In Conversation with Sharilyn Abbajay
When I think of spa operations, one person immediately comes to mind—Sharilyn Abbajay, who I met back in her Red Door days, around 1997, when she served as Senior Vice President of Red Door Operations. Sharilyn’s experience is vast and includes executive positions with Marriott International and Neill Corp. She is adept at growing and developing luxury brands, as well as developing world-class service programs and standard operating procedures. “I’m a true operator,” she tells me. “I never left operations.” We caught up by phone recently to talk about the new reality of spa. Here’s what she had to say.
Build Gradually, Manage False Expectations
We’ve entered a new reality on how to function in business. When you reopen, it should be to that new reality. This is a reset! You’ll need to rebuild your business gradually and manage false expectations. A lot of people think they’ll reopen, and it’ll be a lot like before March 12th. Nothing can be farther from the truth. This is not business as usual.
If I look at the segments—beauty, wellness, spa—and predict which one will recover first, I go right to beauty. Why? Because I’ve got two inches of gray hair right now, and even though funds are strained, I’m desperate to return to my hairdresser. And I’m not the only one. We always find a way to get our hair done—cut, colored—forget the blow-dry. And we all know that lipstick is the perfect go-to for a sweet affordable treat!
Small Indulgences Make You Feel Better
As of this writing, there are 22 million unemployed people in the US. If you have a job interview, online or in person, your exterior presentation matters. You need to look good. Like it or not, your hair, your hands, and nails will be scrutinized. You want to make a good impression. You need to make a good impression. You may think twice before booking a facial, even though your skin may need it, same goes for booking a massage. If you only have a limited amount of funds, you’re going to go for the service that will make the biggest visible impact because you need a job. I believe specialized services will rebound more rapidly than other services—hair, barber, nails, eyebrows, waxing, sugaring, lashes.
A Post-Pandemic Strategy
It won’t be business as usual, but a gradual upswing will be realized. Here’s my advice:
• Accept the recovery reset period (push the pause button and don’t panic). Plan to rebound and set new goals to: Prepare; Communicate; Execute.
• Manage expectations and educate both staff and customers. Respond quickly, and be honest.
• Relax, rethink and/or rewrite the rule book—everyone is emotionally and socially distressed. What is truly important now?
• Keep in contact with your guests and/or clients. They will remember the engagement, or lack of it.
• Review your company’s mission and values. Concentrate on maximizing trust and minimizing fear and uncertainty.
• Graciously exercise human distancing and best practices, whether your clients do or not.
• It is the responsibility of the establishment to help their guest feel confident to return. Hand sanitizers should be placed at the front door, in relaxation rooms, changing rooms, etc.
• A disinfectant policy is a must—for all departments.
The Spa Reset
Businesses will need to train and prepare their staff, for the new realities. But they also need to be very mindful of the consumer. How do you handle the consumer questions like: What are you doing to keep your business safe from germs and harmful-causing viruses that can affect my health? Is this sterilized? Have your sheets been washed? If your guests are cold, are you going to cover them with a blanket that’s been used by five previous guests? Ideally, your guests will not have to ask questions about safety. Their safety will be obvious to them.
• We need a clear, unifying message for the consumer.
• Hygiene is the number-one concern. If you cough and sneeze, what’s that consumer going to think? What does hygiene and sanitation look like now? What steps are you going to take to provide a safe—clean, hygienic, sterile—environment when you’re touching and transmitting all day?
• Your sanitation practices and safety precautions should now be added to your spa menu. Make this part of your belief system and how you operate.
• Do not even think about raising your prices to try to gain the loss. You may want to think about re-engineering your price points—but you cannot raise your prices at all.
• Safe space scheduling (do not “herd in” guests or clients).
• Merchandise essential products at point of sale (quick in and exit).
• Every spa should have a wellness practitioner or partner with one. Not only as an addition to your services, but also to support your staff.
• Send a personal letter out to every single client, outlining what you’re doing. Create a special re-opening offer. Send them a gift, like a hand sanitizer.
On Spas that will Survive
I believe that the major hotel spas will survive—but honestly, they need to get the message out to their local customers, as well as to hotel guests. Regarding day spas, if they have a strong hair and nail business, they’ll survive. That’s always been the cross-pollinator.
Medical spas will sustain. Most definitely because there isn’t a question in a medical spa environment as to whether or not they’re practicing the right sanitation requirements. They fall under a much stricter ordinance.
In a spa environment, what has the practitioner exercised to implement any form of sanitation, sterilization, other than washing their hands, changing the sheets, and changing the face cradle?
Thoughts on Estheticians
Estheticians started using gloves about 10 year ago, now they’ll need to wear a mask. They definitely should use disposable headbands—not terrycloth headbands. If they’re applying a facial mask with a brush, that brush needs to be sanitized or dipped into some kind of antiseptic, antibacterial solution. Everything will need to be cleaned with an antibacterial solution. If they’re grabbing a product and they’ve seen five to eight guests that day—even though they have gloves on, they’ll still need to wipe down everything they’ve touched. Including the counter, because when you leave that room you don’t know what the guest just touched. An esthetician needs to wear a mask and disposable, biodegradable gloves and use disposable, biodegradable headbands or bonnets on the guest. I foresee more devices being used.
Service & Product Predictions to Support the Reset
As previously noted, I believe specialized services will rebound more rapidly than other services—hair, barber, nails, eyebrows, waxing, sugaring, lashes. Additionally, I predict a rise in:
• Relaxation, solitude safe rooms
• Wellness, meditation, coaches; stress and depression therapies
• Protective facials; protective face creams and/or oils (serums)
• Massage therapy—less hands-on, more salt, stones, and devices
• Hair treatments
• Lip protectors, such as gloss and moisture sticks
• Mascara and brow pencils
• Essential oils and bath & shower products
• Gentle facial masks and peels
• Antibacterial sprays for home, workspace, etc.
• Clean antibacterial diffusers
Provide space and comfort for your guests. The consumer’s confidence will return. This shall pass, but our learnings are here to stay.