Monday, May 31, 2010

Spa architecture

The best architects in the world have at one point in time been asked to design a Spa. Stark, Putman, Garcia and Rochon, just to name a few, all have one thing in common: they are great architects! But they also have another thing in common: they do not know how to design a Spa! They can make them look nice, interesting, even spectacular, but in most cases NOT functional. That is why most of the Spas they have designed are not doing great! It is not their fault, but since they have no clue as to how a Spa operates, they rely upon their clients to tell them. This is where the problem resides: the clients don't know either and most of the consultants that are brought on board know how ONE type of Spa operates. Usually, they started by winging it as a Spa director or manager but do not necessarily have the know-how nor do they know if this particular type of Spa is the one that will be best for this particular project.

Architects have been told in school to obtain from the client the parameters of what they want in terms of utilization of space. With this information, the architect puts together a layout. So essentially that layout will only be as good as the person who identified it and this where the first problem resides. There are no schools to teach specific Spa design so it ends up being an exercise of plagiarism or simply put, let’s copy something that seems to work!

All the main hotel chains have compiled lists of technical parameters for Spa design. Where does this information come from? Usually a massage therapist, an aesthetician or perhaps a former Spa director! If you have any doubt about the lack of competency of these people in designing, change industry and imagine asking a busboy, a waiter or maitre’d to design a restaurant. Certainly they can have an input in the design but surely they do not have the expertise to cover all aspects of designing something which ultimately will have to be efficient in its management. So let us look at the most ridiculous examples of incompetence:

1.) None of the specs available distinguish the vast differences that there are between Spas. They would like you to think that there is only one type of Spa that fits all. The result: I have seen designs of Thermal Spas where there are no mineral or other springs! I have seen Thalassotherapy designs in the mountains hundreds of miles from the sea! I have seen fitness Spas where the clients patronizing the hotel are totally uninterested in physical exercise. I have seen medical Spas designs in Spas managed by high school drop outs that would not be able to perform a medical procedure even if their life depended on it.

2.) Most of the time the program does not identify the types of treatments that will be featured on the menu, but will tell the architect that they want 10 treatment rooms! Yet in fact, the number of treatment rooms is not really that important whereas the number of work stations really is! The result: it is like designing a restaurant indicating the number of seats in the dinning room but not what type of food will be served! No hotelier would ever do that, right? In F&B they would not and yet when it comes to Spas, they do that all the time!

3.) When it comes to the technical aspect of design, clients assume that the architects know. Yes, architects know about plumbing, A/C, ventilation, electricity, acoustics, etc., as it is applied to hotels, houses, office spaces and the like; but here again have no clue about how this applies to Spas. I have not seen a grease trap in any of their designs and in most Spas they are necessary. I have not seen one of the top architects make sure that the acoustic in treatment rooms block any sound above 35 decibels! In fact ignorance at that level is pathetic! For example, in Stark's design of the Spa at the Delano Hotel in Miami, treatment areas are separated by white curtains hanging from the ceiling. Sure, it looks great, but when one sneezes in these rooms, the entire Spa will yell “Gesundheit”!

4.) Not understanding the trends of the Spa world and more importantly not understanding how a Spa operates as a business is one of the most dramatic result of all this lack of knowledge. Most Spa designs use 50% sometimes more of the available space for locker rooms, when outside of gym-fitness type of Spas, clients prefers to changer and shower in the same room and not with other people! They have been told to separate dry and wet, the vestiges of the Thermal Spas of the past! Doing this will cost 30 to 40% more in operational cost and inconvenience guests by having them trek down corridors to go from one place to the other! And yes separating the services will save a couple thousand dollars in pipes, but will cost twice that much the first week of operation in linen washing expense! And by the way, locker rooms do not bring any income. So by increasing the size of treatment rooms by a portion of what would otherwise be allocated to locker rooms, one would have increased the revenue per square foot of the space.

5.) Many architects that are called upon to design Spas are often interior designers. Most are really good at decoration; some have their own signature on style and colors. For example, Putman's signature design is minimalist with a predominance of black and white. This might be great for a trendy restaurant, hotel or luxury shop; but not so great in a Spa as people who go to Spas react to the vibration of colors, not to the fashion design trends. Black and white do not stimulate the serenity and feelings of well-being that Spas try to create. So it may appeal to the onlooker, but it will make the Spa goer feel uncomfortable! What is more important?

6.) Controls are most important in any business and this is why the manager's office should be located where the Spa director will be able to see what is happening at the reception desk, not buried somewhere in the back!

I could go on and on; but rather than do this, I would like to invite those concerned to attend my seminar designed for architects, decorators and engineers interested in designing Spas in a logical way, which will be featured at the European Spa Summit in Paris during the Beyond Beauty show September 12 to 16 this year.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What kind of Spa is a Spa?

The more I travel and the more I speak and attend Spa events around the globe, the more I am reminded that the Spa World is so different from one country to another and from one culture to another! The only thing that seems similar is that everyone thinks that their vision is the only ONE, the right one! Well some might have a bit of tolerance for a slight variation to theirs, while others, like most Germans and some Eastern European countries, go as far as reneging the very idea that spas could be anything but their version of it!

Some years ago when I was on the board of directors of ISPA I was asked by the then president of the association to attend the European chapter’s annual conference. The chapter was delinquent financially and did not seem to think that it was important to balance its books! In typical European mentality, they assumed that some other entity should pick up the tab, in this a case the US organization! My mission was to make them understand that ISPA was not a government but a business and that it was up to the membership to provide the ways and means to generate funds to operate. This concept just was not understood! It boiled down to a cultural difference in perception between a socialist mentality and a capitalistic approach. So, the bottom line was that ISPA could not continue to financially support the European chapter.
But what brought an end to the European organization as an extension of the US association was altogether another reason: The German and Austrian contingent were trying to pass a law, using ISPA’s name, to make it mandatory worldwide that a Spa Director must be a Medical Doctor! I intervened as a representative of the Board of Directors to stop the motion from going forward and that, along with the other problems we had, finally ended the European representation of ISPA.

If I mention this incident, it is to illustrate the immense gap between cultures, not only of how things should function, but in the very essence of what a Spa is. ISPA claims to be the Voice of the Industry. Well it is the voice of what some in the US perceive a Spa to be through a Kentucky “filter”, which is hardly representative of the WORLD. It is this very nature of everyone wanting to be RIGHT and to consider that anyone who does not share their point of view must be wrong is what is at the core of most problems today. As an international consultant, I try to bring to my clients an international vision of the Industry as a business first and foremost. What is pivotal is recognizing indeed the differences in understanding of what a Spa is in general and what it needs to be in a specific case in point. This is why in all the years that I have been doing this (50 years now!) I have never done the same spa twice.

During my lectures worldwide I often use a comparison of spas to the restaurant business. I find that everywhere everyone understands the analogy and that what is true in the food business is true for spas. Obviously when one goes to a restaurant, one expects to consume food! But what kind? There are probably as many different types of food as there are spa treatments! Not everyone likes fish or Italian or steaks; therefore, they will not go to the type of restaurants that serve the kind of food they do not like, right? Of course! But when it comes to spas, the operators will tell you, “this is the only correct food you should have”…? Once this analogy has been understood with all the ramifications it carries, you can start making some sense of the whole thing!

So what is the bottom line? Simply that rather than trying to impose one concept over another, it is a lot simpler and of course more rewarding to find out the type of Spa that the anticipated clientele will appreciate! How? By doing a Market study; and after identifying the objective of the project, create the type of spa that will meet the targeted clientele’s expectations. This is logical of course, but unfortunately extremely rare, as clients and consultant alike prefer to copy what has been done before, not realizing that in most cases they are copying errors. The Industry is young, at least in its 21st century version, and there are a lot of sorcerer’s apprentices out there; but it will have to ponder and rethink what it should be, if it is to survive.