Talking to Catherine Ferma

As the brand celebrates its 35th anniversary, The Sanctuary’s spa director talks to Nora Elias about its recent rebranding and the secret to success

The Sanctuary may have acquired virtually iconic status in the UK day spa market since it originally opened its door in the heart of Covent Garden in 1977, but that doesn’t mean the renowned brand intends to rest on its laurels. Quite the contrary. Catherine Ferma, who joined the company in 2010 after 15 years with Esporta Health & Fitness, says moving with the times has been essential to the success of the spa. “Otherwise your business becomes stagnant,” she says. In recognition of this, The Sanctuary in October 2011 introduced a ‘treatment only’ option at the Covent Garden spa, for the first time in its then 34-year history. Where customers previously needed to book in for a full-day spa experience, they can now also pop in for a quick massage, facial or manicure/pedicure – or opt for one of the half-day packages on the menu.

Catherine Ferma, The Sanctuary“One of the key things I have focused on since joining the company 18 months ago is ensuring we remain relevant to the modern woman,” Ferma says. “People today are often very short on time and we realised that coming in for a whole day isn’t always ideal for the modern working woman.” One aspect that won’t be changing in the foreseeable future, however, is The Sanctuary’s distinctive positioning as a women-only spa. “Over the years people have questioned if we should let men in, it’s one of those questions that will periodically get bandied about,” Ferma says. “But what we’re doing works; it’s one of our unique selling points and we’re staying true to our roots and have no plans to allow men in.”

Retail route
Deciding where to draw the line on change, how to adapt to a rapidly evolving market without loosing sight of your brand identity, is something Ferma believes is integral to The Sanctuary’s continuing popularity. “It’s about making sure that we are responsive and quick to react to developments within the industry without losing our core,” she says. One thing that is certainly very different to when the spa launched 35 years ago is the importance of products. Introduced in 1998, The Sanctuary’s branded product range, incorporating a skincare and a body care line, now accounts for 90% of the company’s turnover – with the spas responsible for 10%. “We are very much a product business now,” Ferma says.

Products today constitute the bulk of The Sanctuary’s global revenue – it is also available in select international markets – but as Ferma explains, its strength is largely based on the power of the spa brand. “The spa gives the products credence and a unique selling point.” The most recent addition to the Sanctuary spa product family is the Active Reverse skincare range, launched in September in collaboration with the spa’s new skincare ambassador, celebrated ballerina Darcey Bussell. The first time The Sanctuary has collaborated with a well-known figure in this way, there were many reasons Bussell was “identified as someone we wanted to work with as a brand.”

As a former Royal Ballet principal dancer, Bussell has an obvious connection to the spa; Covent Garden is not only home to the Royal Ballet (located in the Royal Opera House), The Sanctuary was also created by American choreographer Gary Cockerill for his ballerina wife. Returning to the point of ensuring relevance to the busy cotemporary woman, Ferma adds that another reason Bussell was chosen to front Active Reverse was that “she has two children, she’s a working mum.” Coinciding with a company-wide rebranding that has also seen the re-launch of The Sanctuary website and the restyling of its four spas, the Active Reverse range is sold in the spas, on the website and through The Sanctuary’s retail partners Boots and Debenhams.

The Sanctuary front

Branching out
In 2010, The Sanctuary established three new sites; in Bristol, Cambridge and Richmond. Joining the company after these smaller spas were set up, in December that year, Ferma explains that they were created to bring The Sanctuary to new UK locales. “Being in London, we have very much been a southern-based brand and this was about moving us into other parts of the country,” she says. Labelled ‘boutique spas’, the Bristol, Cambridge and Richmond locations are what Ferma refers to as “smaller, younger sister, versions of the Covent Garden spa.” While not equipped with all the facilities of the London original (there is, for example, no pool sauna or steam room in the boutique spas) they offer many of the same treatments and services. The Sanctuary employs 250 women across its four spas.

For Ferma, being part of a vast global company offers the best of two worlds. “What I have been absolutely blessed with is that I have the strength and organisation of a large group like PZ Cussons behind me, but at the same time I have been given complete autonomy to drive the spa and implement any changes necessary.” This, she adds, is not always the case in a businesses of this size. “In big global organisations you can sometimes become strangled by red tape but that hasn’t happened in the spa,” says Ferma – who also oversees the St Tropez UK salons following PZ Cussons’ 2010 takeover of the brand.

Simple message
The Sanctuary is now part of the PZ Cussons Beauty Division, which was founded in 2011 and is run by St Tropez chief executive Michelle Feeney. In addition to The Sanctuary and St Tropez, the division incorporates hair brands Fudge and Charles Worthington. Commenting on her vision for the company, going forward, Ferma stresses that it is important to her that The Sanctuary remains accessible to all types of spa-goers. “We see more than 60,000 women a year at The Sanctuary, so you’re going to get everyone from [seasoned] spa experts to clients visiting for the first time,” she says. As part of this strategy, Ferma streamlined The Sanctuary treatment menu when she first took over in 2010. “Spas sometimes overcomplicate their menus, but we reduced the complexity of treatments,” she says, adding that it “comes back to accessibility, to not being intimidating or making things too confusing.” 

The challenging economic times notwithstanding, Ferma describes The Sanctuary as “very profitable” and says that while the company prides itself on being accessible in pricing as well as atmosphere, it has no intention of jumping on the discount bandwagon. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re an aspirational brand and that we haven’t gone into deep discounts, that’s been a very strategic decision of mine. I think that once you do that, customers will come to expect discounts,” she says, continuing to point out that, “if you consistently have to go into deep discounting, one would also argue that you got your prices wrong in the first place.”

Key Dates

2012 – Catherine Ferma rebrands The Sanctuary, including a restyling of its four salons and a website revamp. Launches skincare range Active Reverse in collaboration with ambassador Darcey Bussell.

2011 – Introduces a ‘treatment only’ option at the Covent Garden spa. The PZ Cussons Beauty Division, consisting of The Sanctuary, Charles Worthington, Fudge and St. Tropez, is created.

2010 – Moves from her regional director position at Esporta (now part of the Virgin Active Group) to become spa director at The Sanctuary. Launches The Sanctuary boutique spas in Bristol, Cambridge and Richmond.

2008  – The Sanctuary is acquired by the PZ Cussons group.

1998 – The launch of The Sanctuary product range

1977  – The Sanctuary established in Covent Garden, as the first women-only day pa in the UK, by US choreographer Gary Cockerill.