By Virginia Muzik
Located in the swanky Prince Hotel in trendy St Kilda, Aurora Spa Retreat is a luxury boutique spa integrating health and wellness into an urban environment.
Created by Lyndall Mitchell in 1997, the spa was originally in a standalone building in St Kilda. In 2000, it relocated to a bigger space at the Prince Hotel.
With her background at health resort Camp Eden, Mitchell’s intent was to recreate what she did there in an urban environment. “Back then in 1997, spa was really new so we were one of the first urban retreats,” says Aurora Spa Retreat general manager, Jason Cook. “Lyndall wanted to integrate wellness programs within an urban environment and encourage people to seek regular balance as opposed to an annual retreat, after which you just wind yourself up again.”
Mitchell chose the name “Aurora” for its meaning of “fully charged particle”. “I think it is great description of our staff but also our clients,” Cook says. “They’re quite wound up when they come in. So the intent here really is to bring them back to a state of being more balanced. And it ties in with our philosophy of balancing the body.”
The fit-out of the spa was important. Cook says that Mitchell’s wish was for the spa to be outside, “but it’s too hard with an urban environment so the carpet colour being green, and things like that, were intentional. We wanted to bring nature inside so an abundance of natural light was really important too. We didn’t want to be like a lot of spas were at that stage – and some still are – down in the basement of a hotel; where they couldn’t think of anything else to put there.”
Teas of the season are served in the Time Out lounge and the spa also boasts 22 treatment areas, couples room with Swiss shower, steam room and Express Studio for fast manicures and pedicures.
“Having an upstairs and downstairs area is great for us,” says Cook. “We have a door that goes into the spa so we really separate that first initial retail experience from the spa experience. When you go through that crazy Christmas period, where the retail area is manic, it’s nice to have that physical divide. We also have a spa assistant who offers clients tea, gives directions, etc. They’re like the maitre d’ of the spa.”
The spa has 95 per cent external visitation, with about 5 per cent being guests from the hotel, including international tourists. Guests also include locals, from within a 5-10km radius. They tend to be 70 per cent female, 30 per cent male. Cook notes that there are a lot more guys coming to the spa.
“Being in a hotel does work to our advantage as we do two and five-day retreats,” he says. “Those clients can come into the spa during the day and retreat back to their hotel rooms. The majority of our clients enjoy that time stopping to reflect or sleep.”
Drawing its inspiration from 19th century European water therapies, to Native American rituals and indigenous Australian healing wisdom, Aurora’s philosophy is to create an urban environment where guests are able to achieve and maintain health and wellbeing by balancing the body to the seasons. They have a tea ceremony at the start, using the tea of the season, then go through an opening ritual and an awakening ritual at the end. These change each season. “It doesn’t really matter whether you choose the Detox or Vitality massage or facial, we can still make it seasonal by changing the start and finish of them,” Cook explains. “The Aurora Balancing ritual incorporates a chakra healing and a light/colour visualisation. In the Awakening ritual we use a spritz with an essential oil of the season. If it’s summer it’s more a citrusy aroma, for winter, it’s slower… like a lavender.”
Aurora Spa Retreat stocks and uses Phytomer, Ilcsi, Mukti Botanicals, id Bare Minerals, (retail only) and their own Aurora Spa Rituals range, launched in July; developed from over 10 years of knowledge and experience in the spa industry. The formulations are made with premium quality natural ingredients, enriched with hand-blended essential oils and contain no synthetic fragrances, colour, petrochemicals, sulphates, glycols, PEGs or parabens. They also have their own group of oils and naturopathic teas.
“Through consultation with clients, we really try to make sure that the retail offering supports what we’re doing upstairs,” Cook explains. “We always look at the therapeutic value first and then source the ingredients and products around that philosophy. We try and be as eco-friendly as possible. If that’s not possible, we look at what’s the next best thing. And we also try to accommodate clients’ needs as well.
“We get lots of requests for different products so it’s our clients driving what we hold. We just try to influence them with what that is. If it’s a shampoo for example, Mukti is a great example of a sulphate-free one, which we’d direct the client to.”
For Cook, Aurora Spa Retreat stands out from competitors because of their philosophy with their treatments. They work very closely with their suppliers but don’t ever do – except for facials – a treatment that’s particularly a supplier’s treatment. Rather, they work with the supplier to customise a treatment for clients.
“So it’s coming back to that philosophy of having the highest therapeutic value in mind. If we can’t get to where we want to go with just one range of products, we’ll source other products to see if we can get it there. If we can’t source a product that will do things, then we’ll often go back to the raw ingredients.”
An example is their Guku Cocoon signature treatment: a honey wrap using Manuka honey.
“The other thing that sets us apart is our level of service. We try and really help the client through the process and I think consultation is a really important thing for us, like any other spa, but I think that’s something we do really well.”
The spa monitors client feedback through comment cards and a mystery shopper program. Client feedback the majority of the time is good, says Cook, the spa taking on board anything that comes up and working on it.
“The mystery shopping program is fantastic,” Cook says. “It gives us the ability to see the client’s perspective but also work with staff within the spa to show them what the client sees. It’s like a third party giving us feedback and a lot of the time it relates to things we need to do as owners of the spa as well as what the therapist needs to improve on. So we’re all about continually improving.”
Aurora Spa’s signature treatment is the Kitya Karnu (Salty Stones) steam treatment.
Another is the Yoongoo wrap, which they do in their rainshower room. Then there are a couple of popular two-hour continuous retreats: Moora Moora (Good Spirit) for the body and Wangarie (Pretty Face) for face and body.
For time-poor city slickers, Aurora Spa has a whole range of add-on treatments – all 30 minutes long – which they call Express Treatments. “The Express Facial is one of our really popular treatments,” says Cook. “It’s a half hour facial and it has everything you need to cleanse, tone, exfoliate and moisturise. Then we have half hour massages. These are definitely ideal for clients in a hurry. Again, they’re great because they offer the highest therapeutic value for the time the client is with us so it’s trying to put in as much as you can in 30 minutes.”
Retail sales are important to the spa because, Cook says, they are already at capacity with treatments and retail offers another source of revenue. “The other thing the product does for us is it completes the consultation. It gives the client the tools they need to get where they need to go,” he says. “The consultation the therapists do is focused on helping clients achieve that at home so they’ll identify what concerns they have and recommend solutions that often require products. Products can also remind them of the time they were with us so they can replicate that same feeling at home. We’re trying to incorporate wellness into people’s daily lives and products help us do that.”
Having the right fit with staff is crucial. Cook says that their recruitment process is lengthy. They survey applicants to understand where they’re at with their own health and wellbeing. When they see a good match, only then do they do a trade test and see about getting them on board. Aurora support that fit in the business, providing fruit for staff snacks and encouraging them to work in a healthy way. They don’t schedule back-to-back treatments, allowing time in between for therapists to stop and recharge.
Plans are underway to open another urban Melbourne spa of a similar size and to launch more products in their own range.
Reflecting on the future of the Australian spa industry, Cook feels that environmental concerns will be givens. “Like the USA, the Australian spa industry is in the massive growth phase. I think it’s starting to level out and what’s happening in the industry is – just by its numbers – it’s becoming more competitive and it’s the clients driving that. With more spas there’s more choice and the client will make the choice based on their beliefs and what those spas do. So I think the response to the environment is really critical if you want to maintain your competitive advantage and I think the spas that do move more environmentally will be more successful spas. It’s going to be something that we all need to do. Plus I think there needs to be a responsibility from the spa industry to do something, because we do have a high water usage. I can justify it by saying it has great therapeutic value, but you need to be able to do it economically and with the environment in mind. I hope the industry responds to it.”
Aurora Spa Retreat is located at The Prince Hotel, 2 Acland Street, St Kilda, Victoria. Phone: (03) 9536 1130. Visit www.aurorasparetreat.com.