With more than 40 properties in the UK and Ireland, including 22 spa hotels, plus a resort in Portugal, Macdonald Hotels and Resorts has emerged as a key player in the sector. The family owned business entrusted Alex Collins with the development and management of its spas when she joined in March last year, and it’s safe to say she found herself in at the deep end.
“We’re in a transition period at the moment where we’re having to evolve because the spa industry has changed so much. We’re currently reviewing every property and every part of the business down to granular details,” she says. One aspect under review is the spas’ product houses, which vary slightly across some of its sites. I meet Collins at the Craxton Wood property in the Chester countryside, which has just taken on Espa skincare to sit alongside Jessica nail treatments.
“We’re thinking of this as a new era for Macdonald and Craxton Wood is our model to demonstrate how we want to take all of the spas to the next level,” she says. “We felt we needed a holistic approach and a brand that would give us a wide range of treatments.” Espa’s British-made credentials also spoke to Collins, as she believes having every facet of the business based in the UK means it’s better positioned to react to spa trends.
A big part of Collins’ role is striving to make sure each spa reflects the unique character and setting of its hotel while keeping key aspects consistent across the board. “We have such a diverse portfolio so we can’t take a ‘cookie cutter’ approach,” she says. “At the moment, some sites are working very successfully with Elemis as the main brand because it suits certain hotels. We’re reviewing all the spas and will make changes where we feel they’re needed,” she says.
Craxton Wood, for example, is one of the groups’ key wedding venues, so Collins developed a soon-to-beintroduced signature bridal ritual with Espa to tie in with the property’s wedding packages. “We want to have something unique at each hotel. We thought about what brides want and how they feel leading up to the wedding and the result is a treatment that aims to relax and get the skin and body in the best condition,” she says.
The treatment consists of a grounding welcome foot ritual, back exfoliation to prepare skin for a backless dress, massage with an oil blend chosen via a scent test, and radiance facial. Clients are gifted with a bath oil and candle in the same blend as in their massage, “So she can have a bath the night before the wedding and evoke how she felt during the treatment,” Collins says, adding the ritual will likely roll out to other wedding properties.
2005 Collins works for Bannatyne Fitness as general manager of its Newcastle site, moving to the Lowesto! branch in 2011
2013 Joins Devere Slaley Hall Hotel in Newcastle as head of spa and leisure
2014 Macdonald invests £2m in the Craxton Wood property with a wellness focus
Meanwhile, the spa at the company’s Marine Hotel in North Berwick, Scotland, is to receive a makeover inspired by its seaside location, in everything from the furnishings to bespoke, marine-themed treatments. Organic seaweed brand Ishga features on the menu here, another example of the group’s consideration of what makes each property unique.
With such a diverse group of spas spread all over the country, Collins admits finding enough therapists up to Macdonald’s standards is a challenge. “It’s really difficult because we have a lot of spas and they’re doing well, which is great, but we need a lot of therapists,” she says. “I think it’s a global problem because spa has expanded so much and the culture has changed.”
Collins reveals the group is thinking up its own solution to the problem, and that a Macdonald-branded training school could be on the way. “We’d like to do it properly and offer training ourselves. With so many hotels in Scotland we’d like to have a training school there,” she says, adding that her ultimate goal is to have a team of expert in-house trainers who visit the spas on rotation: “That’s the way I see the brand going, where we’re the experts and people want to come and train with us in order to work with us.”
In 2015, Macdonald partnered with The International School of Beauty Therapy on a therapist training programme called Beauty Steps, accredited by Cidesco, and the first cohort has now qualified to Level 3. “We’ve been very pleased with how it’s gone,” says Collins. “They were all apprentices and now they’re qualified to Level 3 as well as in our product houses, and can work fully in the business.”
The idea is for therapists to experience working in different parts of the spa over a decent amount of time “because it’s a big decision for a young person, to be sure this is the arena she or he wants to work in. It’s hard work and some people come in without a clear understanding, so we felt it was a great opportunity,” Collins adds.
At the Old England Hotel & Spa in Windermere, Cumbria, the spa has a close relationship with a local college and every year invites all students on the beauty therapy course to the spa to experience its facilities and take part in a Q&A with the spa manager. They’re also invited to bring their CVs.
“We want to give them that first idea of what it’s like to work in a spa, then when they’re almost qualified we invite them to come in on a Saturday and see what it’s like. We want therapists to have the right expectations when coming into the industry,” says Collins.
For a largely leisure and corporate-focused hotel group to have such a strong focus on spa is unusual, but Collins says wellness is of personal importance for executive chairman Donald Macdonald: “He’s really keen on wellness and it’s what he wants the brand to be known for. Spa is really leading the way in taking our hotels forward.” PB
2014 Collins named director of spa and leisure at The Belfry Hotel & Resort in Sutton Coldfield
2015 Macdonald launches its Beauty Steps programme with The International School of Beauty Therapy
2016 Collins joins Macdonald as group director of spa, based in West Lothian