SPA MARKETING: Caring About Childcare

Are the client-luring benefits of on-site childcare worth the challenges? Kid-friendly spa owners say yes.

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On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in November, seven children roam about the Dr. Seuss-themed childcare room at Time Out Beauty Retreat in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada. A couple of the youngsters hover above a well-stocked train table, their attention locked upon the colorful cars whizzing around the track. Others build an ambitious fort using big foam blocks. Should their attention wane, there’s still a play kitchen, coloring books and crayons, riding toys and a television to hold their interest.

All activity unfolds under the watchful eye of a qualified caregiver. “The childcare room is fully stocked,” confirms Erin Van Oene, Time Out’s owner. “It’s heaven for a little kid.” And without this heavenly space, many of Van Oene’s clients wouldn’t be able to indulge in spa services at all.

Van Oene had time-strapped parents in mind when she opened her spa nearly three years ago, so she began offering on-site childcare from the get-go. “Our spa is in a little town, and even though I’ve got some of the best estheticians around, there’s competition here; you need to have a niche,” says Van Oene, herself a mother of two young children. “To be the salon and spa that offers childcare—that’s my purpose.”

On the surface, on-site childcare is business gold. There are tons of harried parents out there; think how many you could attract with the opportunity to enjoy spa services, sans worry about wee ones! But as experienced businesspeople know, ideas that look great on paper aren’t always reasonable or profitable in practice. “It’s a whole other business on its own,” admits Van Oene. “Honestly, some days I wish I didn’t have it. Some days it’s that tricky.”

And the demands are numerous and ongoing: There’s obtaining and maintaining staffing and insurance; upholding order and cleanliness; and even dealing with children’s occasional meltdowns. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual spa owner to decide whether the benefits of childcare outweigh its challenges. Here are some factors to consider:

A License to Care Spa owners who resolve to make the leap into childcare often find themselves drowning in legalese and insurance jargon. Licensing—the specifics of which vary significantly from state to state—can determine what kind of childcare program a spa is able to offer. In Portland, state laws prevented Zenana Spa from receiving a license for all-day community childcare, a sad turn for spa employees who would have leapt at the opportunity to leave their own children in on-site childcare while they worked. Zenana’s only option was to offer short-term care for clients’ children, which, says co-owner Annee Ingala, was legal in Oregon because “the moms were on-site and because it was a short-term thing.”

Before a single toy is purchased, spas are wise to get up to speed on insurance and childcare licensing requirements for their state, and proceed accordingly. (Contact your state’s childcare regulatory office to find those laws pertaining to your business.)

Inner Space Consideration must be given to how a childcare space is outfitted. Childcare at Koi SpaSalons in Princeton and Edgewater, New Jersey, serves children ranging from a few weeks old to teenaged, and the required toys and accessories require regular and meticulous upkeep. “We have antimicrobial carpeting, the bathrooms are cleaned several times a day, and the toys are disinfected daily,” reports owner Regina Polevoy.

Where to position a childcare room in relation to the rest of the spa is a crucial and strategic decision. Van Oene has separate entrances leading to the spa and the childcare room. Zenana Spa’s childcare was offered in a converted treatment room, but such close proximity to their children sometimes kept parents from reaping the full benefits of treatments. “If a baby was crying in the children’s room and Mom was receiving a service three doors down, she could hear her own baby crying, or she could hear somebody else’s baby crying and wonder whether her baby was crying, and she wouldn’t be able to relax,” says Ingala.

Who’s On the Front Lines? Instituting a childcare program can necessitate an influx of new employees. Pre-requisites such as CPR certification and criminal background checks are standard. Successful candidates should also demonstrate that they are able to thrive under pressure. “You may have kids with allergies, or you may have the little two-year-old twins I’ve got in there right now, who’ve never been left by their parents before,” points out Van Oene. “They lost their minds for 40 minutes and we finally calmed them down. Childcare is a different ballgame; caregivers need to have a high level of patience, and only a select few truly have that patience.”

If You Build It, Will They Come? It can be tricky to determine how popular on-site childcare will be until it’s actually available to your clients. Van Oene believed her clientele would take advantage of childcare, and she was right. Ingala expected the same, and was proven wrong. “Clients would say, ‘Oh, you have childcare, that’s such a great idea, I love that,’ and then they’d never use it,” she says.

After three years of serving just a handful of clients with children, Zenana Spa converted its childcare space back into a treatment room. “We just weren’t making any money,” Ingala admits. Although the room is now profitable again, she often wonders about those few women who stopped coming once the childcare option was removed. “I don’t know if they’re still taking care of themselves, or if they just stopped using spa services altogether,” she says, “and that possibility makes me really sad.”

Boon or Burden? Unless a facility is licensed to care for children from the community at large, in-spa childcare programs rarely generate enough income to cover more than their basic expenses. Clients are reluctant to pay high fees for childcare on top of what they’re already spending on spa services.

“Out here, parents are not going to pay a spa $10 an hour to look after their child while they’re getting a service. They will find somebody else to babysit,” says Van Oene, who charges no more than $4 per child per visit. “My thing is, if I can just break even with childcare so that it covers the wages, lovely.”

But childcare work calls for ongoing re-evaluation and re-tooling for Van Oene. “Initially we were offering it every minute of every day, which was really hard to staff because then, you’re not making enough money from each child to pay for the wages—so I revamped the scheduling,” she says. Van Oene has instituted a pre-registration policy and now only offers childcare services during certain hours.

Now that she’s breaking even, is it worth it? “I see what some of these moms look like when they come in compared to when they leave,” she notes. “No amount of value that can be placed on that.”
For Koi SpaSalons, the goal concerns marketing more than revenue. Here, childcare is a complimentary perk to attract and keep clientele. But Koi SpaSalon locations are adjacent to athletic centers also owned by Polevoy, and the spa and gym clients share childcare facilities. “It’s fairly labor-intensive; for a spa to maintain it all is another financial burden,” said Polevoy. “That’s why it’s so rare.”

The Third Option

If option one is to dedicate valuable square footage to childcare, and option two is to not offer childcare at all, then the third option is to develop a partnership with a neighboring childcare provider. For some spas, this has proven an effective way to cater to parents without having to shoulder the burden of on-site care.

For more than five years, Revive Day Spa in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has partnered with the nearby Kids Fit Fun Factory to offer complimentary childcare to spa clients. “It’s a popular service,” says Sarah Wallace, Revive’s co-owner. “The partnership benefits us and the childcare center because we’re both getting exposure.” The average length of a child’s stay at the Kids Fit Fun Factory is just over an hour, with the complimentary offer capped at two hours.

Business hours for Revive Day Spa and its childcare partner are the same, save for Saturday, when the center closes several hours before the spa does. “Our receptionist just has to keep that in mind when booking appointments,” explains Wallace.

Getting the word out about offering childcare is essential, but not easy, perhaps because the public isn’t expecting it. Even after five years of providing this perk, Revive’s biggest challenge is making clients aware that free, high-quality childcare is an option. “We promote it on our website and our Facebook page, but there are still people who are shocked when they call to book an appointment and we tell them about the free childcare,” Wallace reports. “That’s how unexpected and rare it is.”

Sabrina Furminger is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.