Spa Balance

Case Study

How to design and launch a profitable spa

A case study of the Santuario Spa at hotel Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine

Wellness facilities can and should be a profitable attraction for a hotel, or a sustainable and attractive wellness destination in their own right.

However, if insufficient thought is given to creating a clear concept that makes the spa stand out from its competitors and appeals to the target client base, then it is all too easy for spas to fail to generate a decent return. Even spas that are luxurious and beautiful can fall into this category, because they are not ‘operationally intelligent’, meaning that they are difficult to run and, most importantly, ignore the client’s sensory experience and wellness needs.

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Santuario Spa at hotel Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine

In this case study, we look at how a coherent spa concept helped the Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine become Spain’s top hotel in 2016 according to TripAdvisor. To give you a clear idea of how we achieved this, we’ll look in detail at the key stages of the spa opening, from conceptual design, spatial distribution, pre-opening set-up, hiring and training of the spa team, to launch of spa operations, and management support once the spa opened. Along the way, we will provide various tips for spa owners, hotel managers and entrepreneurs who are considering, or are already involved in the process of, opening a new spa.

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1. Getting it right from the start: developing a winning and coherent spa concept

The challenge:

When we started on this project one of the main challenges we faced was developing a concept based around the client’s vision, that fitted in with the rest of the hotel while also being operationally intelligent and profitable.

Our approach:

In our experience, the key to developing a winning conceptual design is understanding what the client wants to achieve with their spa and ensuring that the spa complements the rest of the hotel. This is done by receiving a brief from the client. This brief is instrumental in understanding the client’s vision. Also key is researching both the hotel’s target market and the local area.

Getting input from the client:

With Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine, Andrés Araya, the hotel General Manager, gave clear specifications on both what the owning company wanted the spa to be and also what they didn’t want it to be. This type of clear information is very useful for the consultant, as a successful spa concept needs client input.

Too many hoteliers and spa owners overlook the importance of their contribution and expect the consultant to develop a spa concept from scratch without clear specifications.

Our client wanted a simple yet elegant concept that matched the rest of the hotel. Specifically, they wanted the spa menu to meet the following criteria:

  • 60% Conventional treatments (massages, facials and body treatments), and
  • 40% Treatments based around a wine concept, while avoiding the stereotypical vinotherapy spa often found in wine regions.

And in terms of design, they wanted the spa to offer a sense of privacy to the guests even in the communal areas such as the indoor swimming pool, hydrotherapy area and changing rooms, and a welcoming area different from the norm.

Our winning formula: the spa sommelier concept

As the hotel is in the midst of beautiful vineyards and has a Michelin-starred fine dining offering, we developed an innovative fusion wine spa concept centred around the figure of the ‘SPA SOMMELIER’, a qualified therapist that we trained on notions of the wine-making and tasting processes, the principles of aromatherapy and holistic therapies through the use of healing chakra stones and sound therapy. We tapped into the client’s resources and collaborative spirit by involving the team from the vineyard, where the winemaker and sommeliers of Abadía Retuerta shared their in depth knowledge of the Abadía Retuerta wines, including the grape varieties used in each wine and their characteristic aromas. Each therapist went through our tailored six week training course to fulfill the criteria of a “spa sommelier” and to successfully transmit our concept to our guests.

The foundations of the spa sommelier concept:

Inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Five Element Theory, the principles of aromatherapy, and the five S’s of the wine tasting ritual (see, swirl, smell, sip, savour), the spa sommelier concept offers crafted wellness experiences within an offering that is fully integrated with the entire property: the hotel, am 11th century abbey, as well as the surrounding vineyards in the Ribera del Duero region.

Here is how we drew inspiration from the three rituals and healing systems and combined them with the best of classic treatments such as massages, body scrubs and facials as well as indoor and outdoor wellness activities:

1. The wine tasting ritual

We based the treatment theme and spa experience on the key stages of the wine tasting ritual:

  • “Appearance”. The design and look and feel of the distinct areas of the spa, from treatment rooms, changing rooms to indoor relaxation areas.
  • “In glass”. Using the aroma of the wines and creating oil blends inspired by these aromas to address a different range of wellness needs. An experience our guests would feel “in spa”.
  • “In mouth”. The sensations resulting from the whole spa experience.
  • “Finish”. The aftertaste that remains beyond the spa experience.

2. The “Five S” step

The spa experience simulates the “Five S” step of the wine tasting process: see, swirl, sniff, sip and savour. We considered all five senses of our guests and worked on triggering different senses at different stages of the guest journey.

3. “Integration” and “expressiveness”

In wine tasting, the “connectedness” of the wine describes the bond between the wine and its land of origin. In terms of the spa experience, we designed the treatments and wellness activities to help guests “connect” with themselves and their surroundings by using authentic products, rich aromas unique to the region and tailored treatment sequences.

Incorporating the spa sommelier concept into the guest’s sensory experience:

Often times, hoteliers and owners invest heavily in developing a unique concept from their standpoint, but they fail to think about how the concept impacts their guests’ sensory experience. In other words, how the guest feels the spa concept.

With the Santuario Spa & Wellness, we ensured the spa sommelier concept successfully filtered through to the guest’s entire sensory experience in the spa by carefully drawing out the guest journey as they moved through different areas of the spa, as well as thinking about small but important details during their treatments. Here are examples of some of the key touch points we considered from the guest’s point of view:

  • Feeling integrated and connected with the physical space. For example, the guest’s arrival at the spa. At the Santuario Spa & Wellness, when guests enter the spa they don’t walk into a typical reception area with a desk and retail area. Instead, they walk into the sanctuary of the abbey where they are drawn into a welcoming area decorated with signature pieces of furniture from Nakashima, all carefully and strategically placed in the spa to match the rest of the property’s elegant and tasteful design.
  • Tailored wellness experiences. Once seated, the guest is introduced to a blind tasting of three Abadia Retuerta wines, each made of a different grape variety and characterised by distinct aromas, all unique to the Abadia Retuerta terroir. The guest smells each wine and the corresponding oil that has specifically been blended at the spa for that wine and to address a specific wellness need, be it mental stress, physical exhaustion, or a need for some uplifting. For example, if a guest is drawn to a more citrus scent or a sour taste (suggesting a connection with the liver and the emotion of anger according the Five Element Theory), the spa sommelier will design the guest’s wellness experience focusing on detoxification and chakra work to bring the body back to balance, leaving the guest with a sense of rejuvenation and vitality.
  • Beyond the spa. We wanted to go beyond the sensory experience of the guest whilst in the spa facilities. We wanted to leave them with an unforgettable “aftertaste” of the spa experience, much in the same way quality wines are rated for their “aftertaste” in wine tasting rituals. Examples of how we achieved this lasting experience include simple yet elegant details such as gifting each guest with a bottle of their own personalised oil blend to use when back home or offering a relaxing mineral salt bath with essential oils in the privacy of their hotel room.

As can be seen from above, the spa sommelier concept shaped the entire project, from the spatial distribution of the facility, the client journey during each wellness experience, the treatment menu, selection of furniture, operating supplies, linen, product house partners, staff uniform, up to and including the hiring of the spa team and manager. Everything was made easier through working from a simple but solid concept based on clear specifications.

Top tip for spas: do your homework, have an idea of what you want to achieve and give clear specifications to the spa consultant.

2. Building in profitability into the spa design

The challenge:

One of the key factors to making your spa profitable is achieving ‘operational intelligence’. This means creating coherence and synergy within the front-of-house as well as between back-of-house and front-of-house areas ensuring that the service runs smoothly in all areas. Any inconveniences that the staff encounter in operations will inevitably filter through to and affect the client’s spa experience.

Our approach:

We made the Santuario Spa & Wellness operationally intelligent by adopting what Spa Balance Founder & Wellness Director Sonal Uberoi calls the ‘integrated design’ approach, where the operations team were involved right from the start and worked together with all the key parties: the client, project consultant, engineers and the interior architects.

Bringing everyone to the table:

We asked to be invited to project meetings when the spa was still at the inception phase. At these meetings we explained in detail the operational requirements, why we needed certain service areas like a linen room, a pantry, a storeroom for products, and why we needed electric sockets to be placed discretely on the floor. These meetings were very productive as they allowed all parties to put forward their needs and they served as a forum where each of us could voice our concerns. We did not manage to get all our operational requirements fulfilled, but all our essential and key needs were carefully addressed to ensure a facility that was not only architecturally excellent but also easy to run.

Any inconveniences that the staff encounter in operations will inevitably filter through to and affect the client’s spa experience.

Matching the design to the ‘spa sommelier’ concept:

With this teamwork and by using the spa sommelier concept as a starting point, operational needs such as storage areas, technical requirements (for example: electrical sockets, water points, drainage, acoustic insulation, etc.), were taken into consideration at an early stage. Additionally, this approach ensured that the correct purchases were made in terms of both look and feel as well as practicality for the spa team to operate, from the spa furniture right down to small utensils (recipients for products, tea cups, foot bowls, etc.) and critical storage areas. Every detail was closely considered matching it to the approved spa concept and design brief.

Examples include:

  • Recruiting the right suppliers, from products, staff uniform, linen (towels and robes that client would be touching and using), to the treatment beds they would be lying on.
  • Careful consideration of spatial distribution and client sensory experience. This involved being sensitive to the different energy levels of the spa while designing the client flow and mapping out the spatial distribution.
  • Ensuring that all the operational furniture and utensils fitted in well with the overall exterior and interior design. We specifically searched for a local artisan in Tudela de Duero to source the small operating items to add a local feel to the spa.

Top tip for spas: Involve your operations team early on in the design process and get them working together with the project consultants and the design team. This will motivate them further in their work, and save you time and money in the long run.

3. Orchestration of the pre-opening set-up

The challenge:

The pre-opening countdown is about making sure everything is planned out and that all necessary equipment is ordered within budget and on time. This requires effective project management and good teamwork.

Our approach:

For the pre-opening set-up of the Santuario Spa & Wellness, we worked from a carefully drafted Critical Path Plan (CPP) as well as a Room Matrix.

A CPP is a valuable project management tool that calculates the estimated time it will take to execute the entire project and shows how any delays in completing a certain activity may affect the whole project’s completion date. With the pre-opening CPP we made sure that all the teams working on the project were made fully aware of both the operational and design roadmaps along with the key milestones.

A Room Matrix, a simple excel sheet listing all the areas of the spa with various columns corresponding to operational items needed, from linen requirements (for example, treatment bed set-up and linen storage in treatment rooms), to what furniture and minor operating supplies (for example: foot bowls for foot ritual, utensils needed for products for each treatment, dirty towel baskets, etc.). This simple yet effective tool allowed us to study the needs of each and every area of the spa in detail to ensure we did not miss anything that was needed for operations.

The importance of finding the right the suppliers:

When working on this type of project, equally important is working with the right suppliers. This means doing the necessary advance research and liaising with suppliers early on in the project. Again, the degree of success and efficiency achieved depend on good planning and getting to know the local service companies.

Top tip for spas: A carefully drafted Critical Path Plan and Room Matrix will help keep you on track, find the right suppliers for your project, and serve as a roadmap for all teams involved to follow.

4. Phasing in the launch of spa operations

It is not always necessary, and in most cases realistic, to have everything 100% ready and perfect to open doors.

The challenge:

As with many spa openings, one of the biggest and most common challenges we faced with this project was delays in construction work and hand over of the spa, while the hotel had already communicated the opening of the spa at a fixed date and booked treatments for that date. This meant working to unrealistic deadlines which put enormous amounts of pressure on all teams involved to complete work and start operations.

Our approach:

We overcame this challenge by using a ‘phased opening’ approach which enabled the design team to properly finish each area of the spa and, at the same time, the operations team to realistically set up each area and get into the swing of running operations slowly but surely.

A ‘phased opening’ is a sensible approach in these circumstances. It simply means opening the spa one area at a time so as not to overwhelm the staff and in turn negatively impact on client experience.

How we implemented the phased opening:

As the property had already announced that the spa would open doors at a fixed date but not all areas of the spa had been handed over by the design team, here is how we carried out the phased opening:

  • We requested a “crisis meeting” with all parties involved, from the owner to the design and operations teams, to discuss and agree upon which areas could be realistically handed over first, second and successively.
  • Based on these realistic milestones, we worked with the hotel and spa teams to start deep cleaning and dressing each area as it was handed over. The fully equipped spa suite was handed over first which allowed guests who had already booked treatments and expected to use the spa’s facilities for that date to enjoy their treatments and the facilities.
  • A few days later, two of the treatment rooms were handed over, a couple of days later the remaining two were also completed. A month later, the outdoor swimming pool was handed over. As each area was completed, we moved in and starting preparing it for operations.
  • During the phased handover period, we split the spa team in groups and offered training sessions that were further tailored to the needs of each team member. For example, we took therapists who were struggling with the spa sommelier concept and conducted roleplays and client rehearsals until they were comfortable performing the ritual and personalising treatments.

This approach allowed us to move into each area, perform a thorough housekeeping clean, dress it, and get ourselves familiar with operations and organised in terms of service. It is not always necessary, and in most cases realistic, to have everything 100% ready and perfect to open doors. Rather than aiming for that unachievable ‘perfect day’, we focused on making sure that what we were offering to start off with was an achievable deliverable of the highest quality.

Top tip for spas: be realistic and stay focused on offering a top quality service. Opt for a phased opening to ensure a smooth launch of operations. Stay focused on the long-term goals and make sure that your team feels confident in delivering an excellent spa experience.

5. Fine tuning of spa operations through hands-on management assistance and post-opening business mentoring

The challenge:

For a spa operator, the work doesn’t end at the opening. Although it is hard work to get to that point of a successful spa opening, when the doors open is when the real work begins. It’s the moment when a solid conceptual design takes shape and impacts the quality of the client experience.

One the of main challenges we faced in this project was that the spa team had limited pre-openings knowledge and experience of working in a luxury environment which meant that extra effort was needed to achieve client satisfaction.

Our approach:

While it would have been helpful to have experienced staff, we focused on other important attributes such as attitude, desire for development, and willingness to put in the time and energy to learn and grow. We opted to invest in developing a winning team, being confident that experience would be acquired along the way as those within the team grew in their confidence and knowledge.

This investment in staff development not only paid off, but with great teamwork, it led Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine to exceed client satisfaction and expectations and to become Spain’s number one hotel in 2016 as awarded by TripAdvisor. Additionally, the Santuario Spa was later awarded two distinguished recognitions at The World Travel Market 2016: Best New Spa & Wellness and Best Spa Wow Factor.

Spa patio

How we created a winning team:

We opted to invest in developing a winning team, being confident that experience would be acquired along the way.

With Abadía Retuerta, we found the following methods very effective:

  • Starting from scratch. The lack of prior experience in working in luxury spas made it difficult for the therapists and attendants to envisage what was required of them in terms of delivering five star wellness experiences. Hence we focused on starting from scratch, for example: helping them develop their attention to detail in client experience, from welcoming and dealing with the guests, anticipating their needs, towel draping procedures, moving silently during the treatment to tailored post-treatment care, among other details.
  • Phasing the pre-opening training and gradually building on information. Pre-opening trainings can be tough on staff as they are required to digest a lot of information in a short space of time, while not being able to practice in their real surrounding. By conducting training in progressive stages, information can be given in a gradual and more effective manner at the same allowing for pre-opening trial runs and rehearsals so that the team is confident in performing the select treatments and in delivering the highest possible service.
  • Implementing a realistic development plan for each member of staff. We analysed every team member to identify their talents and areas they were struggling with. This helped us to work with them to develop strengths and overcome weaknesses so that the entire team successfully grew with the operations.
  • Involving the spa team in the writing and editing of the standard operating procedures. We ensured that the entire spa team, from attendants, therapists to spa supervisor, was involved in the writing of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of their respective areas. This empowered them to organise their areas the way they thought was best to deliver the results we expected from them.
    The spa team quickly learned that the SOPs written during the pre-opening period needed fine tuning once they were in the midst of day-to-day operations. They realised for themselves that they could improve service and client experience, and empowered, they took responsibility for updating the SOPs accordingly.
  • Gathering constant feedback from our clients. Equally important was speaking with our clients – what they most liked, what might be lacking, what could be improved – and acting quickly on this valuable information to improve our operations and offerings and thus the client experience.

Top tip for clients: focus more on finding the right people who can be developed into a ‘dream team’ with the necessary investment in teaching and training, rather than fretting over starting off with an ideal and experienced team.


Today, the Santuario Spa is a profitable and successful attraction for the hotel Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine in Spain, generating the hotel not only good direct revenues but also high indirect revenues through  doubling of their property’s room rates. Within only one year of opening, it has been awarded two distinguished recognitions at The World Travel Market 2016: Best New Spa & Wellness and Best Spa Wow Factor.

Our experience working with this client has further consolidated something we already knew: the key behind a profitable and successful hotel spa is to develop a solid and coherent concept that fits with the hotel and its surrounding area, and to plan effectively from the very beginning.

The Santuario Spa is a good example of how a combination of a winning spa concept, careful planning, good decision-making and the willingness to invest in and develop a strong team serves as the basis for creating a spa that goes beyond profitability: a place that delights customers, attracts and retains quality staff, makes money, and is looked up to by industry experts.

Sonal Uberoi, Founding Director, Spa Balance

Sonal has been an important and valuable contributor to our spa project…Her creativity combined with her in-depth knowledge of wellness operations have been instrumental in differentiating our product in the market. Leveraging on her innovative creativity, international expertise and global network of contacts has been pivotal in communicating our project internationally and in delivering world class luxury wellness experiences. I’d hire her again in a heartbeat.

Andrés Araya, Managing Director LeDomaine.