Insider's Guide to Spas

Behind the Brand

Why Auberge Resorts Tops the List of Ultra-Luxury Boutique Hotels

Perry Garfinkel


It was never intended to be a resort hotel, much less an international hotel collection. It started as only a single restaurant, indeed a very good restaurant, actually an excellent Michelin star-winning restaurant called Auberge du Soleil. Assuming a hilltop perch overlooking Napa Valley’s lush grape vineyards, it opened to rave reviews in 1981, under the culinary guidance of legendary chef Masa Kobayashi. The restaurant went on to win a Michelin star eleven consecutive years since the guide first launched its San Francisco edition.

And but for a little zoning impasse, it would have become a privately owned group of cottages serving as pied-à-terre for wealthy San Franciscans. But Bob Harmon, a successful real-estate developer and attorney, and restaurateur Claude Rouas, whose L’Etoile at the Huntington Hotel set the bar for French dining on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, could not bypass the code that limited the land use to a hotel, not cottages or condos.

“If Four Seasons is Mercedes, we’re Aston Martin . . . “

And that’s how in 1984, Auberge du Soleil became the first, and remains the flagship, of the Auberge Resorts Collection, small ultra-luxury boutique hotels that now dot exquisite settings from Napa Valley to Baja California, Colorado, Anguilla Island, Costa Rica and Fiji . . . with more to come.

Bob’s sons, both lawyers, helped with his various development projects, drawing on their legal expertise under the umbrella of Moana Resorts and Restaurant Group. Son Tim moved more into the restaurant world with the Piatti restaurants and Paragon Restaurant and Bar; he’s now CEO of Moana Resorts and Restaurant Group. Mark gravitated to hotels.

He says it was on a European honeymoon with his wife that he got his big hotel “aha,” when the couple stayed at La Colombe D’Or ​in St Paul de Vence, France, a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group of hotels. They stayed at several other Relais & Châteaux properties.

“We blew out our budget but it was worth it,” he recalls. “These were small properties informed with the culture of the place, with great food.”

These would be the model and prototype for those that would follow in Auberge Resorts, which he officially formed in 1998.

Year Founded/Established

1998

Corporate Headquarters

33 Reed Blvd, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Phone: (415) 380-3460

Founders/People Behind the Brand

 As founder of Auberge Resorts, Mark oversees the concept, design, and development of hotels, resorts, residence clubs, and branded residences. Since 1998, he has led the company’s growth to encompass ventures not only in resort management, but also in resort development, real estate, and residence clubs.

While he says he “backed into the hotel business,” he quickly caught up and compensated what he lacked in experience with passion, creativity, business savvy, and a very high bar when it comes to a refined sense of aesthetics. There is no cookie cutter mold to Auberge properties, even as the company looks to grow exponentially over the next decade.

“We emulate the European country inn,” he explains, “comfortable but special, with wonderful touches that make you feel as though you’re in the home of a great designer with exquisite taste, like Tom Ford.”

One way the company ensures that much-sought “bespoke” element is a high ratio of staff to guest, about four or five per. Also, he intends to keep the room numbers small, unlike some competitors who are beginning to develop 200-room hotels. The smallest hotel of the Auberge Collection is the Malliouhana Resort in Anguilla with 44 rooms; Hotel Jerome in Aspen is the largest, with 93 rooms.

As a marketing strategy, each hotel puts its own name first, followed by “An Auberge Resort,” as opposed to, for example, the Four Seasons Hotels, which puts that first. But it’s more than a marketing strategy: “It’s a statement that each hotel has its own personality,” adds Mark.

In 2014, as the company looked to expansion, Mark brought on a seasoned hotel veteran to become CEO and president. In Craig Reid, he found a very sharp hotel guy with 30 years experience in hotel development, management, and service excellence, bringing a broad global hotel expertise. Craig had been Four Seasons Hotels President of Hotel Operations, The Americas, preceded by three decades in a variety of management roles at Four Seasons properties in Chicago, Boston, Austin, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. Born in Lima, Peru, raised in England, Reid became an American citizen in 2004, and has had a home in Northern California’s Marin County since 2014.

When he joined, there were six Auberge resorts. He says: “My objective is to take the DNA of the company—of individualized, character-infused informal luxury, warmth, and familiarity—and raise its level of professionalism uniformly across all our hotels.” He was instrumental in hiring several new executives in the last three years, including three from the Four Seasons.

“If Four Seasons is Mercedes, we’re Aston Martin,” as Craig puts it.

“I think of Mark as the visionary and creative director of the product,” he further explains. “I am the visionary about the company. Our skill sets are complementary.”

Of the corporate director of spas, Karen Ray, and Tracy Lee, former vice president of spas and now head of her own company, which has developed many Auberge spas, past, present, and future, read below.

Finally, the truly silent partner in this mix is Auberge Chairman Dan Friedkin, head of a Houston-based privately held consortium of businesses, investments, and private equities. But his influence in direction and style is heard loudly within the company. His involvement in Auberge Resorts was announced in 2013. While maintaining a low profile in terms of media exposure, he is “the lead investor and chief strategist at an extremely high level,” according to Craig. “An astute businessman with a refined taste, he has long-term objectives to make us the world’s leading operator of ultra-luxury boutique hotels.”

Claim to Fame

There’s luxe, there’s luxury, there’s barefoot luxury, there’s even ultra-luxury but Auberge claims, as stated above, to be one of the top ultra-luxury boutique hotels in the world today. And there is no evidence to contradict that claim. It’s a relatively new niche in hotel categories.

From the beginning, based on the success of Auberge du Soleil, future resorts in the Collection aimed to showcase great dining establishments worthy of that Holy Grail: “the destination restaurant”—meaning that even as part of a hotel, even on some remote cliff overlooking water crashing up to land, people would find their way to it.

On top of that, as their reputation for world-class spas grew, that wellness services component became an integral part of the strategy.

Mission of Brand

“To be considered the best operator of boutique ultra-luxury properties and experiences,” Mark succinctly puts it. From the company statements, these are its other goals:

Essence of place. Each of its resorts interprets the best of the local culture and natural surroundings through its design, amenities, and cuisine, to capture the essence of the destination.

Authentic bliss. The Auberge spa philosophy fosters wellbeing through integrating fitness, pleasure, and healing, infusing treatments with a respect for the natural environment, as well by using locally sourced herbs and oils as much as possible.

Food of place. Culinary experiences feature fresh, local ingredients, with menus that reflect the region.

Inspiring experiences. Through Auberge Adventures, guests can engage in enriching and even educational activities unique to each destination, offering a sense of discovery, both of themselves and their surroundings.

Delivering with passion. Staff members are trained to provide warm, attentive, and intuitive service, addressing each guest’s individual needs with knowledge and inspiration.

Caring for our planet, Demonstrating responsible luxury is the underlying principle of “Planet Auberge,” ensuring that resorts minimize their environmental footprints while making positive and meaningful contributions to the local environment and communities.

Number of Properties

There are 10 properties, including international properties in Mexico, Costa Rica, Fiji, and Anguilla Island in the Caribbean.

Number of Spas           

Ten: All Auberge resorts have spas, as will those in the future.

Number of Employees

2,300 employees worldwide

Most Successful Spa 

The spa at Auberge du Soleil was the first, and remains the flagship of the company. However, each of the Auberge Resorts spas has distinguished itself as best in class: among others, Baja California’s Esperanza, the company’s second hotel, has been voted the top spa in Mexico; Solage, in Napa Valley’s Calistoga, has garnered top industry awards and generates the highest revenues. “As with my children,” says Mark, “I can’t choose a favorite one. I love them all equally and unconditionally.”

Corporate Spa Director

Karen Ray started as the spa director at Calistoga Ranch when it opened in 2004. She became director of Auberge Resorts spas in 2013, when Tracy Lee left the company to build her own spa design company, TLEE Spas. But the transition has been seamless; the two work together often . . . and more importantly share a philosophy of spa and, more important still, how Auberge lives up to that ideal. Karen sums up the shared approach simply:

“Pleasure is healing,” she says. “It is the route to wellbeing.”

Karen takes care of the operations side of the ten spas in the Collection: staffing, training, overseeing the skin-care line, and more. Tracy’s forte is the physical design of the space.

Both emphasize that Auberge Resorts’ spas breathe in the ambience of each locale, from local foliage to local culture and healing rituals, then reflect them through the oils, treatments, and decor. At Calistoga Ranch, for example, which is set back up in the woods of Calistoga, eucalyptus—whose properties help reduce inflammation and congestion, among others—plays a significant role in the oils. In Anguilla, the Malliouhana Resort uses local tamarind, known for its the ability to also reduce inflammation, improve eye health, boost respiratory health, improve skin condition and digestion, relieve pain, and lower cholesterol to improve cardiovascular health.

The team selected Prima Fleur Botanicals to produce its treatment oils. Consistent with the Auberge ethos, the name of the company is inspired by the Latin phrase, Esse Quam Videri, which means, “to be, rather than to seem.”

Tracy adds: “Auberge spas are very much woven into the entire brand personality. We start with a site-specific concept—we ask questions like ‘What do we know about the history and geography of the location? What is the climate from season to season? What are its aesthetics? What is its culture?’ We never say, ‘This is how an Auberge spa should look or feel.’ Their only commonality is excellence of service and product.”

In terms of respect for the environment, she points to the Planet Auberge program targeted initiatives focused on minimizing the property footprint, improving the surrounding environment and communities, while simultaneously enhancing the guest experience.

“Designing with nature in mind is a big part of what we do,” Tracy says. “It makes me feel good about working with Auberge.”

Future Plans for the Brand

“We will continue to grow on a strategic and measured basis, as we have in the past,” Mark says, “based on great opportunities that fit our ideals.”

Depending on whether expansion includes new builds from scratch, which the company prefers, or taking over management and upgrading of existing properties, he projects adding 10 new resorts by 2027. Craig envisions a growth spurt that will eventually bring the total to 40.

“Along with what we have in the pipeline already, with projects underway and set to open in the next two years in Fort Lauderdale, Utah, Idaho, yet another in Napa Valley, and other interesting North American prospects, we’re looking at gateway European cities, such as Paris and London, along with French wine country and coastal Italy destinations,” Craig allowed. He pointed to forthcoming announcements for one more in the Caribbean and another in Mexico.

Asia is not on the horizon—too much competition in the same category—but South America is not out of the question.

“While some investors we talk to have an eye to buy and sell properties”—flip them, in the parlance of real estate developers—“we are more interested in long-term relationships, which is better for guests, staff, and the local destination itself,” Craig continues. “This way we become protectors of the environment and of the quality of our brand name.”

On the spa front, Karen Ray says guests should look for more integration of spa and fitness in its existing and future projects: “While some people shy away from workouts that may include weightlifting, machines, or treadmills, we see that as complementary to a spa treatment, to help achieve optimal wellness.”

Signature Treatment(s) of Note           

 While the company prides itself in offering treatments that are unique to each property, utilizing local elements, there is a trio of treatments that appears on Auberge spa menus worldwide. It’s called the Anthology, and consists of:

The Attunement (75 minutes, $250; 90 minutes, $300), a restorative blend of massage therapies. Warm herbal compresses infused with muscle-soothing essential oils are applied to key pressure points to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. This is followed by a series of stretches, deep tissue massage techniques, and warm and cool stones.

The Best of Auberge Facial (90 minutes, $300), a triple-action procedure using a blend of botanical enzymes and anti-aging peels. A lifting and sculpting facial massage then restores the skin’s radiant glow. This also includes a neck, shoulder, and foot massage.

The Auberge Head to Toe (90 minutes, $300; 120 minutes, $400) alternates firm and nurturing styles of massage. It starts with a stimulating scalp massage and a hair mask, followed by steamed towel compresses on the feet, which in turn leads to an exfoliating scrub and a reflexology massage.

Three Words that Best Describe the Brand

Soulful, intimate, and romance.

 

 

 

 

Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel, who has been covering cutting-edge health and psychology trends for almost 40 years, is the author of the national bestseller "Buddha or Bust." A longtime contributor to The New York Times, currently regularly to the Vocations column in Sunday Business, he has also written for the National Geographic Magazine, the AARP magazine, the L.A. Times mind/body section, and many others. The author of "Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure," he leads writing workshops around the world, at hotels and other venues.