Salina Handa Founder and CEO of SENSASIA and Spa People discusses the UAE’s luxury spa market and the secret to business success
If you live in Dubai and haven’t heard of the SENSASIA spa chain you must have been living under a rock. As the largest independent spa group in the UAE, SENSASIA has become a must-visit pampering destination for Dubai residents, with branches all across the city. Its unique offering of treatments and convenient locations offer a fuss-free yet luxurious experience, allowing you to take time out for that well-deserved pamper time! Salina Handa opened the first branch of SENSASIA in 2004 after finding a gap in the market for independent spas that truly cater to women’s needs and offer a high level of excellence and a bespoke experience that is expected from a five-star spa destination. SENSASIA has become known for its unique treatment menu – from pregnancy massages, to jet lag cures and everything in between – and this has given women good reason to keep returning at every moment of their lives. Here we find out more about the entrepreneurial vision behind SENSASIA and the plans for further expansion moving forward.
What first inspired you to set up your own chain of spas in the UAE?
I don’t have a spa or beauty background, but I believe this has been the key to my success. I graduated from Boston University with a business and marketing degree and moved to Dubai in 1999 for a role where I flourished in building brands and creating concepts for major corporations. But I come from a very entrepreneurial family and had always wanted to run my own business. As a total spa junkie, I visited many spas across the world throughout my twenties, and it was actually in a colonial house in Vietnam that I had my “lightbulb moment” to create SENSASIA. I had the most blissful Shiatsu massage and spa experience I had EVER had. It was then, as an extremely hard to please client, that I realised I knew how to create the completely flawless and immersive spa journey that didn’t exist in the UAE.
What do you think SENSASIA offers today that other spas don’t?
I think SENSASIA offers a level of care that you can’t find anywhere else. We are a spa that relies on the guests returning – so that extra profiling, those extra notes, that extra personalisation we ensure we carry out, is our foundation. We also have a strong concept: we know we are not for everyone. We are boutique in our offering, but our range of services is considerably larger than average. Our consistency in service delivery is also key, which we scrupulously maintain with an extremely high standard in-house training team. Part of the core SENSASIA concept was to develop treatments that would take a woman through the milestones of her life. If she was pregnant, detoxing, trying to lose weight, stressed, tired, feeling and looking flat – we developed treatments with this in the front of mind. With such a wealth of hotel spas in the UAE, there is often a focus on transient holiday guests, but this is not where SENSASIA sits at all. We’re here for the long-term resident who comes to us as a lifestyle choice.
How has SENSASIA grown since it began and what is your vision for the future of the company?
SENSASIA began as a single spa at The Village in Jumeirah, Dubai, in 2004, and is now the largest independent spa group in the UAE. We have enjoyed expansion into six further locations, plus a portfolio of SENSASIA brand extensions, private projects, bespoke concepts, and industry awards. The pandemic also sparked the creation of THE SPA PEOPLE in 2020. This is the consultancy I created following the flurry of requests for help and guidance from fellow wellness business owners as we navigated the impact of COVID-19. THE SPA PEOPLE offers everything from short-term guidance and troubleshooting to existing operators, to a full spa solution for businesses looking to enter the market, with the full backing and proven success from SENSASIA in their corner. In the future, I think we will continue to operate and manage spas across the region and we are ready to expand into neighbouring spaces.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do today?
Being the owner of the company and also having a role within it as a department head of marketing is extremely challenging. Swapping hats and moving into different modes during the day is sometimes testing.
As a businesswoman what is the best piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I truly think I suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and it can be debilitating. But second-guessing decisions and letting anxiety overwhelm you will take a toll on your business idea’s progress. Remember that no one, not even yourself, should stand in the way when you believe what you are doing is worthwhile.
What do you think guests are looking for from a spa today?
I think for so long visiting a spa meant pampering and relaxation. Now, it is so much more, as people begin to realise that it is far from just physical benefits that are achieved after a spa session. We have lost so much human connection in recent years. Spa treatments give us that critical touch therapy we as humans crave, as well as time to connect to ourselves, and our spirituality, and in turn, increase our self-worth. Targeted spa treatments can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, aid in recovery from injury, working out and/or indulgence, kickstart weight loss, improve circulation and significantly improve our skin. The list goes on!
How do you elevate the facilities and luxury offering of a spa today?
In my opinion, you can have the most incredible facilities with the latest trends – and have spent a large amount of money building them – but fail when it comes to execution. To me, luxury is definitely about having a functional yet beautiful space, with the right complementary facilities such as wet areas, but a clear investment in the people that are delivering the service. The guest needs to see, hear, smell and feel the thought that has gone into their spa experience at every turn.
As standalone spas Vs. Hotel spas what are some of the main differences that have to be considered as a spa owner?
There are many! Management of systems that are able to interlink with the hotel setup are a challenge. The branding and the ‘guest journey’ also must reflect the hotel itself, which then needs to blend seamlessly into marketing and communication. You have two sets of guests that you need to market to – particularly in urban hotels. You want your seasonal in-house guests, but your marketing strategies that work here will have to be tailored to attract and retain your external residents.
What can you tell us about some of the latest technologies and treatments in the market?
I am really liking Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) for facial muscle contouring. I think we work a lot on the skin with products and super ingredients, which work, but now I am researching a lot into facial work that targets muscle tone. You can use basic tools such as the ‘Gua Sha’ face scrapers, through to full-on equipment that will ‘work out’ your facial muscles as you would parts of your body, and they get results. We will soon be launching our own SENSASIA collection of skin tools, in response to client demand!
What do you consider when it comes to spa interiors?
I start by asking myself or the client what they want to achieve with the space, how they want guests to feel when they visit, and what is the core concept? With the guest’s experience of the brand and their journey through the spa at the front of my mind, I then go to “cut up” the space with an architect, create the layout, allocate rooms and decide on the features within the rooms – lighting and fixtures are key! I label revenue Vs non-revenue generating spaces, then decide and locate the ‘wow’ element that will bring the concept of the spa to life. Then we build out the facilities including treatment rooms, wet areas, and thermal circuits, before selecting textures, visuals and colour schemes – which are so important to get right. Finally, we look at retail spaces and common areas where the guests can gather or just ‘be’.
How do you work to develop new and different treatments for your customers?
I tend to develop what I like, based on what my needs are. This goes back to my core concept of being a super picky client. So, if I need it, or want it, I am sure there are many out there who do as well. Then we take it through research and development, select or create products, and then my trainers execute, fine-tune and totally perfect it. I have to say I love the testing phases!
What is the one treatment our readers should try?
The Ultimate Recovery Massage. It’s an intense massage with lots of full-body stretching, kneading and acupressure, and uses heated herbal poultices to encourage the lactic acid out. Ideal post-workout, or just when you feel like your body is “tied up in knots”, and really needs relief.
What is something you would still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
A work-life balance! The pace of UAE business can be all-consuming and I would like to get to a level where I can opt-in or out without too much impact.