Interview with Ms.Aude Koch-Spa Directrice of La Mamounia-Marrakech, Morocco

the Spa at Sandy Lane, a Leading Spa of the World,  first caught my attention when I read about its internship program for young hospitality students from SJPP Institute. Upon completion of the Massage and Esthetic program, all students are interviewed in groups of four at Sandy Lane, over a four week period, and then two are selected by Spa Manager Tracey Archer for immersion training across all areas of The Spa. If successful the students have an opportunity to become part of her spa team, Conde Nast rated the  “Best in the Caribbean”.

interivew spa

1. What is the composition of your staff and what qualities do you look for?

Technical skill is very important along with people skills and a positive attitude, as we’re obviously rated on the guest’s experience! I will always hire for attitude first, as a skill can be taught and enhanced, once you come with the correct qualifications to start with.  I have 14 therapists. Three are from India, one is from Thailand the others are local so it’s a really good mix and blend. The therapists who are from overseas bring traditional Thai. All of my therapists are trained again by international trainers so that when you mesh the different elements, you achieve the perfect treatment.

 How did you become Spa Manager of Sandy Lane (SL)? 

 I lived in New York, London and Miami for 17 years. I came back here in 2001. I was originally to run another spa on the island but was offered a job here which worked out better as I had recently had the deaths of my Father and Grandfather and wanted to spend more time with my Mother which SL allowed me to do. I initially started at SL in 2001 as a therapist, six months later I was given the position of head therapist. I did this for five years. Events occurred, and in between one Spa Director leaving and another coming, and the then Assistant Spa Director going on maternity leave at the same time, I was then given the opportunity by the General Manager at that time, to run the operation , he had that faith in me and said” Give Tracey a chance” and it paid off! So for 3 months I was on my own with the team.  I ended up doing the two jobs of the former people above me and did it well.

3. But what was your formal or corporate managerial training to that point or did it develop organically?

 No, I had 2 degrees, one in paramedical skin care and one in Sports Massage therapy from The Florida College of Natural Health in Miami. I’ve been in management since I was 21 in London at Miss Selfridges, which is a hot, trendy set of retail stores and then I also managed Savannah, an upscale restaurant on South Beach for a year, before the restaurant was sold to China Grill, and that is when I pursued my studies in this field. I also assisted in managing a skin care clinic for Wilma Schuman in Coral Gables in Miami, alongside working on professional athletes doing sports massage therapy, so I am well rounded in all areas. To me management is basically the same; you just apply it to that area.

4.  How important is training to you?

I believe training is paramount. I believe the more knowledge you have the happier our guests are going to be and everyone should have the same knowledge-impart as much as you can. So I’m the one who started the idea of bringing in international trainers to give accreditation for the therapists yearly. Every year we invest in bringing people here to train all the therapists-doesn’t matter if it’s Lomi-Lomi, Thai, Shiatsu. We just finished cranial sacral and myofascial last month. All of the trainers I bring here are internationally certified so they are able to certify our staff. This is extremely important because it’s what our guests expect-they’re very spa savvy. In therapy the more knowledge you have the guests will trust you, they will want to come back because they’ll see that the results are better and the treatment is more than just slapping a product on and rubbing it in.

5.   What is that you do to stay at the top of your game with relationship to the rest of the world?

 We have a Research and Development committee here at Sandy Lane and I am the chairperson. So anything that is new in the industry or has to do with hotel or spa, we do research on it to make sure that we are in the forefront of where everybody else is. We always try to be a step ahead.

Now naturally that doesn’t always happen, there are always people ahead of you and you may be trying to catch up.  

 6.  Clearly your owner is a “spa person”.

All the owners are “spa persons” especially one, he is a true Spa goer. The Spa was originally supposed to have many more treatment rooms than we currently have, which are 14, however, more rooms would mean smaller rooms and would not be luxurious enough. When people see our rooms they’re shocked at how huge they are, because you know how most treatment rooms are. Our rooms are all en suite with bathrooms and showers, and all except two that have skylights have outdoor patios with either hydrotherapy pools in 3 of them, and the rest have running streams so you always hear the sound of water.  The rooms are extremely luxurious and opulent and upgrades are done regularly. With regard to one of the owners, if you have good ideas for the spa as well, he listens to them, and if feasible and will enhance what is currently here, he will not say no. The heat facility area is an example; when the hotel was first built-originally there was just a small ice cave, and a small little sauna. In 2008, substantial investment was spent renovating that entire area, pulling down the original structure and increasing the area by almost triple the original size. Now we have 3 cold showers, two warm showers, a huge cold room, a panoramic sauna room and a steam room/ rhassoul– we have the only rhassoul in the Caribbean. One owner is in every day for a treatment and to use the gym once he is on the island, and all the owners just love and believe in the Spa. The ironic thing is we never thought the spa would take on a life of its own which it has. We’re just a standalone spa-not like the Mandarin or Four Seasons. We didn’t think it would become so popular.

But the spa is beautiful, how could it not?

We are extremely well renowned in Britain and parts of Europe but we are still being discovered in the states and other parts of the world. It’s only when Tiger Woods got married here and then of course Serena Williams stayed here for the tennis tournament 2 years ago, people were like “oh yes- Sandy Lane!”

8.  You have quite a few celebrated guests coming to the hotel. Is it ever a challenge for you or your staff to avoid becoming “star struck”?

 Anyone will tell you that Barbadian’s don’t really care about that. It’s natural to Barbadian cultural.  They’re as important as you; they just do something different for a living. So the guests love to come here because they love the privacy. They’re not being chased by staff. It’s a beautiful thing.

9.  Which of your spa treatments best represents the Sandy Lane Spa?

First we have our own branded signature massage oils called Sunrise and Sunset, created for us by Aromatherapy Associates which we use to massage in our Signature treatments and also as the burning oils, which can be smelled throughout the entire Spa. We needed a treatment that was indigenous to Barbados so my therapists created this;

We have a Wild Coconut massage oil created by a local company which we  incorporate in the scrub with Barbados brown sugar and coconut gratings, which are warmed in the hot cabby and depending on the coarseness of the scrub the guest requests, we can add more sugar or more gratings accordingly and customize it. We then apply mud and wrap you in banana leaves, which cool the skin. While you’re wrapped, we give you a head massage and when that finishes, you take a shower, and the treatment concludes with a 45 minute massage with the same Wild coconut massage oil. Then a Bajan lunch is served in the treatment room for the final hour, where you can enjoy the splendor of the outdoor patio by relaxing by the hydro pool while eating. This is a 2 1/2 hr treatment, and we have kept everything “Bajan”.

 10.  As a Spa Manager, which areas do you feel are the greatest challenges with staff?

 Hmm, I’m just lucky because of my personality and the staff that I have. You see, I’ve grown with them- I’m not a dictator. My motto is “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you” and I live that way. It works beautifully here; I can’t treat you differently than I would expect someone to treat me.

I get a very strong sense Tracey that you try to catch people doing something right?

That’s me. I have my own internal spa achievement awards that I put up every month outside of the product incentives. Staff’s pictures are displayed on the wall as recognition and I give them something, it is always a surprise! I rented a villa last week and had a Spa Lime for all of us with everyone’s kids invited, as I believe it is important for everyone to bond outside the work environment and kick back and relax, really get to know each other and their families. We do this every single year, and last year I took everyone to a hotel for a weekend retreat, that was great fun! You have to appreciate what people do; if you don’t, nothing else that you do matters. A thank you goes a long way. And you’d be surprised; people will bend over backwards for you, it creates loyalty, and that’s what makes the difference, because the bottom line is-if your staff is happy, your guests are happy!  And you have to listen to your staff. You have to give people the time of day. Don’t cut them off-listen. When situations arise don’t just give your opinion. Listen to what they are saying. Be respectful to your people. And to me everyone in here is as important as the next, from my spa attendant to my therapist. They all play such an integral part. So we get all these accolades but I tell them ‘it’s not me who does the work it’s you all. The guests love you. So thank you for doing such a fabulous job because it makes me look good.’

11.  Winning the Conde Nast award for “Best Spa in the Caribbean” is quite an accomplishment. Do you feel awards affect your performance in any way? 

I naturally do what I do because I love it, not to get accolades, they just happen to come. Same as with my staff. They’re passionate about what they do so theawards come and they’re like “Hey this is not too bad”.  And I run my group as a team, so I’ll ask their opinion first on what works best for the guests. What could we do to entice people to come? I love for us to make a collective agreement. If I inflict things on them like a new modality they don’t believe in, they won’t want to do it. Everyone must embrace it and love it. Once you love it, the guests are going to feel it. It all comes down to that individual- what comes out of them. So I have to make sure all the time that they truly believe in what they do and that comes from having a part in the decision making.

12.  What are your thoughts on Social Media? 

Oh my God it’s fabulous. S L just really got into social media this year. Twitter, Facebook, brilliant! We just hired someone to do only social media, twittering every day. When Wayne Rooney (international soccer star) was here he was tweeting “I’m here at the Monkey Bar at Sandy Lane” and it was unreal how much response he received.  So we had to start.


13.  Looking forward do you see a change in the demographic of the typical spa client?

 Yes, because we have so many repeat guests at the hotel I’m seeing the children of the guests become clients. For example, we have a guest whose daughter was eight when they first came, now she’s 16 (allowable age) and she’s become a spa person.  It’s fabulous, she loves it. She’s like Kimora Lee’s (Simmons) girls, have you ever seen them?  They’re very spa savvy.

14.  Where do you see yourself five years from now?

 Right now I’m the spa manager but I see myself in the spa director’s role. Many of the things I do fall under that realm but I’m being grown into the role. I really love S L and this is not a chain so I want to stay here because I really love what I do.  But my goal is to make SL number one in every award there is and until I get there I’m going to keep trying.

           (Laughing) You’ll be going head to head with Christine Hays of the Oberoi for the best in the world.

Yes we shall, yes we shall and for the Caribbean that will be fabulous, that will be great.

Yes it would Tracey. It’s a wrap.