold little buckets of dripping water.”

Elsewhere on the property, the sparkling pagoda, Zen garden, koi carp ponds and courtyard are as beautiful as ever says Van Ness. In addition, more than 200-acres (81 hectares) have been purchased for hiking trials and biodynamic farming – there are plans for an olive grove and vineyard alongside an existing citrus orchard. Maintained by Dawson, a previous gardener for Apple’s Steve Jobs, the grounds supply fresh, wholesome produce for healthy meals (literally farm to table)and its artisan food products – there are hopes for Golden Door olive oil and wine in the future. Ingredients such as lavender and lemon are also used in its skincare.

Programme tweaks
Golden Door offers two all-inclusive spa programmes – a four-day minimum stay costing US$6,000 (€5,520, £4,030) and a seven-day package priced at US$8,850 (€8,180, £5,970). The seven-day stays, which make up an massive 95 per cent of business, include all meals; daily in-room massages, five skincare sessions and one body treatment, two wraps, a hair treatment and a manicure/pedicure; plus four personal training sessions, access to 40 fitness classes and hiking trials and a personalised take-home fitness plan.

A few tweaks were made to the programmes, with the biggest change being the omission of educational seminars. Instead, Golden Door now offers a series of ‘inspirational’ Friday night speakers including Verdine White, the bassist of Earth, Wind & Fire and filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg.

“Our guests are bombarded with self-help articles and when I look at the competition, everything is about diet, pilates, how to be a better partner etc,” reasons Van Ness.

“We felt there was a bigger conversation to be had by focusing on powerful people who’ve done something special.”

Different demographics
Although Golden Door has only been reopen six months, Van Ness is already noticing a difference in clientele. Guests are younger – more people are in their 40s and are more discerning. “I think the renovation really inspired them,” she says, adding that they’re all up on the latest trends and just have to have an iPhone.

Today’s guests aren’t so hung up on pampering or weightloss either. “They’re executives, they run companies, travel all over the world and want to be able to take care of themselves,” she explains. “The whole topic of ‘go away for a week and lose weight’ is controversial anyway and that’s exactly what we don’t do. You get a dessert at every meal – and oh my gosh the chocolate ganache, that’s made with avocados, is to die for.

“Guests want a whole body experience. To lose a bit of weight so their pants aren’t so tight. To feel a bit stronger and more toned. To have a clearer head and for their skin to be a little softer. And that’s the Golden Door message: mind, body, spirit.”

In addition, this traditional ladies-only retreat has seen an increased demand from men and is offering even more packages for them. There are now six male-only weeks a year, double the number before the acquisition and another co-ed week has been added, bringing the total to four. “Everybody was afraid that they’d be too boisterous, but I said ‘I think it’s brilliant’,” says Van Ness. “Men have nowhere to go to just be a boy again, but they’re just as stressed as women. Yes we would have been busy with only female guests, but I think it’s good for business to be speaking to both genders.”

Beam of light
On the subject of business, it’s reported that occupancy is around 70 per cent, but Van Ness won’t say how this compares to before and won’t be drawn into numbers. “Has there been an uptake? Absolutely. It’s busier, it’s good busy – really good busy.”

What she does say is that, more importantly, the Golden Door has got its spark back. “It’s more than a spark, it’s a flame. Imagine our globe spinning in the universe and there’s a golden light that comes out of a place that’s really true. A place where people go to get that light back into their eyes, their heart and their soul and to leave feeling healthy. That little beam of light that comes off California’s lower coast comes out of the Golden Door.”

Thrive by Adrianne Huffington 

Winter. I love the fluffy flakes 

Spa (not Golden Door):
Impossible to say, I’m completely biased to this magical place

I love scalp massages and scrubs. Relaxation and brand new skin – hmmmm nice! 

Stay focused and do things you love and life will evolve

Who you admire:
Today it’s [TV journalist] Diane Sawyer, her style of interviewing inspires me as I build out our Friday evening speaker sessions at Golden Door. She’s a fascinating talent. Tomorrow, who knows?

Golden Door facilities
• Nine treatment rooms
• A bathhouse with a whirlpool, steamroom and sauna
• A watsu water therapy pool
• Two swimming pools
• Seven exercise studios
• A tennis court
• 20 miles of hiking trails
• Two labyrinths

Katie Barnes is the managing editor of
Spa Business magazine

Email: katiebarnes@leisuremedia.com
Twitter: SpaBusinessKB

Originally published in Spa Business 2015 issue 2

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