Features, The Business of Beauty

Blu Spas

It sort of makes perfect sense that a company operating in every hemisphere wouldn’t need one main base camp where employees hang their hats. Still, Blu Spas takes the idea of the virtual office to the next level. For starters, the two founders of the high-profile spa design firm have never lived in the same pocket of the United States. While Cary Collier resides in Whitefish, Montana, his partner Doug Chambers calls the L.A. area home. Sure, there are “auxiliary” offices in both partners’ main locales. But with staffers scattered across multiple states and Mexico, as Chambers puts it, “Face-to-face time is rare.”

Clearly, Blu’s heavy use of video conference rooms like GoToMeetings and Skype, as well as a host of file-sharing platforms, hasn’t hindered its ability to deliver on the client front. The firm has 400+ projects in 38 countries under its belt, including spas for a staggering number of top hotel chains, including Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, The Dorchester Collection and Relais & Chateau, to name just a few.

And the firm is equally proud of its many one-off projects, like Cliff House Resort & Spa in Cape Neddick, Maine, Nusa Dua Spa at Nusa Dua Beach Hotel in Bali, and Alvadora Spa at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix. Again, that handful of spas is just the tip of the Blu iceberg in the stand-alone hotel space.

Diverse Backgrounds Make for a Great Partnership

“The Alvadora was one of my first projects after returning to the U.S. from living and working in Bali during the 90s,” recalls Collier, who was born in Texas and has also lived in Hong Kong and Jakarta, as well as Aspen and Carmel.

Armed with a degree in marketing, Collier started in the wellness world as a health club owner, and later became a driving force behind the spa industry in Asia. A founder of ISPA Asia Pacific, he’s in demand on the speaker circuit, and has given talks at Global Spa & Wellness Summit, Cornell University and Urban Land Institute.

If Collier is the Deep Thinker of the duo, Chambers brings the strategic and operational chops. Hailing from a neighboring state – Oklahoma – he’s an attorney with a focus on business and real estate. That means he’s got a firm grip on such “left brain” stuff as feasibility, fiscal oversight and compensation schedules. Which isn’t to say Chambers doesn’t have an artsy side; he spearheaded the development of hairstylist Billy “Feng Shui Beauty” Yamaguchi’s eponymous product line and is a sought-after creative consultant.

The pair met at an ISPA conference in Banff Springs, Canada in 1997. Two years later, they launched Blu. And while they might not share an office, they share a thriving business and a mutual love of mega fitness. In fact, this May they got together for a Spartan race in Montana, a grueling obstacle course scenario that is not for the faint of heart.

Where Nature Is the Main Act

With so many spas – in so many far-flung regions of the world – what is Blu’s main gestalt? One connecting thread seems to be the heavy incorporation of the spa’s natural surroundings.

“My favorite spas are free-standing with an abundance of indoor and outdoor spaces,” says Collier. “Nature is one of the main acts.” Falling under this umbrella are spas at a slew of existing Four Seasons properties (Bali, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Marrakech, Bahrain, Kyoto and Kuwait), as well as the upcoming Greece, Brazil and Tunisia sites.

A few a little closer to home also tick off the “nature as main act” box for Collier: the award-winning La Cantera Resort & Spa’s Loma de Vida Spa in San Antonio, The Spa at Green Valley Ranch at Red Rock in Las Vegas and The Spa at Kukui’ula in Kauai.

Water plays a starring role in many of Blu’s projects, and the firm is currently experimenting with the concept of “modular water playgrounds” that can expand and contract according to a property’s needs. It features a mix of hydrotherapy and thermal experiences that are often “self-directed” by guests.

“In addition to allowing for a broader accessibility, including a more balanced split between male and female guests, our business model reflects a dramatically lower payroll burden,” says Chambers. In other words, more spa guests left to their own devices means fewer staffers performing services.

Another push for Blu is the development of “portable residential wellness spaces” that challenge clients to think of their total footprint in different ways. Think of it as spa spillover. “It’s an extension of offerings we’ve advocated for hospitality projects,” Chambers notes. “Particularly for resorts, there’re often underutilized areas on the grounds and the opportunity to expand the spa or wellness experience beyond the four walls of the spa. We’ve worked with a few different groups to develop solutions allowing for portable, multi-functional wellness spaces that can be introduced into a variety of venues. We’re confident that this will be an ideal option for wellness-minded residential developments, including lifestyle residential slash active senior living developments.”

All of this move against entrenched norms is especially helpful for luring in millennials, who are far less enamored with the idea of a classically luxurious spa vacation than previous generations. Rather, they’re more apt to follow their favorite wellness guru to no-frills retreats all over the world. “Spas are having to rethink their story, design and delivery of services,” says Collier. “The appeal and marketability of the luxury’ spa – even the use of the verbiage ‘curated luxury spa’ is fading – certainly for millennials. For us, we strive to program the facility design to be adaptable for a variety of programming experiences that blur the lines of traditional spa design. The concept of spa still plays a role, but there is so much more to play with in the wellness sandbox.”

The Blu Spas Takeaways for Other Industries

  1. Prioritize relationship-building: When a market channel is stepping out of its core competency – as in when hotels want to build world-class spas – the learning curve can be steep and the monetary outlay immense. That’s where a solid track record and meticulously maintained client relationships come in handy for winning gigs. “This is a very competitive field,” Chambers says of spa design and development. “Relationships and past performance are crucial. Considering the serious costs of developing wellness, spa, fitness and salon facilities, owners and developers tend to prefer firms that are reliable and have a proven track record.” Play the long game, think big-picture and never pump the brakes on delivering excellence.
  2. Simplify the mind/body/spirit thing: Though hugely trendy, “wellness” is fairly intangible. “It’s an ambiguous, amorphous notion,” concedes Chambers. But rather than becoming overwhelmed at how to incorporate wellness into your product or service offering, dial-back to the simpler idea of: “What can I do to make my client happy?” This is the spa world’s raison d’être. “We’ve seen how spa and wellness is pervading hospitality room design and in-room guest experiences, food and beverage design, fashion, travel and transportation,” notes Collier. “The sensory influences, the current storytelling of mind, body, spirit, biophilic design and the marketing of happiness are treasured tools from our world.” Yes, you read that right: the marketing of happiness. At your next big brainstorming meeting, put “Make Happy Happen” at the top of the To Do list.
  3. Staff up with truly passionate people: Faced with a towering stack of resumes, try to hone-in on the potential hires that don’t shy away from service work. “What the spa industry has is a whole lot of wonderful people who care about what ails you, categorical sustainability and how to spread living well and happiness wherever they can,” says Collier. “It’s a good fight to fight.”

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