REMEMBER the last time you had a rejuvenating wellness treatment? Like getting a massage after a sweaty gym workout, for example, or after an intense day at work that had your muscles begging for relief? Taking a trip to the spa can certainly sound like an alluring balm in our hectic lives.
But not all spa treatments are created equal. Sometimes, it is the oldest, simplest, and cheapest regimens that offer the best results, while many of the newer and pricier treatments don’t usually live up to their claims.
This craving for a reliable and relaxing escape is what drives the growth of the spa and wellness industry, says Samantha Pang, founder and director of Vita Spa, a privately-held Malaysia-based spa and wellness centre operator.
“The demand is there as people are living a hectic life and therefore massage and spa services are seen as important in supporting a balanced lifestyle. But the spa business is also getting more and more competitive, so much so that one just needs to walk through any row of shops nearby to find at least one or two spas or beauty salons,” she says.
Compounding this, the spa industry is also “polluted” with unsavoury elements that often give the public or customers the wrong perception.
The negative perception also hampers recruitment efforts. It is keeping away potential talent and those with the passion for the industry due to the stigma attached to the job.
Pang says this is exacerbated by the fact that many wellness centres are not regulated, which, in turn, perpetuates the belief that spas are not professionally managed.
So how does a small player in a fragmented industry ensure that it has the competitive edge? To stand apart from the rest in a crowded field, Pang says getting it right in terms of quality, service and pricing makes the difference.
As a former head of standards and compliance in the corporate world before going full-time into Vita Spa, Pang certainly knows a thing or two about how quality control works. To begin with, she personally scans through interviews and recruits every single candidate before taking them on board.
“We take recruitment exercises very seriously, and must ensure they have the right personalities and characteristics to excel in this industry,” she says.
Targeting the upper-middle market segment, Vita Spa prices its services within a range where customers can feel the value for money, Pang adds.
She also notes that the spa and beauty salon industry, which relies heavily on foreign workers, faces a pressing need to develop more local masseuses and practitioners, as well as in need of shaping its own identity.
According to Pang, all Vita Spa’s staff are locals, and many have stayed with the company since it started 10 years ago. Some have also moved on to run their own spas or take up positions in the management team.
Spas are generally seen as an indulgence and a part of the cosmopolitan experience, so there are certain expectations of the services. This means having an established standard operating procedure and training mechanism are a must, says Pang.
Vita Spa currently has a collaboration deal with Gaya Spa, one of Indonesia’s largest spa and wellness operators, for human resources training and development of standard spa operating procedures or SSOP.
A Malaysian touch
One of the key selling points for Vita is in promoting lesser-known Malaysian wellness treatments. Many of the treatment techniques, architecture, training, standards and approaches used by Vita Spa, including its Vita Signature Massage, effectively constitute the Malaysian brand.
While the industry is competitive and has many established brand names from Thailand and Indonesia, Vita Spa will focus on its niche of Malaysia’s traditional wellness remedies, which unlike Thai and Balinese massages, are still relatively unexplored, says Pang.
Other spa treatments with a local touch developed in-house by Vita Spa include Asian Heritage Massage, which combines Malay, Balinese and Javanese techniques, and Boreh Herbal Scrub, which contains traditional herbs such as turmeric, clove, nutmeg, ginger and kaffir lime leaves.
Vita Spa is now looking for growth opportunities to expand in line with the growth of the tourism industry in Malaysia and in many other South-East Asian countries. Pang welcomes direct approaches from other spa and wellness operators, their advisors or investors who are interested in the wellness business.
Some of the options for expansion include the development of wellness products, the setting up of training academies to train masseurs skilled in locally-developed treatment therapies and the expansion of other wellness and personal care-related treatments such as pedicure and facial and body treatments.
It is also looking at franchise models especially for spa and wellness centres in mid- to high-end hotels and resorts, as well as in locations with high concentration of expatriate communities to promote its Malaysia-based spa treatments and products.
Vita Spa would also like to expand its spa consultancy services business, where it provides management and advice for third-party spa operators, says Pang.
On its products, Vita Spa is working with local businesses to develop in-house environmentally friendly Malaysian bio-essential oil and treatment products based on locally-sourced traditional herbal remedies.
Vita Spa currently has three outlets and is looking at opening two more this year. It is also looking at other potentially under-represented markets in need of good spa and wellness centres, such as Sarawak, which are popular tourist destinations. Pang is also hopeful of exploring overseas markets such as Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan to grow its reach and push Malaysia’s brand of treatment out.
A firm believer in following one’s passion to be successful, Pang recalls her earlier struggles in setting up a business, armed with only her love for spas. Having had to juggle her daytime job in the corporate sector and her interest in wellness, she has learned the value of being hands-on to ensure that her venture can blossom in its entirety.
She adds that exercising her expertise in quality control has helped lead the venture to where it is today.
Pang acknowledges that some of the micro-funding schemes for SMEs offered by the government were also a great help to the company in the earlier years of the business.
But as Vita Spa gets ready to expand its footprint, Pang’s success in managing what many consider to be one of the most intricate parts of running a business – its human capital – will again be put to the test. After all, managing a bigger animal across countries is a different ball game altogether.