When the 45,000sq ft (4,181sq m) spa opened at the stylish Pennyhill Park in 2003 it was one of the largest destination spas in Europe. Located just 27 miles from London, it quickly became a favourite escape for stressed-out city folk and has scooped up numerous awards. So when the owners, Exclusive Hotels, revealed a new standalone spa building for its sister property in the South Downs countryside in February expectations were high.
Developed over four years by Felce & Guy architects and Sparcstudio spa designers, to the sum of £14m (US$18.5m, €16.4m), The Spa at South Lodge does not disappoint. So what makes it stand out and will it be as successful a business as The Spa at Pennyhill Park which turns over £5m (US$6.5m, €5.8m) a year?
Bringing the outside in
Nature has hugely influenced the design of this 44,000sq ft (4,088sq m), two-storey spa. The building itself has a curved, grass-covered roof in a nod to the sweeping South Downs, with floor to ceiling windows making the most of the views. Further inspiration comes from the rich botanical history of the grounds by naturalist Frederick DuCane Godman which date back to the 1800s and boast more than 360 species of trees and plants from the Azores, Caribbean and Central & South America.
Inside, the 14 treatment rooms – named after and with décor inspired by onsite plants – host therapies using Exclusive’s own product range, as well as Omorovicza which is made from thermal waters and mud from Budapest. Additional touches include tables carved from logs, leaf laying motifs and the Forest Green marble-lined pool hall.
Sparcstudio director Beverley Bayes is particularly proud of the thermal suite created in collaboration with Helo UK. “It’s not massive but it has some bespoke experiences,” she says. “The camomile-infused sauna with its curved wooden fins on the ceiling is definitely something different. The jasmine steamroom is quite special too.” South Lodge has been one of the biggest projects for Sparcstudio, which has created top UK spas such as those at Calcot Manor and Center Parcs. It was responsible for the overall spa concept, working on space planning through to commissioning pieces of furniture and interior finishes.
Outside, large terraced sundecks surround the UK’s first heated natural swim pond that’s filtered by plants, plus a hydropool and the Watershed eatery. Danny Pecorelli, MD at Exclusive, says: “We learnt a huge amount about spa at Pennyhill and South Lodge has been built to further elevate the customer journey. Predominately around the scale of the outdoor space and how we can incorporate the outside in and inside out so the experience is maximised whatever the weather.”
To give the business an edge, South Lodge brought in spa operations manager Sara Young. An energetic leader of the 65-strong spa team, Young retrained as a therapist eight years ago following a career change. “I used to sell aircraft engines for Rolls Royce,” she reveals, “and while travelling the world I got to experience luxury spas. My background is in finance and business management, so I’m probably different to most spa managers.”
Drawing on her business background, Young has worked with Pecorelli to map out a spa model that will draw in local customers – a market that’s often overlooked by hotels but one which is proving to be of growing importance. In fact, some of the latest research from CBRE shows that 46 per cent of spa revenues in US hotels now comes from locals (see SB18/2 p82).
One way of pulling in nearby customers is to offer memberships. The Spa at South Lodge has two: a five-day and seven-day option costing £2,000 (US$2,613, €2,320) and £2,500 (US$3,266, €2,900) a year plus joining fees. Prior to opening, 130 people had already signed up and Young says there isn’t a cap – “we’ll stop when it starts getting too busy” – adding that Assa Abloy locker bands will be used to track numbers and usage.
To appeal to the local market even more, the spa has a stylish yet welcoming 70-seat Mediterranean restaurant that’s open to spa guests and members as well as the general public. Botanica serves delicious healthy food such as grilled figs and spiced roasted cauliflower. Pecorelli says: “Food has evolved so much in the last 20 years [since opening Pennyhill] and we really wanted to make it one of the key heartbeats of the spa experience.”
In addition, the Ridgeway Beauty Bar – named after a local sparkling wine offered during services – and barbers are also open to the public. Bayes comments: “I’m so proud of the spa design because it’s got so many elements which have come together as a whole – fitness for example isn’t just spa fitness, it’s a centre of excellence in its own right. There are no secondary spaces. The restaurant, beauty bar and barbers are all well thought through and work from a functional standpoint.”
With her business hat on, Young also approached spa pricing with purpose. A basic manicure, for example, is based on what she refers to as “premium high street pricing” and costs £25 (US$33, €29). “Often members will go somewhere cheaper to get their nails done,” she says “but it makes sense to be competitive if your cost per treatment isn’t that high compared to a facial. We want people to use the spa more and if it’s busy in the beauty bar it will be busy in the restaurant.”
Similarly, there’s a £10 premium for manual massage to encourage customers to go for the 60-minute bamboo massage, priced at £105 (US$137, €122) in the week, instead. Manual massage won’t be included in spa day packages either. The idea being, it will lessen staff burnout. “I’ve worked on cruise ships and witnessed the fast rate of staff turnover first hand,” says Young, who focused on revenue management for Canyon Ranch at Sea before managing a leading UK spa at Chewton Glen. “Yes it’s about making money, but at what cost do you make that money? Staff retention is a key area here and at the hotel so it will be interesting to see what happens at the six month mark.”
With a strong plan in place, The Spa at South Lodge has a sturdy base on which to grow. And it’s an important element of Exclusive’s overall business which includes seven hotels and venues in the UK. “Our spas work as a stand alone business,” says Pecorelli. “The Spa at Pennyhill represents about 8 per cent of our total group turnover, generating over £1m (US$1.3m, €1.2m) EBITDA. Spas are also hugely beneficial to the hotels as they drive occupancy and rate as well as overall positioning.”
For Young, the initial goal is to “get the members in here and make them happy as that’s going to be a solid revenue stream for us”. Capturing the corporate market guests at South Lodge is another focus. “A lot of hotels go down the spa day route, but if we do really well with memberships and the restaurant then we won’t have to rely on them.”
But what does she think makes this spa so significant? “We’re really looking to get those eco-credentials with our biomass boilers, natural pool, wild swimming and green roof,” she says. “But the big thing for me is that we’re a five-star, impeccable facility but informal.”
Bayes echoes these sentiments. “To quote Coco Chanel – luxury isn’t luxury unless it’s comfortable. And that’s at the heart of our design.”