Spa Review: The Bermudian Willow Stream Spa
Just footsteps from the beach, the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Southampton Princess Resort on the main island of Bermuda exudes island-style merriment with a laid-back, decadent approach to spa-going.
Who among us has not dreamt of traveling to a distant and exotic land to seek adventure, excitement and perhaps even… employment?
This fantasy is not such a stretch in the spa-operations field where, once you’ve made a name for yourself, the world can truly be your oyster. After all, these days, what luxurious hotel or opulent resort tucked into a far-flung corner of the globe doesn’t have a spa that relies on the talents a good director?
Paul Schmidt recognized one such opportunity when he was offered a key position at the Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Southampton Princess Resort on the main island of Bermuda earlier this year. And the veteran wellness professional, yearning to fuel his sense of adventure and sate his desire to work with an established spa brand belonging to a world-class leader in hospitality, couldn’t imagine letting the opportunity slip away. But to do so would mean saying goodbye to his life and (temporarily) his wife in Wyoming, and creating an entirely new reality on an isolated island in the middle of the sea. And, as he was soon to discover, the process wouldn’t be easy.–L.Brooks Baldwin
Schmidt, who has been a fixture in the spa industry since the late 1980s when he trained as a massage therapist and founded a holistic healing center in Vermont, has devoted his entire adult life to a career focused on health, healing and well-being. He has owned, managed, directed and consulted with a range of independent as well as hotel and resort spas; served as trainer and educator for various programs and institutions; and sat on numerous committees and boards, including his current stint on the board of directors for the International Spa Association (ISPA).
Despite all of Schmidt’s accomplishments he, like many in our industry, was adversely affected by the economic recession. When in 2009 a spa project he’d been hired to build and open suddenly terminated due to a loss of backing, he was thrown off-guard. But he also saw the sudden change as an opportunity to reexamine his career goals and to consider new ways in which to achieve them.
Enter Lori Hutchinson, a friend and spa industry colleague, as well as founder of hospitality recruiting firm Hutchinson Consulting. In late 2010, Hutchinson notified Schmidt about an assistant spa director position at the award-winning Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Southampton Princess on the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda. Although the idea of working for the venerable five-star Fairmont chain, and in particular their prestigious Willow Stream spa brand, held considerable appeal, the notion of actually relocating to the small (21 square miles, to be exact), foreign nation of Bermuda held a giant question mark in his mind. Plus, he was clearly overqualified for the “assistant” title.
Still, Schmidt was intrigued enough to jet off to Bermuda for an interview. What he discovered there was one of Fairmont’s original Willow Stream spas (branded as such in 2002), perched regally above the resort’s 18-hole golf course, and framed by a pink-sand beach and the dazzling aquamarine-blue sea beyond.
But Schmidt also discovered a major obstacle to making this big move: immigration. Bermuda is a British territory and, as a potential ex-pat, Schmidt found that
securing employment there would present a challenge, as Bermudian applicants would be the first-tier choice for employers. And, as it turned out, the assistant director position in question subsequently became unavailable to him. Thwarted, he returned to the States and took on a long-term consulting contract to rebrand a domestic spa.
Months later, in the fall of 2011, Schmidt received another call from Bermuda: The position of spa director at the Willow Stream would be opening up at the end of the year. This time, Schmidt didn’t hesitate to express his interest and, after a series of interviews with corporate and property leaders, received his highly anticipated offer letter in early December 2011.
But there were more hurdles to clear.
“Accepting the terms of the offer began the immigration process, which involved gathering a litany of documentation for both myself and my wife declaring the states of our health, criminal status, moral fortitude, professional history, training, education, citizenship status, marital commitment and more,” Schmidt recounts. “The process entailed the investment of hundreds and hundreds of dollars in fees, postage, phone bills and notary services, and countless hours per week.”
After nearly three grueling months, Schmidt finally did receive a three-year permit to work as director of the Bermuda spa.
In March of this year, Schmidt took up residence in a fancy resort on the semitropical island of Bermuda. His commute spans all of two hallways and an elevator ride down to his spa-level office. His work attire? A suit coat, tie, dark knee highs, and… Bermuda shorts, of course.
Schmidt reports that his new life as spa director of the 31,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa—the largest by far on this remote and tiny archipelago—has been exhilarating, alternating between moments of bliss and challenge. Bermuda’s culture might best be described as that of British formality blended with a laid-back, “island time” sensibility. The population has a keen awareness of its dependence on foreign tourism and products, as well as a generous supply of national pride and unity. Schmidt is enchanted by the country’s colorful spirit, the captivating beauty of his surrounds and the sheer novelty of his new life. “I feel honored to be invited by another culture to live and work as a contributing member of their society,“ he says.
Schmidt’s love for his new home is equaled by his passion for his work, the Fairmont brand and the Willow Stream spa concept. Despite his initial concerns about the potential for corporate inertia, Schmidt feels individually encouraged to contribute his creativity to the success of the spa and the betterment of the Fairmont brand.
“It’s a dream, honestly, and a pleasure to work for a hotel brand that values and invests in service-oriented behavior,” Schmidt says. “I feel I was born to work for Fairmont and the people I get to work with are truly aligned in the same way. It’s a pleasure.”
Schmidt’s day-to-day challenges include interacting with a multinational staff of 67, including Scottish, English, Irish, South African, Nepalese, American, Canadian and Mexican employees, along with 24 Bermudian natives. Fortunately, the warm and engaging Schmidt exudes a calm yet professional demeanor, and employs a collaborative and inclusive management style that serves him well as a team builder. He encounters much stronger headwinds when trying to advance his business vision and agenda against overriding realities like the state of the Bermudian economy; and the issues around importing products, equipment and repair parts; and the seasonal shifts in tourism that affect spa business. On top of it all, this adventurous spa director is still trying to digest the Fairmont and the Willow Stream philosophies and business models to make sure his plans and methods are in sync.
Stressful? Of course. But life-changing adventures aren’t for the faint of heart. Schmidt has befriended challenge, and doesn’t balk at the ones before him. I
Instead, he forges on with a wink, a smile and a few well-placed self-mandates along the way:
• Remain open minded and professional at all times.
• Never burn bridges.
• Be honest.
• Don’t get discouraged.
• Do what it takes to get the job done.
Other Spa Reviews: Japanese Style Spas | Six Senses Spa in Barcelona | Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs | Napa Valley’s Spa Solage | Ascent Spa at Tenaya Lodge | Hong Kong’s Peninsula Spa by ESPA | Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort | Australia’s Chuan Spa