Interview: Kamal Khalil

We catch up with Kamal Khalil, the spa and recreation director at the Phoenicia InterContinental Beirut about the keys to managing a successful spa

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Kamal Khalil, spa & recreation director, at the Phoenicia InterContinental Beirut

What prompted you to choose the hospitality industry as your career?

Early on, I decided to take my favourite hobby, sports, and make it my career. So I am a fitness and wellness professional before anything else. I was lucky in that my first work experience was at Beirut’s landmark hotel, the Phoenicia Hotel. Being able to help others makes this job the most rewarding of careers, especially when it comes to their health and improved daily living – fitness is the key to being healthy and happy.

Today, my ongoing path into the wellness industry is to mentor the new spa/ fitness manager generation. Also to assist and guide those that think injury is a disability to them, to encourage children and parents that exercise is a vital part of the path to a healthy lifestyle and most of all that it can be enjoyable at any level. Also, we have to go to our roots and be next to Mother Nature where we can get the vitality back.

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You’re an award-winning hotelier. What is the key to managing a successful spa?

The spa department at Phoenicia Hotel is unlike other hotel departments. Although all hotel departments require people’s skills, we at the spa have the privilege to offer emotional environment for our guests, a spiritual getaway. We have the pleasure to uplift a guest’s mood and make them feel good about themselves in just under an hour of treatment. For that, you need to connect with the guest.

And to create such a connection, such a genuine guest care approach, you need, as a spa manager, to build and maintain a rapport with the staff and consider them family. They are the ones who ultimately are delivering this positive vibe to the guest.

Mastering people skills like empathy, anticipation, and motivation are not enough. You also need a strong business acumen, such as leadership and managing performance, an ability to analyse and manage financial matters, planning and keeping up with trends and result-oriented therapies and new equipment.

In a few words, motivating the team is key to keep the guests happy. You should incentivise the employees financially for extra revenue to be generated and reward stars for outstanding performance. Controlling expenses is critical as well as being cost effective in all areas. Training and collaboration with others is ongoing activity. Be a mentor and have your own mentor as we are always in need to learn and grow. 

What are some examples of initiatives that you’ve introduced?

The Phoenicia is a landmark Hotel an has great fitness and wellness facilities. I have introduced initiatives accross different platforms. Firstly, building a strong team was crucial. I implemented a new incentive scheme that motivated the spa therapists and linked this incentive to the overall performance of the spa.

On the spa and beauty side, we have introduced the luxury Swiss skincare brand Valmont. And with the increased interest in organic products, we are collaborating with the renowned British organic brand Ila, used in leading luxury hotels in the UK.

With that came an increase in skincare and body care retail offerings. We took it a step further and provided a comprehensive and wide-ranging retail experience to our guests, from soaps, fragrances, accessories, pool apparel and sportswear.

What makes these brands ideal for use in your spa?

We have a good combination of cosmetic and organic skin care and body care choices: Valmont is a luxury Swiss skincare line; very efficient and delivers resuls in a short time. It has a wide range of products to suit different needs and types such Elixir des Glacier and an amazing collagen mask. Ila is a ‘beyond organic’ British brand, with a life enhancing approach. They all have gorgeous packaging and signature scents, based on natural plants, flowers and herbs. Our local and international customers are keen on both and appreciate both brands. They want fast results, and yet are concerned with going organic.


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What is more important, investing in training or the offering?

The training for the spa team and the therapists is taken very seriously. We have four weeks of training done by Ila and Valmont during the year, divided as one week of training every quarter.

On the fitness side, my focus was to reformulate better and attractive membership offerings, as well as placing an emphasis on personal training delivery. We also upgraded our fitness classes with new workout concepts that are fun and efficient.

We also have the potential to look after the younger generation. Kids summer camps, swimming classes and fitness classes focusing on hurdles and coordination proved to be a great success. These initiatives turned out to attract a good deal of mums as well.

Although we are in a challenging market here in Beirut, last year the spa's total revenue reached a 17% increase YOY (year on year) also with improved productivity. We are at 21% profit YTD (year to date).

Do you find that people are prioritising self-care more than they used to?

Part of our cultural challenge in Middle Eastern countries is the myth that putting your needs before someone else’s is selfish. This myth is slowly being broken down and people are realising that self- care and occasional self-prioritising will create better nurturers out of them.

With the fast pace of life, and the increase of people feeling ‘burnt out’, people want to revive so that they can enjoy the ‘good moments in life’.

This trend is also due to the fact that spa and wellness therapies are no longer a luxury reserved for the rich and famous; it is now accessible to everyone who desires to distress, get re-energised or pampered.

Jacuzzi

Is the wellness industry moving more towards mental wellbeing these days?

Absolutely. Initiatives such as yoga, connection with nature promote mental wellbeing and harbouring positive energy. We offer on outdoor activities and water classes help to unite with nature and help guests to restore their vitality. 

Personalisation is a growing trend. How are the treatments customised for each guest?

There is no denying that personalised service and treatment is what will set a spa apart from the others. The challenge is keeping some standard operating procedures in order to protect brand quality and consistency, while offering a bespoke customised treatment.

At Phoenicia Hotel, a consultation is carried out by the therapist to assess the guest’s needs. Personalisation thereafter comes with the choice of menu treatment and products used (mature skin, dehydrated skin or for better brightening).

This is also applied in our body treatments. Our massage therapists - who are for the most part, certified physiotherapists - have a certain freedom in free-styling their massage. Some prefer a lighter touch, whereas other guests request a deep tissue massage. The key is to train and trust your therapists to work their magic and art for a truly tailor-made experience without deviating from certain safety and quality standards. After all, guests are here to enjoy the skills and passion of our therapists, not to go through a protocoled, robotic routine.


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Do you feel that customers are becoming more price conscious?

With the increase of concept gyms, studios, personal training, home and group personal training, the options to get fit are endless. And with such choices, comes bargaining power. Customers are not only becoming price conscious, but also better negotiators. We mentioned earlier that people are prioritising self-care more. If you want to regularly incorporate spa visits into your routine, then yes, people do in general seek value for money. Now with the Internet, and with price information available with a push of a button, price transparency and integrity are key.

Do you have any new launches or initiatives planned for the spa over the next six months?

Yes. We’re currently on several things. We’re currently renovating the spa to enhance the guest welcoming experience and to present better retail offerings. Another improvement will be the introduction of a Hamam experience in Q3 of this year, which is very much in demand. In terms of our product offering, we’ve revived and further developed our collaboration with Ila, allowing us to offer our customers a wider selection of items to choose from. We also have activations planned for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. What better way to celebrate such occasions than a pampering session at Phoenicia Hotel! 

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