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Massage Today
October, 2003, Vol. 03, Issue 10

Spa Letters

By Steve Capellini, LMT

Author's Note: The Spa Letters column features news, personality profiles, trends, and plenty of professional possibilities for LMTs in the spa industry. The style is epistolary, meaning the articles are letters to a fictional massage therapist friend of the author.

Dear Lou,

Setting up a spa is a lot different than working in one, isn't it? By changing roles from employee to employer, you have changed your mindset, your perceptions of how business works, and how people relate to one another.

Suddenly, your friends are other spa owners, too. Do you see how following your dream helped sculpt your reality? It's difficult, but you're doing it.

The Spa House is a work-in-progress. It's like remodeling your home: In the midst of the dust and confusion, it's sometimes hard to keep the goal in sight. The best policy is the "one-step-at-a-time" approach. Now that you have made your decision to construct a wet room, you have to look at the other equipment you will need. You've also got to decide whether to hire a spa consultant. I can help you with those decisions.

Wet Room on a Budget

You might be wondering how your "little" spa is going to be able to offer all of those treatments you administered at the mega-resort where you used to work. Have no fear: There are some cost-saving measures you can take to ensure your clients receive the kind of luxurious experience they expect that will not put you way over budget.

One key ingredient you will need is a hydrocollator; maybe two. This item is a staple in many spas and clinics, and for good reason. In addition to heating gel packs for therapeutic application, hydrocollators are used extensively to allow budget-oriented spas to offer a full array of wet services. Hydrocollator units come in various sizes: a smaller business can get by with an ES-1 model; but most day spas, including yours, need the ES-2 model. Bigger spas often opt for the larger M-2 or M-4.

The hydrocollators can be used in a number of ways. I place hand towels inside 165-degree water, wring them out (wearing rubber gloves), and store them in an insulated container, such as an ice chest. The towels come in handy to wipe off mud, clay, seaweed and other products. Another option is the hot-towel cabbie, found in many spa supply catalogues. This is a useful, attractive addition to a spa room; however, if you have a hydrocollator, they are not absolutely necessary. Almost every service you offer can benefit by the presence of one of these units. There's only one problem: they tend to look a little clinical and will probably not fit into your spa's "homey" decor, which brings me to another topic: the staging area.

All the Spa's a Stage

To create an illusion of timeless peace and tranquility while running a thriving business, you will need to employ the same secret that Disney World uses: an invisible, behind-the-scenes staging area. In Disney World's case, this involves a vast network of underground passageways. For the Spa House, you will only need a room the size of a large closet. In addition to linens, oils, products (both retail and professional) and other items, you can place your hydrocollators in this area, which will ideally include a janitor's sink, so you will have to think about plumbing. A five-foot by eight-foot space is usually big enough to accommodate these items and leave room to maneuver.

In a smaller spa like yours, one staging room should be plenty. You can keep it from getting overcrowded by including extra storage space in the treatment rooms below counters, on shelves or beneath the tables. You'll want the staging area centrally located for greatest accessibility.

Whew! You didn't think there would be so many details regarding what is essentially a closet, did you? That is where an onsite spa consultant might come in handy.

Consultant Conundrum

One thing is for certain: There is no shortage of spa consultants. It seems the spa business has launched a thousand consultancy ships over the past decade. Many spa consultants allow you to retain as many or as few of their services as you need, and contract for areas you feel weak in. For example, you wouldn't need a consultant to conduct a demographic study because your partner Barbara has already done that; and you have already retained a lawyer, so there will not be a need for business plans. You could use some help, however, with a few aspects, including space utilization, menu planning, and retail and staffing issues.

There are many good consultants out there, but there are also a number slightly prone to exaggeration as far as experience, knowledge and track record goes. So beware. Start your search for a consultant with the International Spa Association ( or SpaTrade (

When interviewing a potential consultant, ask the following questions:

  • What is your background? Certain consultants were nowhere near the spa industry until they suddenly saw a lucrative opportunity and jumped into the fray. Some may have strong business backgrounds, but the depth of their experience and network of valuable contacts is probably lacking. Many of the best consultants worked their way up gradually through the ranks from employee to manager to director (and sometimes) to owner before feeling capable of offering well-rounded advice to clients.
  • Who have you helped? You will want to get a complete list of spa projects the consultant has helped bring to fruition, including references you can contact.
  • What is your fee structure? You'll want someone who is flexible. Ideally, the candidate will live in a geographically desirable location so that a site visit will not cost thousands in travel expenses. What are reasonable fees? For your small day spa, a $2,000 monthly retainer for a set period of time (six months or less) would probably be fair to both parties; or you can ask to be billed only for those hours worked on your behalf. These rates vary widely. In your case, someone in the $100 an hour range would be reasonable.

One last thing: the "click" factor. Do you feel empathetic with the consultant? Would you look forward to working with him or her closely for a period of time? Your consultant may have a profound effect on your finished spa. You'll want his or her sensibilities to be as closely attuned to yours as possible, while still leaving room for some creative divergences. Give those Web sites a try, interview a few consultants and let me know what you come up with.

Until next time,

Steve Capellini, LMT

Click here for previous articles by Steve Capellini, LMT.


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