To be crowned Professional Beauty’s Spa Leader of the Year 2020 is a huge achievement and when you speak to Kay Pennington it’s easy to see why she took home this prestigious title in December. As group manager of Center Parcs’ six Aqua Sana spas, situated across the UK and Ireland, Pennington overseas the strategic management of these sites and does it with a very hands-on approach, despite the sheer scale of the role.
Her leadership style is one rooted in compassion, a deep understanding of the industry and an ability to work out what makes individuals tick, which is why she’s made a name for herself as an inspiring mentor. “Aqua Sana has been the biggest project I’ve worked on in my career, managing millions of pounds worth of investments, spa rebuilds and recruitment.
So much determination is required to go at something like this and to achieve what we have here, but a key part is keeping the people who look up to you inspired and motivated,” says Pennington.
“Trying to influence six heads of department to get on board with your concept takes a lot of hard work. With any team, you’ve got to get under the skin of that unit. There’s no point sitting in your ivory tower because if you’re unwilling to come down to their level then you’re never really going to lead. You have to understand who you’re working with, recognise the different personality types and know how to stimulate them.”
The proof is in the pudding. If you look at Center Parcs’ Aqua Sana spas, they have a stellar reputation for delivering a first-class service, with the Longleat Forest site winning Professional Beauty’s Large Spa of the Year 2020 Award and Woburn Forest scooping PB’s South East Spa of the Year 2020 title.
However, a lot of Pennington’s success is down to her knowledge and wisdom, which she has achieved via varied experiences within the industry over the years.
The right stuff
From being trained at a higher level by Elemis co-founder Noella Gabriel while working at Scottish spa Peebles Hydro in 1998, to becoming an in-flight beauty therapist for Virgin Atlantic in 2001, every role she’s undertaken helped Pennington become the leader she is today. “I was one of 50 beauty therapists who joined Virgin
Atlantic out of 12,000 applicants. You not only had to learn the beauty side, but also the cabin crew protocols and the health and safety – the training was so extensive. This is where I got my confidence boost but the role was quite insular. I knew that somewhere in me there was a leader waiting to come through,” she explains.
After this, Pennington joined beauty supplier Ellisons in 2003 as area manager and was soon promoted to national sales manager, where she led a team for the first time and loved it. “They were looking for a high-calibre beauty therapist who was confident enough to go out into the field, promote products and teach students how to deliver treatments that they weren’t taught in college,” she says.
However, it wasn’t long before Pennington’s talent was spotted by Samantha and Samuel Sweet, the founders of Sweet Squared (S2), during a Professional Beauty London show, which led to her working for the company as its national sales emissary in 2009. “They wanted me to head up Shellac coming to the UK, which involved networking with salons and spas to gain their accounts and demonstrating how the product works on a technical level.”
Pennington worked for S2 for seven years and one of her biggest accounts at the time was Center Parcs, which led to her next big career move. “I became friendly with Kerry Fenton-Kent, who was group Aqua Sana manager at the time, and because I was working closely with her on Shellac, I came to understand everything about the spas’ operation,” she says.
“After looking after the account for four years, I felt like I was almost part of Center Parcs payroll, so when Kerry announced she was leaving, I applied for the job.”
Simplicity is key
Since 2016, Pennington has been managing six Aqua Sana locations and a fleet of aspiring therapists, all during some of the most challenging years the industry has ever faced. She admits the impact of Covid-19 has been felt at Aqua Sana but luckily the group has been able to retain all of its spa staff, redeploying people to other areas until they can be brought back into the unit when capacity can go up.
“One of the challenges has been trying to make sure those people who have been redeployed are OK,” says Pennington. “To be deployed to our tropical swimming pool, for example, and being robbed of doing your skill is tough, so keeping morale high has been the biggest test.” The group has also had to adapt its treatment menu to keep it simple for therapists.
“I wanted to make the treatment menu easy and powerful for the teams, so we’ve stripped some stuff out. What we’ve lost in the past 12 months is things like the initial consultation (which is now done online to aid social distancing), body wraps, treatments where guests need to have a shower, and real indulgent services where they are cocooned in multiple products, masks and sheets. They’ve all been taken out as a result of Covid-19 because we have to be careful about cross-contamination.”
For example, the group has a new Aqua Sana treatment called Mind, Body & Soul, which is a full top-to-toe ritual. Instead of using plastic sheets and multiple clay masks, “we’ve simplified the process to have a manual body-brush service – and clients get to take that brush away, which is worth £15 – followed by a fine layer of body scrub, washed off with warm mitts, then a massage. It’s not complicated but still luxurious,” she explains.
The group also plans to create another treatment, which will include less contact from hands to face, “the guest will get maximum pampering but in a Covid-19-secure way,” she says. When asked whether the group is looking into any non-beauty-therapist-led treatments, Pennington explains that 70% of treatment bookings last year were massage, “so, even though our intuition tells us we need to create no-contact treatments, the bookings don’t tell us that,” she adds.
The group’s plans for reopening are going to be slow and steady, with a focus on protecting its people. “We don’t want to overwhelm and exhaust the operation,” says Pennington.
“Dependant on the Government’s guidelines, we are going to open up our spa model slowly across the year to further capacity and this is so we can’t go too fast too soon.” The usual conversion rate at Aqua Sana is that 50% of visitors are those who stay in Center Parcs village (internal) while the other 50% are external day guests, but the focus on reopening to begin with will be internal guests.
“Fortunately for Center Parcs, the bookings are looking strong. We know that a lot of people in the UK are having a staycaction this year, so we feel satisfied that the internal guest will feed adequate demand for us, and then when it’s the right time we will open up to the external market,” explains Pennington. “We’re not aggressive in our plans, we are purely reopening to meet demand.”
Pennington plans to get back out to the villages too and get that face-to-face connection with the therapists again. “We have lots of strategies for what we plan to do, to not only shout about our award wins but to stay connected because we know that coming back from lockdown 3.0 is going to be harder than the others,” she says. “We need to nurture those fearful beauty therapists more this time, protect them and train harder to provide that assurance.”
What lies ahead When it comes to future development at Aqua Sana, the wheels are still turning to make the sites the best experience for guests. A new Vitale Café is going into the Sherwood Forest site, extending the spa’s forest theme so the eating area falls under the same concept, while Elveden Forest is having a new front entrance built and an express area where therapists can do demos and retail.
When looking to the future, Pennington is hopeful but admits that Aqua Sana, and the spa industry as a whole, will face challenges with recruitment down the line. Usually, team members from Aqua Sana would go out to beauty colleges or the students would visit the spas to raise awareness of a career at their business, but all that has been scrapped in the past year due to the pandemic.
“What we’re left with now are all these students that are qualified but who have never touched a guest. It scares me because how can we shout out to these people that we are recruiting while also letting them know that it’s OK [that they’ve not worked on a customer before]?”, says Pennington. “Where we are now, we’re OK recruitment-wise, but with natural leakage of people and us hopefully getting back to full capacity later this year, we are going to need therapists to meet demand.”
Pennington is taking action with the resources the group can use at the moment, replicating those physical visits with colleges online, as well as creating awareness that they are recruiting “and that we won’t shut the door on somebody who hasn’t stepped foot in a salon”, she says. “We will listen and tell them we have a sturdy six-week training programme for them. We want to send a positive message to the industry.”