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Special Spa Inc. Roundtable Discussion: Overcoming today’s staffing challenges

Panelists weigh in on the issues impacting the efforts of spas in their pursuit of top talent and the things they can do to retain their expertise

Running a successful spa business is a complex venture, involving a number of different layers and components of the operation that must be considered in order to reach optimal output and results. Managing the supply chain, product development and discovery, purchasing, and so many more aspects of the business are equally critical. However, perhaps the most important part of any organization or establishment is the people helping to execute on its vision and to properly serve its customers. In light of this, combined with the current labour crunch, experts within the industry were brought together at the Leading Spas of Canada (LSOC) Aspire Spa & Wellness Soirée 2023 to be part of a Q&A panel discussion concerning the issues impacting the recruitment and retention efforts of spas. Spa Inc. followed up with participating panellists to dive deeper into the subject, dissecting some of the challenges that are faced while highlighting opportunities to improve staffing practices.

Grace Burzese, founder of Beauty Incubator Recruitment
Kathryn Gallagher, chair of LSOC; full-time professor at Seneca College
Alexandria Petruzzelli, Humber College student representative
Elena Zinchenko, spa director of Ten Spa at The Fort Garry Hotel and past chair of LSOC

Spa Inc.: In your estimation, what is the current state of recruiting efforts regarding the attraction of talented staff to spa establishments?
Kathryn Gallagher: It is currently an employee—driven market with spas still experiencing staff shortages post-COVID from increased demand in spa services, particularly with massage therapists. Spas are looking at how they attract and retain talent, but also some are recognizing the importance of engagement, because without that, there will be issues around retention. You’ve got to empower your people and help them define their purpose. This requires knowing and living your spa’s vision and mission and then empowering staff to make decisions based on that. It’s important for people to have a purpose and for that purpose to be aligned with the spa’s vision. This creates intrinsic motivation, which is essential to achieving high levels of service every day, with every client. And, you’ve got to include your team in decisions about the spa. They will feel a sense of ownership and feel valued.

Elena Zinchenko: There are a lot of spa owners in provinces across the country who are finding it difficult to recruit enough talent to their establishments. Part of the challenge is that many of the younger professionals today understand that they have a number of different options when it comes to employment. They can work at hospitals or open their own clinics. They’re in demand, and they know it. However, what many are also coming to realize is that employment at a spa clinic provides them with security, steady appointments with clients, and the opportunity to continuously learn and enhance their skills.

Grace Burzese: It’s very much a candidate-led market. So spa owners need to set themselves apart from their competitors to attract the best talent. Business owners should recognize that a shift is occurring in what candidates are looking for in a new employer. While compensation is still a leading factor, potential employees are also placing increasing importance on the opportunity to grow and develop their skills within their new role, and whether or not the brand and culture aligns with their beliefs.

SI: What are the latest compensation trends within the spa industry? Do you believe they are in line with expectations of today’s prospective employees?
KG: There seem to generally be two types of compensation being offered by spas today. An hourly rate, which ranges from $16.55 in Ontario to $27, with possible percentage on retail that ranges from 5% to 15%; and an hourly rate plus a percentage on service and commission on retail. Many spas, especially hotel and resort spas, are adding an automatic 18% gratuity. What I see is a gap between these two types of compensation. This could mean that one aesthetician is earning on the low end, at $16.55, compared to another earning minimum wage plus 15% to 20% commission on services, which could result in earnings in the region of $45 an hour. Earning minimum wage is absolutely not in line with the expectations of today’s prospective employees.

SI: With respect to meeting the needs of today’s spa operation, what should spa owners be hiring for? Should more emphasis be paid toward attitude and fit as opposed to pure skill sets?
EZ: I personally place attitude at the top of the list with respect to the attributes that employees of Ten Spa need to possess. When it comes to skills, we can always train, shape, and mould our specialists to the level that we need them to be and to develop the proper practices that will help them continue to improve. And, because reputation is unbelievably important within the spa industry, hiring the right people with the right attitude is critically important. They need to possess a willingness to learn and expand their thinking, a desire to try new things and to experiment with the latest techniques, and the openness to share their expertise with others and to accept new learnings. Working at Ten Spa lends specialists instant credibility because of the reputation that we’ve earned. But they become ambassadors of the clinic and the face of what we do. So, in the end, skills, although very important, are secondary to demeanour and mindset.

SI: In your estimation, what are today’s prospective spa employees looking for from employers and their job experience?
GB: Employees are treating employment differently today. Of course, compensation will always play a major role in their decision-making process. But we are seeing potential employees placing increasing importance on their potential overall experience, including the type and strength of company culture, whether or not their personality is a fit for the organization, and the potential for them to develop their skills and knowledge within the role. However, compensation is still definitely a major factor in the decisions of today’s employees. People want to feel valued for their time, and one way to show this is by paying fairly. With inflation running high, expenses have increased, and so what you were paying a year ago may no longer be attractive.

Alexandria Petruzzelli: As a newly graduated medical aesthetician, it has been a privilege to learn the most up-to-date protocols and practices within a spa environment. As an employee seeking a trusted employer, there are some things I look for, such as employee health benefits, and ongoing education opportunities in order to stay in touch with the ever-evolving spa industry and to continue to provide exceptional service for all clients. And, vacation and paid time off is very important in order to ensure proper personal life balance.

SI: How important is it to today’s prospective spa employees that the culture within the organization they’re going to work for is a fit for them as individuals?
AP: As there are many spas within Canada that have established strong audiences and clientele based on their uniqueness, specialities, and top-tier customer service, it is important as an employee to seek a place of work that aligns with my values and philosophies. I have to believe in the spa’s vision and mission, which is the heart of the organization, in order to be the best example of it.

SI: Do you feel there are any barriers to entering into a career within the spa industry? If so, what are they and how do they, impact your efforts?
AP: For new aestheticians entering the industry, a lack of experience in a spa environment is a barrier for them ,as high-end spas will more than likely want someone with a few years of experience. I was fortunate enough to enter college with a guaranteed co-op opportunity in my final year of school to further my knowledge and enhance my skills with a spa environment. This allowed me the opportunity to grow and build a connection with clients. I think it would be really positive if more post-secondary aesthetician programs and spas could collaborate in order to allow soon-to-be aestheticians a chance to work in a co-op environment to get hands-on experience and greater exposure to the industry.

SI: What does today’s onboarding process look like within a spa establishment? And how important is it to immediately engage employees in order to integrate them and help them develop a deep understanding of the business’s SOPs?
EZ: Every spa needs to understand exactly what their clinic means to their customers and the philosophy that it operates by. This guides all of the practices and procedures and even the conduct of the employees. And it’s really important that their philosophy is maintained and that the services offered, and the treatments and care for guests, are consistently excellent. The most effective way to do this is to onboard each employee in the same way, sharing with them the protocols that help the operation run smoothly. It means that whether they’re working at the front desk, as a massage therapist, nail technician, or serving within any other role, their onboarding and training has got to ensure they’re all pulling in the same direction, helping the clinic satisfy guests and achieve its goals. It enables everyone to be working on the same page, to be speaking the same language, and to each possess the same understanding and perspective of the work being done by everyone.

SI: How can recruiting firms help to bridge the gap between prospective employees and spas?
GB: At Beauty Incubator Recruitment, all of our recruitment consultants have extensive spa industry backgrounds. This means that they intimately understand the roles they are recruiting for and the environments in which these roles are based. Our consultants use their experience to filter out candidates that don’t match the skills and personality criteria so spa owners only see candidates that meet their requirements Specialist recruitment firms are able to use their skill to put forward candidates that a spa owner might not have considered but could be perfect due to their transferable skill sets, aptitude, or personality. Employing a specialist recruitment firm means you are hiring professionals. Recruitment is all we do. This means, you have access, through our network, to candidates you wouldn’t be able to connect with otherwise. And, our processes ensure you only see the best prospects, so you can focus on running your business.

SI: How significant is ongoing skills training and development when it comes to engaging and motivating employees?
EZ: Ongoing training and development of employees is the only way that spa clinics are able to maintain their reputations and the consistency of the services and treatments they offer their guests. And, it’s the most effective way to keep your staff engaged in their jobs and invested in upholding the vision of the spa. Continuous training and development makes things fun and exciting for professionals. Even though some have been doing what they do for a long time already, the opportunity to learn something, to acquire a new technique or a more effective way to do something, is rewarding and keeps things fresh for employees. And, the bottom line is, simply, that ongoing training and development results in continuous improvement, better results, and greater efficiencies among staff.

SI: How significant are schools and the programs they offer when it comes to filling employee pipelines within the spa industry? And how impactful can partnerships between educational institutions and spas be in helping to enhance the skills of graduates and the future of the industry?
KG: Attracting talent could include partnering with a reputable school and offering a scholarship. Hammam Spa in Toronto awards internships that include job-shadowing with senior staff. More spas are seeing the value of investing in new graduates who are eager to learn and work. The result might be the requirement of additional training, but in return spas are seeing increased loyalty and retention, and stronger team integration.

SI: Compensation aside, today’s employees are seeking a range of non-monetary benefits. How important is it to ensure work-life balance, scheduling flexibility, etc. with respect to meeting the needs of prospective employees?
KG: You could offer a range of benefits such as flexible work options, mental health days, wellness programs, financial support, and health spending accounts. Some are even looking at daycare provisions. But whichever benefits you introduce, you’ll want to make sure that they’re truly adding value for staff, or your investment could be meaningless. It’s important to conduct a needs analysis with your staff in order to find out exactly what they value most before spending money.

EZ: Offering a range of benefits is incredibly important today. But what might be most important are the benefits and measures that are put in place in order to take care of the mental health of spa employees. Therapists give and give and give, all the time. They’re responsible for providing the experience for every single guest that comes into the clinic, ensuring relaxation and tranquility, no matter how they might feel personally. So, providing [your employees] with the care, tools, and resources they need to better manage their own mental health is key. Allowing them the opportunity to access and speak with mental health coaches can be really helpful. And, always making sure that staff and management get together to do something outside of the work that’s done on a daily basis is also a great way to connect with people. It allows managers and directors to better understand what their staff might be going through within their personal lives and affords staff the opportunity to express some of their concerns, breaking down barriers and enabling greater communication.

SI: How significant might mentorship opportunities be when it comes to engaging employees? How available are these opportunities within the industry? And, should they be leveraged to greater effect?
KG: Mentorship opportunities should be mandatory. In fact, new research shows that mentorship programs can indeed produce valuable gains. The Global Wellness Institute created the Global Mentorship Program Initiative back in 2013 to address the predicted management shortages. However, the program ended in 2018. This could be an initiative for Leading Spas of Canada, where a committee of volunteers works on career development initiatives to help support spas attract, engage, and retain talent.

SI: What’s your No. 1 tip for spa owners looking to attract the very best talent to their facilities?
GB: Pay fairly, and build an employee-focused culture that provides career development opportunities and incentives. And, don’t forget about onboarding. You’ve done your best to attract the best talent. But remember that first impressions count. So when your new employees show up on their first day of work ensure everything is set up for them. And, be strategic in your onboarding process so that your new hire has a seamless experience from initial contact through to their first day and on.

SI: How important can internationally trained employees be toward helping to fill labour gaps in the industry? And, what are some of the challenges that are involved in hiring these employees?
EZ: Every province in Canada has its own laws and stipulations when it comes to employing internationally trained workers. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces that regulate employment for aestheticians, nail technicians, and skin technicians, requiring individuals seeking employment within those specialties to possess a licence. Despite where someone comes from, the skills they’ve learned and developed through the years don’t change when they arrive in Canada. However, they need to meet Canadian educational and employment standards in order to work. Some, with proven education, skills, and documentation, can challenge the exam as a professional. Or, with a proven education certificate from their country of origin, they can serve within a two-year apprenticeship before challenging provincial exams. It allows spas in these provinces to attract incredible talent to their clinics, help them apply and hone their skills, and benefit from their expertise.

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