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Reopening During COVID-19

Spas rise to the challenge

Surviving a prolonged shutdown during COVID-19 has tested every spa owner’s business acumen. No playbook or case study for reopening was readily available. It was “every spa for itself” while we waited for guidance.

Most spas in Canada reopened in June with a tangled web of restrictions and conditions. Provincial governments, board of health departments and regulatory bodies like the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario (CMTO) also provided guidelines for spas to follow.

Conducting business during a pandemic is not for the faint-hearted. A spa prides itself on providing therapeutic and beauty treatments in a relaxed environment. It embodies close face-to-face and hand-to-body contact. How do we maintain that same environment during COVID-19? What challenges will we face when reopening? How can we gain the client’s trust and confidence while making that person feel relaxed and safe? Whether a large chain or one-person operation, the spas we talked to shared similar stories.

Accor: Instilling Confidence Worldwide

In mid-May, Accor – a hospitality group with more than 5,000 hotels and resorts across 110 countries (including the Fairmont brand) – launched a new well-being platform for its North and Central America region: All Stay Well. This program focuses on the care and safety of guests and employees, with stringent health and safety standards; of course, the number of guests has been limited to allow for extra space.

“As our spas reopen with heightened cleaning protocols and social distancing, it is crucial for us to address the more pressing needs of our guests to find a calm and stress-free environment,” explains Daniel Poulin, director of spa & fitness for Accor North & Central America.

“Today, this means partnering with top experts, investing in research and insights, and rolling out new standards of safety, enhanced protocols and procedures which address our new reality – travel in a world with COVID-19,” says Heather McCrory, CEO of Accor North & Central America.

One of Accor’s properties, the Victoria, B.C.–based Fairmont Empress (site of the Willow Stream Spa), reopened June 26. Training employees was essential – “making sure every colleague was not only trained in new protocols, but ensuring our colleagues felt comfortable in their new ‘post-COVID’ workplace,” says Jordan Daw, spa director for Fairmont Empress Willow Stream Spa. “When colleagues feel confident and safe, they in turn make sure our guests feel comfortable and safe.”

A variety of measures incorporate Accor’s ALLSAFE standards but also have included staggered appointments, mandatory screening and masks for all guests and employees, increased cleaning and disinfecting, and continued use of EPA-registered disinfecting chemicals. Daw recommends spas adopt a policy of “continuous communication, honesty and transparency” with all employees and guests to gain their trust.

Ayurveda Rituals: Reinventing a spa business

Ayurveda Rituals owner Andrea Olivera was already thinking about shifting her spa business model before the pandemic forced spas to shut down in March; in January, her landlord was doubling the rent at Olivera’s spa in Toronto. A 30-year-plus spa veteran, well known for promoting the art of Ayurveda, Olivera reevaluated her business and closed the spa. “I put all my time in lockdown launching online courses, teaching classes on Zoom and perfecting my product line,” she says.

Now collaborating with yoga studios and teaching Ayurveda classes, Olivera plans to open up a scaled-down location where she can provide treatments.

Olivera has advice for other spas: “Don’t be afraid to come together as an industry and support each other with referrals, and downsize the business as much as possible until business picks up again.” She encourages wellness practitioners to practice what they preach, and take the time to reset and find healthier ways to work.

Simple Aura Spa: A force of one

Opening a new spa in July 2019 was daunting enough. To go through a pandemic and be shut down would test the mettle of any entrepreneur. Kristina Smith, owner of Ottawa-based Simple Aura Spa, met the challenge head on. Smith tucked away a portion of each pay into an emergency fund; that proved wise, as she had to dip into those savings during the shutdown. Clients also can prove to be difficult. “It’s been challenging having clients not wanting to adhere to any of the new protocols, such as wearing a mask,” Smith admits.

She has implemented many safety features, including a plexiglass barrier for the manicure table, wearing a face shield or mask, sanitizing her hands and wearing gloves. Smith would prefer if estheticians were regulated, like hairstylists and massage therapists; she explains that it would add credibility for the esthetician, and give the client more confidence that standards are being regulated.

Dol-Ás Spa: Keeping the customer relaxed

Being located in the small community of Wallace, Nova Scotia, didn’t protect the Dol-ás Spa (at Fox Harb’r Resort) from the effects COVID-19. The seasonal resort opened May 30, and the spa waited until June 5 – much later than their scheduled opening on April 24. Despite the late opening, significant drop in revenues and travel bans in effect (as of writing, only residents of Atlantic Canada may travel in the region), health and safety still take a priority.

Dol-ás Spa Director Joann Patriquin says the biggest challenge is the “hospitality” offering. They pride themselves on a warm welcome and relaxing atmosphere. Now there are dividers, masks, gloves and guests can no longer sit and relax after services to avoid crossover of guests or exceeding limits. A posted page on their website lists COVID-19 protocols to protect guests and employees. Appointments are 15-30 minutes apart to allow for increased cleaning and disinfecting and reduced guest traffic. Sanitizing is made visible and guests are provided masks.

“We reiterate to our guests during their visit how we are keeping them safe, along with signage,” said Patriquin, and she advises other spas to “make their measures visible.”

Fit for Work at iwa Spa

iwa Spa is a day spa located in the tourist-driven Blue Mountain resort village, two hours north of Toronto. It fully reopened on July 2; during the shutdown, management held Zoom team meetings to design new positive guest experiences while adhering to health requirements. They bought large quantities of PPE, redesigned the spa layout and moved furnishings to allow social distancing, and established a Fit for Work screening process.

“This really helped team members understand the new traffic flow, and what their roles and responsibilities were within that,” explains iwa Spa director Jenevieve Dennis.

The spa produced a reference card for guests on arrival outlining the new procedures. They also have posted this information on their website with a “What to Expect” tab, which outlines the new procedures and what clients need to do to prepare for their visit and treatment.

New measures taken include clear signage, one-way directional arrows, increasing appointment length to 60 minutes, adding value to services, reducing pedicure bench seating capacity to half, team check-in procedures, room cleaning cards each team member completes and ensuring each therapist is responsible for their lotion bottles to avoid cross-contamination.

Nordik: Keeping the waters flowing

Groupe Nordik, which operates Nordik Spa-Nature in Chelsea, Quebec, and Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature in Winnipeg, offers a full range of wellness facilities from thermal pools, saunas and steam baths to massage treatment rooms, restaurants and relaxation areas. It has become a massive undertaking adapting to the continually changing guidelines by government, health and regulatory bodies, even more so in Quebec. At the time of writing, all facilities are reopened (except for steam baths), operating at only 50 percent site capacity to maintain the social distancing required.

Groupe Nordik worked closely with provincial spa associations and health department officials to develop a Preventive Measures guide as well as training programs for its employees. Throughout the booking, arrival and guest experience, signage and information are provided. This is key in gaining the trust of the guest, according to Frazer Berry, general manager for Groupe Nordik.

“I believe the best way to earn a client’s trust is through transparency. Show the guest exactly what you are doing and involve them in the conversation so they understand how seriously we are taking their safety, while ensuring that the experience is calm and relaxing.”

Ste. Anne’s Spa: Ensuring guest satisfaction

Ste. Anne’s Spa is in an idyllic Northumberland countryside setting only an hour east of Toronto. Implementing the COVID-19 changes that were required, and training employees on new protocols for the reopening on June 12, was anything but relaxing.

Adhering to government and CMTO regulations and guidelines, the spa area requires both staff and guests to wear masks. Massage oil choices are given verbally and not by smelling samples. Rooms, linens, tables and all surfaces are cleaned and sanitized after each treatment. COVID-19 screening is conducted before every treatment, and wellness classes held inside are limited to six participants and socially distanced.
Ste. Anne’s managing director David Navia tells his staff to “put yourself in the guest’s shoes.” Look at what they are seeing, whether at a table in a restaurant, treatment room or a bathroom. He suggests that seeing things through the guest’s eyes will guide them on how to improve the guest experience.

Spa director Natalie Koshowski emphasizes listening to your spa staff now more than ever, and keeping them fully informed on new protocols. Due to a more clinical appearance with mask wearing and cleaning, it’s more important for staff to communicate a sense of calm, kindness and relaxation to guests.

Jennifer Yang, a spa enthusiast and first-time guest at Ste. Anne’s at the end of June, appreciated the measures taking place. “We did see staff vacuuming and tidying on a regular basis. I think that the experience was good for trying to maintain a sense of normalcy while trying to relax.”

The Spa Guest Experience: times are changing

Spas were always seen as an oasis from daily stress. But now, wearing masks, filling out COVID-19 forms, additional cleaning protocols and social distancing all make it difficult to maintain a relaxing, sociable atmosphere.

The spas that take the challenge head on will pivot to new opportunities, like product sales; by adopting new safe spa services, increasing their online presence, improving their staff training and communications, and proving their value to clients, these spas will succeed. More than ever people will be focusing on their health and wellness, and looking for spa escapes. Dennis advises spa owners, “Be adaptable, test and learn.”

What is crystal clear is how the “new” spa looks and operates. No longer is the cleaning and sanitizing kept discreet and behind the scenes; it is in full view of the client, for a good reason.

Transparency is king. Spa owners, take notice.

To read about Chris Ryall’s visit to Ste. Anne’s spa during its reopening, visit

Chris Ryall

Chris has been a passionate advocate for spa and wellness for more than 25 years while visiting hundreds of spas in more than 85 countries on six continents. He is an honours graduate of the Spa & Wellness Operations Management program from Algonquin College in Ottawa. Chris has run a successful tourism and marketing company for more than 20 years with tourism board, airline, tour operator and resort/hotel clients from Australia to Africa. Chris has written about spas and wellness for numerous national print and online publications in Canada and the U.S. as well as consulted with spa owners and managers on spa operational and marketing issues. Chris was previously on the judging panel for SpaFinder’s annual Wellness Travel Awards and the Asia Spa Awards and since its inception, the Canadian Spa & Wellness Awards. Chris is an advocate for making spa and wellness an integral part of a person’s lifestyle. Chris encourages more men to visit spas and for spa owners to address the needs of this growing market.

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