For decades, scores of tourists flocked to New Orleans for world-class jazz, cuisine and a haunted history rich in voodoo lore and ghost stories. But when Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding ravaged the city in 2005, the Big Easy became home to ghosts of a different sort. Even when the waters receded and the city started to rebuild, many residents who had fled during the storm didn’t return, and myriad local business owners never reopened their shuttered doors.
Among those casualties was the first floor of the locally owned Avenue Plaza Resort Hotel in the tony Garden District. Mackie Shilstone, local businesswoman and owner of several health food stores, had originally planned to develop the 5,600-square-foot space into a high-end fitness center and spa. In fact, all the plumbing and much of the design were already in place when city officials began issuing storm-related evacuation orders. After the flood, the project was abandoned and, for nearly three years, the space sat empty. Finally, in 2008, an area businesswoman began using a small portion of that space as an extension to her mobile spa business, Spa Laje. In early 2012, local tech entrepreneur Mike Melito and his wife Mary bought that business, renamed it Le Jardin Day Spa, and set their sights on finishing the grand project that Shilstone had initially envisioned, while still maintaining the lucrative mobile aspect of Spa Laje.
“The story of how we came to be is really symbolic of New Orleans, post-Katrina,” says Le Jardin’s general manager, Sarah Cuartas. “We know about starting over, and we believe in this city.” —Shari Goldhagen
That N’awlins love shines through in several aspects of Le Jardin. The menu is built around the sights, sounds and tastes of its city. Services include All that Jazz (80 min./$125; $155 off-site), a body treatment using grapes and sugar cane to “make skin sparkle like the city’s music,” and Café au Lait (70 min./$130; $145 off-site), an antiaging facial described as “better than a shot of espresso from the French Market.” (With Le Jardin’s clients comprising two distinct groups—area residents and tourists—the staff worked to develop treatments that carried sufficient New Orleans flair to attract visitors, yet wouldn’t seem too cheesy to locals.)
Le Jardin’s interior design also pays homage to the French and Spanish heritages characterizing the city with a clean, simple and classic aesthetic. While the current space features only 750 square feet (the spa is currently undergoing renovations to quadruple its size), its three treatment rooms and single mani/pedi station feel quite spacious thanks to Le Jardin’s open, tropical feel.
Plus, guests can literally taste New Orleans at this spa. Le Jardin recently teamed up with Avenue Plaza’s award-winning Mr. John’s Steakhouse, housed in the same building. “At first I was a little skeptical because you don’t think of a steakhouse when you think of spa,” Cuartas says. “But then I tried all of the restaurant’s salads and we were able to create a lighter menu featuring lunch fare.” Between services, clients can now sup on soups and salads (served by Mr. John’s staffers) on Le Jardin’s balmy balcony as they watch streetcars traverse historic Saint Charles Avenue.
Tourism is big business in New Orleans (in 2011, the city welcomed nearly 10 million visitors), and accordingly, the Big Easy boasts dozens of hotels and inns at every price point. But the No. 1 tourist hotspot, the famed French Quarter, located just minutes away from Le Jardin, spans only about half a square mile. While architecture here is iconically beautiful and intimate, the majority of hotels offer only between 50 and 100 guest rooms, which, as Cuartas explains, doesn’t bode well for adding on-site spa facilities.
“If you only have 50 rooms in your hotel and a spa takes up 4,000 square feet, that really cuts into the number of rooms you can spare,” she says. “Even in the most glamorous hotel, only a small portion of guests will use spa services, so it’s not a great model for the hotels to build and staff their own.”
Still, many travelers view a vacation as incomplete without a massage or body treatment. Enter Le Jardin’s mobile service, offering the full menu of treatments in the privacy of a client’s hotel room.
Since the spa is operated wholly independently of the Avenue Plaza, any New Orleans hotel can book guest treatments through Le Jardin. This has allowed many area properties to add in-room spa services to their offerings; even land-based casinos, such as Harrah’s New Orleans, now use Le Jardin to comp high rollers seeking VIP treatments. The arrangement has proven mutually beneficial.
“We designate weekly visiting days, when we hit the streets to chat with concierges and front desk staff to foster partnerships,” says Cuartas. “It’s really an easy sell—we’re offering additional amenities to their guests at no cost to them.”
Not all of Le Jardin’s off-site business stems from concierge relationships, though. During tourist high season (Mardi Gras- and Jazz Festival-fueled spring, as well as fall), Cuartas and her team make sure that all popular tourist destinations are wallpapered with Le Jardin’s elegant flyers and brochures. With 25% of mobile service calls coming directly from clients, the word seems to be getting out.
Using the same stable of therapists for both on- and off-site services, Le Jardin’s in-room treatment protocols are largely unchanged for the mobile versions, but Cuartas describes the latter as “less clinical” and more “sensory.” For instance, hotel-room facials don’t include pore extraction, but place greater emphasis on aroma and music.
The mobile operation is not without additional costs. Le Jardin therapists are uniformly compensated whether they perform a treatment in the Saint Charles Avenue location or in a suite across town at the Intercontinental, while management foots the bill for transportation costs, insurance and parking. Plus, some hotels insist on additional background checks. And hauling equipment such as massage tables from place to place can hasten wear and tear. To cover the difference, Le Jardin prices off-site services at $15 to $30 more than those performed at the spa.
Still, not every menu item translates seamlessly from home base to hotel room. The purifying Mississippi Mud body treatment (90 min./$135; $155 off-site), while a big hit with clients, has proved unpopular with hotel maids, who often balk when the see the treatment name—and the number of towels required for cleanup. Cuartas notes that flexibility is crucial when working in partnerships. “Our relationships with the hotel staff are important,” she says. “If one of our services poses a problem for a certain hotel, they don’t have to offer it.”
With Gulf tourism on the rise, Cuartas and the Melitos are working with various properties, setting up additional services to better take advantage of outdoor spaces such as hotel pool areas and courtyards. And Le Jardin’s team is also getting a foot in the door of New Orleans’ extensive convention business (in 2011 the city hosted 34 separate conventions bringing more than 3,000 attendees each). The staff was trained in chair massage and foot reflexology, and recently started performing mini services in convention center hallways. (This has also led to calls from convention-goers seeking additional treatments during their stays!)
Currently about 75% of Le Jardin’s business is mobile. However, owners are taking steps to achieve a 50/50 ratio while they expand both aspects of the operation. The thinking behind this is twofold: First, tourist attendance can’t always be counted upon (not only did Hurricane Katrina drastically curtail city visits, but Cuartas also notes that 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which pumped nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, also devastated New Orleans’ tourism industry).
Second, the city desperately needs a destination spa for local residents. “There are a lot of area hair salons that may offer waxing or chair massage, but if you really want a full-on spa experience, that means trekking to the handful of places in the French Quarter,” Cuartas explains. “Most locals don’t live there, so they have to deal with driving, finding parking and then all the crowds—not very relaxing!”
Le Jardin’s location in the Garden District seems to strike an ideal balance—a quick streetcar or cab ride from the tourist-y parts of town, yet within walking distance of many residential neighborhoods. So far, marketing initiatives have included reaching out to area women’s networks, organizations and clubs (Le Jardin even offers for-credit internships to women seeking to learn about the spa industry).
The ongoing expansion should also help better establish Le Jardin as a community fixture. In addition to adding a steam room and sauna, spa owners plan to build yoga and Pilates studios, and offer daily classes. “We want this to become the kind of place where people can spend a whole day,” she says. “They can do yoga in the morning followed by a sports massage, then lunch and a facial and hand treatment.”
Le Jardin is still “a diamond in the rough,” says Mike Melito, but he’s quick to add, “The business they had going here was good; now we just want to take it to the next level.”
No matter the exact trajectory for Le Jardin, one thing remains clear. “We’re lifelong New Orleanians,” Cuartas emphasizes, “and we’re committed to serving our city.”
Shari Goldhagen is a New York City-based writer.
Open since: 2008 (as Spa Laje); re-launched March 2012
No. of employees: 12
Average service ticket: $115 on-site; $170 off-site
Product lines: Éminence Organic Skin Care, Nola Beaux aromatherapy candles
Most popular treatment: Pralines & Cream Hand and Foot Treatment (90 min./ $100; $125 off-site)
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