Hilton’s Jessica Shea on what makes a spa special and nurturing strong teams

Jessica Shea

As a leader at the company recently named the best place to work by Fortune magazine, Hilton’s Jessica Shea is the perfect person to talk about management and more in spa and wellness.

Hilton is a leading global hospitality company with a portfolio of 17 world-class brands, including Waldorf Astoria and Conrad, operating in 113 countries.

Among those dedicated to fulfilling the brand’s mission to be the world’s most hospitable company, is Jessica Shea, Hilton’s Senior Director of Spa & Fitness Operations for the Americas, who directly oversees the company’s 35 spas in the region. 

As a leader in a company that was recently named the #1 Best Company to Work for by Fortune Magazine, Ms. Shea is well placed to provide insight on nurturing strong teams. We asked her about that, as well as about what is challenging and what is exciting in the spa & wellness industry for 2020.

Tell us about your career and how you came to be doing what you are today?

My family owned a hair salon when I was growing up, and I was enlisted at a young age to help answer phones and sweep up hair! I went off to college, traveled a bit, and came back home to look for a job. During that time, my family was transitioning their hair salon into a day spa, and again needed help. Helping out grew and grew, until I was eventually managing the business myself – and realized I was already on the path that I had been searching for.  What I wanted was to make a difference – to help people, to be creative and inspire (what we know of now as) personal wellness. I saw firsthand how self-care, relaxation, connection and feeling beautiful would turn around someone’s bad day – leaving them renewed and hopefully, being kinder to others when they stepped outside the spa. It always felt like a small way to help make the world a better place. 

From there, I spent the next several years as a Spa Director with Hyatt Hotels in Lake Tahoe, Kauai, and eventually Thailand. I had the incredible opportunity to lead spa and hotel teams in Asia for six years before returning to the US to head up spa strategy for Hilton. I’ve been in my current position, supporting spa operations, for the past two years.

Hilton is an advisory board member of We Care, the global self care initiative for massage therapists and spa directors. Can you talk about why this is important? 

It’s important for several reasons, all stemming from the fact that massage therapists are the backbone of the spa industry. The majority of treatments provided in leading spas are based on massage, and one of the greatest opportunities for connection is between a massage therapist and a guest. Yet, as the spa industry grows, the number of massage therapists continues to decline. 

As industry leaders, we need to support the massage therapy profession by ensuring therapists have the tools, education and opportunities they need to have long, healthy, successful careers. Massage therapists are the ultimate caregivers, yet they often don’t take the time to care for themselves. We Care aims to change that through techniques, education and experiences that support their physical, mental and spiritual health. The purpose is to ensure that therapists currently working in spas continue to thrive, and to attract potential spa therapists to a meaningful, lucrative career. 

Can you tell me a bit about the Hilton School of Wellness Spa Leader Onboarding Program?

Absolutely – I’m very proud of the work we did on the program. The purpose of the program is to encourage emerging and current spa managers and directors to grow as business leaders by giving them the tools to develop beyond their current roles and help achieve their professional goals. It is designed to help Hilton spa professionals become more commercially focused and thrive as business leaders, through an eight-hour online crash course that includes everything from learning how to balance a budget, develop marketing strategies, oversee operations and manage teams. 

The course was also designed to propel, retain and attract new professionals in the spa industry, showcasing how diverse and instrumental the role of a Spa Director is in the dynamic world of wellness. 

Are these in place to address the industry staffing issue and can you talk a bit about this challenge? Is the industry doing enough to address it?

Yes, as mentioned both of these programs are designed to address the staffing issues facing the industry, both for therapists and leaders. I think the numbers that some of the industry organizations have brought to light in the last few years – the huge amount of spa position vacancies, closures of massage schools, etc – have been a wake up call for the industry and it’s encouraging to see companies springing into action. We can always do more, but the goals are being set and there is focus and collaboration across many levels of the industry that I believe will start to turn the tide in the coming years. 

What is the biggest challenge facing spa, fitness and wellness in 2020, besides staffing? 

As you mention, staffing is the biggest challenge – not just the number of people, but we must also emphasize the importance of employing people who are passionate, service-minded and can deliver on the growing expectations of the wellness customer.

We are very fortunate that we have finally come to an era when wellness is totally mainstream. People have so many choices today on how to integrate wellness into their lives; but the wellness landscape is blurry and increasingly competitive. To remain relevant, successful business must step away from the buzzy wellness noise and define who they are, be consistent with what they can deliver and do it with passion and integrity. 

Do you think being a successful leader in spa and wellness requires different skills from leadership in other areas? If so, what are these?

Absolutely. Spa leaders must have a great balance of “head” and “heart” skills. The spa environment can be very personal – sensitive, emotional, spiritual – yet it has to be approached with clear-headed business savvy.  Successfully leading a team of intuitive care-givers one minute and presenting a budget to an ownership group the next, takes a special set of leadership skills. The most successful spa leaders know, or have learned, how to balance and support both with a lot of passion. 

How do Hilton spas stand out? What makes them unique or special?

Hilton is one of the largest spa operators in the world and a combination of reach, culture, and opportunity attracts the best spa team members in the world. We have built the global Hilton Spa family to deliver the highest level of guest experiences across all of our brands, while ensuring each spa location is individual and embraces the environment that it is in. We are continually innovating the spa experience with new design perspectives, exceptional treatment and service offerings, product partnerships, and sustainability initiatives.

What trends or developments in spa and fitness are you excited about right now?

I’m excited that in looking ahead, we are really taking a look back and evolving ancient, tried and true, natural or culturally significant wellness practices. The rise of hydrotherapy and contrast bathing dates back to Roman times; CBD has been revered in some cultures for centuries; shamans and gurus are leading more and more spiritual retreats (some with long-overlooked psychotropic benefit); skin care is clean and organic beauty has stripped back the unnecessary, toxic elements; fitness technology is focused on being in-tune with your biology; well-built spaces are concerned with clean air and sunlight; women’s health and sexuality aren’t taboo; and everyone is talking about the benefits of getting outside in nature! 


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