Gary Virden of Ritz Carlton on maintaining a luxury experience in the new world of spa & wellness

Gary Virden

The Ritz Carlton’s Gary Virden talks with Spa Executive about what the future has in store and maintaining a luxury experience in the new world of spa & wellness.

Ritz Carlton is a name synonymous with luxury. When you think of Ritz Carlton, a subsidiary of Marriott International, you think of old-world glamour and new-world sophistication and comfort.

Ritz Carlton Amelia Island is a tranquil resort on Florida’s northeast coast, set along 13 miles of beachfront, offering top-tier service and amenities in an idyllic setting.

Gary Virden is Ritz Carlton Amelia Island’s Director of Spa and Recreation and the perfect person to comment on the changes currently affecting luxury properties, particularly in the area of spa and wellness. We asked Mr. Virden to share his insights on maintaining a luxury experience in the new world of spa and wellness and about what he believes the future holds. Here’s what he had to say: 

Tell us a bit about your professional history and how you came to be doing what you are today.

I started working in spas in 2002 as a front desk agent at the Ritz Carlton in Lake Oconee, in East Georgia. I was lucky enough to open that property. I have also been a Spa Front Desk Supervisor at Ritz Carlton Orlando, Grand Lakes; Director of Spa and Recreation at Rosen Shingle Creek with Rosen Hotels & Resorts and WTS international; and Assistant Spa Director at Ritz Carlton Orlando, Grand Lakes. I’ve been at Amelia Island for nearly eight years as Director of Spa and Recreation. I’ve only ever done spa and recreation. I don’t know anything else. I also have my massage therapy license. I renew it every year but have never practised massage therapy.

What changes have you made at Ritz Carlton Amelia Island, due to recent events?

We’ve not made any major changes to our operation. It’s been small tweaks. We are ensuring that we’re giving our team the tools and the time to properly make sure that our facility and the way we interact with our guests is safe. One of the quickest and easiest changes we made was adding additional time at the end of each treatment for cleaning. We have increased the turnaround time after treatments from 10 minutes to 25 minutes. That gives our therapist 25 minutes to make sure that room is completely cleaned and sanitized between guests.

We’ve also been adding shields at the front desk, which I feel is everywhere now. That sets the tone with our guests that we’re protecting both them and our employees.

We removed all of the single use and high touch amenities in the locker rooms and waiting areas, like throw pillows and blankets that the guests could cuddle up with. We now offer them by request only.

How does a luxury property maintain a luxury feel with these changes?

This is something to which we have given a lot of thought. We took away the buffet-style snacks, and have sourced companies that we were able to provide prepackaged snacks that still have a luxury look and feel. We removed our fruit infused water dispensers and now offer sparkling and flavoured water on request. Items are available on a menu and are retrieved by an attendant.

We weren’t really sure how we were going to do it in the beginning, but we have taken our guests’ feedback and are learning as we go. We just had to think differently about how to do things.  

People come to luxury spas for the facility, the little touches, and the service. What’s important is that we’re still providing Ritz Carlton service. That’s something that we can easily control. A lot of our supply chains have been disrupted and it’s hard to get things, but it is easy to continue to train your team and provide that world-class service that we’re known for. That’s what guests come here for. Our therapists are fantastic. Our front desk agents, our locker room attendants, they’re all here to make sure the guests still have that Ritz Carlton experience. 

What do you think it takes to be a good leader in spa and wellness at this time in history?

There are currently a lot of unknowns, so, leadership now is making sure you’re communicating.

During the most uncertain period, even as I was on furlough, I was communicating with my team with what information I had. Because there’s nothing worse than sitting at home and not knowing what’s happening. And, when we were ready to open, everyone felt comfortable. They knew what was going on and we were able to quickly come back up to speed because I had been in communication with them the whole time.

Communication is also about helping everyone understand how we’re going to get through this and what we have put into place to make sure people are safe. I find that when we have issues it’s usually because the guest or the employee isn’t clear about what we’re doing to make them safe.

Staffing has always been a big challenge in spa. Is the industry in a better situation, a worse situation or the same situation with the staffing challenge right now?

I would say that, as a whole it’s worse, but in my case, it’s about the same. I’m lucky to be in a very niche market and an area that’s not been highly impacted by COVID. But I know that in other areas, many providers are still somewhat hesitant to come back to work. There are definitely continual challenges. Marriott has a great commitment to safety and has created protocols that they are committed to keeping in place, and I think that is very helpful.

What other challenges do you see facing spa and wellness in the near future?

There are apps coming out with which people can partake in wellness activities, like yoga and meditation, without having to go anywhere or touch anyone. And I think this will impact the industry. There’s a segment of the population that isn’t ready to come back out or go to a spa and do a treatment yet, particularly in areas that have been highly impacted by COVID. They will come back out over time and start re-experiencing the spas. But we will see an uptick in the use of technology, like Peloton, that allows people to work out, meditate, and experience a wellness lifestyle without having to leave their homes.

Is there anything happening in wellness and spa that you’re excited about?

This current situation has set us back and I think we’re going to have a slow ride back to where we were. It’s going to take several years, but I think along the way, we’re going to see some new people rise to the top with new concepts. I’m excited to see what people come up with to combat the issues that we’re having. That’s when entrepreneurship and innovation happen, when you’re faced with a challenge. I don’t necessarily see that right this minute because I think people are still trying to figure out the basics of how to open safely and get back to some normalcy. But I think as we start coming back, you’re going to see new things pop up and things that we didn’t even think of in terms of spa and wellness. People are the most creative when they have to be.


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