Despite the disruption caused to the spa market by the coronavirus pandemic last year, Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in Northern Ireland has managed to enhance its client experience and reputation over the past 12 months against all odds.
Not only did the premier woodland destination, perched along the River Maine, unveil its enhanced Thermal Spa Village, which cost more than £2 million to build, and a £400,000 refurbishment of the hotel’s standard rooms to superior grade rooms; but the property managed to scoop the title of Resort Spa of the Year: Western Europe & Scandinavia at the World Spa & Wellness Awards 2020 and was crowned North East, Scotland and Northern Ireland Spa of the Year at the Professional Beauty Awards 2020.
This is a pretty amazing feat given the constant economic uncertainty, which is why The Spa at Galgorm has firmly established itself as a key player in the industry. “Our staff have been through so much this year, so to receive these awards is a big thank you and a huge well done for them on adapting the way they did, it really makes an impact,” says head of spa operations Tara Moore.
“These awards are not only good for staff morale but also show guests that we sit up there among the best spas in the world – that our standards are high, our staff work hard and that we do things correctly. We really do treat guests like they are family coming into our home.”
Amazingly, the property has been able to protect its workforce, which equates to more than 700 jobs across the board, by taking advantage of the Northern Ireland Executive’s furlough scheme – which is paying 80% of staff wages – and by the leadership team looking at ways they can use employees that are unable to do their usual roles due to the pandemic in other areas of the business. For example, some of the sales and wedding team have gone into spa reservations.
“Thankfully, the furlough system has continued on, because if we didn’t have that then it would probably be a very different story. When it’s reviewed in January 2021, the leadership team will sit down to work out what we need to do to still sustain our team,” says Moore.
The staycation boom
“However, when we reopen [when this interview took place Northern Ireland was still in its second Covid-19 lockdown], we know that people will stay with us again and we’re so lucky. Currently, people are nervous to book long-haul holidays because it’s hard to plan with everything that’s going on and, as such, they are looking for trips closer to home.
“After the first coronavirus lockdown, we saw an increase in the southern market coming up and visiting us for two-to-threeday staycations.” Approximately 80% of the spa’s guests are from Northern Ireland and 20% out of state, and this is an increase from before, as Moore explains: “People look at our facilities and massive outdoor area and see the benefits of visiting us – seeing us as a getaway.”
“ People want to go to spas, but only the spas that look the part, deliver on services and are well maintained”
The enhancement to the spa’s Thermal Village this year has been a key draw in getting customers in, and you can see why when you look at the utterly breathtaking space. The expansion project took place during the first lockdown (which started in March 2020) and saw the addition of attractions including a 10m infinity pool on the banks of the River Maine, a Palm House relaxation area with six heated lounges, a new salt room for halotherapy experiences, two group hot tubs and saunas, three private hot tubs and six new riverside cabanas – all to enhance its outdoor space.
“I think some hotel general managers are scared of spa because they don’t know how it operates, they think it’s all fluff ”
As such, the Thermal Village has been split into three gardens – Riverside, Alpine and Serenity – due to its sheer size, and now, more than 90% of Galgorm’s Thermal Village and spa is located outdoors. “With forest therapy and forest bathing on the rise, we tried to tap into that trend as much as we could,” says Moore.
“With people’s mental health impacted at the moment, it’s important for guests to reconnect with nature – to sit outside and take a minute away from it all. People want to go for walks in nice surroundings and we’re lucky that we have a space that meets that need.”
However, it’s also Moore’s amazing relationship with Galgorm’s general manager Colin Johnston that has allowed projects like this crucial expansion to take place. In the industry, we often hear about spa managers or operators struggling to convince hotel general managers of the importance of investing in spa, so what’s Moore’s secret?
“It’s funny you ask this because when we did [conference] Spa Life Ireland, people were shocked that Colin wanted to come and talk about the spa, but he’s very involved,” she says.
“I think some hotel general managers are scared of spa because they don’t know how it operates, they think it’s all fluff or, for others, it’s not revenue-driven. I feel sorry for some of my industry colleagues who have to fight to get pool tiles fixed in their spa or investment for new treatment beds – it’s just a constant battle for them.”
She adds: “Colin can see the value of what we’re trying to do in the spa and gets that if I implement X, Y and Z in maintenance or new things then it will provide an ROI. He knows it’s worth putting money into because people want to go to spas, but only the spas that look the part, deliver on services and are well maintained. He helps pave the way with the owners for any ideas we have.”
Moore gives an example of how this partnership works so well. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, she looked at ways the spa could offer no-touch facials and found LED light therapy device Dermalux FlexMD, which the spa could set up in a treatment corner as an enhancement during a foot massage or pedicure, adhering to Government guidelines while bringing in much-needed revenue. “Colin loved the idea so we went and got them,” she adds.
This open communication and mutual understanding can also be seen in the spa’s plans for 2021, which include clear goals for the whole team to achieve.
“Although Covid-19 has taken over and you need to try to prepare for the uncertainty it will bring in 2021, you can’t forget to plan for other things as well. For example, we launched e-commerce towards the end of last year so a big focus will be how we can grow this retail area and see a real return on it,” says Moore.
“Also, we’ve brought in the Galgorm App, so we will be looking at how we can target people who have stayed with us before via push notifications, getting them back into the spa or skin clinic, or buying more products online via our e-commerce. These small things will really help keep the spa business going.”
Increasing the spa’s sustainability levels is also going to be at the forefront of the business going forward because “this is becoming more important for guests”, as Moore explains, and she says it is vital to look at when running an operation of this size.
“My plan is to look at how green we are and continue to make improvements. We’ve made steps so far – all our lights are LED and we do fair trade, for example – but there are larger projects we need to consider, such as planting trees and using the river to create power. All this will require investment, so we’re going to look into these ideas and see what could be done.”
But she knows these things may take a slight back seat until coronavirus is more under control: “We’ve done a marketing plan for 2021 but you just don’t know 100% if these things will happen or if you will need to change everything again. I think this [uncertainty] is what it will be like until Easter or summertime – hopefully a vaccine will be rolled out by then and we will have a better grip on the virus.” PB
Tara Moore begins working as a dental nurse
Becomes a flight supervisor and completes Level 3 Beauty Therapy training at night college
Joins Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort as guest liaison, and quickly promoted to spa duty manager
Works her way up to guest relations manager
Takes on the role of spa operations manager
Promoted to Galgorm’s spa manger
Announced as head of spa operations
Galgorm Spa undergoes a £2m refurbishment and wins both PB and WSW Awards