Kenneth Ryan

As the industry returns to some kind of ‘new normal’, Spa Business talks to Kenneth Ryan, global head of spa at Marriott, about navigating lockdowns, re-imagining the company’s portfolio and what it will take to succeed in the aftermath of COVID

With well over 500 managed spas worldwide, a top tier leadership team across all continents, on-site management personnel in over 130 countries, and at least 25 projects in the pipeline, it’s fair to say that Marriott’s global head of spa Kenneth Ryan’s burgeoning workload has not diminished in the past 18 or so months of COVID woes.

Five years on from the US$13.6bn (€11.5bn, £9.9bn) acquisition of Starwood Hotels and Resorts – which added brands such as St Regis to Marriott’s already significant luxury hospitality portfolio – no-one could have predicted how swiftly a global pandemic could have put a brutal halt to the company’s current trading and ambitious development plans.

Financial results
But like every other business in the sector, Marriott’s global empire was not immune to the devastating effects of the pandemic. In Q2 2020, after months of global lockdown, Marriott reported an operating loss of US$154m (€131m, £112m), though this was followed by a strong bounceback to US$486m (€413m, £354m) operating income in Q2 2021. “The COVID impact was unbelievable,” says Ryan. “Never in my 20 plus years in the spa and wellness industry would I ever have imagined the impact of such an event. At the height of this crisis we had just about every single spa in our company closed and most, if not all, of our staff on furlough including myself and my spa leadership team.”

But as the COVID dust now starts to settle, Ryan says the initial bounceback to spa business has been equally swift and even more buoyant than expected. “Our second quarter results showed that in our largest region, the US and Canada, demand stepped up significantly, particularly at our resorts.”

Back to ‘normal’?
At the time of our interview, Ryan had just taken his first international flight in 16 months – for a holiday to Costa Rica – and was beginning to fill his calendar with work trips for Q3.

He says: “For a person who was used to being on a plane every few weeks visiting sites and partners across the world it was quite a change! I feel I’m having to relearn many of my travel habits in this unfamiliar environment and I know many Marriott customers will be feeling the same way as they return to our properties.

“We’re currently seeing the largest growth opportunity in our luxury resorts. Spas are a must-have for all our luxury brands, and since COVID-19, our luxury guests value wellness more than ever before,” says Ryan. “The current boom in spa bookings and resort occupancy goes further than simple pent-up demand. I believe our guests are now looking for a deeper, more meaningful wellness experience and they trust the Marriott brands to deliver elevated services in a safe environment.”

So what’s in store for Marriott’s growing family and its diverse portfolio of brands – that include both exclusive luxury (The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, JW Marriott) and contemporary luxury (W Hotels, Edition). “We do see all our Marriott brands rather like family,” says Ryan. “They all come with their own offerings and personality to attract a distinct kind of guest.”

And with all the excitement of a proud parent (Ryan himself is a father-of-four), he’s keen to tell Spa Business about two major additions to the Marriott Spa portfolio.

Spa concept innovations
The first is a new concept for St. Regis – called simply, St. Regis Spa – which will be rolled out to all St Regis hotels (currently 44 destinations), with the first unveiling recently launched at the St. Regis Bermuda Resort in June 2021.

“The new spa concept will layer the rich patina of St. Regis traditions with a sheen of contemporary glamour to meet the needs of the modern customer. “Celebration is a big brand pillar of St Regis, so we focused on bringing celebrations into our spa by asking ‘what does that look like in a spa?’,” says Ryan.

The narrative of the new spa, he says, will be “comfortable, familiar, entertaining and residential. In the spirit of The St. Regis founder, John Jacob Astor, guests will feel as though they’re being invited into one of his private estates.”

To bring the concept to life, he adds: “We didn’t want the imposing formality of a traditional reception desk. Rather, we want guests to feel as though they’re entering a grand foyer and the celebration is waiting for them. It won’t be devoid of a check in area, but the desk will be more for staff to perform admin duties, rather than act as a transactional space for guests, as this can take place in other areas of the spa.

“There’ll be a Celebration Bar, where guests can receive a fresh-pressed juice, or a glass of champagne if it’s that time of day (all St. Regis sites still honour the sabring of the champagne ritual at 4.00pm).”

All upcoming openings – including Dominican Republic, Dubai and China – will have the new spa concept, while all existing spas in the collection will be gradually transitioned over time.

The second standout concept to be rolled out this year is a re-imagining of the Away Spa at W Hotels. “The Away Spa concept has been around for quite some time and will now undergo a complete transformation. The only thing that will stay the same is the name,” says Ryan.

W customers, he says, “want everything available to them all the time, they don’t like rules and they don’t want to miss out.”

To meet some of these demands, the Away Spa will move away from a tranquil concept towards a livelier ‘social spa’ experience. Dallas, Texas will be the next site to showcase the new concept, followed by a new build project in Philadelphia.

Ryan says: “The arrival point will offer a social hub, with areas for quick fix treatments (things you can do fully clothed) and open areas with upbeat music where friends can socialise and have a giggle.”

However, Ryan is mindful that ‘social spa-ing’ is not for everyone, and that Marriott International must also provide for ‘the other half’. “Our research shows we have two main types of spa clients – those who want to switch off and have ‘alone time’ and those who want to relax and have fun with friends. And sometimes these two requirements can be found in the same guest, during the same visit.

“Away Spa will provide for both guests – there will be more private spaces and cabanas away from the social buzz, where guests can escape and feel safe in all ways – physically and mentally.”

And speaking of ‘safe’, how does Ryan think that ‘social spa-ing’ will fit in a more cautious world since the coronavirus outbreak, where most have become used to social distancing, masks and periods of isolation?

“For one thing, social spa-ing is not a new thing – it’s a trend that we’ve seen at Marriott International for the past three to four years. Increasingly our guests want to ‘social-spa’ with family and friends – those who they know, like and trust – and of course the desire to do that will become even stronger as we come out of COVID-19.”

Working in partnership
That same ‘know-like-trust factor’ is also key for Marriott International when it comes to choosing its partners, which it only does after a huge amount of research, consideration, and personal contact.

“It’s really important that we find the right people. Partnering with us is not a quick solution, it’s a long road and companies must be prepared for that. We look for a true partner, not just a supplier, high quality products that will appeal to our luxury guests and brand values that match with ours,” says Ryan.

“We now have some phenomenal partners on board, such as Sothys (for St. Regis) Comfort Zone (W hotels) and ESPA (for The Ritz-Carlton). We also work considerably with Spa Collaborative (Lauren Moloney) and Book4Time (Roger Sholanki).

“When I visited France pre-COVID I was struck by many similarities between the original founders of St. Regis, the Astors, and the Mas family of Sothys. Both are proud family companies, with a strong focus on traditions and exceptional quality.

“And Comfort Zone was a perfect brand culture fit for W, with its pioneering product ranges, superb ingredients and focus on the personality and needs of the individual.”

All treatments developed with spa partners are always bespoke for Marriott’s individual brands and cultures, he adds. “For example, the Comfort Zone treatments for the Away Spa will offer a special opening and closing ceremony to help ground clients in the moment. They are offered a detox elixir, and regardless of what treatment they’re having, they’ll receive a special mud mask (Bagne di Montalcino) on the feet to draw out toxins and enhance the overall detox experience.”

Stepping up the tech
Cloud-based spa software provider, Book4Time, is now Marriott International‘s preferred global IT partner and Ryan says the company is in the process of transitioning spa systems. He says:
“Book4Time is a really innovative company and Roger and I have similar perspectives on tech. We both believe in adding tech where it makes sense – automating many of the basic transactions and moving those resources to create more enhanced service levels.”

And Ryan feels that as we come out of COVID-19, the time to step up the tech has never been better, or more needed. “Whoever thought you could take an office of 3,000 people at Marriott HQ and go remote? It’s one of the successes that could never have been tested on such a grand scale – until it became an imperative,” he says.

“People got used to using Skype and Zoom and maybe did their grocery shopping online for the first time. Many of our customers who’d previously waited on hold to contact our spas are now more comfortable booking online. I’d estimate online spa bookings are up 20 per cent in our major markets.”

Online spa retail is another area that Ryan sees as ripe for development. “The old model just doesn’t work. The client coming out of a massage or facial clutching a few recommendations scribbled on a piece of paper is becoming antiquated. By the time they’ve gone for a cup of tea they’ve lost the paper, can’t remember why it was recommended, or they aren’t in the mood to search the product shelves anyway.

“Imagine those recommendations being sent to the client’s phone and they simply have to click once – Amazon-style – to make the purchase and receive it the next day.

“Subscription boxes are booming. Even my printer company knows when I’m running out of ink and automatically ships me some more. This model totally makes sense for spas. They can make it their business to know when a client is running out of eye cream. It would also cut down the amount of inventory they need to carry as it could simply be drop-shipped directly from the supplier.”

Lockdown successes
It’s clear that Ryan is buzzing with fresh ideas post-lockdown and sees the potential to make Marriott International brands even better in this ‘new normal’. And as a true wellness professional, he took the opportunity of furlough to focus on his own personal care (he likes to meditate) and professional development, as well as forging stronger relationships with industry peers.

“In spite of being locked down, I felt like I became much closer to colleagues and peers. We had many fun social online activities for our remote staff and I had more time to connect and chat with others in the spa industry in a way that doesn’t always happen at a busy, in-person industry event.

“At one point during the pandemic I started writing some guidelines for spas reopening. I was going to go it alone, but then teamed up with Lynne Mcnees and the ISPA team, along with other industry professionals and through collaboration we created something so much better. I’m proud to say the ISPA reopening toolkit has since been downloaded over 68,000 times and has been a huge help for spas trying to navigate the current climate.

"I also recently heard that Peigin Crowley and Anita Murray took this document to the Irish Government and it became the official roadmap for spas being able to open up again across the whole of Ireland. That makes me feel extremely proud to have been a part of this team and work.”

So putting fruitful new Marriott collaborations and exciting new spa builds aside, what does Ryan feel the wider spa and hotel industries need to focus on as they try to get back to the ‘new normal’?

“It’s probably no surprise that service will be key. Service levels suffered horribly through COVID lockdowns, and oftentimes for good reason. But companies that use COVID-19 as an excuse for poor service going forward will suffer, while those who work out what customers need right now will thrive,” he says. “Many of the clients walking through our doors right now haven’t travelled for 12-plus months. The experience you deliver to them has to really count.

“We also anticipate that cleaning will become front and centre of the customer-facing spa operation. It used to be something we hid away so as not to disturb guests, but now people want to see it happening around them, all day, every day.”

So the future is looking bright for Marriott, and Ryan has more than enough to work on with 25 new projects in the pipeline in the next two to three years – all underpinned by the strong foundation of the ‘superpower’ merger of Starwood and Marriott.

“We joined forces with a phenomenal company,” says Ryan. “Starwood were blown away by our culture, how much we cared for our associates and our operational excellence. And from them, we inherited an amazing culture of innovation and preparedness to push boundaries and act quickly. In the past, Marriott has been guilty of spending too much time before taking things to market.

“The blend of these two cultures is really where the magic happens and with the post-lockdown boom becoming more evident day by day I really believe we’re set for phenomenal growth.”

Julie Cramer is a contributing editor at Spa Business magazine
[email protected]

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