Southern Charm at the Elegant Savannah Day Spa

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An elegant spa in the heart of Savannah benefits from its proprietor’s passion for design.

It isn’t easy for just any service-oriented operation to stand out in the “Hostess City of the South.” Indeed, Georgia’s oldest town—also known as the most indisputably genteel corner of the United States— has practically written the manual on top-notch hospitality as we know it. The millions of tourists who annually flock to the bougainvillea-draped city of Savannah expect substantial Southern charm from each and every one of the boutiques, eateries, hotels and bars fl anking its stunning Victorian squares. So how does one lone day spa render itself a must-visit destination for A-listers and spa aficionados, as well as a beloved gem among Savannahians?

A central location within the famously preserved, deliciously slow-paced historic district helps. So does status as a hot stop on several of the allegedly haunted city’s numerous ghost tours. And it’s all compounded by the fact that Savannah Day Spa’s elegant, five-story space, built in 1826, originally housed then mayor Andrew Low, also known as the uncle of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.

But the elusive factor that keeps guests coming back boils down to the generous quotient of love and care that proprietor Celeste Hobson and her staff, a bighearted, quick-to-laugh crew, pour into their day spa. Not only does Hobson descend from a long line of dedicated caretakers—her mother was Georgia’s first certified esthetician, no less—but Hobson’s other calling, design, is equally evident in her homey-yet-stunning facility. An ever-evolving wonderland of sparkling chandeliers, wrought-iron fixtures, richly hued tile, brocade, fresh flowers and picture molding, the vibrant, light- filled spa has a singular air that’s a little bit Southern, a little bit vintage and just a touch decadent.

Southern Belle

Most of the interior is original and wholly unique to Savannah Day Spa—in other words, unlike anything else most spa-goers have seen. Many other flourishes were inspired by Hobson’s childhood home, where her late mother once worked on clients’ skin.

“She used to completely change our house around every four years,” Hobson recalls, in a drawl as smooth as candle wax. “We’d have different-colored ceilings, decorative antiques mounted everywhere—on the walls and ceilings too—and recovered furniture. Then she’d switch all the colors and restore the old molding.”

Hobson also loves to display eclectic works of art where clients are most likely to savor them—on the ceilings of treatment suites—and she spontaneously rotates accoutrements such as crystal door handles, velvet curtains, plant holders and grandfather clocks, mixing and matching what she has, and sometimes adding into the mix a carpet or mirror she’s found on sale. Thus, character and variety have become trademarks of Savannah Day Spa.

“It’s never complete, which is what makes it fun,” she says. “And that’s the part I love: all that ongoing searching, antiquing and treasure-troving.”

Hobson’s side passion certainly gives guests something to return for. In addition to addressing all her regular clients by first name, she has been known to anticipate their visits by stocking the lounge with individuals’ favorite refreshments, baking them brownies, assembling special cheese plates—and even mixing mimosas! “It’s generational,” Hobson says. “I’ve watched their kids grow up, and they’ve known my daughter [who’s currently studying oncology massage] since she was a baby. And my guests always notice when I get new stuff. They know how much I love design.”

That love affair clearly extends into esthetics. Hobson started her spa in 1999 as a one-room space on nearby Wilmington Island, a vacation condo community of 15,000. Within just eight months, business had burgeoned beyond the spa’s capacity, prompting Hobson—a seven-day-a-week licensed esthetician and massage therapist who’d already built up sizeable savings—to purchase a 2,000-square-foot space in downtown Savannah. But by 2004 she’d grown out of that space too. Luckily, the savvy spa owner had banked enough profit to snatch the city’s famous and serendipitously-for-sale Low House. Thus, Savannah Day Spa doubled its size, and the new spot opened that same year.

“I never planned on getting this big—it just happened,” says Hobson. “In our smaller spaces I was so much in demand, people would beg me to stay after four o’clock on Sunday, which was closing time. They’d say, ‘Please, you’ve got such healing hands,’ and I couldn’t turn them down after hearing that!” she laughs.

Hobson attributes much of the spa’s success to a policy she has maintained from the start: no significant discounts.

“Money follows how good you are,” she says. “If you’re good, you’re going to make money.” To that end, Savannah Day Spa’s daily and seasonal specials, advertised via its website, Facebook, and radio and TV commercials, are all about exposing clients to a complimentary mini-service or a 10-minute add-on with the purchase of a full treatment; they’re about cocktails and flowers; about being the first to try a brand-new menu item. “We’ll never post something like, ‘Call now and get 30% off’,” Hobson says. “That’s not our style. We pride ourselves on the value we give.”

One could say another quality of Hobson’s that has served the spa well is her refusal to shoehorn her business into anything it isn’t. For one, she’s careful about choosing her booking/marketing configuration software, because she knows her guests aren’t necessarily wooed by high-tech bona fides like promotional texts. “It makes sense for large, corporate spas to spend thousands on the most complex programs, but you shouldn’t believe you need every service they tout,” she cautions. “You really have to know what you’re looking for and break down the costs.”

Well aware that Savannah’s tourists want to look great while visiting the walking city—and that “good times” lie at the heart of the city’s ethos—Hobson turned her mansion’s attic into a cozy mani/pedi roost that’s ideal for parties and pre-wedding festivities. The vantage is ideal for taking in views of the surrounding historic district’s world-class architecture; the lounge’s beautifully cushioned bench seating encourages group bookings, and the spirits are free-flowing.

Several years ago, the 5,000-square-foot day spa’s basement served as a women’s locker room, but Hobson says this made communicating that fine line dividing “day” and “destination” spa more trouble than it was worth. She gutted the locker room and turned the downstairs space into the couple’s treatment suite in town. Guests arrive via an old-fashioned dumbwaiter that creaks down through a shaft replete with ornate mural paintings. Such fleeting glimpses of art whet clients’ senses for what they’re about to experience: the private sanctuary is a bastion of exotic azure tile and multi-hued light fixtures set seductively to dim. Couples are encouraged to change together, soak in a Jacuzzi together, steam together, bathe beneath a rainfall shower together and dine together. Suite packages such as Blooming Romance (3 hrs./$480) include gourmet chocolates, champagne and wine, and imported fresh fruit and cheese, not to mention tandem body scrubs, aromatherapy massages and pedicures.

This reimagined space has proved itself a moneymaker—as well as a destination for celebrities shooting projects in the increasingly fi lm-friendly state of Georgia. Ben Affleck, who owns a home on a nearby island, is a regular, as are Jennifer Lopez, Cate Blanchett and other stars.

Nowadays when people call seeking a destination spa experience, Hobson is straightforward. “I simply send them to the Westin, Savannah’s biggest spa,” she says. “We do our thing and they do theirs. I try not to step on anyone’s toes, because after all, I’m not just here to make money; I love what I do and I want to serve clients who truly want to be here.”

Not surprisingly, Savannah Day Spa enjoys plenty of local love, local press and local loyalty. The 40/60 ratio of Savannahian-to-tourist business actually tipped in the latter’s favor just recently, during the recession. “If I’d been trying to run this big a business in a small town that wasn’t a tourist beacon, I doubt we’d have made it,” says Hobson. “But it’s such a cool and creative city, we were able to keep accumulating tourist business throughout the economic downturn,” she adds.

Hobson cites some recessionary adjustments—“We cut down on fresh flowers at times”—but says her unique service menu including popular options such as Thai, lomi lomi and prenatal massages, and dedicated staff, have kept Savannah Day Spa in the black.

Even more care is taken in the hiring of staff. “I look for kindness and empathy, right after skill and professionalism,” says Hobson. “Staff members have to be low-key, not high-strung, and have a sense of humor and be able to banter with guests. Above all, however, if your No. 1 goal is doing what you love, you’re going to be okay. Immediately asking how much you’re going to earn is a red flag with me.”

Hobson is no micromanager, but she expects her staff to inject as much love and respect into her carefully curated operation as she does. “Everybody has a bad day once in a while,” she says. “Depending on the situation, I’ll either let them go or send them home after having a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. I like to think I’m open and compassionate, and that staff know they can come to me with anything.”

Certainly a visit to the boss here is a welcome experience: Adjacent to the quaint, chandeliered reception area, a pair of stylish, swinging saloon doors beckon staff and guests into Hobson’s stately, Victorian office. It’s just one of Savannah Day Spa’s hundreds of singular flourishes that demonstrate more intention, thought and business savvy—more than even the loveliness that meets the eye.

– by Katie O’Reilly 

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