Jewel of the Isle

courtesy Koru Eco Spa

Staffing Shuffle

In the summer tourist season running from May into October, Block Island’s Inns, B&Bs and vacation homes reach maximum capacity with as many as 10,000 people on the island. Come winter, the population dips to just under 1,000 and Koru, like most BI businesses, shutters its windows and closes down. But just because the spa doesn’t take clients off-season, doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done during that period.

“Almost as soon as the season ends, we start working on the next one,” says von Bernuth, who divides her winters between the island and New York City. First, von Bernuth and Seppa address renovations or repairs that couldn’t be performed during the peak season; then, the focus shifts to improvements. Last winter, von Bernuth put together a front-desk manual and an employee handbook to help ease the transition for new employees. Koru also sells its sunscreen line through its online store, so Seppa—who lives on BI year round—makes weekly trips to the spa to handle shipments. BI is also a hugely popular wedding destination, with brides beginning preparations months or even years in advance, so winter months are often spent setting up bridal appointments (thus assuaging nervous brides) for the coming season.

By far the greatest off-season challenge for von Bernuth is lining up and training staff for the upcoming season. While some Koru staffers, like its hairstylist and two massage therapists, have fallen in love with the island and return summer after summer, others are only there for one season. “We have about a 50% return rate of staffers, which is actually very high for the island,” says von Bernuth. “But it still means we’re replacing half our people each year.”

Finding and hiring skilled professionals is a time-consuming process that begins in January. “My friends make fun of me because I’m getting massages and manicures all winter long,” says Seppa. “But it’s not like hiring a waitress or a bartender, where I can just look at a resume. I need to actually experience candidates’ services to know if they’re good.”

Once the crew is hired, there’s the matter of housing them. Many new staffers are unfamiliar with the island, so to ease their transition von Bernuth and Seppa secure a block of apartments each season that they then rent out to employees. Usually by April, a month before the spa opens, the entire staff is assembled and learning signature treatments. Year-round BI residents can score complimentary services if they want to volunteer as “guinea pigs” for the new staff. But treatment training isn’t these newbies’ only challenge.

“That first month is really their orientation to the island,” says Seppa. “We have to prepare them for life here. We show them where they can eat on a budget and where they can do laundry. We tell them about stocking up on their favorite toiletries and dry goods—if there’s a cereal they like, I tell them to bring five boxes because here, it might be hard to get, and more expensive.”