Lynne McNees President, International Spa Association
To understand which issues are most pressing in the spa industry, simply get a group of spa leaders together and listen to them talk. Sooner or later, most of those conversations will likely end up orbiting the challenges our industry faces regarding its workforce.
During ISPA's recent Stronger Together Summit, about a thousand such professionals gathered virtually to connect and learn from one another. Even though the speakers represented all types of spas and businesses within the spa and hospitality industries and the educational offerings were wide-ranging, the subject of the spa industry workforce seemed to find its way to the center of nearly every discussion.
There is, of course, a good reason for that. A 2019 ISPA study, conducted in partnership with research firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, revealed that there were more than 28,000 unfilled spa service provider positions (massage therapists, estheticians and nail technicians) and more than 4,000 unfilled Spa Director or Spa Manager roles available in U.S. spas at that time.
Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 15 months or so, those figures are even higher today, and spa leaders continue to struggle in their search for qualified team members. Resort and hotel spas, many of which reduced the size of their staffs more severely than day spas in 2020, may face a particularly difficult labor market for the foreseeable future as a result of attrition, competition from other industries and a weakened talent pipeline.
If those spas can rise to meet these workforce challenges, however, they have the opportunity to take advantage of pent-up demand for spa treatments and services and set themselves up for success as-and well after-they recover from the pandemic.
Attrition Rears Its Head
It's no secret that the economic impact of the pandemic has been felt more acutely by women than men. According to The New York Times, there were 4.5 million fewer women employed in October 2020 than in October 2019, and a third of the working women aged 25 to 44 years who are unemployed reported that child care demands were the reason they were not working. Concerns within the spa industry that a significant number of service providers have left their roles and may not return to the industry post-pandemic seem warranted in light of those figures, given that nearly 90 percent of massage therapists are women, as are 98 percent of estheticians and about 87 percent of nail technicians.
An exact accounting of the attrition rate for these workers will not be possible until more spas can return to full-scale operations. It is reasonable, however, to expect that, if even a relatively small percentage of service providers elect not to return to their professions, a spa industry already facing a considerable talent shortage will be in greater need than ever before of a comprehensive approach to attracting new talent into these roles and closing that gap.
But that task will take time, and meanwhile, resorts and hotels the world over eager to attract returning guests and travelers and provide them with a top-shelf experience may have to do so without the benefit of a fully staffed spa. At a time when business and event travel is slow to return to normal, a busy spa can serve as an appealing asset and a significant source of revenue for the property (many resort and hotel spas have reported strong recent performance, often in contrast to the sometimes-lagging performance of their hotel counterparts), but only if it is able to fill its treatment spaces with service providers who can meet guest demand.
Closing the Talent Gap
If hotels and resorts are to put their spas in the best position to not only recover well from the pandemic, but thrive in the months and years beyond, they must work alongside spa leaders to bring more people into the industry talent pipeline, attract already-qualified service providers seeking career changes and establish talent strategies that help retain top employees.
After soliciting copious amounts of feedback on spas' talent and workforce issues, ISPA is currently developing a toolkit containing resources to aid in these efforts, but our resort and hotel spa members are already putting a number of strategies and initiatives in place to address their staffing needs. One such strategy involves seeking out partnerships with schools that train service providers. Through these partnerships, spas are often able to make direct contact with potential employees, many of whom may not have previously considered a career in the spa industry.
Spa leaders can also schedule tours with students or volunteer to speak to classes about their profession and the industry in general, highlighting the opportunities students have to both earn a competitive wage and bring health and healing to others. Some spas are even reaching out to high schools, sharing information with school guidance offices and acting more or less like industry ambassadors, highlighting the benefits of a career in spa to a population that may simply not be aware of their options.
Another group that may be able to offer the spa industry some relief is already-qualified service providers who work somewhere other than a spa. The American Massage Therapist Association, for example, notes that only 4 percent of all massage therapists work in a hotel/resort/cruise setting, and just 20 percent work in a spa or salon setting. By prioritizing outreach to the more than three-quarters of all massage therapists who work outside of these locations, spas may be able to identify candidates who bring more experience and confidence to their roles.
Attracting (and retaining) top talent obviously goes beyond simply identifying strong potential hires. From there, spas must also create a culture that is attractive to prospective employees (and current staff). Communicating a clear-and accurate-sense of your company's mission and the ways it aligns with the values that so many who work in hospitality share is crucial to that messaging. Highlighting opportunities for growth, maintaining an easy-to-understand compensation structure and thoughtfully gathering and implementing employee feedback can also make a strong impression on those considering an open position.
Put simply, resort and hotel spas must clearly demonstrate the appeal of working in their particular corner of the hospitality industry to a talent pool that will likely remain in exceptionally high demand for the time being. It won't be easy, but it is essential to their success in the months and years ahead. Investing in and fostering that talent once it's onboard is equally critical. As Fred DeMicco, executive director of Northern Arizona University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management put it during the Stronger Together Summit audience, his students' basic attitude toward their future employees is simple: "Help me grow, or I will go."
The Case for Pent-up Demand
Anecdotally, ISPA has heard from a number of resort and hotel spa leaders who have noted that, despite the occupancy restrictions under which most of them have been opening, demand for spa services has been particularly strong in recent months, in some cases even surpassing pre-pandemic monthly revenue levels. Given the higher-than-typical stress rates experienced by so many during the pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that spa services find themselves in great demand, with the potential for that demand to grow even further. After all, ISPA consumer research indicates that the top reason most people give for visiting a spa is to relax and reduce stress.
As Colin McIlheney, leader of global research at PwC, said during ISPA's Stronger Together Summit, "I believe the mantra at the moment is, 'Open it and they will come.' If we can get the spas open, you will see unprecedented demand to get back to spas and back to the services people want." McIlheney's conclusion is rooted in more than simply the power of positive thinking, as illustrated by his colleague Russell Donaldson, manager at PwC and one of the architects of the annual ISPA U.S. Spa Industry Study.
At the same event, Donaldson explained that, although the drop in revenues and total spa visits that the spa industry experienced in 2020 closely resembles the figures we saw during the great recession, recovery from this more recent economic downturn will likely look very different. "The great recession was a different illness with the same symptoms," Donaldson said. 2008 and 2009 were problematic because of a fall in demand. Fewer people had disposable income to spend on 'luxuries' like spa-going, so demand fell and the industry suffered. This time, it's more a crisis of supply. It was the public health-enforced closures and concerns that were stopping people from visiting."
There is little doubt that McIlheney and Donaldson's words will comfort hotel and resort spa operators as they continue to chart their business's recovery from the pandemic. But once again, the spa industry's workforce challenges stand ready to rear their heads. To take full advantage of high demand, these spas must be adequately staffed to utilize their available treatment spaces.
In practicality, it may not be possible for every spa to book every available appointment and use every square inch of treatment space, but those that invest in the search for talent will put themselves in a position to capitalize on an impending flood of demand.