SPA MANAGEMENT: Spa Concierges

With a little management savvy, you can offer concierge service that edges out the competition.

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The concierge is a staple at five-star hotels, but one should not have to be extremely wealthy to enjoy the perks of personalized attention. For this reason, years ago, a number of day spas began providing concierge service to add an extra kick of luxury to their customer service. The concierge’s role was to greet clients and keep them comfortable throughout their spa visit. When the recession struck, however, the concierge was one of the first staff positions to get cut from the spa budget.

But for those day spas that have kept or reinstituted the practice, concierge service still plays a pivotal role, perhaps even more so because of our sluggish economic times. For many guests, the attention of a spa concierge is the closest they’re going to get to a five-star resort experience anytime soon. At the Burke Williams (BW) day spa chain in California, the role is considered vital. “The concierge is essentially the host of the spa,” explains BW general manager Diane Kim. “This is the person who has contact with every guest, makes sure that their day is going well, anticipates their needs and does whatever they can to create a memorable experience.”

And what about the modest, single-location day spa, where clients are often drawn in by Tuesday specials and group deals? Do these clients really need or expect a concierge? Proponents of the concept say the same principle applies: Even the client paying half-price for her occasional facial does not want the reduced costs to be felt in the experience. And that’s precisely where employing a concierge becomes an advantage. A concierge’s small touches and added attention helps that client feel pampered without necessarily racking up a ton of costs for the day spa’s owner.

At Your Service

“The concierge provides the first impression of your business,” says Lacy Hardy, owner of Sunflower Spa in Appleton, Wisconsin. “From the first phone call, she tries to relay to clients the experience that they are going to receive when they come in. It’s a very challenging role.”

Hardy knows the importance of a concierge because she started her business without one. But ever since she handpicked Dawn Gerner, a woman with significant reception, customer service and sales experience, to be a concierge, Hardy can’t remember not having had her there. Gerner is involved in every aspect of the client experience, from greeting guests and giving tours to helping plan special events. Hardy admits that it was initially a difficult decision to allocate money toward hiring someone for that position, but adds, “I got over that really quickly when everything ran more smoothly and became more consistent.”

Consistency is a major asset in a day spa, which relies so heavily on repeat business. And having a familiar, affable presence proved to be a legitimate asset for Sunflower Spa, even over the phone. “The guests get to know the concierge, so when they call to book an appointment, it’s not just a voice over the phone; they know who Dawn is,” says Hardy. “That’s going to create more loyalty and a stronger bond.”

A concierge is also there to turn a negative experience into a positive one, and that key staffer’s personable approach and quick thinking can prove invaluable to a smaller spa business. Gerner tells how one guest mistakenly came in for her appointment a day before the scheduled date, and seemed upset by the mix-up. To ease the situation, Gerner offered a sympathetic ear, as well as a complimentary hot stone or steam shower to add to the client’s next-day appointment. “We’ll go that extra step to say, ‘I’m sorry that happened; I want you to come back, and I’m going to take extra care of you when you do,’” Gerner says.

Hardy is so convinced of the value of her concierge service she has opted to hire three rotating concierges so the position is always manned. She rationalizes it from a business perspective: “If I’m going to lose a client because a front desk person isn’t available to answer the phones, that’s going to cost me more money in the long run then paying somebody to cover the whole 12 hours that we’re open.”

“The only downside of concierges is that if you have a really good one, you never want to be without her,” warns Katherine Varelas, lead concierge at Burke Williams’ Pasadena location.

A concierge is also there to turn a negative experience into a positive one, and that key staffer’s personable approach and quick thinking can prove invaluable to a smaller spa business.

Cutting Corners

Although having a concierge available at all times is ideal, because you never know when a situation is going to arise that calls for that special courtesy and extra TLC, it isn’t realistic for all day spas. But that doesn’t mean you should reject the idea outright.

Consider what Mark Edward, owner of Mark Edward Skincare in Los Angeles, did. Reasoning that no one knows a day spa like its onsite owner, Edward decided to assume the concierge role himself. He effectively uses the concierge role to knowledgably yet personably describe for clients the skincare products on his retail shelves—a move that often leads to increased sales. “That wouldn’t happen if you had a concierge who really didn’t know the products,” he points out.

Edward cautions spa owners against hiring a concierge who is friendly enough but not fully knowledgeable. “If there’s no one there who can answer their questions, clients aren’t going to feel confident about your spa, and they might try to go somewhere else,” he says. The other clear advantage to his “do it yourself” strategy is that it’s a good way to cut down on business expenses—so long as the owner is genuinely committed to taking care of all the small details him- or herself.

At a fancy hotel or the larger resort spas, it often appears that the concierge spends a good amount of time standing around, waiting for someone he can help. That’s less likely to occur at a budget-conscious day spa business, where a less traditional interpretation of the role means there’s little to no downtime for the appointed concierge. Gerner describes herself as a “jack of all trades,” and easily rattles off an exhaustive list of her duties at Sunflower Spa: greeting guests, answering phones, scheduling appointments, informing guests of any necessary information, offering water, explaining products, providing new clients with health history forms, giving tours of the facility, scheduling and arranging spa parties, training new employees, ordering inventory, helping therapists prepare their tables and even doing the laundry.

The trick to covering all of these responsibilities is being able to shift back and forth between duties efficiently, explains Hardy. She describes the ideal concierge as a multitasker--someone who can work diligently on the computer, then turn her full attention toward a client who enters the building, and then resume her initial task on the computer once that client has been taken care of.

The nine-location Burke Williams day spa chain enjoys a somewhat higher price point, and can afford to have its concierges focus strictly on customer service. This is not to say that the BW concierges are any less busy, but rather, their tasks are “front of the house.” The Pasadena location’s lead concierge, Varelas, whose 20 years of experience include working at an upscale hotel, lists some of her daily activities: answering questions, serving chocolate frozen bananas and hot tea, providing cucumbers for eyes and offering cool peppermint towels. “From waitress to counselor, I am involved in every aspect of the business and always strive to make things run smoothly,” she says.

Given the multifaceted function of the day spa concierge, owners may find it challenging to find just the right person for the job. Hardy considers the concierge position “the hardest to fill,” and actually suggests hiring concierges on a trial basis, assessing their performance after 30, 60 and 90 days.

Kim agrees. “You can find a million people who appear professional or polished,” she says, “but the key is to find a unique individual who can relate to people on many different levels and take responsibility for a guest’s experience.”

“A concierge must be professional, but also let their personality come through so the guest feels comfortable,” Hardy adds. “It’s not for everybody.”

In a business devoted to pampering clients, it is crucial to ensure that they feel pampered at every step of the process. Even if you can’t accommodate a designated concierge, you can always look for ways to have your employees share responsibilities so that the duties of a concierge are covered. Because let’s face it: No day spa can afford to skimp on customer service.

Kevin Matthews is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.