Written by Marie Bartlett | Photos by Anthony Harden
Take two dynamic young women, mix with instant connection, add a steady drumbeat of hard work, a healthy dose of nerve, borrowed cash and maxed-out credit cards, a bit of luck, a dollop of the 2008 recession, and what do you get? If you’re in the right place at the right time – as they were – you get a thriving spa management business that catapulted from nine employees working in a basement in 2006, to an astounding 220 employees today.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith current revenue estimated at $6 million, headquarters for Innovative Spa Management (ISM) are now a state-of-the-art, two-story building in downtown Asheville where the women share a gleaming, upscale office. The lower level houses a burgeoning line of skin care products with a dedicated staff that mix, package, and ship the aromatic oils and natural skincare out the door.
Meet Ilana Alberico and Christina Stratton, founding partners of the company, who once referred to themselves as the “spa girls.” Now, it’s no stretch to call them “the spa experts,” leaders in a specialty industry that is relatively new.
Named to Inc. Magazine’s exclusive 5000 list of America’s fastest growing companies and North Carolina’s Top 100 companies in 2013, Innovative Spa Management, the leading Five-Star Spa Management firm in the country, provides conceptual and strategic planning, feasibility studies, consulting, and design development for newly opened spas in luxury markets. Once a spa is in place, ISM manages its growth through their Five-Star Quality Assurance programs. The Five-Star means, in a nutshell, “operative excellence and an unsurpassed spa experience,” according to the company’s website.
Beginning with two spas in Asheville (their oldest) which they own, the company now manages more than sixteen properties nationwide, including their newest, the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. The goal is to meet the needs of resort, hotel, and residential communities with turn-key solutions that range from employee training to wellness and lifestyle programming, ultimately enhancing the core business of the property. In addition, ISM has a full product line in spa, skin, and body care, which is poised to take off.
Though spa management is relatively recent, spas have been around since the Greeks and Romans turned bathing regimens into a fine art. Popular internationally, the spa industry in the United States alone generates more than $14 billion a year and employs more than 350,000 people. Strong growth is expected to continue. Even the recession of 2008 didn’t slow it down after people reduced their traveling and hotels had to look for ways to shift costs.
That’s where and when Innovative Spa Management found its niche, taking aim at luxury markets. It was a crazy gamble, one of several, for the women partners.
“We reached out to hoteliers and explained we would take on the employee risk,” says Ilana, “along with the spa products and the training. In exchange, we’d split the revenue. The model was win-win, and we grew faster than we ever imagined.”
Revenue grew a whopping 399 percent within a three-year period and competitors were few and far between. Only a handful of spa management companies exist in the United States. One international firm, WTS, is in thirty-three countries and uses a traditional, no-risk model, so Innovative Spa Management had no blueprint to follow.
The “spa girls” were, more or less, on their own, though part of a growing trend in women-owned businesses. (According to a 2015 American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, the total number of businesses across the country has increased by 51 percent during the past 18 years, but the number of women-owned businesses nationwide has increased by 74 percent, a rate 1.5 times the national average.)
The company’s rapid expansion has finally slowed, and both partners say that’s by design. It was time to take a breath, regroup, and maybe even do a little rear-window gazing.
Their journey began in 2005 over a mattress.
Born to a couple who grew organic food and lived mostly off the grid long before it was cool to go “green,” Ilana’s family and other like-minded people were heavily involved in developing the first food co-op in the Asheville area, the French Broad Food Co-op. Drive and motivation, she says, were instilled in her early and so was the entrepreneurial spirit.
“My mother had a master’s degree in early childhood education and helped start four preschools in Asheville. My father was a registered nurse, so the essence of their careers was to serve. My father also cautioned me not to be a “jack of all trades and master of none,” so I really had to think about my choices and direction. Though my childhood was unusual in that material things were not that important to us – we had no microwave, dishwasher, or dryer – I was highly creative, assertive, and driven to succeed.”
After attending the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Ilana returned to Asheville and opened a pottery studio with her first business partner. Although she loved the craft, she could barely pay the rent. A job opened up at the Grove Park Inn, where she spent her days picking up towels and greeting clients in the resort’s newly opened spa.
“I had no car yet, so I walked everywhere, including to work,” she recalls. “The luxury spa environment was foreign to me, but its contents were familiar. I noticed the guests were massaged with aromatherapy oils, something my parents had used on my scrapes and scratches when I was a kid. A lot of people were also eating wholesome foods and thinking holistically about their health, so I related to that too.”
Yet what impressed her most was the way a guest would walk in, stressed to the max, experience their relaxing spa treatments, and leave as though they were floating on clouds.
“I had to know more,” she says. “So I began taking the massage therapists to lunch and picking their brains about their jobs. Less than a year later, I was a licensed massage therapist and was offered a management position at the Grove Park Inn.”
At about the same time, her only brother, Bodhi, seven years older than Ilana, was diagnosed with insular thyroid carcinoma, a terminal illness.
Ilana recalls his last words to her. “I know you are going to be golden. Just keep going and don’t let anything get in your way.” He died soon after, at the age of twenty-nine.
“His courage still inspires me today,” Ilana says.
Across town another woman, Christina Stratton, had just moved to Asheville from Los Angeles, California, with her husband, Doug. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, she – like Ilana – had an unconventional childhood.
“Both my parents were married several times and we moved around a lot,” she says,” so I always felt a little different. Plus, I was a redhead – which I hated – with an Irish personality. We had our struggles. My mom was a single parent, and at one point we lived in a hotel. But I thought it was great. I had access to a pool and Jacuzzi and cable TV.”
What would have broken some, however, made Christina stronger. Independent and an over-achiever, she worked hard not to add extra burdens to her mom. Popular in school, she used her self-deprecating humor to poke fun at herself, an admirable trait that’s evident today. She also learned that adaptability was crucial to getting along in the world, and she still utilizes that skill to work with all types of people throughout her business dealings.
[quote float=”right”] “In the girl group,” she explains, “we had to split everything five ways. I made more money waiting tables.[/quote]A talented singer by the age of five, performing arts fit her extroverted style. “I was compelled to pursue my passions in the entertainment industry,” she says, “and was never shy of voicing my thoughts and opinions, or afraid to try new things.”
In college at Florida State University, Christina majored in communications with a minor in theatre, obtaining a bachelor of science in broadcast communications in 1995. She graduated in three years while working a full-time job in order to pursue her next dream – Hollywood.
By the end of 1995, Christina, a singer, songwriter, and actress, had hit the ground running in Los Angeles. Through talent and sheer grit, she made the right connections and eventually beat the odds by forming a five-girl pop group called i5, or International Five. As lead singer, Christina was the lone American, supported by four girls representing other countries.
Success followed when the group had a top 40 song on the charts and toured the country, opening for pop icons that included NSYNC (a highly successful 1990s American boy band led by Justin Timberlake) and Britney Spears.
“I was twenty-six,” Christina says, “and felt that I had already clocked more life experience than someone twice my age.”
But it was never a way to earn big bucks. “In the girl group,” she explains, “we had to split everything five ways. I made more money waiting tables. Plus, the pop industry was starting to change in music and feel. We were probably about to be dropped from our label and I decided to go solo. So I left the band in 2001 and began pursuing another goal, that of professional song writing.”
Though she got a publishing deal, developing songs for artists that included LeAnn Rimes, Pink, Celine Dion, and others, she also became a mother for the first time. That’s when she and her husband, Doug, began looking for a better place than Los Angeles to raise their daughter. They had made real estate investments in Los Angeles. that sold at the right time, allowing them to move across country in 2005.
Once in Asheville, Christina turned her attention to the idea of opening a spa. In her travels she had been exposed to some of the most luxurious spas in the nation, which had sparked her initial passion.
“The peace, calm, and relaxation I found within the spas was such a refreshing change to the whirlwind of tours, photo shoots, media interviews, and fan frenzies I had experienced as part of the entertainment industry,” she says.
When Christina and Doug went mattress shopping after moving to Asheville, she mentioned her interest in opening a spa to the salesman, who said he had an ambitious girlfriend and she had talked of opening a spa too.
“You need to contact Ilana,” he said, handing Christina a phone number.
When Ilana never called her back, Christina took the direct approach and marched herself into the Grove Park Inn’s spa, asking for the supervisor.
Ilana recalls their first face-to-face meeting. “I walk out and see this woman with curly hair and these gorgeous green eyes, and I thought, wow, she’s so open and effusive. It was an immediate, trusting connection.”
“And I,” Christina counters, “see this beautiful, bubbly person with big eyes and hair pulled back in a bun. My first impression was that she might be a little too conservative for my style, but her personality lit up the room with its energy. The only time I had witnessed that before was in my five-girl band.”
Like two sparks igniting, the women sat down and talked about their mutual passion for the spa industry. Both said they were risk-takers; both wanted the independence and freedom of their own business; both felt their paths were destined to cross. Ilana was twenty-three; Christina thirty-one.
Then Ilana snuffed out the flame. “I’m moving to Florida in a week and I’ll be gone for at least nine months.”
She had been recruited as Spa Director at a Four-Diamond resort in Naples, leaving behind her boyfriend, Vincent Alberico (who would become her husband). Yet both understood the opportunity could fast track her plan to improve the spa industry in all the ways she envisioned.
“I saw large gaps in education, training, and management,” Ilana explains, “especially for spa directors. I also saw an opportunity for the spa industry to become more than just massages in pretty places. It needed to become focused on wellness. I knew that I wanted to have a profound, positive influence on the spa and wellness industry, and when I met Christina, I realized that we, together, could make it happen as partners.”
Ilana left for Florida in October, 2005, promising to stay in touch. True to their word, the pair continued to communicate, sharing their dreams of opening a spa together in a good location, with well-trained people, quality control, and excellent management that could deliver an optimal spa experience. Ilana says she had the vision and operational savvy and Christina had the knack for “seeing” brands and knowing what felt right, along with the chutzpah, to make it work.
“I learned a lot about marketing and branding in the entertainment industry,” Christina says. “It was boots on the ground, but with our girl band, I instinctively knew what we should look like and how we should position our brand in order to land a TV deal and sponsorships.”
She says she has since honed her skills for interior design, branding, and marketing concepts, applying them to Innovative Spa Management and the Privai skin care line the company has developed.
With Ilana still in Florida, the two women began sharing floor plans for their initial spa site. Located on College Street in Asheville, it would become the first of two fully-owned operations still in business as of 2015.
Their second purchase was Suraj Spa Salon on Hendersonville Road. But their ultimate goal was to provide the resources to manage other spas, creating a model that would serve to improve and enhance a new or existing facility at five-star hotels and resorts.
“We both had big dreams” says Ilana. “But we needed to build a template through our first, self-owned facility. Our vision was three-part: spa operations, education, and spa products, with thoughtful design and nationally credited training as our specialty.”
“I had one question for Ilana from the start,” adds Christina. “What is our goal with this undertaking? Too many entrepreneurs just want to get in, make their money, and get out.What if, instead, we grew something that sustained us and the people around us?”
They agreed to a fifty-fifty split as co-founders, incorporated the business in 2007, hired employees, and began the process of building a company from the ground up.
Initially, they worked out of Christina’s home. Spa Theology opened with nine employees. They devised their model – unique in the spa business – for higher standards of training among all spa employees, not just those in management positions.
“Our niche is our training,” says Christina, “and remains the same whether it’s a Three Star or a Five Star property. Unlike other firms that use vendors for training, we provide training in-house, following a standardized model that teaches employees how to make the guests feel most comfortable. Throughout the facility, from design to treatment room, we weave an extraordinary guest experience.”
But it was tough going, working from a spare bedroom and basement while the first, downtown site was under renovation. Christina had a one-year-old child to care for, and both she and Ilana were putting in seventy to eighty hour work weeks.
When the College Street spa opened, Ilana remembers it was busy from the get-go. “The first night, we provided over 40 treatments and felt that our guests left happy and the team who worked with us were feeling confident. But we also had a mountain of laundry that had accumulated throughout the day because we thought we could handle it in-house.”
They hired someone for daily operations and agreed to travel and speak at industry conferences, negotiating new spa contracts through their expanding list of contacts. Yet they were conducting business at their own expense.
“During those first two years,” says Christina, “I ran through every penny of savings that I had. Ilana maxed out her credit cards and borrowed funds. End of the month was coming up again and it was like D-Day: if we couldn’t turn a profit by June 30, 2008, a year after we incorporated ISM, we would give it up and find a “real” job. We honestly weren’t sure what to do next.”
She says their two spas made revenue, but the funds were funneled back into ISM to sustain it as a separate business, as opposed to paying themselves a salary.
“By then,” says Ilana, “we were about a quarter million dollars in debt and hadn’t taken a dime of revenue. Finally, right as the month closed out, we got a check from our first ISM client.”
Another remarkable thing happened. Ilana made a cold call to the Biltmore Estate and got patched through to Mr. Cecil by accident. “I shared the Five Star service vision of our newly formed spa management company and recommended we add a spa to the Inn,” she says. “He graciously put us in touch with the appropriate person.”
It took over a year of meetings and feasibility study work, but eventually they were granted the contract to construct a spa – a huge boost to their up-and-coming business. Shortly after, the Grand Bohemian Asheville in Biltmore Village was announced. Part of the Kessler Collection, an autograph collection of the Marriott family-owned boutique hotels – and a targeted market for ISM – it would likely need a spa too.
“My stepfather happened to be on the board with the Kesslers, who owned the Grand Bohemian property,” says Christina. “He mentioned us to them. But there was little response. So Ilana and I did what we do best – put up or shut up. We picked up the phone and made a cold call to Mrs. Kessler’s home, asking her about a spa and if we might be able to set a meeting.”
Though nothing happened right away – deals like this can take up to a year – the wheels began to turn. Hard core business meetings followed in which the two women were required to explain why they, small town newcomers in spa management, were the right fit to manage the Kessler spas. Christina’s husband, a talented architectural designer, came up with a hit design.
“We had a lot of due diligence and validation to prove,” Ilana says. But eventually, they got the deal. It was a major turning point for the partners and the company as a whole.
Since then, they have entered markets in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Cashiers, North Carolina. Aside from the Kessler Collection properties, their high-profile roster includes The Living Spa at El Monte Sagrado in Taos, New Mexico, and the Ritz Carlton Bal Harbour in Miami, Florida. Their latest launch is a new Privai Wellness and Spa facility at the Royal Palm in South Beach, Miami, which opened June 11.
Their challenges have been huge; their growth likened to a bullet train that has, at times, threatened to jump the tracks. Along the way, mistakes were made.
Ilana says one of the biggest challenges was locating the right talent. “Our goal was to always find people who were smarter than us. The industry, in general, has a limited labor pool of trained executives able to manage growth and multiple locations. So it was difficult getting the right people in place.”
They went through a list of high-powered executives and paid each one big bucks – more than they paid themselves – with an expectation of getting viable results in return. Hiring and firing resulted in lost trust within the company on the part of other employees, and, ultimately, lost revenue for the partners due to turnover.
“But we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Christina says in retrospect. “If we had spent the money on a terrific business consultant at the start, it would have worked much better.”
Apart from locating the right executive talent, was venturing outside what they do best. Example: They opened a Spa Academy in the same location where their rented offices were first housed off Sweeten Creek Road. The intention was good; the results not so much because it took their focus away from employee growth and development, and focused resources on people looking for initial licensure.
“We graduated more than a hundred people with a one hundred percent pass rate and created long term loyalties,” says Ilana, “but it cost us a fortune and was a huge distraction. It also took some of our best spa leadership away from [quote float=”left”] It’s exhausting, exhilarating, wonderful, and awful all at the same time, they both say, a counterpoise familiar to working women everywhere.[/quote]employees and their training. Graduates of the program didn’t want to leave Asheville to work in a spa elsewhere, say in Florida or Georgia. With a limited number of jobs in our area, they ended up going to competitors. In the end, we realized we needed to stay focused on our current employees and transition the brick and mortar academy into a portable, traveling training program for our employees.”
By 2012, they finally had a great leadership team, including a human resources department, an accounting department, creative department, regional directors, spa directors, and staff level associates. They credit their employees with making the business successful. Their spa therapists, Ilana is quick to add “have been incredible from the start.”
Their skin care line, Privai, is a natural extension of their spa consulting management. Currently, it’s only about three percent of their business revenue, but “now has legs and a whole new identity,” says Christina, “with phenomenal feedback from customers.”
Both partners are wives and mothers. Christina’s daughter is ten, while Ilana has a three-year-old girl and an eighteen month old boy. Both face domestic challenges that come with running a multi-million dollar business while attempting to keep things at home on an even keel. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, wonderful, and awful all at the same time, they both say, a counterpoise familiar to working women everywhere.
“The hardest part is finding balance,” says Ilana. “But we’re working on it. We’ve learned how to say no to projects that take away from our core focus, and now that we have accomplished leaders in place, we have never been more confident. We know who we are in the industry.”
If they have bottom-line advice for other women entrepreneurs, it would be this: Find your confidence, don’t lose yourself in the company, and get a really good team, including a business consultant, in place at the start. Above all, remember that your employees are the most important part of your company. So treat them well.
“Then don’t look back,” says Christina. “Have a partner you can trust, which is absolutely critical. And oh yes— know when to shut up.”
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