08 May 2021 Spa Business Handbook
 

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Spa Business Handbook - The Colour of Spa

Industry insights

The Colour of Spa


Rianna Riego on the need for diversity in our industry

The next generation of therapists needs to see more diversity at the helm Mladen Zivkovic/shutterstock
Millennial customers – and workers – are increasingly non-white Andrey_Popov/shutterstock

The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that gripped the world in 2020 has re-awakened it to the existence of a system that still discriminates on the basis of colour, gender, age and religion. Being a darker-skinned female and immigrant, my career path in the US has been ‘coloured’ with many stories of bias, discrimination or assumptions about my abilities due to my appearance or place of origin. At times, that unfortunately has included my beloved spa industry, which prides itself in being a multi-racial/gender/generational tribe of professionals devoted to the cause of wellbeing.

The systemic bias that exists is not intentional on the part of our family of caregivers and nurturers, who are more open-minded than most. The spa industry originated as a counter-cultural cottage industry seeking to connect the mind, body and spirit. It was later adopted into the larger hospitality world, which failed to be an advocate for the spa mission or to deepen spa’s role as a profound healthy experience rather than a checklist amenity item. As spa and wellness services migrated from their cottage origins to the established travel industry, the biases of society also bled into our industry. Even in a female-dominated, environmentally conscious workforce, women became managers and operators, but were not fully represented in corporate decision-making. Many biases I experienced were subtle and part of the power dynamics within a company, but others were more apparent.

I’ve had the opportunity to be the face and voice of a brand, and was surprised to hear later that some of the ownership were not aligned with the idea of having me represent the brand. I wondered if it was the fact that I was older and not white, because it couldn’t have been my qualifications. At another facility, I was astonished when one of the co-owners admonished me for hiring a Black male director for fear of ‘scaring’ the guests, who they felt might find his presence intimidating.

Having had a record of hiring a very diverse, multi-cultural staff, I have witnessed certain guests indicate a preference to not have Black, Hispanic, gay or older therapists through direct statements, or by changing or cancelling their appointments. The spa experience is very personal, and there are levels of comfort and discomfort we should respect. But is the discomfort from a white woman being touched by an African American male therapist a cultural issue or a privacy right? What should the ideals of our industry be? How do we balance personal and social dynamics (separate from protected class law)? And where do we draw the line?

The demand for spa and wellness services is growing, but the experienced workforce is shrinking. Our industry has not been able to attract a proper representation of the millennial workforce, which is now closer to 50 per cent non-white in the US. This next generation workforce needs to see more diversity at the helm to attract them. Furthermore, a spa and wellness career is a noble vocation, but unfortunately service is being confused as subservience by a younger workforce that finds the dot.com world more alluring. An industry that started out wanting to heal the world needs to rediscover and articulate its commitment to humanity. This is our strength and we should champion it.

Social issues are complicated, requiring thoughtful deliberation and strategic action. Most people in our industry are tolerant, socially conscious and caring. We are at an inflection point in our society. Our industry was borne out of a passion to care for others, and we now have an opportunity to help calm and heal the world while redefining how the world views wellness – as a lifestyle choice that embraces diversity as its norm. Setting the example, stretching the boundaries and holding our space is the only way. And if anyone can do it, we – the spa and wellness industry – can.

About the author:

Rianna Riego is a Philippine-born spa consultant living in the US, who has more than 20 years of experience in opening, operating and consulting for spas. www.therianna.com


Originally published in Spa Business Handbook 2021 edition

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