When Calcot & Spa opened the doors to its spa back in 2003, the industry was a very different place. Working to help shift consumer perception of spas from health farms to luxury escapes, and eventually to the inclusive wellness spaces we expect today, Cathy Ball has led the business through considerable changes in the market, not least in the past tumultuous year. Now, as she takes a step back, Ball says it’s a very different set of challenges and opportunities that she is handing over to new spa director Fran Rowland.
“Because we’ve been going for such a long time, we can usually predict an awful lot but now, because of Covid-19, we can’t,” says Ball. “We usually know exactly where our quiet and busier moments are but all of that has changed, so where Fran thought she was taking on a solid business, she’s now taking on something that is as fragile as anything else, and actually may need to look very different in two years’ time, but that’s exciting isn’t it?”
Adapting to change
While the hotel and spa are booked solid for most of the summer, the team are fully expecting fluctuations. “Everybody is operating with a 24-hour flexible cancellation policy, which we have to do at the moment, so what we can’t do is take anything for granted,” says Rowland. “If restrictions lift on international travel and people decide to go away instead of their staycations then of course that has a real effect on us, so we need to generate so much interest and demand now that it will infill anything that drops out.”
Ball retires at the end of May, a couple of weeks after the hotel reopens, meaning she can see the year’s projects through to fruition and bid farewell to the spa’s members, some of whom have been there since its launch. Rowland’s title officially changed from spa business development manager to spa director on April 1 but in reality, the handover has been far longer.
Having joined Calcot as senior therapist back in 2006, Rowland has worked her way up through the business and has been gearing up to take the helm for the past two years.
“When you go to work, you’re not usually thinking about who might take over your role so there are a lot of things you don’t share because you don’t need to,” says Ball. “With this longer-term plan, there were many things I would still be doing but knew Fran needed to understand for when she took them on, so it’s been a bit of a luxury but, actually, Fran is not terrified to take on the role now and I’m not terrified to give it to her because I know she’s ready for it.”
Understandably, Rowland’s initial plans for the spa don’t involve wild changes. “I think everybody needs to come back and watch how patterns of behaviour of guests have changed, build back confidence with the team, and try and build some stability,” she says. Instead, there will be an evolution of some of the innovations launched in response to the pandemic. For example, Calcot continued its fitness programme via Zoom, which kept its memberships live. As the sites reopen, they will adopt a hybrid model where people come in when they’re healthy but do the class from home if they have a cough or are short on time.
“It allows us to say ‘from now on, do not come to the spa if you have a cold or cough’, so it’s giving us the opportunity to put in some long-term rules that actually then protect therapists,” says Ball. “We all know that when someone comes in with a cold because they don’t want to cancel, the next thing you know that cold wipes out half the team and causes chaos, so actually out of this some positive things have come and that’s certainly one that we’re going to implement going forward.”
Another permanent fixture is the outdoor gym, built because of social distancing restrictions. “Investing nearly £50,000 in that was a bit of a brave move, and then we got to November and it was raining and it wasn’t used,” says Ball. “But it’s an asset for us long term. It will be used in drier weather and it was worth spending the money to protect the membership revenue.”
The spa also revised its treatment menu last year to be more tailored around wellbeing. “We’ve all learned though these Covid-19 lockdowns that mental health and wellbeing is not a luxury,” says Rowland. The spa’s main brands are Elemis and Aromatherapy Associates, and it drew on the latter’s recent wellness launches.
“Aromatherapy Associates Forest Therapy, for example, connected with us because we’re set within 220 acres of land and about 70% of our clients are London-based, so the fresh air is the real draw. Now, we have forest therapy massages, sleep therapy and treatments to support immune health because these are the things people are looking for now.”
With the business set up for the future, Ball is rightfully proud of what she’s achieved in her more than 30 years there, particularly the 18 spent growing the spa and wellness side. “We were a 12-bedroom hotel at first, then we grew to 23 rooms and chose to put the spa on – and it was a large spa for a small hotel at that time, so it was quite a brave decision to do that,” she recalls.
“We grew to 35 rooms and had a big project planned for the spa to almost double it in size but then we bought Barnsley House Hotel, which had this beautiful spa already so that was our instant expansion, albeit half an hour’s drive away.”
The group later went on to lease a third hotel, Lord Crewe Arms in Northumberland, then acquire a fourth, the Painswick in the Cotswolds, but neither currently have spas. “We did initially put two treatment rooms into The Painswick and were interested in exploring it as a restaurant with rooms and treatments,” says Ball. “But actually, the rooms became more in demand than the treatments and the ratio of effort to reward just didn’t make sense so in the first coronavirus lockdown we turned those treatment rooms into a bedroom and those spa guests now come to Calcot, where we’ve got endless facilities, so it is much more efficient.”
With a background in hotel management and several years of experience working across other hotel departments before the spa opened, Ball acknowledges that a deep understanding of both hotel and wellness operations have contributed to the success and longevity of Calcot Spa.
“I think that’s been key to our staff being strong and successful –I understand the business as well as every other aspect of spa,” she says. “I do see why hotel general managers are a little bit scared of spa because it’s a hard department to walk around. They stroll around the hotel and get a feel of what’s going on but a classic GM wandering through the spa feels uncomfortable. I do think lots could be done to maximise spas if they could feel more involved though.”
Some of the milestones she is most proud of during her career include the major changes in the industry to make treatment of people with cancer, and conversations around mental health, the norm. In both these areas, Calcot was a frontrunner in training up therapists and launching new treatments. “These are the most significant changes that have felt the most meaningful to me,” she says. “In terms of treatments with no touch and all these sorts of things that come and go, I’m not sure those will go down in history, but I’m proud that we played our part in the changes around mental health and cancer, and that it is now just part of what we do as an industry.”
Looking ahead, both Ball and Rowland are optimistic about a fast recovery for the market. “There’s lots of opportunity out there,” says Rowland. “For example, we’ve got members who left us years ago because life was too busy, who are now getting in touch asking if they can come back, saying, ‘I need to spa’. They’ve learned they need to make time for their mental and physical wellbeing.”
The spa, which has never advertised, has also had several spontaneous enquiries for membership just through people searching and landing on the website. “The demand is out there at every level and every price point, and I think that’s encouraging for the industry,” says Ball.