Expanding Your Practice into a Day Spa

By Steve Capellini

You’ve thought about it. You’ve seen other therapists take the plunge. Perhaps you’ve read about the ones who have become successful, opening up spa operations in cities across the country, starting up multiple-practitioner operations at airports, or winning the spa concession at resorts and boutique hotels. So, if you have thought about it, and you have seen the fruits of these other therapists’ labors, what’s holding you back? What’s stopping you from following this particular dream?

Among the most commonly cited roadblocks to following this dream: lack of funds, business knowledge, nerve, experience, support, and encouragement. This list of lacks is long, but notice that among them you do not find a lack of passion. Many therapists have translated their innate love of what they do into viable businesses in spite of obstacles and shortcomings. Could you be next?

Opening a new spa business and hiring others to work alongside you is not an easy proposition. It will take all of your willpower, resources, and resolve to turn the dream into reality. But it can be done. Many others have gone before you, and there is a road map that you can follow. At the Day Spa Expo held this past February in Las Vegas, a team of map makers, who have helped hundreds of massage therapists, estheticians, and entrepreneurs create functioning spa businesses, was assembled. These experts can help you, too; the following pages are filled with their tips and advice.

For many therapists, the most intimidating aspect of expanding a practice is the prospect of needing to work with so many new people. In order to open or expand a business, you will need the help of professionals like architects, spa consultants and designers, and (gasp!) employees. That is correct; in order to fulfill your dream, you need to involve other people and to forge relationships with them, relationships that can sometimes get complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier to just accept the status quo? Compared to work as an independent therapist, everything in a spa gets multiplied: multiple rooms, types of equipment, linens, products, services offered, and, of course, people.

The end result is never quite what you had envisioned during the early stages of your spa project, but sometimes a messy reality can be better than a pristine dream. Let’s see if you’re cut out for it …


Many therapists have a general idea of the type of spa or wellness center they would like to open, but few therapists have done much self-assessment regarding their readiness to own and operate such a facility. Often, their plans remain vague, and that vagueness is part of the problem that keeps them from reaching their goals. In order to open a spa, your plans must become concrete, and a good way to make them so is to take a close look at your preparedness in a number of relevant categories. With this end in mind, fill out the Spa Ownership Self-Assessment on page 43. This will help you determine how serious you are about getting started with your project.

If you score low on the self-assessment, put some effort into filling the gaps in your preparedness. If you have the energy and enthusiasm to eventually bring your score up to the mid to high 20s, that shows you are determined and serious enough to start on your project. These are nuts and bolts tasks and goals; they are not glamorous. Finding investors, getting trained in payroll accounting, visiting your local zoning office, and coming up with a new theme or logo may be a little tedious, but they are vital first steps in the alchemical process of turning thoughts into reality.

Without an underlying purpose and vision that defines your project, you will flail around in an attempt to either copy other successful spa businesses or to cobble together a mishmash of concepts into something new, but too undefined to gain traction with customers. That is not the way to create a thriving business. Successful spas are successful from conception onward, which requires you to be the lead visionary from the very beginning. Define what kind of spa will it be: a day spa, destination spa, medical spa, salon spa, Asian-themed spa? How will the spa reflect your own personal purpose? Will it be run according to certain principles and passions in your life, such as acupuncture, color therapy, natural wellness, the outdoors, vegetarianism? What is the historical purpose? How does the spa fit into its environment? How will it connect to your community? Once you know the proposed spa’s purpose link it to your vision of how it should look. With that in mind, you can ask yourself, “What kind of treatment rooms do we need? How many guests will we have per day? How big should the retail space be? Do we need a wet room? What will my expected income be?”

One final word of caution: take a close look at your motivations and ask yourself whether or not making a lot of money is one of your goals. Regardless of how opulent certain spas may appear, they are not, in general, sources of great profit for their owners. Operating profit margins of 5 to 10 percent are considered good; anything higher than that is extremely good. If your goal is to get rich quickly, you are probably better off going into investment banking or some other potentially more lucrative pursuit. But if the strength of your passion for the spa industry propels you forward regardless of this fact, then you are probably ready to step toward creating your business.


Perhaps a few pieces of the self-assessment puzzle are not where you would like them, but you have determined that you are sufficiently prepared to begin moving forward. In that case, what do you do first? The biggest change you will need to make at this stage is one of self-concept. How can you leap from thinking of yourself as an independent practitioner, or perhaps someone else’s employee, into thinking of yourself as a full fledged entrepreneur? Begin that conceptual metamorphosis by taking action; the most useful action for someone who is going to expand his/her practice and open a spa is to engage the help of other professionals. According to spa industry expert and spa product developer Sam Margulies, there are six particular professionals who are key to helping you set up a new spa business. You can consult with one or more as you begin taking your first steps. They are:



Spa Business Consultant
This professional assists with hiring employees, ordering spa products and equipment, and deciding on themes, logos, menu offerings, and more.

2. Architect
The architect draws up the plans for the space and must be familiar with the specifications peculiar to spas, such as larger drain pipe width for hydrotherapy equipment. A local architect is easiest to work with in most circumstances.

3. Spa Designer
The spa designer is in charge of creating the physical spa space, including color, lighting, furniture, fixtures, and so on. The designer works with the architect to create the structure.

4. General Contractor
The general contractor will save you time and money by coordinating all aspects of construction or renovation.

5. Spa Marketing Consultant
Often employed short-term near the time of the spa’s opening, the marketing consultant is key to making the spa visible in an increasingly crowded market.

6. Educators 
Educators train staff so they can offer a consistent level of service in the treatments and intelligently apply all the products offered at the spa. They can be independent professionals or allied with product vendors.

A good place to seek out spa experts to consult with and perhaps hire is through the International Spa Association (ISPA) website, www.experienceispa.com, which features a full listing of consultants.

Instead of hiring professionals at the beginning of your project, you may invest in some targeted education. The ISPA website also features a calendar of industry events, including trade shows and conferences, where you can choose from a wide variety of classes and workshops.

Jeremy McCarthy, director of spa operations for Starwood Hotels, a member of the board of directors of ISPA, and author of the book Become a Spa Owner, says, “My biggest piece of advice would be to learn the business side of spas. Know how to read financial statements and understand what they mean for the business. Sometimes that goes against the nature of people who have come up in the healing professions.” If at all possible, take a spa business class. The University of California at Irvine offers a certificate in spa and hospitality management, which can be taken online, and Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration offers a spa management training program. If you do not have time for these programs, consider an intensive workshop such as those offered by Wynne Business.


Once you have assessed your readiness and taken appropriate preliminary steps, you can begin building your space. It is crucial to get it right at this stage, because if you make a mistake with the concept and design of your new venture, it could be fatal for the business. All the little details of the initial spa design will eventually create the overall experience for the guests. Too many therapists overlook these details, because they have not had enough experience going to spas themselves to discover what it is that makes a spa great. Here are a few examples of such details that spa expert Margulies spoke about at the Day Spa Expo:

• Design the layout so that between 60 percent and 65 percent of total square footage contains revenue generating space (RGS), such as treatment rooms and retail areas. Relaxation areas, meditation lounges, and hallways do not constitute RGS.

• The ideal spa treatment room size is 10’ x 14’, and the minimum size is 9’ x 12’.

• Treatment rooms should not have pocket doors, even though they save space, because clients do not feel secure with the prospect of a door sliding open at any second, revealing them inside.

• Locker rooms must not be so small that people feel uncomfortable in them, but they are necessary in slightly larger spas, so that clients do not use treatment rooms as changing rooms, thus taking up valuable RGS.

• To optimize the spa’s traffic flow, hallways should be five feet across for easy passing.

• Average utilization of couple’s massage rooms is 7 percent, so it is better to place a moveable wall in the space and use it for single massages as well.

• Plan for growth and what you will need to do when your clientele expands.

• Two types of lighting are best for use in treatments rooms, both direct and indirect.

In addition to the physical space in the spa, there is also a “psychic” space that can be felt by attentive guests when they enter. You can feel this any time you enter a business of any kind, really. Try tuning into it the next time you go out for dinner or visit any shop. After observing the employees and the environment for just a couple minutes, chances are you will be able to make judgments about the owner/manager of the business, even though she may not be there. The same definitely holds true for spas, where guests come into such close contact with the employees.

Ilana Craig and Christina Stratton, who own spas in North Carolina and run Innovative Spa Management, a spa consulting business, say this psychic dimension can be called the spa’s culture. “Your culture has a number of profound effects on your business,” Craig says. “It defines the essence of your business, determines the environment in the spa, helps attract and keep a core team, and builds customer loyalty. And, most importantly, you need to understand that developing your culture begins with you. Your staff and your spa are merely reflections of you.” 

The attitude of the spa’s creator (you) defines the culture, and the culture affects absolutely everything in the spa. Innovative Spa Management offers a list of benefits created by a strong culture:

• Decreased turnover.

• Increased efficiency.

• Increased employee satisfaction.

• Increased productivity.

• Increased profitability.

Once you determine your purpose and vision, use those to formulate the culture of your spa business. Will you be approachable? Exclusive? Exotic? Feminine? Friendly? Hip? Homey? Modern? Ultra-professional? Upscale? Urban? Warm and fuzzy? Once the culture is firmly established in your mind and written down, begin hiring the kind of people who will make that culture resonate with clients and build a successful business.


When it comes to hiring, human resources expert Zahira J. Coll offered some very specific suggestions at the Day Spa Expo. She has hired spa staff at several top properties, and experience has shown her that it is inherently tricky to find and hire the best spa employees. “People attracted to working in spas,” she says, “have a ‘servant’s heart’ by nature, but they are difficult to manage. We are looking for people who have that heart and who are easy to manage, which is very difficult to find.” To find those select few, Coll offers concrete suggestions, especially for interviewing therapists, estheticians, and other spa employees. She recommends creating unique questions that will match the personality of the people you bring into the spa with the clients you hope to attract. Her interviewing tips include:

• Do the first interview over the phone, thus checking for phone skills.

• Second and third interviews determine if the candidate has the proper aptitude, attitude, and skills.

• Give other customers, employees, and friends the chance to receive test-massage treatments from job candidates instead of receiving all of them yourself.

• Analyze whether or not the candidate’s professional appearance suits the spa’s culture.

• Evaluate ability to follow instructions by watching how well candidates take direction when filling out applications.

• Do not be overly impressed by a long client list or hire somebody mainly for it. That person may then build the list further at your expense, perhaps leaving with your clients.

Word interview questions in an open-ended way so they require more than a than yes-or-no answer. Questions that require a story in response allow you to learn something about the person. For example, an ineffective interview question might be, “Can you work under pressure?” An effective question might be, “Tell me about a time when you had to work under pressure.” While it is illegal to ask about candidates’ personal lives, it is legal for them to talk about themselves. You can discover much about a person by just listening.


You will need to formalize the new relationships you create with team members. Leslie Lyon, president of Spas2b, Inc., spoke at the Day Spa Expo about agreements, contracts, and promises. Many therapists shy away from this area because they are not comfortable with the legalese used, and they would rather keep relationships informal and friendly. This is a mistake. Even though it may feel adversarial to require people to sign documents filled with terms such as termination, indemnity, and liability, it protects you in the end. The sooner you come to terms with your newfound role as a leader and job provider, the better. It includes creating, signing, and enforcing several different contracts in the spa.

Lyons points out that, unless terms are written down, agreed upon, and signed by employees, people often forget what they eagerly agreed to during the interview process. For example, if you require employees to work weekends and some early evenings, have this written in the employment contract. If the employee balks at such a schedule in the future, you can display the signed contract, wherein she agreed to the schedule. “Contracts create accountability,” Lyons says. “You have to make sure your enforcement of these contracts is consistent, or else you will not have the proper track record to back you up in case of a lawsuit or other problem.”

Lyons enumerated the 10 most important contracts for use in the spa setting, which include:

1. Authorization to Release (former employer’s information, for interview purposes).

2. Confidentiality Agreements.

3. Employment Agreement (also called the Job Contract).

4. Growth & Goals (new position offers, promotions).

5. Independent Contractor Agreement (if applicable).

6. Job Reviews/Staff Evaluations.

7. Non-Compete Contracts.

8. Policies and Procedures Manual with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and job description specific to new employee, which should be signed as a contract.

9. Staff Compensation Package.

10. Warnings and Dismissals.

“Your staff contracts should be in place before you begin recruiting,” Lyons says. “And I recommend having a six month probationary period in order to get to know the real employee.”

It is a good idea to voluntarily seek legal counsel to create many of these contracts and agreements before legal counsel is necessary due to problems or lawsuits. Contracts are an essential part of expanding your practice; by spending the time and effort to create and enforce them, you will move along the path toward full entrepreneurship.

following dreams

In the final hours of the Day Spa Expo, I spoke with Skip Williams, an organizer of the show, and husband of Zahira Coll. Williams is the author of The Reluctant Spa Director and the Mission Dream, a great book for therapists thinking of opening a spa. A big bearded bear of a man intent on shaking business sense into the sometimes overly “artistic” therapists and estheticians who seek advice about opening a spa, Williams offered parting words of wisdom that may surprise you.

“One of the biggest mistakes therapists make when going from a single operator to a multiple-therapist spa,” he says, “is they make the spa too small. You will probably need to make it bigger than you think in order to get to the same level of profitability as your single-practitioner business and to eventually surpass it.” It can be especially scary today, when the prospect of an economic downturn is forcing some therapists to rethink their plans. At the mention of the economy, Williams smiles. “Even in difficult times,” he says, “there are opportunities. Some spa owners are now deciding to sell their businesses because of economic challenges, and this creates a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs with the energy and knowledge needed to buy such businesses for a reasonable price and turn them around.  Just as in other businesses, we need to stop thinking like a bull and start thinking like a bear.”

In the end, then, it will be those people who have business savvy, as well as passion, who succeed in following their dreams. Do you have the discipline to become one of them?

 Steve Capellini is a noted massage therapist, business trainer, and spa consultant. He’s the author of three texts, including The Massage Therapy Career Guide. Capellini has organized and educated massage staffs at some of the top spas in the country. Contact him at steve@royaltreatment.com.