Talking to...Victoria Lees

With a bigger team and a huge development to launch, Rockliffe Hall’s new spa manager tells Eve Oxberry how mentoring has set her up for success

A new chief executive, a staff restructure and a £1.2m development to oversee to completion meant that Victoria Lees had to hit the ground running when she was promoted to spa manager of Rockliffe Hall this February.

But with more than four years at the County Durham hotel spa under her belt, she was well prepped to take over many of the responsibilities of outgoing spa director Liz Holmes, who left to head up Virgin Active’s health and beauty division. “Liz had been mentoring both me and Alistair Bramwell, especially in the last year of being there,” says Lees. “I was promoted from treatments manager to spa manager. Ali went from fitness manager to spa operations manager, so we don’t have a director any more but we share those responsibilities.”

Between them they now oversee some 50 staff, from therapists, to receptionists and the gym team. As Lees took over, plans were well underway for the new spa garden, a 1,400sq ft space set to open on September 1, with pools, loungers and a covered area featuring a glass-fronted sauna cabin and fire pit. New chief exec Eamonn Elliot had also just joined the business with a promise to bring it quickly to profitability. “I’m now on the executive team so I go to the executive meetings and the CEO is now my line manager,” says Lees. “It’s very different communicating with a facts and figures-driven CEO compared to a therapist team, so that’s a skill I’ve had to learn.”

Support network

To help her make the transition, Lees signed up to the Global Mentorship Pilot Programme, a scheme being spearheaded by spa consultants Jean-Guy de Gabriac and Deborah Smith to pair experienced spa directors with people who are newer to the role. Lees was the first UK participant and was paired with Germany-based Hans-Peter Veit, spa development director at the Oetker Collection, who advised her for three months from April to June.

“It was really well set up in that before you even start you send your mentor three key goals you want to work on,” says Lees. “For example, one of mine is to get Rockliffe Hall known nationally and internationally. Hans-Peter wouldn’t just say, ‘do this and this’, he’d help me to change my thinking pattern so I could work out the solutions myself. Another goal was to find a way to increase revenue year on year by 20%, which is a quite a meaty objective I’ve been set.”

Through weekly or twice-weekly calls, Lees and Veit discussed how to overcome obstacles. The majority of Rockliffe’s guests come from within a 20-mile radius, so Lees knew growth needed to come from further afield.

Veit helped her come up with new strategies including signing up to national websites such as Spa Finder and targeting consumer shows with the right demographic. “We’re now going to the Chelsea Flower Show and the Great Yorkshire Show - events that are further away but have the sorts of visitors who have leisure time and would find our proposition attractive,” says Lees. Veit also encouraged her to enter more national and international awards such as the Professional Beauty and CATIE Awards to raise the hotel’s profile.

He also helped Lees to develop the right communication skills for board meetings. “At the beginning I did find it hard because to hit some of the targets set, I knew we needed to recruit more therapists but a CEO will look at a spreadsheet and say, for example, ‘it’s only 80% full so I don’t think you need another therapist’, but when you’re 80% full that absolutely means you need another one, so now I know to go to him with bullet-pointed facts and figures rather than instinct and gut feeling.”

Back to nature

Six months into the new role, Lees is making great strides. The new spa garden is about to open and already demand is high, with pre-bookings for both normal use and private hire. “Ever since the spa opened, we’ve had clients asking for an outdoor hot tub; it’s on around half the feedback cards we receive,” says Lees. “But being Rockliffe Hall we had to do something a bit more special.”

The spa garden will be worked into packages, and use of the covered garden room will also be offered at a charge of £30 for two hours as an add-on. “As a £1.2m investment it obviously has to pay for itself, so it was either charge or put £5 on all the packages and memberships, but some people might not want to use it,” says Lees, “This way, you can still come to Rockliffe Hall for as little as £50 or you can pay more and have the full luxury experience.” By charging, Rockliffe can also cap numbers, meaning the spa garden will remain peaceful. “We’ve never been able to sell ourselves as a tranquil spa before because it can get busy, but in that space we can manage numbers closely, probably to about 20 people at a time,” says Lees. However, there will also be one outdoor hot tub with loungers open to all guests for free.

To mark the opening of the garden, Rockliffe has taken on organic brand Neom alongside existing brands Comfort Zone, Murad and Orly. “We’re planting the herbs used in the Neom treatments in our garden to make it a 360-degree thing, so the same English lavender and basil will be used in workshops and in the brasserie,” says Lees.

Forward thinking

Once the spa garden is up and running, she has her sights set on the next challenge. “It will mean we’re open to a lot more people so we need to develop the treatment suite. We’ve put proposals forward to open a new treatment room and we’re looking at adding a hammam up there,” she says. “We also know that gym and wellness is evolving and we need more movement-based pieces of equipment like Technogym Kinesis.”

As with most major spas, wellness is a key focus for growth at Rockliffe, but Lees says it’s dependent on changes to the client demographic. “We’re set up 100% to be able to deliver wellness – we’ve got a nutritionist, a pro bodybuilder, a Nordic walking specialist – but when we’ve done wellness packages in the past they’ve never been a big seller,” she says. “I think it’ll work when we get people from further afield because our local market is looking for more of the sleepy indulgent rituals and a glass of prosecco.”

However, wellness has always been a hit with many of the spa’s 700 members, who are regulars in the gym and classes. For treatments, the revenue spilt is 35% from residential guests, 2% from members and 63% day guests, hence the drive to grow residential packages. Lees is also looking to take on one additional skincare brand with a strong commercial edge to boost retail sales. And with solid business mentoring and a clear passion for Rockliffe Hall, she’s well set up to achieve her goals and put the spa on the world map.