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Has the guest experience changed?
Relax, recharge, and renew – three aspirational goals of any spa visit. People covet a spa getaway in times of stress, and the COVID-19 pandemic is delivering that in spades. But is a relaxing spa visit attainable with a multitude of new protocols and restrictions mandated by government, health authorities and regulatory bodies? The simple answer – yes, for the most part.
My spa withdrawal was taking its toll after three months in isolation and 30 years of regular spa visits combined with worldwide business travels. When spas were allowed to open June 12 in most regions of Ontario, I knew a one-hour massage session at a clinic wasn’t going to satisfy my spa needs.
Ste. Anne’s Spa, a 30-room destination spa and country inn with cottages, located 90 minutes east of Toronto, came to the rescue. I was already familiar with Ste. Anne’s, having previously visited the sprawling 500-acre Northumberland Hills countryside spa resort many times over the years. I especially like the fact I can remain in spa attire even when dining, consisting for me of a robe, bathing suit and sandals. In COVID times a mask is now tucked in my robe’s pocket, ready at a moment’s notice. Ste. Anne’s will provide masks if you forget to pack one of your own.
Bob Dylan’s 1964 seminal song, “The Times They Are A-Changin,” certainly resonates with how spas must now adapt to the coronavirus reality while maintaining a relaxing guest experience.
Most day and overnight visitors to Ste. Anne’s reside in Toronto or nearby regions. At the time of my mid-June visit, these regions were still in Stage 1. Northumberland County, where Ste. Anne’s is located, reopened June 12th – the same day Stage 2 began in this region of Ontario and when spas, salons and outdoor patios were allowed to open.
Ste. Anne’s had been preparing for the reopening for months. Owner and general manager Jim Corcoran closed the entire resort on March 18th. He originally thought like many others, the closing would last a couple of weeks. Those weeks turned into months. Undergoing renovations while guests are on-site can be very disruptive. Despite financial challenges, Corcoran and his team spruced up many resort facilities, adding a new hydrotherapy area and installing a modern sanitizing and environmentally friendly laundry system. Signage was created to highlight all the new regulations around hand-washing, social distancing and other protocols.
Bringing back the 200-plus staff was difficult. Ste. Anne’s doesn’t have access to a large work population compared to metropolitan areas. Some staff members had issues finding child care or returning to work safely with possibly infecting family members at home especially elderly relatives. Some potential student workers elected to take COVID student benefit program monies instead.
“Uncertainty” was the biggest challenge says Corcoran. “There was a lack of a comprehensive plan at all levels of government,” he added. Never knowing exactly when they could reopen or what restrictions and measures would be placed at each stage made it difficult to properly plan.
SPA SAFETY RULES
Ste. Anne’s has more than 30 treatment rooms and an extensive spa menu which is a key motivator why people visit. It is also an important revenue centre. Generating revenues can be an exercise in frustration when adopting all the guidelines and regulations required by the Ministry of Health, local health authorities and the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario (CMTO). The CMTO has released their own set of guidelines for RMTs to follow. It has also affected retail sales. The boutique located in the main inn sells a variety of skincare products, clothing and other Ste. Anne’s products. Samples (e.g. massage oils, lotions) are no longer permitted. But as managing director David Navia points out, it gives an opportunity for sales associates to connect more with guests and address their specific needs.
In all Ste. Anne’s spa areas (including the Spa Lounge waiting room) a mask is required to be worn by both staff and guests. A COVID assessment form and health questionnaire is filled out prior to treatments. Other protocols in place: hand washing before treatment by both client/therapist or esthetician. PREempt Wipes, sprays (cleaners and disinfectants), X-Pure antimicrobial Hand Spray Solution is in every treatment room to clean all surfaces and rooms. Immediately after the treatment spa cleaning staff clean and disinfect all surfaces and remove all towels and linens whether used or not. No towels or linens are left in open cupboards. Table warmers are covered in plastic. Bed skirts are not used now. There is increased charting that the therapist or esthetician must fill out detailing cleaning/disinfecting measures taken for each client.
Ste. Anne’s spa director, Natalie Koshowski, a Ste. Anne’s veteran for 17 years, said all spa staff go through a special infection control training course (online and at the spa) as well as all new cleaning and sanitation, CMTO, Ministry of Health protocols and guidelines. Due to COVID, the spa does not currently offer facials, scalp treatments, lymphatic drainage massage, vichy treatments or couples massages. Spa guests no longer choose their massage oil preference by smelling the samples. Instead, you just tell the therapist your preference.
Koshowski explains the spa guest experience for some might feel, “A bit more clinical,” but adds therapists are taking charting more seriously (as per the new guidelines from Ministry of Health) with, “guests appreciating more the relaxation and kindness provided by staff that they are being taken care of.”
NO UNMASKING FOR MASSAGE
Before visiting Ste. Anne’s, contact with other people beyond my partner and a few immediate family members had been minimal during the pandemic. I wear a mask when I can’t social distance or when required but wearing a mask during a spa treatment wasn’t something on my spa bucket list!
I had three treatments at Ste. Anne’s: a 60-minute Swedish Massage, a 45-minute Coconut Breeze (exfoliation, moisturizing relaxing massage) and 75-minute Aroma Stone Massage.
Lying face down on the table it took a few adjustments to feel comfortable in the face cradle. With a small towel already draped over the cradle and now adding my cloth mask, I found breathing difficult. Spa bliss those first few minutes was lost on me. Gradually my breathing became more natural and rhythmic. The therapist’s soothing touch didn’t hurt either.
MAINTAINING THE SPA ATMOSPHERE
Mask wearing is optional in all other areas of the inn – only in the spa is it mandatory. I didn’t see anyone wearing a mask in the outdoor pool or new and expanded hydrotherapy areas. In the dining room and large outdoor patio, the guests weren’t wearing masks, although about half the wait staff had masks on. Utensils were brought all pre-bundled when guests sat down instead of having tables pre-set. People generally kept slightly more distance between parties than in past visits. Casual touching was consciously reduced unless it was your own loved one. I observed housekeeping cleaning a room. The housekeeper was in a mask, wore gloves and cleaned and disinfected all surfaces. New sheets and the duvet is changed for each guest. Rooms now take about 5-10 minutes longer to clean.
Overall, the resort atmosphere felt similar to past visits. Handwashing signage was prominent throughout the main inn and activity areas but not overly intrusive. On past visits, you wouldn’t normally see staff cleaning and wiping down surfaces but this time it was very visible to reassure guests.
It’s a fine balancing act between providing a relaxing spa atmosphere and maintaining safety and sanitation protocols. Comparing my previous visits, Ste. Anne’s has struck the right balance. I did feel more relaxed and recharged when I left. No small feat in the COVID era.
Jacyln, my Swedish massage therapist, summed it up perfectly on what it meant to get back to work as a spa therapist. “I had my first client after three months. To touch them felt so good. It almost brought me to tears. It was so nice to touch and connect with a client again. “
Being touched again by a therapist. Now that’s a breath of fresh air – mask on or off.