Director of the Guerlain Spa in Toronto talks about the challenges and opportunities inherent in providing an exceptional spa experience
With more than 30 years of industry experience – including working in day spas and department stores, as a resort spa manager and as a spa consultant – Kathryn Gallagher is passionate about upholding and strengthening practice standards and policies for estheticians, and bringing increased government recognition to the industry. The current chair of the board of directors for Leading Spas of Canada, Gallagher has organized and opened several spas across Canada, including the country’s first Aveda training institute in Victoria, B.C. Since 2005, Gallagher has been a professor in the Esthetician, Esthetics & Spa Therapies program at Seneca College in Toronto.
After all of your experience in the spa industry, what inspired you to teach?
I think that after a period of time in the industry, you want to share what you’ve learned with the future of the industry. I had also witnessed poor practices and wanted to contribute to making a difference in improving the standards.
What concerns do you have regarding a lack of government recognition of the industry?
I think that our industry still struggles to get credibility. There are a lot of really intelligent, talented people who are part of this industry, who have amazing things to contribute, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re being represented as effectively as we could. I think there is a lot of old-school thinking out there, particularly when it comes to our government. Try to get any type of statistical information on our industry. You can’t get it, because the government doesn’t track spas. They lump us into the personal service sector, with tattoo parlours and nail bars and hair salons. It makes it difficult for businesses in Canada to plan, develop, expand and grow. If people who want to invest or expand into the Canadian market ask for statistics for the spa industry, they can’t get them.
This is not just a Canadian issue. Businesses globally have struggled with trying to change the image of the spa industry. I do think we are starting to see a change. There is a shift happening in terms of credibility for our industry, so that’s encouraging.
You earned your Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Guelph’s College of Business and Economics. As part of that program, you wrote a research paper, “The Need to Professionalize Estheticians” (published in 2017 in the Routledge Handbook of Health Tourism). What were some of the major issues the paper discussed?
It looked at how we can get the government to listen to us when it comes to the way that our industry is evolving. I was looking at this crossover between day spas and medical spas and how it’s blurring [with treatments such as laser hair removal and laser skin rejuvenation being done in day spas, destination spas and hair salons].
The type of equipment and technology being developed and used in spas is concerning. The lack of regulation on high-risk machines and on operators has put a lot of people who want these services unwittingly at risk. In a 2012 survey by the Canadian Dermatology Association, 73 percent of dermatologists said they had treated patients for scars, burns and other wounds sustained after receiving laser treatment. People are being harmed. And I think that should be something that would catch the attention of the government. When it comes to these machines, Health Canada does regulate the manufacture and the sale quality of lasers, but it doesn’t regulate who’s using them. Once they go on the market, there is no oversight.
The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has an infection prevention control unit for personal service settings. But one inspector in Toronto I spoke to [in 2015] for my paper told me there were 10 inspectors responsible for conducting health inspections on approximately 3,500 businesses offering hair, esthetics, tattoos and nail services. So, quality control and oversight are not going to be consistent. They’re not going to be able to see every single business on a regular basis.
Can you tell us more about Leading Spas of Canada?
Leading Spas of Canada is the only national member association that leads, supports and promotes members of Canada’s spa and wellness industry. Members must adhere to the highest standards and practices related to service, hygiene and safety. Its Quality Assurance Program takes it one step further than legislated standards and recommendations by public health units to verify and ensure spas with this designation are demonstrating best practices around operating procedures, ethics, safety and hygiene.
I think the Quality Assurance designation gives spas a distinct edge and shows that they’re meeting national standards and that consumers are getting a safe, quality experience. Clients should be seeking out spas that have that designation. They can be reassured that all the protocols and health and safety standards are beyond what the government is asking for.
I think if there were ever a time where an association is needed to help bring people together, provide a strong voice for the industry and a place for people to learn from each other and share information, the time is now. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic and we are all in this together. That is why an association like this is needed, and it’s the only national association for the spa industry in Canada. So I think we really need to protect it and try to come together as much as we
What do you see for the future of the industry following COVID-19?
Spas have an important role to play when it comes to helping people feel well, whether it’s physically, psychologically, or both. With the pandemic, we have to seriously look at the role that spas play and what they can do in terms of helping people. I think our clients are going to be very aware of the need to be healthy and stay healthy. People are going to be seeking that from spas as they reopen. It’s going to be very important that spas pay attention and communicate with their clients and find out how they can support them.
People want to feel that they’re connected and cared for. Businesses should look at this idea of being like a home away from home, where clients can feel taken care of, because it is important to look at how to get clients back into the spa feeling reassured, comfortable and secure.
Increasingly, people are looking at wellness as something they need to tend to every day, not just once in a while. I see this as a great opportunity for spas, but they have to be aware of what their customers want and tailor what they offer around that.