How to collaborate with external specialists to enhance your offer

An enviable roster of specialist practitioners is the latest must-have credential for spas and wellness resorts. Wellness guests want to be treated and guided by experts with impressive followings, and it can prove a lucrative business move to bring in some big names, providing the relationships are carefully thought out and well managed. 

Agua Spas at The Sanderson and Mondrian in London, part of the SBE group, held an event in early 2018 to introduce their line-up of resident specialists, boasting super-facialists Eve Lom, Su-Man Hsu and Kate Kerr, and holistic practitioners Annee de Mamiel and Katie Light. Jacqueline Kneebone, regional director of spa and retail at SBE, explains how the partnerships came about: “Before Eve Lom joined us, we stocked her products. She had her own practice but it used to be a complete headache for her, so I said, ‘why don’t you come and work from the spa and I’ll look after everything for you logistically?’”

Image credit: Agua Spa at Mondrian

First and foremost, anyone the spas work with have to be in line with their brand values and concept, says Kneebone. “Our values are very much about organics and holistics, so we look for therapists or specialists who have this same approach but on a different level, from a different perspective.” 

Practitioners must of course bring credibility and enhance the spas’ reputations, but another key consideration for Kneebone is what an external expert can offer the spas’ own therapists. “Our therapists will be spending a lot of time with them, and it’s really important that we create and foster an environment where they can learn from them,” she says “If you’re a young therapist it’s an incredible opportunity to work with specialists of this calibre.” 

The right fit

At Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa in the Maldives, the main motivation behind the ongoing Master in Residence programme is to offer guests new and exciting experiences they can’t find elsewhere. “The programme aims to bring in experts from around the world in the fields of sport and wellness for guests to learn new skills from. It’s truly fulfilling when guests try something different that they would never have considered in the past and leave the resort with a sense of accomplishment,” says general manager Philippe Claverotte. 

Recent residencies include Royal Ballet-trained dancer Karis Scarlette, meditation and mindfulness expert Jody Shield, former multiple Grand Slam-winner Jim Courier and marine biologist and underwater photographer Uli Kunz. “We select our ‘masters’ based on their credentials, though it’s not only their profile or popularity we consider,” says Claverotte. “The programme is trend-led so we want to work with experts from varying disciplines, as our aim is to remain ahead of the curve.” 

While the resort prides itself on giving guests new and varied opportunities, often from emerging rather than established wellness and fitness disciplines, Claverotte notes that it is also important to offer more traditional sports coaching, such as golf and tennis pros and personal trainers. 

Ensuring partnerships are the right fit – for both guests and the personality of the property itself – is crucial for a successful venture. Macdonald Monchique Resort & Spa in the Algarve, Portugal, is gearing up to host its first retreat on September 15–22. Spa and leisure director Carolyn Brown explains why the resort waited until now to branch out in this direction: “Our location is a real centre of wellness; we’re right up in the mountains, surrounded by plants and forests. We get a lot of clients coming to us specifically and as a team we’re all very involved in mindfulness personally, so The Mind Makeover Retreat fits in very well with what we represent,” she says. 

Respected practitioners 

Macdonald Monchique will host a six-day retreat organised by global wellness travel company Health & Fitness Travel in collaboration with therapist and psychoanalyst Steve McKeown. The resort will charge Health & Fitness Travel for use of its space at a specially contracted rate, while the retreat package includes options to book treatments at the spa, securing additional revenue for the property. The programme will include group therapy work, classes and hypnosis, along with access to daily fitness activities at the resort. “We run our own wellness activities continuously, including Japanese energy movement, sound journeys and Activate Breathwork, so a retreat focused on mental wellness just works,” adds Brown. 

Image credit: Macdonald Monchique 

“In terms of promotion, it’s also very good for us to have someone well known and respected in their field at the property; the more involved someone is in their specialism, the better, and they’re likely to have big followings who could potentially turn into repeat clients for us.” 

The retreat is promoted by both Macdonald Monchique and Health & Fitness Travel, doubling opportunities to drive bookings. “The benefit of doing it this way is that is that you’ve got the advantage of two platforms to advertise the retreat. Guests book directly with Health & Fitness Travel and they have a large wellness retreat clientele who actively follow them, but it also works on our side for people who might be living in the area to hear about it through us in the local community as they otherwise maybe wouldn’t know about it,” says Brown. 

Running smoothly 

Managing bookings is slightly more complicated at Agua Spas, where specialist appointments are handled either by the spa or externally, depending on the practitioner’s set up. “With Eve [Lom], for example, we take her bookings, whereas for Annee de Mamiel, Katie Light and Kate Kerr, bookings get managed separately but we have access to them and can merge them into our system,” explains Kneebone. “Eve does just one treatment so it’s easy for our reception staff to get that booked in, but Kate Kerr Medispa at The Mondrian offers many very detailed treatments with contraindications that our bookings team wouldn’t know to advise about, so it’s better for Kate’s team to manage them externally to ensure it’s completely seamless.” 

Kneebone says that transparency from the initial meeting is key to making sure the partnership works for both parties. “I ask them for their ideal scenario and come back with what I can and can’t do. This person is going be part of your team and you want them to be happy, but we have to see what will work operationally and there’s a lot to consider – do they use their own products, do they bring in their own operational supplies; if they have a retail line, do they want us to sell it?”, she says. 

Agua Spas takes a percentage of contractors’ treatment bookings and retail sales, and Kneebone says she is clear from the start that every partnership is a “work in progress” for the first three months. “You have to be smart about it from the very beginning and do it in a way that benefits you, and equally they need to be free and independent to take care of their business without having someone like me saying, “that doesn’t really work for me from a financial point of view’,” she adds. 

Mutual benefits 

Specialists who visit Shangri-La Villingili to run residencies usually receive a complimentary stay “offered in exchange for the group sessions and workshops”, says Claverotte. “The Master in Residence programme operates on a barter basis for the most part. The ‘masters’ do charge a set rate for one-to-one sessions, which they keep 100% of for themselves.” Practitioners share their availability for group sessions and one-to-ones with the spa, making it easy for guests to book. 

This set-up has proven the most successful way of operating the programme for the resort, despite the external experts not receiving payment in the traditional sense for their residencies. “The right people will want to work with you for the experience you are offering them and the opportunity to raise their profile in the right sphere,” says Claverotte. 

Nevertheless, handling these professional relationships can be tricky and takes a robust, reliable management team. Guest satisfaction needs to remain a priority while ensuring practitioners are happy. “We treat our contractors like friends; it’s a very relaxed but engaged attitude,” says Kneebone. “However, we also have a very clear understanding with them about guests who have special requirements or need to be looked after in a certain way. You can’t be making mistakes with your guests. So, if you feel your spa isn’t yet there operationally, don’t make the move.” 

Smaller spas that want to expand their wellness offer by bringing in external specialists can do so without hefty financial resources and stellar global reputations. Attracting other professionals to your spa is really about passion, believes Brown. “A lot of it comes down to the people you have involved in the spa. Opportunities are encountered and relationships fostered when the people working with you love what they’re doing and are involved in the spa and wellness community,” she says. “The main thing is vision. When you’ve got an idea of what you want to provide for guests, the rest takes care of itself. It’s possible to make it happen no matter what you’re starting with.” 

Niyama Private Islands in the Maldives is bringing a line-up of specialists on board for residencies this autumn/ winter.