Talking to...Donna McKee

Having landed the role of spa manager at Center Parcs’ major new Woburn spa, Donna McKee tells Suzanne Braithwaite about the challenges ahead

"I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have landed my dream job,” says, Donna Mckee, who was appointed Aqua Sana spa manager last October. And it is easy to see why. 

The colossal 77,500sq ft, £17.5m spa, which opened in June, boasts the World of Spa: 25 multisensory experience rooms, such as saunas, steam rooms and rain walks, set across six spa zones including Fire & Ice, Mineral and Gemstone, Blossom, Herbal, Sensory, and Salt. A highlight of the spa is the 3D sensory experience, which exposes clients to the sounds, scents, colours, humidity and temperatures of autumn, winter, spring and summer. 

Center ParcsOther facilities include a pedicure suite, two relaxation lounges – a light, social one, and a dark tranquil one, a large indoor/outdoor jet infinity pool that overlooks the forest, and some 22 treatment rooms – with space for 22 more. 

There is also a reception set up in the style of a mini salon, which offers express nail treatments from CND and complimentary makeovers from Mii to entice guests to buy retail. There are six spa suites for guests to stay in, again with room to build more as the spa expands. 

Up to the challenge 

Mckee was chosen for the role after three years in spa management at Champneys Tring and more than a decade in the industry. 

Center Parcs outdoor“When I first got here I was amazed at the size of the spa,” she says. Don Camilleri [Center Parcs director], the mastermind behind the spa concept, has been working on the idea for 15 years, “which is longer than my whole career”, she says. 

While she may have come in at the last hurdle before the grand opening to sort out recruitment and training, she is now eager to meet the company’s ambitious goal of making the spa pay for itself within four years. 

“We’re located in an affluent area and have been promoting it not just to our Center Parcs guests but as a day spa to the local area. We also hope to attract the London market as we’re just under an hour away by train.” 

Her years of experience at Champneys Tring helped McKee gear up for this position, as she understands every aspect of the day-to-day running of a large spa, from working as a therapist to dealing with recruitment issues, supervising staff and analysing profit and loss. 

Foot bathsHowever, while the spa has 80 staff and 47 therapists, she is not on her own and has the support of four managers, each with a different role, from business development, treatments business and spa operations, to reception and retail. 

“I feel like I’m in a helicopter overseeing it all – but we’re all supporting each other,” she says. “As the whole village is new, it is a challenge to make us one big team, but we’re in a unique situation as we’ve had the past six months to train everyone to the same standard.”

The therapists have all endured a six-to eight-week training programme with the product houses, which include Elemis, Bliss, Decléor, Mii and CND. 

Social scene

“Spas in general can be very intimidating for some people. We want to address this, which is why we have an open policy,” explains McKee. “We would like to be known as a sociable spa where guests can celebrate spending time with friends and family. The design reflects this to make it inviting, self explanatory and social.” 

Lava saunaThe spa environment has cleverly integrated different zones, where people can hang out in groups but not feel uncomfortable if they are alone. The footbath area aims to ease guests into the spa environment and there is also a zone within the World of Spa that hosts two to three seminars a day to demonstrate Elemis, Bliss and Decléor treatments, so guests who aren’t so spa-savvy can get a better understanding of the treatment offer. 

“When I first started my career, spas were really exclusive – mainly for the rich, but now it’s more accessible. Woburn is a great introductory place to experience it all,” she says.

Blossom roomThe devil is certainly in the detail at Aqua Sana – from the tropical plants, the music and lighting to set the scene, to the aromas of each steam room and the signage to explain each zone. The spa encourages everyone, with disabled access points into the pool, wheelchair access to the saunas and steam rooms and a service to help wheelchair users around the spa. 

Development opportunities

From July 7 the spa will be fully operational, and at capacity will hold 165 people over a three-hour period. 

“At the moment the spa is going to bed in what it is offering,” says Mckee. However, she says she will keep abreast of new products and treatment developments, listening to what clients want to help build the reputation of the spa and putting an emphasis on repeat business.

“We have a great PR ad marketing team, as well as social media team to share content from clients digitally and create awareness,” she says.

Salt roomExpress treatments and treatments for men are already high on the spa’s agenda, taking note of current trends, but there are also plans to offer alternative therapies such as reflexology and aromatherapy once the team better understands the types of clients they are attracting. 

“We are assuming we know what clients want but we don’t really know who our guests are yet so there is definitely scope for new treatments and products – but first we need to perfect what we have got on offer now.” PB

KEY DATES

2001 - Donna McKee begins her career as a therapist at Champneys Tring

2005 - Works up to the role of in-house trainer/premier therapist, looking after celebrities and VIPs

2006 - Promoted to day manager (spa supervisor)

2010 - Appointed assistant manager

2011 - Promoted to Champneys Tring spa manager

2013 - Leaves Champneys to join Center Parcs as Aqua Sana Woburn spa manager

2014 - Aqua Sana Woburn Forest opens to the public