How do you sum up spa culture in Los Angeles? Our three spa accounts only begin to tell the story.
Famed writer and humorist Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” And while it’s true that this nearly 500-square-mile conglomerate of painstakingly drawn districts may lack the hometown pride and unity of a Nashville or a San Francisco—not to mention the pristine skyline—10 million people make their home in this second-largest U.S. city. This is, after all, where show biz dreams come true. (Plus the weather is to die for.)
Since DAYSPA is headquartered in Los Angeles, it’s surprising that it took us this long to come up with the idea of making a definitive statement about what it means to spa, L.A.-style. But as soon as we started talking about it, we found ourselves faced with the inevitable question: “Which L.A. are we going to talk about?” Like all major cities, Los Angeles accommodates a diverse group of people and lifestyles. How could we whittle these down to a single spa profile article?
We couldn’t, of course. But we could fan out, and that’s what we did. Here are three slices of the Southern California spa experience, as reported by three DAYSPA editors who happen to live here. As you will see, these stories represent three very different aspects of our colorful and complex home city.
By Linda Kossoff, Angela Melero & Katie O’Reilly
Neighborhood: Sherman Oaks, a mid-to-upscale, urbanized district in the San Fernando Valley
Hook: Housed in a 1940s-era movie theater, offers high-end aesthetics treatments in a chic and modern interior space
When DAYSPA first profiled Blue Medi Spa back in 2004, it was a relative newcomer, one of a growing number of spas that were jumping on the medical-level treatment bandwagon. At that time, owner Ronda Nofal (then Hawara) had already achieved an admirable level of success providing a combination of laser services, Botox and Endermologie treatments in addition to conventional facials, massages and even nail services. And she’d done it despite considerable roadblocks.
“We’d been in a smaller part of the building [900 square feet] and I wanted to expand into the larger space [6,000 square feet],” Nofal recalls. “It took 15 tries for me to even get the landlords to take my calls, because I was up against a bunch of heavy hitters vying for the square footage. After meeting, though, they decided, ‘She’s really going to take care of the space.’ Today I’m like the little sister they watched grow.”
Grow indeed. I sat down with Nofal to catch up, and she shared the amazing news: Nine years after that first DAYSPA article, the single-location, 12-treatment-room Blue Medi Spa is a No. 1 player on a national scale. Nofal reports that her spa is a top account with pharmaceutical suppliers like Allergan (maker of Botox), and “the” go-to place for medical-grade aesthetics services in Los Angeles.
Not that it has been an easy, or direct, ride to success, Nofal readily admits. First, she needed to get clear on her spa’s identity. “Eventually we shut down nails,” she says. “I realized that I was dealing with high-end, delicate treatments requiring lots of energy and customer service, and people were coming in with chipped polish. We used the former nail space to build more offices. Then a year ago I dropped massages—we’re hip, we’re fast-paced, there are phones ringing and heels clicking, and we can’t walk on eggshells.”
Blue continues to offer a full range of skincare treatments, medical and otherwise, but the thrust is “outcome.” “Look, we’re not relaxing,” Nofal says. “We’re clinical and results-oriented. OK, your face feels like an atomic bomb happened to it, but I know it’s going to be great. If you want that blissful spa experience, I recommend Burke Williams.”
Seventy percent of Blue’s services consist of injections, but there’s still a lot of laser work, facial treatments and body sculpting taking place under the supervision of double board-certified Los Angeles plastic surgeon Daniel Yamini, the spa’s medical director since 1999.
What’s “L.A.-ish” about Blue? One need look no further than the clientele. “We have Beverly Hills ladies, we have lots of industry people, though privacy laws preclude me from saying who.” And Blue’s medical aestheticians are known for doing their homework where those famous faces are concerned. “For some actors, the needed results are very specific,” explains Annie Temple, the spa’s beauty concierge. “They may say, ‘Don’t take this line away because I’m a character actor!’ We study these people’s work beforehand. In general, we stay away from that ‘over-done’ look.”
“I take a lot of pride in over-training my staff,” Nofal admits. “As a result, clients are pleasantly surprised by our methods. We even have special tricks to minimize discomfort during treatments: small electric fans during a chemical peel, or a device to vibrate the chin while the forehead is being injected—we’ve found it distracts from any pain.”
Competition in L.A. is fierce, and Nofal’s location represented a big hurdle; in Los Angeles, “the Valley” has always been considered separate from the L.A. hub, a region with nothing to offer “people in the know.” Gradually, the influx of hip new businesses, and the movers and shakers who frequent them, is changing this perception. But Nofal has always had to stand up against big-name Beverly Hills medical spas and famous physicians’ practices.
Chief among Blue’s hurdles is the issue of expectations. Notes Temple, “There’s often a disconnect with clients as to what’s possible and what isn’t. Non-invasive procedures take time to yield results.” A client’s commitment of time and money means the staff must stand ready to educate before, during and after treatment. “We use the term ‘full correction’ a lot here. We tell clients, ‘If you want full correction with injections, for instance, we may need to build up a base under the skin. Don’t be surprised if you have to put down two or three thousand dollars.” In turn, Blue offers top-notch treatment in a uniquely chic atmosphere, perks like a customer rewards points program, payment schedule options and same-day appointments seven days a week, even for injections. In the end, says Temple, “Our biggest competition is the need for instant gratification.”
It’s a competition that Blue seems to be winning. “I think the number of years we’ve been in business says a lot,” Nofal reflects. “We regularly surpass expectations.”
Note: Nofal was kind enough to invite me in to experience one of Blue’s popular chemical peels—my first. Read about it in my blog, “My Chemical Romance”, at dayspamagazine.com! —Linda Kossoff
Blue Medi Spa
Size: 6,000 square feet
Facility: 12 treatment rooms, 2 waiting areas, 5 offices, staff lounge, 4 bathrooms
Staff: 30 total (including manager, bookkeeper, marketing director)
Most popular treatments: Injectibles (rates vary)
Average service ticket: $300
Products used/retailed: Fenix, Intraceuticals, Metagenics (supplements), Skin Medica, Vivite
Featured technologies: Endermologie, chemical peels, cortisone injection for acne, dermal fillers (Juvederm, Perlane, Radiesse, Restylane), IPL FotoFacial, laser hair, tattoo and vein removal, Laser Genesis, Latisse lash treatment, microdermabrasion, oxygen facials, Pearl Laser, Titan skin tightening, wrinkle relaxers (Botox, Dysport), vitamin shots, Zerona fat reduction
Neighborhood: Atwater Village, an “up and coming,” formerly industrial area tucked into L.A.’s mountainous East Side
Hook: Incarnated in a loft-like masonry building with giant wood tresses, this hip mecca serves as the East Side’s first (and only) full-service day spa.
Not many years ago, interior designer Cary Mock and his partner Kenneth King had to sate their frequent spa cravings by making arduous treks through L.A.’s notorious traffic to West Hollywood or Pasadena from their home base in Atwater Village. Atwater, a tightknit East Side enclave, had long been beloved by grungy rockers, starving artists and other variations on the “modern hipster” theme, yet was woefully lacking in the wellness department. “We thought it was crazy that there was nothing here yet,” recalls Mock.
So, he set to scouting neighborhood locations for his dream spa—eventually realized in Dtox’s calming-yet-upscale, eco-friendly oasis. King, an entrepreneur, enrolled in massage school, and both men took a small business management class to ensure they were conducting proper market research and planning appropriately. Meanwhile, the couple’s loved ones were dubious.
“Everyone said we were crazy, that there was no demographic for a spa here,” Mock says, “when in actuality, young professionals, maturing hipsters and industry folk were all starting to buy homes here. Plus, Angelenos love the possibility of not having to drive far.”
Mock had a point. By the time Dtox opened its doors on Los Feliz Boulevard, buzz was strong, thanks to jumbo street banners, local press attention and plenty of community support. As Mock and King prepped their warehouse space prior to Dtox’s grand opening, curious passers-by and prospective staffers were popping in off the street. “Everybody around here knows their neighbors—they’re all out walking their dogs—and take pride in local mom-and-pop businesses,” Mock says. “Plus, there turned out to be plenty of talented East Side therapists who were thrilled to not have to drive in to Beverly Hills to work.”
Excitement mounted once locals were able to actually experience Dtox’s contemporary, minimalist Asian design—a giant Buddha and double waterfall set the tone—and its organic facials, body treatments and massages. Mock fashioned the spa’s singularly hip boutique ambiance on a shoestring budget, but wisely brought in an experienced spa consultant to function as spa director and handle training and menu development.
Trial-and-error was the name of the game during Dtox’s early months. “At first we spent a lot on print ads, but soon discovered our best outlet was search engines,” Mock says. “So we had therapists hand out business cards requesting positive Yelp reviews from happy clients.”
Mock believes that a dedication to service, plus his and King’s luck in having established a loyal base clientele prior to the recession, helped Dtox weather the harsh economic storm. Other savvy business tactics included paring down the menu—“spray tanning and nail services created a noise factor we weren’t happy about”—and finding creative ways to cater to their young, happening guests. Happy Hour Fridays, a monthly evening event at which $39 gets guests into a DJ’d party at the spa, complete with organic wine and hors’ d’ouvres, a 20-minute service of their choice, and opportunities to mingle with fellow spa aficionados and Dtox’s cool-as-they-come staffers, has been a hit. “Once we get people in, they tend to think, ‘Wow, what a great space,’ and often end up coming back for full treatments,” Mock says. (Full disclosure: I attended one such event and was amazed by the level of party Dtox managed to foster—let’s just say it was way more OMG than om.)
This community spirit is still central to Dtox’s ongoing marketing efforts. “We’re very involved in all surrounding neighborhood business chambers, maintain presence at local street fairs, operate school donations and give tons of services to private auctions,” Mock says. “PTAs love us because they can always count on a donation. If you can get moms talking, they’ll be your best marketing tools.” To serve increasing numbers of guests driving in from the predominantly suburban San Fernando Valley, Mock and King went out on a limb in 2010 by purchasing a second space some 15 miles west in Encino!
“The opportunity arose after the recession,” Mock says. “We always had the idea of a second location on the back burner, and this location was just far enough away that it wouldn’t affect our demographic in Atwater. When the space became available, we jumped at it.”
After seven years’ worth of elbow grease, Mock and King can now focus on the big Dtox picture. They’ve hired a marketing specialist, and no longer “wear 10 hats” to run their business. “It has been a great and growing experience,” Mock reflects, “but it’s nice to finally be able to step back and focus on staying true to our original business model: a low-key yet funky oasis to serve the fun-loving, if a little offbeat, spa-goer.” —Katie O’Reilly
Dtox Day Spa
Size: 6,500 square feet
Facility: 12 treatment rooms, co-ed lounge, retail/reception area, his-and-hers locker rooms with steam rooms
Staff: 30 (serving both locations)
Most popular treatments: Dtox Custom Facial (25-50 min./$65-110), Dtox Custom Massage (25-80 min./$70-$145) and Signature Massage Experience (80 min./$170)
Average service ticket: $105
Products used/retailed: Dtox private label, Ilike
Neighborhood: Pasadena, an affluent Los Angeles suburb, known for its “old money,” historical charm, and the long-running and cherished Tournament of Roses Parade.
Hook: Despite economic trials and fierce competition, this local staple has retained its 25-year status as the area’s “go-to” spa sanctuary.
In the heart of Pasadena lies a hotspot that has become a staple among L.A.’s affluent—and I’m not talking about the Rose Bowl. Over a span of 25 years, Amadeus Spa, which DAYSPA first profiled way back in 1999, has gradually grown its brand from a small hair salon operation to an 11,000-square-foot, full-service day spa, plus a second, smaller location in the affluent Orange County coastal community of Newport Beach. (The flagship location hopped around a bit before settling into its current location right off the town’s main drag, where it has stood firm for the past 17 years.)
“The spa industry was non-existent when we first started out,” recalls co-owner Tina Mui-Wong. “Consumers have so many options these days, that we’ve had to learn to keep up.”
And the ride hasn’t been easy. Mui-Wong has weathered a storm or two since opening in 1987, such as recent years’ onslaught of fresh local competition, not to mention the crippling economic recession. According to Ingrid Marone, head esthetician for Amadeus Pasadena, the company has had to close two of its Southern California spas in recent years. “It was a sign of the times,” she says.
Despite the closures, Mui-Wong maintains a strong presence at the Fairmont Hotel in Newport Beach in addition to her flagship business, and has recently adopted a “back-to-basics” approach, channeling her staff’s focus toward providing superior service and finding new ways to market their offerings.
“To combat these challenges, you must focus completely on your service and make your time with clients fabulous,” says Mui-Wong. “You need to look at each guest who walks into your spa as a long-term client, and do your best to bring them back to you.”
To keep up with its technologically savvy guests, Amadeus has embraced modern marketing strategies. “We do a lot of online advertising: e-newsletters, Yelp, Google,” explains Marone. “We also offer seasonal and monthly promotions.” The spa has also latched onto the recent craze of daily sites. “We market through Groupon about twice a year,” says Mui-Wong. “These days it’s one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new clients.”
Since setting up shop, Mui-Wong has faced increasingly fierce competition in the form of high-end resort and hotel spas. However, she refuses to waver from the personable business approach that has made Amadeus such a well-known name in the Los Angeles region for the past two decades. For instance, rather than featuring uniform furnishings and layout in each treatment room, the spa’s technicians decorate their working spaces to fit their individual aesthetics and personalities. “After all,” Mui-Wong reasons, “therapists are the closest in contact with guests, and therefore responsible for leaving a lasting impression, whether via exceptional service or the client/practitioner connection.”
Retaining existing clients is also a priority for the Amadeus staff, and in a glamorous city like Los Angeles, it’s no easy task. “Women in L.A. are very conscious of how they look,” notes Mui-Wong. “They turn to fashion magazines to see what celebrities are wearing—and what treatments they’ve had.” She adds that Amadeus’ regular guests include well-known television newscasters, trustees from the University of Southern California and Fortune 500 executives. To continuously offer this discerning and elite client base superior and cutting-edge service that aligns with the latest beauty trends, staff education is key.
“The secret is to make sure you have the best people possible under one roof,” Mui-Wong explains. “We require all technicians to be updated and educated on the latest trends and technologies in their area of expertise, whether be that hair care or styling, skin care, massage or nail care.”
Offering the latest innovations has become of utmost importance to the Amadeus team. Recently, the spa added services utilizing Neutrosis SX-Series Body Sculpting as well as the Facial Rejuvenation Microcurrent System. While investing in such equipment was not cheap, Mui-Wong says the results are well worth the price tag. “Everyone who has tried these machines loves them,” she says. “The microcurrent system gives you an instant facelift without the surgery.”
Although the journey has not always been smooth, Amadeus has certainly managed to remain resilient and relevant within the Los Angeles spa industry. Saved by its top-notch customer service and innovative roster of treatments, this L.A. gem remains a force to be reckoned with. —Angela Melero
Amadeus Spa (pasadena)
Facility: 22 treatment rooms (including one couples’ suite), 22 hair stations, 5 nail stations, 4 pedicure chairs, 2 wet rooms, 2 waiting areas, 2 bathrooms, lunch area
Most popular treatment: European Facial (75 min./$110), Signature Massage (75 min./$145)
Average service ticket: $110
Product lines retailed: Dermalogica, M’lis, Skinceuticals, TIGI