Salina Handa used to repackage milk. Now she uses it in body baths and wraps as founder of SensAsia Urban Spa, which is to open its fifth location in Dubai next week. She talks about how the spa's concept has evolved as her team of therapists has grown from five to more than 70.
How did working at a packaging company lead to your first spa opening in 2004?
We had to reconceptualise a milk brand women would want through focus groups, market research. We did this for children as well, and cafe au lait for adults. I was doing that simultaneously as I was thinking of the spa. I was on holiday in Vietnam at a really simple spa. I said, "Hey, I could probably do this too." Eight months later I opened at the The Village Mall in Jumeirah.
It took five years to open the second location. Why the long delay?
It's not because I didn't want to. It was a learning curve. [At one point] I signed a lease, I had staff and we were ready for construction. But the retail group got me on a technicality and said, "I'm sorry, we're going to give your space to Spinneys." I was completely crushed.
So how did you expand?
The Palm called me with a fabulous offer and said, "We don't know what you're doing right now but we want you here in two months." Once I got the second location rolling, three and four happened. It was a hurdle going from one to two.
Why was it so difficult?
You don't have the credibility. People view you as a one mom-and-pop shop.
What mistakes did you make initially that you corrected in subsequent expansions?
I wasn't able to pass on my vision or what I really wanted from my brand. Six months into opening things started changing based on what clients said. Before we launched some new treatments we'd call in regulars or people on our invitation-only loyalty programme to try them and fill out a questionnaire about whether they like it or not. My menu is purely based on their feedback.
How did your location that opened in February change your business strategy?
What we have with Emirates Golf Club is an operational contract. Developers come to us and say, "We like your concept and brand, we want you in our property and we'll give you this space. You operate it and turn a massive profit."
But do deals like these take a big chunk out of revenues?
Not a big chunk. It depends on developer to developer and what the property is. We're doing one in Ras al Khaimah and rebranding it to call it The Spa by SensAsia. It's more of a premium brand designed for hotels and resorts with bigger rooms, and more grown-up treatments - less of the "gorgeous geisha" treatments. On the other hand, we have SensAsia Express opening in May, which is even more tongue-in-cheek. This is a mall concept and more of a retail therapy.