Top Team
YTL Hotels

The three key figures behind YTL Hotels’ much-lauded Spa Village concept tell Katie Barnes about group dynamics, how to stay ahead of the curve and exciting new developments

By Katie Barnes | Published in Spa Business 2018 issue 3

When YTL Hotels, the hospitality division of a Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate, opened its first wellness facility in 2002, it also opened the eyes of the global spa industry at the same time. Not only was Spa Village at the Pangkor Laut Resort a formidable spa in a spectacular setting – treatment pavilions, healing huts, bath houses, spa huts, nap gazebos and a spa boutique are sprawled over four acres of beachfront on the Malaysian island – its philosophy of honouring local healing cultures and spa traditions was ahead of its time.

Fifteen years on and the Spa Village concept is going strong with a portfolio boasting one destination spa and nine others, including one outside of Asia in the UK and the newly-opened Spa Village at Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui, Thailand. As spas launch in new locales, the company remains true to its roots by seeking out local healers, authentic wellness practices and other traditions which guests can experience in everything from beauty and health treatments to bathing, fitness, food, music and decor. Aside from this, there are luxury spas at a handful of other YTL Hotels properties (see p53).

The three women behind the successful Spa Village brand and additional spas have been working together for eight years. They tell Spa Business about their group dynamics, what makes a winning spa formula and reveal details about four intriguing new spas in the pipeline.


Top Team
Lai-Ping Chik vice president spa division, YTL Hotels


 

Lai-Ping Chick oversees all spa development and operations
 

What’s your background at YTL Hotels?
In 1999 YTL Hotels bought JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur where I had set up the fitness centre and was working as a recreation manager. Soon after, Dato’ Mark Yeoh [executive director of YTL Hotels] approached me to develop a series of spas and head up the spa division. I was born and raised in Malaysia, surrounded by Malay, Chinese and Indian healing traditions – it was a way of life – so I couldn’t believe it when he asked me. I was excited about my new journey and about learning from Sylvia who I’d already met: she’s a very good teacher.

Today, I’m responsible for the entire development and operations of Spa Village including its results, brand standard delivery and image.

What’s your relationship with Sylvia and Melissa like? 
Sylvia has been my mentor since I came on board the Spa Village project. Melissa joined us in 2010. We have a shared passion for the spa industry, especially providing excellent guest experiences. Each of us brings different skills and cultures to the table, we listen to each other and agree on good ideas but we’re not shy about expressing our own views. At the end of the day we have to rationalise everything we do and present it to Dato’ Mark who’s smarter than the three of us put together.

How do you decide who does what?
We recognise each other’s strengths and discuss who the best person might be for a job. I compare it to a painting. Sylvia will draw the bigger picture, Melissa will paint it with colours and life and I’ll decide on the practicalities of how and where to hang it. It’s always a combination of efforts and we have fun with what we do.

What makes the Spa Village brand stand out?
Its ethos of honouring the healing culture of the region ensures the guest journey is always unique. In order to get there, however, we do our research thoroughly by studying the local area, exploring it and meeting regularly with elderly healers. We don’t just scratch the surface and if something is not good enough for our best guests, we’ll omit it.

What do spas bring to YTL Hotels as a business?
They were initially introduced as a luxury amenity, but today Spa Village is regarded as one of the best brands at YTL Hotels and it’s a profitable business in its own right. The spas are expected to produce results – we aim for 60 per cent profitability and achieve 40 per cent on average and the capture rate can be as high as 30 per cent in our resorts.

What are the highlights of your latest Spa Village at Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui? It’s our first spa in Thailand and to be in Koh Samui, such a beautiful island, is a double joy.

YTL Hotels has a close relationship with Marriott. How do you decide on spa brands and management for properties? This is the decision of the YTL Hotels and Marriott management teams at a higher level. If a Spa Village is assigned to a project, we usually manage it and design it with the help of a YTL Hotels architect/designer.

Our next Spa Village will be at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko that’s due to open in the Japanese ski resort in three years’ time. No decisions have yet been made on other joint projects.

What’s the overall development strategy for spas at YTL Hotels?
The ideal is to have a Spa Village in every new luxury hotel/resort, as guests now expect one when they visit YTL Hotels properties.

I’m very interested in Japan [and Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko]. It’s a country I always like to visit because of its rich culture, fresh food and people who have high integrity and discipline. But I also see the challenge of manpower for us and operating costs being high. It will be difficult to maintain our current performance and we’ll have to be prudent and efficient in productivity to operate in this country.

What other spas are you working on at the moment?
We’re currently in the pre-opening stages of the spa at Monkey Island Estate in the UK (see p56). On top of this, we’re in the process of researching the spa concepts for The Academy London and The Glasshouse Hotel, Edinburgh, two other UK properties which YTL Hotels acquired last year.

What’s your long-term goal for spas at YTL Hotels?
We only have one destination spa in Tembok Bali – I’d love to see more and it’s something we’re pushing for.


"Capture rate can be as high as 30 per cent in our resorts"

 



l Lai-Ping Chik with YTL Hotels’ executive director Dato’ Mark Yeoh (left)

Top Team
Sylvia Sepielli spa advisor and brand guardian, YTL Hotels


 

Sepielli is the guardian of the Spa Village brand
 

What’s your background at YTL Hotels?
I was invited to Malaysia by Dato’ Mark Yeoh in 1997 to consult on a spa for Pangkor Laut Resort. We hit if off immediately, bonding when I declined an invitation to dinner at a high-end restaurant for food at a hawker’s stand instead. That was the beginning of exploring the real Malaysia and getting to know this visionary.

He was emphatic about not wanting to copy a western style spa. He told me about Chinese children giving grandparents neck massages, about an invigorating ‘Shanghai scrub’ he’d experienced in China and about what Malay people give their children to keep healthy. That was the genesis for the brand – ‘to honour the healing culture of the region’.

Malaysia consists of three main groups of people: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. The commitment of Dato’ Mark came through loud and clear when he agreed to not only offer the therapies, but to build a hut dedicated to each culture and staff it with authentic specialists. The brand name emerged from this first spa, because Spa Village Pangkor Laut, spread over four acres, really looks and functions like a village.

What’s your role at YTL Hotels?
I’m the spa advisor and I work alongside Lai-Ping as she operates and develops all Spa Villages. I’m also the guardian of the brand. In the early days, this meant helping to develop and strengthen our path. In recent years, it means helping the brand stay true to its core, while expanding into new markets such as Spa Village Bath in the UK (see p56).

My strength lies in longevity in the business and having global experiences that shed light and keep staff informed about spa and wellness internationally. This comes from consulting and operating spas around the world for 20-plus years with my consultancy Sylvia Planning And design (SPAd).

What are the strengths of the Spa Village team?
Well, first of all, we truly love each other. I’ve known Melissa since she was just out of college. I gave her her first job in the spa industry. Decades later she found herself in Malaysia and I introduced her to Lai-Ping. Lai-Ping is one of the hardest working, most astute operators I’ve ever worked with.

We all know each other well and respect each other’s opinions. We don’t always agree on things, but we somehow manage to either come to a consensus, or just move on.

What makes the Spa Village brand so special?
Beyond the tagline, it’s a brand that digs deep. You can be sure that if an offering or experience is on a Spa Village menu it’s authentic. If it’s new, it has staying power and efficacy.

The most special thing, however, is the people who work together to serve the guests and each other. Built into the DNA, all trainings and daily briefings is the intent to “serve with our hearts through our hands”.

How has the concept developed over the 15 years and how do you stay ahead of trends? The core concept and service standards have not changed much. However, guests are more well-travelled, know what they like and have very high expectations and this keeps us sharp and motivated. Also, expanding into urban markets with guests who have less time to relax is encouraging us to become more flexible in both operations and concept offerings.

I honestly don’t look much or care what the industry is doing. With Lai-Ping, Melissa and myself at three points around the world (Malaysia, UK/Europe, North America) we keep our ears tuned to what guests, and people in general, care about. YTL Hotels is in this for the long-term. The freshness and staying ahead applies not only to the guest experience, but to building a strong, well trained, satisfied and self-motivated team (see p57).

What was your involvement in the Spa Village in Koh Samui?
Conceptually, following the inspiration of architect Zaidan Tahir, I was very involved in content and development. And, through Lai-Ping, I provided overall advice and consultation. Melissa did much of the menu planning and hands-on training.

What makes the spa stand out?
Situated on an island, water is a vital part of the experience. Treatment pavilions surround a large pond and there’s a pool for ‘Thai Aquatic Freedom’ sessions. Most treatments begin with the Songkran Shower, a playful tossing of water indicative of the Thai New Year ritual and a symbol of renewal. While Thai massage is now popular worldwide, tok sen is a lesser known therapy offered involving a wooden wedge and mallet that is gently pounded by the therapist to create an incredible vibration to relax the muscles. Guests can also try a Muay Thai Boxing session – singlet and baggy boxer shorts are provided.

What drives you in your role at YTL Hotels? The Yeohs are like family to me and my family. I’m blessed to be involved with YTL Hotels for so many years. It’s never boring and Dato’ Mark always keeps pushing the envelope. Also, the exciting new developments in the UK and Europe with fresh ideas by Melissa, and Lai-Ping at the helm, is definitely keeping me engaged!


"You can be sure that if an offering or experience is on a Spa Village menu it’s authentic"

 



Malay, Chinese and Indian therapies are a staple offering at Spa Village

Top Team
Melissa Mettler spa consultant, YTL Hotels


 

Mettler is the Spa Village representative in Europe
 

When and how did you start working for YTL Hotels?
It was serendipity really. I was an independent spa consultant and having just moved to Kuala Lumpur from the Caribbean needed a friend. I called upon Sylvia, my very-first spa boss of 20 years ago, who delivered me to a connection at Spa Village Kuala Lumpur. I went in search of a friend and walked out with a job! That was eight years ago.
What’s your role at YTL Hotels and what are your strengths? My official role is spa consultant to YTL Hotels’ spa division. I’m now based in Barcelona and I’m the Spa Village representative and face in Europe which is one of our key areas for expansion. I provide hands-on development of the regional portfolio, as well as consultancy on operations. Independently, I still also run my own company Melissa Mettler Consulting.

My unofficial role is the stubborn, creative sister who has mad ideas of how to bring wellbeing to our programmes with a sense of fun and vibrancy. I hope that’s my strength, but Lai-Ping and Sylvia may disagree – I’m sure that I drive them around the bend sometimes!

How did you tap into local influences for your first UK spa?
We’ve tapped into the heritage of Bath, a UK spa town, to offer aquatic body therapies in the naturally-heated magnesium-rich pools – it’s the only hotel in the country with direct access to thermal waters. Our signature Freedom treatment is particularly special and I’ll never forget bringing our Mayan healer from Mexico to share this magical water therapy with the UK team.

We’ve coupled this with the historic use of aromatherapy and old English herbology and have partnered with Neal’s Yard for our bespoke Aroma Bar. Here a therapist will create a personalised aromatherapy pouch which guests can take into the sauna.

How difficult was it to open an Asian brand in the UK?
Training our team was the most challenging aspect as we were trying to infuse the practice of working intuitively ‘from the heart through the hands’ in an environment where spa education stems from a cognitive platform. Learning the body from the mind translates very differently in situ than learning the body from the hands and heart.

Operationally, it was also a learning curve as there are so many rules and regulations in the UK. We’re used to using fresh raw ingredients in our treatments which we can’t do there for example. Navigating a more reserved and modest clientele required some adaptations in protocol too.

The UK is a key focus for YTL Hotels, what other spas do you have in the pipeline?
In September, we’ll open The Floating Spa at Monkey Island Estate in Bray (about an hour outside of London). It’s an historic property on a private island in the River Thames which is a pretty special springboard to start from. The hotel will have all the trappings of a fine English country hotel – kitchen gardens, bee hives, the lot. I felt there was one missing element… The River Thames. The spa will bring to life the spirit of adventure on this great river. Poems, stories and the power of the river will feed our offering… and it all happens on a bespoke widebeam river boat.

Around the same time, we’ll also open Mr Ma’s Teahouse spa in the charming garden of The Academy Hotel in London. The hotel is set in Bloomsbury in the West End and its quirky, creative concept is based on The Bloomsbury Set – the influential group of writers, intellectuals and philosophers, such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who lived and worked in the area in the 1920s. In my research, I discovered Lao She’s delightful book Mr Ma and Son which offers a humorous perspective of a Chinese immigrant navigating the conventions of English society, endeavouring to find coveted comforts of home. I thought it would be a beautiful way to bring an Asian ‘tea house’ spa to the area. We’ll offer Asian therapies with a traditional Gong Fu Cha tea ritual.

At some point, we’re also hoping to open a rooftop spa at The Glasshouse Hotel in Edinburgh. We’re exploring ideas for this – all I can say is that it will be very cool.

What projects are you working on in Europe?
We’ve just opened The Muse in St Tropez which I’m excited about. The spa is a luxury safari tent nestled in the hills behind the resort. Open air, surrounded by juniper and olive trees.

In terms of expansion, Spain is a country that interests us.

What drives you?
Creativity and freedom. When I’m pulling out my hair I think ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to roll out a standardised corporate spa?’ But I’d wither and die. We are so blessed by Dato’ Mark with a somewhat free hand. Each spa is unique. Each spa is alive. And each spa bears the watermark of Lai-Ping, Sylvia and Melissa.


"Europe is one of our key areas for expansion"

 



Body therapies in natural thermal waters are on offer at Spa Village Bath, UK – the first Spa Village outside Asia
YTL Hotels’ spa portfolio

Destination spa
Spa Village Tembok • Bali

Spa Villages
Kuala Lumpur • Malaysia
Pangkor Laut • Malaysia
Tanjong Jara • Malaysia
Cameron Highlands • Malaysia
Malacca • Malaysia
Gaya Island • Malaysia
Hangzhou • China
Bath • UK
Koh Samui • Thailand

Others
La Tente by Spa Village at
The Muse St Tropez • France
The Majestic Spa by Spa Village at Majestic Hotel• Malaysia
Starhill Spa by Spa Village at JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur • Malaysia

Development pipeline
The Floating Spa by Spa Village at Monkey Island Estate • Bray, UK (opening Q3 2018)

Mr Ma’s Teahouse Spa by Spa Village at The Academy London, UK (opening Q3 2018)

Spa Village Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko • Japan (opening 2021)

Rooftop spa by Spa Village at The Glasshouse • Edinburgh, UK (opening to be confirmed)

 



Spa Villages achieve a profit margin of 40 per cent on average
 


 
Spa Village recruitment and training

Spa Village employs over 200 therapists and with high-quality service a USP, recruitment and training are taken very seriously. Chik has created a protocol to “train and nurture our ‘stars’” and insists that every one is treated “like an asset, not a number – we invest in them”. Sepielli reiterates this explaining that “Spa Village staffers are the germ of any new team and are vital in ensuring the brand culture, traditions and standards are second nature to the new spa”.

In 2015, YTL Hotels’ International College of Hotel Management launched a Spa Village Academy, which is supported by the Malaysian government, and aims to recruit and train fresh, local talent as well as to hone the skills of current therapists. Candidates go through a three-month course and a year-long internship. In addition, corporate trainers carry out site audits, taking into account guest feedback, and teach any new programmes. Therapists are provided with a clear career path and receive incremental wage increases when they become certified in new modalities or get promoted.

The college also has a 2.5 year spa management course which covers team leadership, staff training and customer service skills, with a refresher offered every two years. To keep up motivation, managers can request a transfer to a different site every 18 months and all convene for an annual spa management meeting to go through and analyse business performance and come up with a plan for the year ahead.

 



Training is taken very seriously and the Spa Village Academy is supported by the Malaysian government
 


Training is taken very seriously and the Spa Village Academy is supported by the Malaysian government
 
Lai-Ping Chik, Sylvia Sepielli and Melissa Mettler (left to right) are the driving force behind YTL Hotels’ spas worldwide
Spa Village Pangkor Laut’s treatment pavilions, bath houses and nap gazebos are spread over four acres
Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui opened in late 2017 and boasts the newest Spa Village – bringing the brand total to 10
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known tok sen Thai massage
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known water-based therapies
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known water-based therapies
The Monkey Island spa is based on a river boat
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Spa Business
2018 issue 3

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Spa Business - YTL Hotels

Top Team

YTL Hotels


The three key figures behind YTL Hotels’ much-lauded Spa Village concept tell Katie Barnes about group dynamics, how to stay ahead of the curve and exciting new developments

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
When the formidable Spa Village Pangkor Laut opened in 2002, it also opened the eyes of the global spa industry
Lai-Ping Chik, Sylvia Sepielli and Melissa Mettler (left to right) are the driving force behind YTL Hotels’ spas worldwide
Spa Village Pangkor Laut’s treatment pavilions, bath houses and nap gazebos are spread over four acres
Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui opened in late 2017 and boasts the newest Spa Village – bringing the brand total to 10
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known tok sen Thai massage
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known water-based therapies
Spa Village Koh Samui offers a lesser known water-based therapies
The Monkey Island spa is based on a river boat

When YTL Hotels, the hospitality division of a Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate, opened its first wellness facility in 2002, it also opened the eyes of the global spa industry at the same time. Not only was Spa Village at the Pangkor Laut Resort a formidable spa in a spectacular setting – treatment pavilions, healing huts, bath houses, spa huts, nap gazebos and a spa boutique are sprawled over four acres of beachfront on the Malaysian island – its philosophy of honouring local healing cultures and spa traditions was ahead of its time.

Fifteen years on and the Spa Village concept is going strong with a portfolio boasting one destination spa and nine others, including one outside of Asia in the UK and the newly-opened Spa Village at Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui, Thailand. As spas launch in new locales, the company remains true to its roots by seeking out local healers, authentic wellness practices and other traditions which guests can experience in everything from beauty and health treatments to bathing, fitness, food, music and decor. Aside from this, there are luxury spas at a handful of other YTL Hotels properties (see p53).

The three women behind the successful Spa Village brand and additional spas have been working together for eight years. They tell Spa Business about their group dynamics, what makes a winning spa formula and reveal details about four intriguing new spas in the pipeline.


Top Team
Lai-Ping Chik vice president spa division, YTL Hotels


 

Lai-Ping Chick oversees all spa development and operations
 

What’s your background at YTL Hotels?
In 1999 YTL Hotels bought JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur where I had set up the fitness centre and was working as a recreation manager. Soon after, Dato’ Mark Yeoh [executive director of YTL Hotels] approached me to develop a series of spas and head up the spa division. I was born and raised in Malaysia, surrounded by Malay, Chinese and Indian healing traditions – it was a way of life – so I couldn’t believe it when he asked me. I was excited about my new journey and about learning from Sylvia who I’d already met: she’s a very good teacher.

Today, I’m responsible for the entire development and operations of Spa Village including its results, brand standard delivery and image.

What’s your relationship with Sylvia and Melissa like? 
Sylvia has been my mentor since I came on board the Spa Village project. Melissa joined us in 2010. We have a shared passion for the spa industry, especially providing excellent guest experiences. Each of us brings different skills and cultures to the table, we listen to each other and agree on good ideas but we’re not shy about expressing our own views. At the end of the day we have to rationalise everything we do and present it to Dato’ Mark who’s smarter than the three of us put together.

How do you decide who does what?
We recognise each other’s strengths and discuss who the best person might be for a job. I compare it to a painting. Sylvia will draw the bigger picture, Melissa will paint it with colours and life and I’ll decide on the practicalities of how and where to hang it. It’s always a combination of efforts and we have fun with what we do.

What makes the Spa Village brand stand out?
Its ethos of honouring the healing culture of the region ensures the guest journey is always unique. In order to get there, however, we do our research thoroughly by studying the local area, exploring it and meeting regularly with elderly healers. We don’t just scratch the surface and if something is not good enough for our best guests, we’ll omit it.

What do spas bring to YTL Hotels as a business?
They were initially introduced as a luxury amenity, but today Spa Village is regarded as one of the best brands at YTL Hotels and it’s a profitable business in its own right. The spas are expected to produce results – we aim for 60 per cent profitability and achieve 40 per cent on average and the capture rate can be as high as 30 per cent in our resorts.

What are the highlights of your latest Spa Village at Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui? It’s our first spa in Thailand and to be in Koh Samui, such a beautiful island, is a double joy.

YTL Hotels has a close relationship with Marriott. How do you decide on spa brands and management for properties? This is the decision of the YTL Hotels and Marriott management teams at a higher level. If a Spa Village is assigned to a project, we usually manage it and design it with the help of a YTL Hotels architect/designer.

Our next Spa Village will be at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko that’s due to open in the Japanese ski resort in three years’ time. No decisions have yet been made on other joint projects.

What’s the overall development strategy for spas at YTL Hotels?
The ideal is to have a Spa Village in every new luxury hotel/resort, as guests now expect one when they visit YTL Hotels properties.

I’m very interested in Japan [and Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko]. It’s a country I always like to visit because of its rich culture, fresh food and people who have high integrity and discipline. But I also see the challenge of manpower for us and operating costs being high. It will be difficult to maintain our current performance and we’ll have to be prudent and efficient in productivity to operate in this country.

What other spas are you working on at the moment?
We’re currently in the pre-opening stages of the spa at Monkey Island Estate in the UK (see p56). On top of this, we’re in the process of researching the spa concepts for The Academy London and The Glasshouse Hotel, Edinburgh, two other UK properties which YTL Hotels acquired last year.

What’s your long-term goal for spas at YTL Hotels?
We only have one destination spa in Tembok Bali – I’d love to see more and it’s something we’re pushing for.


"Capture rate can be as high as 30 per cent in our resorts"

 



l Lai-Ping Chik with YTL Hotels’ executive director Dato’ Mark Yeoh (left)

Top Team
Sylvia Sepielli spa advisor and brand guardian, YTL Hotels


 

Sepielli is the guardian of the Spa Village brand
 

What’s your background at YTL Hotels?
I was invited to Malaysia by Dato’ Mark Yeoh in 1997 to consult on a spa for Pangkor Laut Resort. We hit if off immediately, bonding when I declined an invitation to dinner at a high-end restaurant for food at a hawker’s stand instead. That was the beginning of exploring the real Malaysia and getting to know this visionary.

He was emphatic about not wanting to copy a western style spa. He told me about Chinese children giving grandparents neck massages, about an invigorating ‘Shanghai scrub’ he’d experienced in China and about what Malay people give their children to keep healthy. That was the genesis for the brand – ‘to honour the healing culture of the region’.

Malaysia consists of three main groups of people: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. The commitment of Dato’ Mark came through loud and clear when he agreed to not only offer the therapies, but to build a hut dedicated to each culture and staff it with authentic specialists. The brand name emerged from this first spa, because Spa Village Pangkor Laut, spread over four acres, really looks and functions like a village.

What’s your role at YTL Hotels?
I’m the spa advisor and I work alongside Lai-Ping as she operates and develops all Spa Villages. I’m also the guardian of the brand. In the early days, this meant helping to develop and strengthen our path. In recent years, it means helping the brand stay true to its core, while expanding into new markets such as Spa Village Bath in the UK (see p56).

My strength lies in longevity in the business and having global experiences that shed light and keep staff informed about spa and wellness internationally. This comes from consulting and operating spas around the world for 20-plus years with my consultancy Sylvia Planning And design (SPAd).

What are the strengths of the Spa Village team?
Well, first of all, we truly love each other. I’ve known Melissa since she was just out of college. I gave her her first job in the spa industry. Decades later she found herself in Malaysia and I introduced her to Lai-Ping. Lai-Ping is one of the hardest working, most astute operators I’ve ever worked with.

We all know each other well and respect each other’s opinions. We don’t always agree on things, but we somehow manage to either come to a consensus, or just move on.

What makes the Spa Village brand so special?
Beyond the tagline, it’s a brand that digs deep. You can be sure that if an offering or experience is on a Spa Village menu it’s authentic. If it’s new, it has staying power and efficacy.

The most special thing, however, is the people who work together to serve the guests and each other. Built into the DNA, all trainings and daily briefings is the intent to “serve with our hearts through our hands”.

How has the concept developed over the 15 years and how do you stay ahead of trends? The core concept and service standards have not changed much. However, guests are more well-travelled, know what they like and have very high expectations and this keeps us sharp and motivated. Also, expanding into urban markets with guests who have less time to relax is encouraging us to become more flexible in both operations and concept offerings.

I honestly don’t look much or care what the industry is doing. With Lai-Ping, Melissa and myself at three points around the world (Malaysia, UK/Europe, North America) we keep our ears tuned to what guests, and people in general, care about. YTL Hotels is in this for the long-term. The freshness and staying ahead applies not only to the guest experience, but to building a strong, well trained, satisfied and self-motivated team (see p57).

What was your involvement in the Spa Village in Koh Samui?
Conceptually, following the inspiration of architect Zaidan Tahir, I was very involved in content and development. And, through Lai-Ping, I provided overall advice and consultation. Melissa did much of the menu planning and hands-on training.

What makes the spa stand out?
Situated on an island, water is a vital part of the experience. Treatment pavilions surround a large pond and there’s a pool for ‘Thai Aquatic Freedom’ sessions. Most treatments begin with the Songkran Shower, a playful tossing of water indicative of the Thai New Year ritual and a symbol of renewal. While Thai massage is now popular worldwide, tok sen is a lesser known therapy offered involving a wooden wedge and mallet that is gently pounded by the therapist to create an incredible vibration to relax the muscles. Guests can also try a Muay Thai Boxing session – singlet and baggy boxer shorts are provided.

What drives you in your role at YTL Hotels? The Yeohs are like family to me and my family. I’m blessed to be involved with YTL Hotels for so many years. It’s never boring and Dato’ Mark always keeps pushing the envelope. Also, the exciting new developments in the UK and Europe with fresh ideas by Melissa, and Lai-Ping at the helm, is definitely keeping me engaged!


"You can be sure that if an offering or experience is on a Spa Village menu it’s authentic"

 



Malay, Chinese and Indian therapies are a staple offering at Spa Village

Top Team
Melissa Mettler spa consultant, YTL Hotels


 

Mettler is the Spa Village representative in Europe
 

When and how did you start working for YTL Hotels?
It was serendipity really. I was an independent spa consultant and having just moved to Kuala Lumpur from the Caribbean needed a friend. I called upon Sylvia, my very-first spa boss of 20 years ago, who delivered me to a connection at Spa Village Kuala Lumpur. I went in search of a friend and walked out with a job! That was eight years ago.
What’s your role at YTL Hotels and what are your strengths? My official role is spa consultant to YTL Hotels’ spa division. I’m now based in Barcelona and I’m the Spa Village representative and face in Europe which is one of our key areas for expansion. I provide hands-on development of the regional portfolio, as well as consultancy on operations. Independently, I still also run my own company Melissa Mettler Consulting.

My unofficial role is the stubborn, creative sister who has mad ideas of how to bring wellbeing to our programmes with a sense of fun and vibrancy. I hope that’s my strength, but Lai-Ping and Sylvia may disagree – I’m sure that I drive them around the bend sometimes!

How did you tap into local influences for your first UK spa?
We’ve tapped into the heritage of Bath, a UK spa town, to offer aquatic body therapies in the naturally-heated magnesium-rich pools – it’s the only hotel in the country with direct access to thermal waters. Our signature Freedom treatment is particularly special and I’ll never forget bringing our Mayan healer from Mexico to share this magical water therapy with the UK team.

We’ve coupled this with the historic use of aromatherapy and old English herbology and have partnered with Neal’s Yard for our bespoke Aroma Bar. Here a therapist will create a personalised aromatherapy pouch which guests can take into the sauna.

How difficult was it to open an Asian brand in the UK?
Training our team was the most challenging aspect as we were trying to infuse the practice of working intuitively ‘from the heart through the hands’ in an environment where spa education stems from a cognitive platform. Learning the body from the mind translates very differently in situ than learning the body from the hands and heart.

Operationally, it was also a learning curve as there are so many rules and regulations in the UK. We’re used to using fresh raw ingredients in our treatments which we can’t do there for example. Navigating a more reserved and modest clientele required some adaptations in protocol too.

The UK is a key focus for YTL Hotels, what other spas do you have in the pipeline?
In September, we’ll open The Floating Spa at Monkey Island Estate in Bray (about an hour outside of London). It’s an historic property on a private island in the River Thames which is a pretty special springboard to start from. The hotel will have all the trappings of a fine English country hotel – kitchen gardens, bee hives, the lot. I felt there was one missing element… The River Thames. The spa will bring to life the spirit of adventure on this great river. Poems, stories and the power of the river will feed our offering… and it all happens on a bespoke widebeam river boat.

Around the same time, we’ll also open Mr Ma’s Teahouse spa in the charming garden of The Academy Hotel in London. The hotel is set in Bloomsbury in the West End and its quirky, creative concept is based on The Bloomsbury Set – the influential group of writers, intellectuals and philosophers, such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who lived and worked in the area in the 1920s. In my research, I discovered Lao She’s delightful book Mr Ma and Son which offers a humorous perspective of a Chinese immigrant navigating the conventions of English society, endeavouring to find coveted comforts of home. I thought it would be a beautiful way to bring an Asian ‘tea house’ spa to the area. We’ll offer Asian therapies with a traditional Gong Fu Cha tea ritual.

At some point, we’re also hoping to open a rooftop spa at The Glasshouse Hotel in Edinburgh. We’re exploring ideas for this – all I can say is that it will be very cool.

What projects are you working on in Europe?
We’ve just opened The Muse in St Tropez which I’m excited about. The spa is a luxury safari tent nestled in the hills behind the resort. Open air, surrounded by juniper and olive trees.

In terms of expansion, Spain is a country that interests us.

What drives you?
Creativity and freedom. When I’m pulling out my hair I think ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to roll out a standardised corporate spa?’ But I’d wither and die. We are so blessed by Dato’ Mark with a somewhat free hand. Each spa is unique. Each spa is alive. And each spa bears the watermark of Lai-Ping, Sylvia and Melissa.


"Europe is one of our key areas for expansion"

 



Body therapies in natural thermal waters are on offer at Spa Village Bath, UK – the first Spa Village outside Asia
YTL Hotels’ spa portfolio

Destination spa
Spa Village Tembok • Bali

Spa Villages
Kuala Lumpur • Malaysia
Pangkor Laut • Malaysia
Tanjong Jara • Malaysia
Cameron Highlands • Malaysia
Malacca • Malaysia
Gaya Island • Malaysia
Hangzhou • China
Bath • UK
Koh Samui • Thailand

Others
La Tente by Spa Village at
The Muse St Tropez • France
The Majestic Spa by Spa Village at Majestic Hotel• Malaysia
Starhill Spa by Spa Village at JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur • Malaysia

Development pipeline
The Floating Spa by Spa Village at Monkey Island Estate • Bray, UK (opening Q3 2018)

Mr Ma’s Teahouse Spa by Spa Village at The Academy London, UK (opening Q3 2018)

Spa Village Ritz-Carlton Reserve Niseko • Japan (opening 2021)

Rooftop spa by Spa Village at The Glasshouse • Edinburgh, UK (opening to be confirmed)

 



Spa Villages achieve a profit margin of 40 per cent on average
 


 
Spa Village recruitment and training

Spa Village employs over 200 therapists and with high-quality service a USP, recruitment and training are taken very seriously. Chik has created a protocol to “train and nurture our ‘stars’” and insists that every one is treated “like an asset, not a number – we invest in them”. Sepielli reiterates this explaining that “Spa Village staffers are the germ of any new team and are vital in ensuring the brand culture, traditions and standards are second nature to the new spa”.

In 2015, YTL Hotels’ International College of Hotel Management launched a Spa Village Academy, which is supported by the Malaysian government, and aims to recruit and train fresh, local talent as well as to hone the skills of current therapists. Candidates go through a three-month course and a year-long internship. In addition, corporate trainers carry out site audits, taking into account guest feedback, and teach any new programmes. Therapists are provided with a clear career path and receive incremental wage increases when they become certified in new modalities or get promoted.

The college also has a 2.5 year spa management course which covers team leadership, staff training and customer service skills, with a refresher offered every two years. To keep up motivation, managers can request a transfer to a different site every 18 months and all convene for an annual spa management meeting to go through and analyse business performance and come up with a plan for the year ahead.

 



Training is taken very seriously and the Spa Village Academy is supported by the Malaysian government
 


Training is taken very seriously and the Spa Village Academy is supported by the Malaysian government
 

Originally published in Spa Business 2018 issue 3

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