What’s The Problem With Spa Associations?


Spa Associations are essentially representative bodies for the spa industry. The goal is to have one unified voice for the industry, rather than multiple voices, many with conflicting agendas, all yelling at the same time. But who is listening to this voice anyway? Mainly it is government institutions and authorities. Those charged with establishing and regulating our society at large.

Ideally, Spa Associations should represent the views of various stakeholders from within the industry. Spa businesses, spa therapists, product suppliers, hotels, spa training organisations, even spa software companies. Basically, the Spa Association should represent any person, business or institution with a vested interest in the spa industry. Does that sound a bit like a utopian view? It probably is. But like I said, that is the ideal. The reality is often quite different.

Spa Associations Composition

A small group of spa owners are usually at the core of most Spa Associations. These people often are operators of Day Spas, rather than Hotel Spas. But many associations will also have a number of more senior spa managers from hotels in the area too. Often these spa managers will be from a branded chain hotel company. There may also be token spa consultant or two who has a seat at the head table at the monthly Spa Association meeting. That’s basically it. Just the three main groups represented.

This may seem to be a reasonable representation of the spa industry. Certainly, these three groups are major stakeholders in the industry. But a closer look at the composition of many Spa Associations will find that even the representation within these three groups tends to be highly skewed to the higher end of the market.

Day Spa Faction

The active voices from the Day Spa group are usually from the more expensive, exclusive, higher end spas. I could theorise about why this is so, but I honestly don’t know for sure. My guess would be that the owners of these spas probably have a team of people working for them who can run the spa in the absence of the owner herself. Whereas with smaller, less exclusive spas, the owners are deeply embedded in the day to day running of the business. They do not have the luxury of taking time out to discuss bigger picture issues related the overall industry. Instead, they are just focussed on making payroll each month.

Hotel Spa Faction

The Hotel Spa group, just like the Day Spa group, is almost always skewed to the 5-star end of the market. The reasons for this are similar in terms of these spa managers having the luxury of more staff to run the operation in their absence. And there is also sometimes a push from the hotel side for their managers to get involved in the Spa Association. Hotel GMs themselves are often members of the local Hotel Association. From this they see a benefit in getting access to information and resources and hope their spa manager will get the same. The unfortunate reality is that many Spa Associations often offer little to their members in terms of resources and actionable information. To be clear, it’s not necessarily all their fault either. It comes down to a question of limited resources.

Another reason for this  is that generally you will find that Spa managers in 5-star hotels are also quite career minded, This may also explain their over representation, as they are keen to join their local Spa Association for the networking opportunities. Regardless of the reasons, the reality is most Spa Associations will skew to an under representation of 4-star, or lower, hotel spas. Some may argue that hotels at the lower end of the market are less likely to have spas, so of course there will be less of these managers involved in Spa Associations. That may be true of 3-star hotels and below, but certainly not 4 -star hotels. Not these days.

And the buck stops…?

It is also worth noting that, unlike the representatives from the Day Spa group and the Spa Consultant group, the hotel spa managers involved in the Spa Associations are usually not the ultimate decision maker in their spa. Most spa managers in hotels do not have carte blanche to run the spa their way. If they are in a chain hotel, they will often need to adhere to corporate brand standards in all sorts of areas from spa facilities to the treatment menu to marketing and promotions and beyond. They may even have a Corporate Spa Director to report to who sets the direction for all spas in the group. Alternatively, these managers often need to follow the directive set by their General Manager.

None of this makes the spa managers input into the Spa Association any less valuable. I just think it is important to the keep the authority of the voice in perspective.

Spa Consultant Faction

Our third group, Spa Consultants, can be an eclectic bunch. You will not often find a big presence of spa consultants in these Spa Associations, but there will always be one or two. If we are going to continue with the stereotyping generalisations we have for the previous two groups, most active Spa Consultants in Spa Associations are there to drum up new business for their consultancy. There. I said it. Apologies to those spa consultants who are genuinely there to help make a difference in the industry. Though, to be clear, the two need not be mutually exclusive. There is no reason why a good Spa Consultant can not both generate clients for their own business and help push along an industry-wide agenda. However, in my experience, once these consultants start generating enough business, their involvement in the Spa Association tends to wane. And not surprisingly, when you think about it, as most of them are one wo/man businesses. They do not have lots of staff working for them so if there is consulting work to be done, it is them that has to do it.

Of course, there are no concerns with Spa Associations having these three groups represented. As mentioned, they are all major stakeholders. They should be represented. What is an issue is the absence, or at least the under representation, of all the other stakeholders we mentioned. Spa Therapists, suppliers and vendors, educational institutions, etc.

Spa Association Leadership

Leadership of Spa Associations can be a fascinating thing to observe. As you would expect, The Prez will usually come from one of the three key groups we identified above. If it is a Day Spa owner, that person will often have a small chain of Day Spas, not just one and again they will cater to the more affluent clientele. If it is the Hotel Spa Manager, they will most likely be from one the marque hotel spas in the market. These people will be seen as more successful, or at least their businesses will be seen as more successful than the others in the Association. As a result, they somehow seem to have an almost automatic leadership right. But if it is a Spa Consultant who heads the Spa Association, their profile is sometimes a bit different to the other possible leaders.

Where you find a Spa Consultant in the role of the President of a Spa Association, you may find that this person is not actually the most successful or established or the best consultant in the market. If they were, they probably would not have the time to devote to the roles of President. As mentioned above, they’d be too busy working. In my experience the Spa Consultant President is often a second-tier consultant looking to raise their industry profile and with it increase their consulting business of course. I know that sounds horrible. I don’t mean it to be. Just because they are ‘second tier’ does not necessarily mean that they are second rate. Maybe the just have not yet had the opportunities that the leading spa consultant has had? Perhaps they have only recently become a spa consultant?

Hiding to Nothing

Just as with the Hotel Spa Manager without decision making authority in their business, the input of a second tier Spa Consultant is no less valid that that of leading consultant. Again, it is just a question of noting the authority of the voice. In some ways, the Spa Consultant who is President of the Spa Association is on a hiding to nothing. If they do a good job as President, they will by default raise their own profile within the industry. This would likely lead to an increase in consulting opportunities. As their consulting business increases, they will be forced to focus less on the Spa Association. Ultimately, they will either need to relinquish their post or risk doing a worse job as their consulting workload increases. Either way, they often end up with a bad rap as someone who just used the Association for their own personal benefit.

Ultimately, anyone who takes on a leadership role in a Spa Association runs the risk of being labelled a self-promoter. And I have seen numerous examples where that would be a fair description too. As long as these Associations are made up of volunteers, this will always be a risk. Spa Associations may have one junior administration position which is paid. But for the rest of the Committee positions, they are usually exclusively voluntary. There is just not enough money in most Spa Associations to cover much by way of salaries.

Show Me The Money!

When it comes the funding of Spa Associations, it is in some way the Chicken and Egg conundrum. The Association wants more fees from more members so they are better resourced to do the job of representing their members. However, spa people and businesses are reluctant to ante up the membership fees as they do not see the value for money, based on what it being achieved thus far. Government funding is rarely something that can be counted on.

Pursuing corporate sponsorships is one possible option. But do remember that most sponsors will usually want something in return for their sponsorship. Now, that might be something as simple as the opportunity to present their products to the Association a few times a year in the hope that some of them will become future clients. I would argue that might just be a small enough price to pay for a little more financial freedom.

The Spa Police

In some countries, the Spa Association is expected to be not only the voice of the industry but also the policeman. A government authority responsible for issuing a spa business license, for example, may require that spa to first be approved by the Spa Association. This makes perfect sense from the government’s point of view. They do not know how to rate and assess a spa. The Spa Association should. So, let them do it. But just because they should, does not mean they can. True, the Spa Association should be able to make this assessment, but who’s paying for it?

To do a proper assessment, the Association will need to send an inspector to the spa. Maybe they’ll need to do a Mystery Shopper to see what really happens when nobody’s watching. Possibly even a review of the staff training certifications, etc. Someone needs to pay for that inspector’s time, their flight, accommodation and meals for the day, etc. All these things cost money. Logically the spa seeking certification needs to cover these costs. However, for a smaller spa, these costs can be a big burden. So now what? A smaller spa with less money can not get a license to operate? Not the most egalitarian system, but maybe that is the way it has to be?

Criteria and Confusion

Incidentally, before anyone can inspect and assess the applicant spa, there’ll need to be a set of criteria and guidelines established for what the Spa Association considers worthy of carrying their stamp of approval. Again, someone needs to spend the time to create this and time means money. So, who is going to pay for it?

Just to add to the confusion, there are countries which have two or more Spa Associations all competing with each other to be recognised as the industry body. This seems crazy to anyone outside of the spa world. It probably looks pretty crazy to the government authorities in these countries too. But to those of us inside the spa industry, unfortunately, it seems all too real.

Global Spa Association

Maybe Spa Associations around the world can join together to pool all of their guidelines, benchmarks, assessment criteria, etc.? Imagine an open sourced set of international spa standards, criteria and benchmarks. That would be something powerful. All Associations could pay an equal amount to join the Global Spa Association (GSA). The GSA then uses those dues to fund the development of the global set of standards and benchmarks. The person or Association who creates a standard that ultimately is voted in by the GSA, gets paid an agreed amount from the pool of fees. All members vote on each standard or benchmark and if it gets the required majority of votes from the global spa community, it becomes the standard.

OK, so maybe I am once again caught in my dream of Spa Utopia. But it is an interesting idea, is it not?