Movers & Shakers

Sheila McCann

Key figures from the global spa industry and beyond give their thoughts on spa trends, opportunities and threats and tell us about their backgrounds

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Sheila McCann was brought in to head up Thailand’s Chiva-Som, one of the world’s most famous destination spas, in late 2012. McCann started her career in spas as a therapist in Canada and over her 30-plus years in the industry she has worked for leading brands worldwide. Prior to Chiva-Som, she was the corporate director of spa brand quality at Asia-based Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts where she was responsible for the growth of 35 spas globally.

What’s your background in spas?
I feel this career chose me, not the other way around. From a young age I would cut out articles on natural skincare, exercise and healthy lifestyles in different parts of the world. I would then take over the kitchen and make face masks, shampoos etc. I would race home from school at lunch to catch my favourite TV programme – a show on skincare and bodycare presented by a glamorous Hungarian woman. Even science projects at school would be directed around a healthy theme.

I grew up in a Canadian suburb in a county that had more horses than humans. Few shared my interests and it wasn’t long before the city lights of Montréal beckoned – after high school, I immediately signed up for an aesthetician course which required 2,000 hours of practice sessions. Soon after that I moved to Toronto where, I was fortunate to join Mira Linder which was the first salon in Canada to venture into the day spa market.

Mira, the namesake, and her daughter Lily, exposed me to European culture and therapies, luxury service environments and increasingly trusted me to further develop and run their fast growing business which went from five to 60 employees in five years.

How did your career develop?
At Mira Linder, I soon realised I’d need additional business knowledge for continued success. Lily and her husband John, whose own background was advertising, encouraged me as I studied marketing management, leadership, economics and business development part-time via degree and certificate programmes. I’ve now been a part-time student for over a decade as I love to learn!

As the Mira Linder business grew in reputation and volume, Lily attracted an amazing team of the finest specialty therapists. I saw first hand the difference between technical competence as a skill and how this can evolve into an art form with real grace and intuitive understanding. They showed me that when you love what you do, it’s not work but a blessing in life – no matter what’s thrown at you.

Hard work and dedication to continued learning brought me into the spotlight and eventually management roles. Unlike so many industry colleagues, I have continually invested in my own education and have been prepared to remain loyal to each business for long enough to see the true impact of changes over many business cycles. I believe this ‘action learning’ provided me with a vision of understanding and then ultimately enabled me to optimise my potential through a longer term view of business requirements.

How are spas viewed in the hotel industry?
The complexity of running a spa isn’t understood by most hoteliers as most come up through food & beverage or the rooms division. They don’t take spas seriously enough as an operation to ever really enable the full business potential, although, thankfully this pattern is starting to change.

Spa people bring a new dimension of understanding about the emotional needs of guests, as well as staff, because a therapy background gives tremendous insights into reading people, often beyond their expressed needs.

On an operations level, spa managers in a hotel generally have to be more self-sufficient as no one has done their role before and support may be limited, so ‘practical intelligence’ and self-reliance can be very good.

I’m not saying that others in the hotel industry don’t have this trait, just that this is often overlooked when it comes to spa managers. Their further development is almost ignored too, particularly in cultures where the status of women is more of an issue.

I think the solution is that spa managers and directors need to be prepared to put the time and effort in to ensure they don’t reach a plateau and stop growing. Areas that usually require improvement are insurance, risk management, finance, strategic business planning and forecasting. I’ve always been inspired by the actress Sarah Bernhardt’s quote ‘energy creates energy’ – we may not be able to change others initially, however, we can change how we react to them to eventually encourage them to see things differently. That’s what spa managers need to do!

You are one of only a handful of female general managers. What skills can women add to such a role?

It’s true – at the high-end, executive positions in hotels are largely a male domain. There are very few female general managers. Yet luxury properties offer a more personalised service which requires sensitivity to guests and staff – which is where women excel. Women’s instincts are a tool that can be deployed to develop the employee culture that is needed in the management of luxury properties.

I’ve always admired Robert Gaymer-Jones [CEO at Sofitel] for his pro-active support on female leadership. He was area vice-president for Marriott when I was a spa and leisure manager for the group in the UK and supported my MBA application for a part-time degree in hospitality and tourism at Oxford Brookes university. This lead me to become an in-house spa consultant for the group helping to develop new brands. We certainly need more people like him in the industry!

Is your life is on track?
I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people in life – I truly love what I do! Life is definitely on track. My chosen career has allowed me to grow personally, professionally and to see the world. In trusting my passion, life has always led me to where I need to be.

How would you and your critics describe you?
I’m sincere, enthusiastic – indeed passionate – fair and values driven. I’m able to deal with both detail and take a helicopter view which is important. I seek a win:win in every situation, but I can only operate in high integrity environments as I find injustice intolerable.

Critics have said that I may be guilty of being a ‘steamroller’ when an idea takes hold and since then I’ve taken this on board. This year I am working on my listening skills.

How are you settling in at Chiva-Som?
Initially, it felt like looking at puzzle that had 1,000 new pieces added a day… I began my new role in the middle of budgets, capital expenditures and strategic planning, but I also have an organic herb and vegetable farm with acres of orchids, an active environmental preservation programme and more than 350 staff to get to know. But – I’m loving it!

What are your goals?
To perform well as a female role model and as custodian of such an iconic brand for the industry. Chiva-Som represents a very special place in the lives of guests. As such, change needs to be approached with careful attention – some of our guests have already told me somewhat emotively the elements I cannot change!

My first year goal is really to fully understand the current guests, their needs going forward and the business model in greater detail. While the property is 18-years-old and needs some refreshing, it’s very hard to argue with success, so initially, it will be more about subtle nuances than major surgery. Short-term, we will refresh systems – guest profiles, automated report and communication forums – to support the operation better and revive enthusiasm because while the team are passionate about what they do, they’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and I want to open everyone’s eyes to how we can improve things and keep the offer fresh.

Three months in, I have many ideas for development but the operation is a complex one and time and understanding will be essential to plan larger changes and keep the product relevant for future guest needs.

What are the challenges of running a wellness-focused destination spa?
Seamless communication – you need to ensure all staff members are aligned to your brand values, buy into the ethos and that you have guest-centric systems in place. The difficulty is differentiating services in a crowded market place. You need to understand what business you really want to be in as it’s impossible to be all things to all people.

What are the barriers to growth in the spa industry?
Time-based treatment sales that ignore advanced skill sets, service and ambience factors. They reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, especially in costs, and take away from the true value of a what a spa can really offer.

There’s also the lack of investment in training the people, on top of the risk that hotel groups are placing less emphasis on spa management at group level. When the support is removed, quality may suffer.

How strong would you say the spa industry is in Asia?
At the moment, there’s still good growth happening in the Philippines and in Indonesia. Overall, I would say that the market is buoyant, however, quality definitely needs to be maintained going forward.

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Company profile: Starpool
Starpool is recognised as a leading company in spa design. Along with its business model based on careful planning, excellent products and outstanding services, Starpool is introducing its idea of wellbeing to the world.
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