Julia Sutton is the COO at Exhale, a wellbeing destination with locations all across the United States, offering award-winning boutique fitness classes and spa therapies curated to help people meet their health goals. A veteran of the fitness, spa, and wellness industry, Julia has been with Exhale from the beginning, and seen it grow into the respected brand it is today, which, as you might have heard, was recently purchased by Hyatt.
We spoke with Julia Sutton about Exhale’s plans for the future, as well as the spa and wellness trends she’s watching, and how to tell innovation from gimmick.
How did you get to where you are today?
I studied international business and always thought I was going to work on Wall Street. And then, while attending Manhattan college I worked at the Peninsula hotel training the rich and famous, if you will, and keeping them healthy. When college finished I stayed on to manage their whole fitness program, then moved to running the entire facility, which included the spa, at the Peninsula on 5th Avenue and 55th street. So by my early 20s I was running an eight million dollar business.
They were managed by Club Sports International, that had 40 facilities across the U.S. I became Club Sports’ spa expert and national spa director. Annbeth Eschbachs CEO of Exhale acquired funding and started Exhale and I came on board as the VP of operations focusing on Spa 15 years ago.
What are your plans for the future with Hyatt?
I’m still the chief operating officer, and will continue to run the company. It will be a lot of fun to take this brand and double, if not quadruple, its size.
We are very successful in hotels other than Hyatt, including Lowes, Kimptons, and Fairmont. What we do really well, which no other brand has figured out, is boutique fitness and spa in a hotel setting, and prove to be a successful business model . We attract the local community in a lot of these hotels, so we’re filling up their facilities and restaurants, producing revenue for the hotel properties .
Hyatt has every intention in keeping Exhale in its existing hotel partners to continue to prove out the model and generate revenues for the company. We will also grow very strategically in Hyatts, as well as freestanding.
One of the biggest challenges spa directors face is staying on top of trends. How do you do that? Also, I read in an interview with you that you love innovation and hate gimmicks. How does one tell the different between innovation and gimmick?
I think that to truly be an innovator in this space, and to recognize true innovation, you have to be living it yourself, trying every class that you’re hearing about, and actively participating in the wellness lifestyle.
Something I find interesting is that when I go to a lot of these spa conferences, only some of the industry leaders are exercising or living wellness.
These conferences generally run three to four days, and there’s usually no boutique fitness offered. Sometimes there’s a yoga class, but it’s much different than if you were at a fitness conference where everyone is running around trying the new fitness equipment and new classes. In the spa world it’s all about the latest and greatest creams, and lotions and potions. Obviously that’s important, but I think that whole entire wellness component is missing.
That being said, In the spa space I think a lot of directors are challenged with a lack of authority to innovate. People probably have great ideas, but a spa director in a larger company might not be able to get anyone to hear her ideas.
What trends are you currently keeping your eye on?
Online classes. So many of the people I know travel for business and it’s really hard to keep up with your favourite studio or class, so we’re on a platform called Forte and we’re really excited about expanding past our four walls. We think that with the Hyatt this could be huge in hotel rooms. So we’re really excited about that digital, on the go, where you can always have your favourite things.
The other thing we’re exploring is Vyne, a service that makes eating healthy accessible. You can have food home delivered and it’s not outrageously expensive.
Those are the trends I’m really excited about, making wellness more and more accessible. Because it is hard if you’re on the go or travelling, and I like the idea of making it as easy as possible to maintain this lifestyle.
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