By Alia Akkam
Photography by Mandarin Oriental
As group director of spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Hong Kong-based Andrew Gibson oversees the design, development, and operations of nearly 30 luxury spas in properties across the globe. An alum of Six Senses Resorts & Spas and Raison d’Etre Spas, Gibson’s secret to running successful, nourishing oases can be distilled to working with the right people. Here, he discusses the importance of embarking on imaginary journeys, working with Shaolin monks, and why a massage will never go out of style.
Mandarin Oriental has helped redefine the luxury hotel spa experience. How so?
The two factors that spring to mind are understanding and motivation. From development to operations, the teams are able to understand how a spa should work, identify market expectations, and deliver consistently great service. This requires motivation and attitude and we try to find people who inherently have these qualities and want to do their best to satisfy both their colleagues and guests. At a very early stage, the CEO of Mandarin Oriental, Edouard Ettedgui, identified spa and wellness as a core competency for the company. Mandarin Oriental has invested in a talented and experienced team that can create the concepts, supervise the development, and guide the operations for all Mandarin Oriental spas. There is no need to outsource any of these requirements to a third party. The recruitment and pre-opening training is intensive and extensive with every detail studied and supported by the corporate team.
Let’s look at the spas in New York, Miami, and Las Vegas specifically. What do you think makes them stand out from those cities’ saturated spa scenes?
The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, New York has become a flagship of urban spas across the U.S. This has been achieved through the exceptional team that works there. Many of the therapists are natural caring healers, although we do not claim to provide any medical benefits. The simplicity of the design is combined with the fantastic views overlooking the Hudson River, and use of light at the swimming pool and in the understated tea lounge. Mandarin Oriental, Miami uses the light and color scheme within the spa to pick up on the Florida coastline and colors which instantly relax a guest when they enter the treatment suites. The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas changed the perception of spas along the city’s Strip and is probably the best example of an urban oasis that you will see. Guests and residents can truly escape for a spa experience rather than for a quick treatment. The relaxation and heat and water areas are outstanding, with the same attention to detail in the finishes as the rest of the spa. It also has one of the best hammam rooms in the country.
Since Mandarin Oriental first launched, how have your guests’ spa needs and desires changed? How has the brand adapted to these changes?
The spa and wellness industry is continually evolving. Beauty practices and quasi-medical procedures are influencing spas across the globe as operators seek ways to improve profit margins. We analyze every aspect of the business—we are the only hotel company to have a dedicated yield manager for our spas—and observe that the most requested treatment has not changed in the last ten years, irrespective of what country we observe. That treatment is massage, so we choose to continually improve that service by thinking about the journey the guest will make to receive it: the different senses that can enhance the physiological and psychological benefits, and what [to] experience prior and post treatment. We spent two years developing our own treatments and oils based on traditional Chinese medicine, and use meridian point massage to help energy flow in the body. We also advise our general managers on practices that are safe, ethical, and fit our philosophy since there is such a range on the market today. In conclusion, the spa scene has not changed much in the last ten years: our guests come for an experience, not a treatment. However, there are a lot more treatment choices for an operator to make, which can send out a confusing message to the guests if you do not have a clear vision and position for the company.
Couples Harmony Spa
One aspect that sets Mandarin Oriental apart is an emphasis on wellness. Can you elaborate on how the spas revolve around the guest in a holistic manner?
We have been fortunate to have many therapists who are healers and genuinely provide therapeutic help to our guests. In our resorts in Thailand and Sanya, China, we have Ayurvedic doctors, traditional Chinese medicine doctors, a Shaolin monk teaching meditation, Watsu specialists, and various other holistic practitioners who can offer individual consultations or a full program tailor-made for each guest. Our Shaolin monk is currently touring our properties in the U.S. to provide wellness classes and activities. Spas often have wellness lectures and classes such as yoga to supplement the treatment side. We also provide healthy eating portions and in some cases nutritional advice in our hotels. Each hotel we have designed includes a well-equipped fitness center and a pool wherever possible because this gives guests choices. Perhaps the most underestimated part of each spa is attention to the design of relaxation space. Relaxing in the treatment room adds non-revenue time to the treatment, but relaxation spaces suitably designed for the needs of the guest can increase revenue producing treatment time and retail sales.
What is the mission of your treatment menu?
Our spa menus are consistent across the group and can be divided into three main focal points. The first is the traditional body treatments of massage using our oils and balancing the practices of traditional Chinese medicine with the sensory power of aromatherapy. The second is the introduction of Beauty by Mandarin Oriental, which gives each spa the option to choose skincare companies that meet their needs and can deliver treatments within our philosophy.
Relaxation Tea Lounge
Such as the Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Boston, where guests can partake in a series of facial treatments with products from Aromatherapy Associates.
This provides the spa director with the flexibility to provide something that is results driven and in demand. The third focus is for each spa to produce signature spa experiences that give the guest a taste of the local customs and treatments combined with a Mandarin Oriental interpretation, like the Peaches and Cream Journey in Atlanta, using warm cream and peach oil. Some spas also embellish these three options with something special, such as New York’s inclusion of Amala products to provide guests with a truly organic range of treatments.
We have come a long way from a dark treatment room with New Age music playing to represent the perennial spa ritual. What is Mandarin Oriental’s approach to elevating design?
Most spas are designed and even built before the operator commences. In some cases, the designer is given a template from the operator and told to follow that with little supervision. Wherever possible and practical, we like to start by doing research and creating a concept for each spa. The concept is a simple brief of around ten pages describing the imaginary journey through the spa from the guest perspective. It may have been written by one of our spa directors who have an interest in the new location, or by one of the corporate team, but it is done with the backing of research to know what type of treatments and facilities we will require. This allows the interior designer to have freedom to work with the corporate spa team to design and create the spa. Each one is different and each one gives the designer the ability to put his or her personality into the spa while respecting our heritage and concept. To support the process we have around three-hundred-sixty pages of product standards and guidelines. These standards look at the ideal space, from therapist stool to the specifications and correct design of a steam room. Since we have a dedicated head of design and development on the spa team we are able to work closely with the project management team through the entire process from concept to operation.
What do you think are some of the biggest turnoffs in spas?
The biggest turnoff for me is the need to put spas in the basement and cut off natural light. This is followed by a lack of thought on guest flow. Another area which I find disappointing is when the coordination is lacking, leaving obvious gaps in the final design, such as poor electrical point positioning and soundproofing; exposed air conditioning grilles and equipment that is not necessary; trailing wires; and lack of storage space and cleaning provisions.
Outdoor Relaxation Spa
Who are some of the designers you have worked with on spa projects?
We have worked with a number of top designers around the world. Adam D. Tihany did a fantastic job on Las Vegas as did Jeffrey Wilkes in Bangkok. AB Concept + Interior Design and LWK & Partners Architects have worked very well with us to produce some of our recent spas in Singapore and Guangzhou.
And last year Sybille de Margerie of local firm SM Design opened Mandarin Oriental, Paris.
Our Paris property was constructed on one of the most fashionable streets in the city, but the building was restricted on all sides and we wanted to ensure inclusion of a pool, fitness center, and spa. Sybille worked with the Mandarin Oriental team to create a masterpiece of design that embraces the available space. A large dome welcomes guests as they enter, and large treatment rooms provide space to change, each with a private steam shower.
An 8,000-square-foot spa at Mandarin, San Francisco—complete with museum quality artwork, a six-foot statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and gold and mocha-colored wallcoverings—has just arrived in collaboration with local firm BAMO
An opportunity came to create a new spa using space on the third floor that was underutilized. It was modeled on our success at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore, which is based on a boutique-style spa concept. The result has been a very efficient use of space with iPad check-in, a tea lounge, oversized treatment rooms, and a small area for beauty services. There is also a very good fitness center using the latest Technogym equipment.
Can you tell us about new spas opening we can look forward to?
We have three new properties at final stages of pre-opening in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Taipei. As with all our spas, they are different from each other and have some of our latest thoughts incorporated into the design. Our goal to become a paperless spa has been included with revised and reduced reception areas and mobile check-in. Private celebrity entrances, VIP spas within spas, and improved relaxation have been considered in various forms. Spa membership has been thought through for the changing room design, and check-out at retail to improve sales has been added.
A theme prevalent in the hospitality industry today is the changing definition of luxury. What does that word mean to Mandarin Oriental Spas?
Excellent, seamless service; space; privacy; and the ability to manage time. Our spas give guests the opportunity to enjoy luxury.