Andrew Gibson, Mandarin Oriental’s Group SPA Director on the future of luxury SPAs
In a recent interview, Andrew Gibson, Group Director of SPA at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, spoke exclusively to CPP-LUXURY.COM about the reasons behind the success of his company in developing luxury SPAs and his vision of the future of luxury SPAs.
In the past decade, SPAs have become an integral part of luxury hotels worldwide. How different is Mandarin Oriental’s SPA concept, compared to the international competing hotel chains?
[A Gibson] Many of the international hotel chains have spent considerable time developing their own spa concept. Mandarin Oriental were one of the first in the industry to develop a clear concept based on our oriental heritage and strong tradition of delighting our guests. The spa became an integral part of the business concept for any Mandarin Oriental property and the spa concept was reinforced across the group. The spa concept is extremely flexible since it allows each location to work within our framework and yet create uniquely individual spas. We have an extensive product and standards guideline that dictates the design elements and an equally detailed Standard Operating Procedures that have evolved over the history of our spas and create an excellent training platform. These tools provide the foundations for a superb experience that touches many of the senses. Our own product line took two years to develop and provides the platform to develop eastern inspired treatments with aromatherapy. Our signature treatment provides an assessment for every guest and customised massage according to the results of the assessment.
One of the big advantages Mandarin Oriental has is our own Spa Division in the corporate office with a team of experts from design to operations. This team enables Mandarin Oriental to have a dedicated focus on spa and delivering the best experience to our guests.
To what extent your SPAs attract outside hotel guests? and which are the city destinations which have the highest ratio of outside hotel guests compared to hotel guests?
[A Gibson] In city locations the outside guest makes up a substantial amount of the business. In key cities such as London, New York or Hong Kong the outside guests can account for between 50% – 70% of the business. This ratio is healthy and enables the spa to provide services that may prove unviable if they were to rely purely on the hotel guest. Yoga and Pilates instructors, invitation to guest speakers and extra equipment are some of the ways that hotel guests benefit from the addition of regular outside business.
Which types of treatments are most popular among your international network? Why do you think they are successful?
[A Gibson] In almost every genuine spa the most popular treatment is massage or a derivative of message (such as Thai massage, acupressure massage, etc.) The two most popular anywhere in the world are Swedish massage and aromatherapy massage. I suspect that this is because they are the most commonly known treatments and the easiest to book or sell. Over the last few years more cosmetic and beauty oriented treatments have attracted media attention and stimulated demand but they are still a long way behind massage. (see graph from Coyle research) because people primarily go to the spa to relax.
Customer service is vital to a successful SPA. What is your approach on recruiting, training and motivating personnel to achieve the highest possible customer service levels?
[A Gibson] To answer this question would require an entire page. Our Spa Directors are meticulously interviewed up to 6 times before they are offered a job and often they also engage in a profiling survey. Once they have joined they take part in an induction in Hong Kong so that they understand the importance of our oriental heritage. In some cases this induction may also include a visit to Thailand and Macau. There is a tremendous amount of information that is given to them at induction so we follow this up with on-going support at corporate level which includes schedules calls and site visits where necessary.
At each opening we will send a team of cultural exchange ambassadors that help the local team to engage in the systems and also understand our philosophy and heritage. Our turnover of Spa Directors has been very low over the last four years and new comers have come due to the growth of the company. The therapists and concierge team are recruited at local level. Therapists will be required to complete a trade test regardless of their qualifications. The training manual and a new e-learning process enable each new comer to quickly assimilate into the team. The e-learning modules are being expanded to help team members learn at their own pace.
We believe in an annual Spa Directors conference to provide a mix of networking, information exchange and problem solving. Our last meeting was in February where we combined with the Directors of Engineering to have a healthy conference based on leadership and problem solving between the two departments. We have an internal periodical produced by the spa team that provides a mixture of news and information (Spa Savvies). Our latest edition included a two page account from our Spa Director of how our team in Tokyo performed so well under the crisis earlier this year. This report received tremendous response of how inspirational it was, and the team from Tokyo felt honoured to be recognised by their peers for their efforts.
Mandarin Oriental, Munich and Mandarin Oriental, Geneva are rated among the best hotels, however, none of the two hotels has a SPA. Do you plan to introduce SPA’s ?
[A Gibson] Both of these hotels are well established historic hotels in the centre of beautiful cities. They were built long before modern style hotel spas were conceived. Local planning restrictions and respect for the building presents challenges for Mandarin Oriental to simply add a spa. We are in the process of successfully discovering some space in Munich and are creating an improved fitness centre, sauna and steam and a place to take a treatment. Under the circumstances of lack of space this is a tremendous achievement from the team at Munich and recognises the importance of spa to our brand. Feasibility studies have been conducted in Geneva for many years to see if a spa and improved fitness options are viable. We would like to add something if it is possible and I can advise your readers to watch out for news
More and more luxury hotel, including the Four Seasons and Dorchester Collection hotels have introduced treatments with 100% organic products. Do you plan to introduce such products in your SPAs?
[A Gibson] These hotels have not eliminated non organic ranges, they have added organic ranges to their collection and continue to provide alternatives for their guests. Mandarin Oriental have always had the philosophy of providing our guests with educated and informed choices. Our body treatments use our own product that was carefully created to take advantage of every latest sustainable practice we could. From the use of natural products to FSC paper and the most efficient system of distribution we looked at an ethical delivery of body treatments in every step of the creation. Our body treatments use Mandarin Oriental products which are natural.
There have been tremendous advances in the research of the efficacy of products for skin care and our hotels provide a variety of options. In New York we have one of the most certified natural / organic products available but we also have other products that provide superb results in a clinically proven safe environment. In many of our resorts local herbs and products are used that occur naturally in the environment.
Guests have a right to know what is being applied to their skin and what effect it may have. The current criteria for labelling products as organic or natural is unclear and misleading. Our philosophy is to make sure the guest has accurate information to make a choice.
The internet has indefinitely changed the way luxury hotels devise marketing and sales strategies. What is your strategy
[A Gibson] Information Technology is one of the core competences of Mandarin Oriental and as a result we have embraced the internet by exploring many of the different avenues of communication. We have a dedicated web team, social networking team and group communications. From online booking of rooms and services to specifically targeted email notices we try to keep up with the latest developments in technology. Facebook has become a major part of the information circulation. We are currently developing online retail sales of our spa products and an improved online booking system. Our guest response survey has improved so that guest comments are received within 15 minutes of completion which enables us to react quickly to guest comments. This survey is being extended to outside guests use of spa and food and beverage.
What are the latest innovations, in terms of products and treatments, introduced in your SPAs in recently opened hotels such as Las Vegas, Barcelona and Paris?
[A Gibson] Since we have a dedicated corporate spa team we are able to continually push to keep improving the delivery of the guest experience. Our message is that we want to create memories for our guests so that they become our ambassadors. To do this we carefully review each product that is being considered for a spa. We have improved the suite experience with a better flow in the suite so that guest privacy is maintained whilst we can still service the treatment beds. The introduction of IPod docking systems allow guest to bring their own music to the treatment room. A paperless spa is currently being tested. In Paris we have partnered with Guerlain for a beauty options since Guerlain is one of the best skin care companies in France.
Often the development we have made are subtle and barely noticed by the guest but create on a very subconscious level to the overall experience. The more senses we successfully stimulate the better the guest experience. Music, lighting and even temperature control are subtle innovations that improve the experience.
Las Vegas has an extremely impressive thermal bathing area that incorporates many of these developments coupled with some stunning views along the Strip.
Our treatment menu was researched using Cornell University based research techniques to determine the optimum number of treatments and the ability to assess the best performing treatments.
Andrew Gibson is a Board and founding member of Global Spa Summit and an ex board member of ISPA, with over 25 years in spa, wellness and hospitality industry.