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The California Wildfires and The Spa Industry

By Camille Hoheb January 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

Author’s note: Through conversation with peers in the industry, I was intrigued with their stories of evacuation, closures and affected lives. It was then that I realized how widespread and reaching the impact was on the industry—from spas, to esthetic schools, to skin care manufacturers and beyond. My interviews were conducted both by phone conversations and through e-mails, and represent a cross section of skin care professionals spanning from Simi Valley, California, to San Diego. Many thanks to those who shared their stories in the midst of picking up the pieces and moving toward normalizing their daily lives at work and at home.

This article was born out of an interest to share the experiences of skin care professionals affected by the California wildfires. During October and November 2007, most Americans couldn’t avoid watching the nonstop news coverage of the blazes and be stunned at the images of devastation. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed, approximately 700,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and nearly a dozen deaths and 100 injuries occurred.
     To first understand the magnitude of the fires, consider that, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), two weeks after the wildfires, more than $5.6 million in federal funds were provided to individuals and families affected by the disaster. This money can be used to find temporary housing, rebuild or repair damage, replace property not covered by insurance and help with other necessary disaster-related expenses. Following is FEMA’s at-a-glance summary, published on November 23, 2007, about the recovery efforts.

17,776 Californians registered for disaster.
$9.7 million in grants were approved for Californians, including $6.9 million for housing and $2.8 million for other needs assistance.
$38 million in U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans have been provided to individuals and businesses.
7,566 home inspections have been completed in the disaster-designated counties.
13,068 people have visited assistance centers seeking disaster assistance and mitigation information in English and many other languages. SBA representatives are also onsite to assist with loan applications for homeowners, renters and business owners.
16,677 residents and 4,585 businesses have received disaster assistance information from FEMA’s Community Relations teams.
A grant of $822,438 has been approved for the California Department of Mental Health for crisis-counseling services for victims, which is available for those who live or work in disaster-affected counties.

  Following are personal accounts from a variety of spas in the areas of California affected by the wildfires.

  Coldwater Creek The Spa, Simi Valley, California. “A lot of smoke and some cancellations,” was how Lori Marcus, assistant spa director, described the affect of the wildfires on Coldwater Creek The Spa in Simi Valley. With only 30 cancellations during a three-day period, the business experienced no property damage or significant business interruption.

  Luminesse Medical Spa, Carmel Valley, California. Luminesse had just opened its doors August 25, 2007. Richard Swoy, owner of Luminesse, did all the right things to protect his business in the event of an unforeseeable occurrence, which included obtaining business interruption insurance. The spa was closed for a week, during which time Swoy estimates more than 50 cancellations. An evacuation had been mandated by government authorities but the business interruption insurance required 72 hours of mandated evacuation before the policy kicked into effect. The adjuster explained to Swoy that it didn’t matter if the business was closed for five days—no coverage was provided.
     Upon returning to the spa, Swoy assessed the damage, which mostly consisted of soot and smoke residue and remnants of an errant canopy that was found in a tree in an adjacent parking lot. The canopy had been a crowning feature used to create a relaxing space for massage on the second-floor patio during the warm months. Robyn Delagado, massage therapist, described returning to Luminesse and finding a “sooty, black mess.” During the temporary closure of the business throughout the mandatory evacuation period, Delagado’s massage therapy schedule was affected both during the temporary closure of the business and after, as well. She pointed out that most residents are still working toward putting their lives back in order and that, although she believed massage would help with the healing process, most clients felt it was self-indulgent. Delagado further explained that the wildfires claimed the homes of 60 children at the school her children attend. Ending on an up note, Swoy said, “I’m really proud of my staff members. We were really put in a unique situation where it was literally almost baptism by fire. We dusted ourselves off and have re-opened for business, which is picking up now. We have holiday and New Year’s promotions, and look forward to a healthy 2008.”

     Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa, Rancho Santa Fe, California. To set the stage, Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa is one of the premier luxury California resorts, featuring a spa and an award-winning restaurant. “The fires were right in our backyard and roughly a mile from our property. We were right in its path,” explains spa director, Michelle Hill. “Ambers were flying and the winds can carry them up one to two miles, so it was a real danger.” The facility has an amazing tale of evacuation, cleanup and reopening.
On Monday morning, October 22, 2007, before mandatory evacuation, the resort closed and hotel guests were moved to Rancho Valencia’s sister property 10 miles away in La Jolla, California. Wednesday, the clean up began. “Extensive smoke and ash more than an inch thick” required two days of extensive labor to clean up and get the property back into shape. By Friday, Rancho Valencia was open for business. According to Hill, “Some of the locals who had previously scheduled spa appointments for Friday said they had to commend the Valencia staff on how immaculate the business looked in comparison to their homes, which were smoky and sooty.” Cancellations were estimated to be in the range of 200–300 throughout a five-day period.
    “Although there were cancellations, business started picking up with weekend activity. When asked what advice she would impart to other spa owners, Hill says, “Be aware. Listen to news reports. Evacuate when told. Have a three-to-five day supply of food and clothing in your car and get going.” What was very clear was the amazing coordination of efforts during the emergency, and how proud Hill was of her peers and her community. “The whole community came out in droves to help each other. I am proud to be a San Diegian!”

    Following are personal accounts from a few industry suppliers and manufacturers affected by the wildfires.

    McKenna Labs, San Diego. McKenna Labs is a private label manufacturer specializing in skin care, bath and body, and personal care products. Located in the city of San Diego, the 60,000-square-foot facility was “no closer than 68 miles away from the fire.” According to Dennis Owen, president, “We really were never concerned about the facility, just the homes of our friends and co-workers. When the wind was blowing the smoke toward us, we chose to shut down for a few days for the health of our employees and to save our hepa filters that surely would have been clogged up and ready for disposal after running in that smoke for a day.” Heather Naef-Owen, vice president, business development, adds, “We were only affected in that our employees were out due to their homes and their childrens’ schools being evacuated.” 

     Girzi Skincare, San Diego. Girzi Skincare is an Italian skin and body product manufacturer with its American flagship headquartered in 22,000-square-feet of space in San Diego. According to Erwin Dank, CEO, the fire was only two blocks away. Much like other business, Girzi was closed for a week but got back on its feet as soon as possible. “Our biggest problem was the smoke and dust … and even weeks later, we have problems with it.” Cleanup at Girzi included power washing the entire warehouse to eliminate the smell and soot. Containers and packaging were a loss, and damage to property continues to be evaluated.
    Dank reported that the U.S. division of Girzi had been in close contact with its parent company in Italy the entire time during the disaster and there are plans to get together in Januaryto assess the aftermath. When asked what was an important message to get out, he boiled it down to three statements. “Stick together. Stay in touch. Try to help wherever possible.” Expanding upon the last point, Dank relayed that most of the Girzi employees volunteered at shelters in San Diego.

Esthetic schools
  The following esthetic school also was affected by the disaster.

     Poway Academy, Poway, California. Lynelle Lynch is president of Poway Academy, a school in California that offers a Master Esthetic training program. Lynch described how the wildfires affected the school, students, staff and community. “Not only did we experience the fires, but we are in the process of a $2.3 million dollar remodeling project that we are completing in three phases. The first one was supposed to be completed soon and due to the fires, we are in the process of moving today.”
    During an e-mail exchange, she says “The school was closed for one week and that was mandated by the governor. Most of us were evacuated for three-to-five days. Our emergency plan is to safely move people to designated evacuation centers. We are providing free services to the families whose homes were lost in the fires. We hope in a small way that we can pamper them and give them a few hours of relaxation. We were part of a large community outreach to raise funds. Our students raised $1,000 to donate to the Fire Victim Relief Fund.”
    In a subsequent e-mail, Lynch had the following to say. “We have had 20 firefighters come in for complimentary massages and approximately 12 families. We have six families scheduled for Friday and Saturday. They are receiving services that range from pedicures to facials to hair services. It has been a wonderful experience for our students and instructors to give back to these families. In addition, we had three students lose their homes and are holding a fund-raiser for them allowing clients to contribute. Our schools did have dirt and some smoke damage, but it was very slight. The community seems to be pulling together.”
    Poway Academy’s mission is, “To enable each individual in their sphere of influence to achieve personal growth—from teachers and students, to customers, partners, and members of our community,” and they have done just that.

Coming together
    In the wake of the California wildfires, the exemplary response of the spa industry and the sense of community that is shared is evident. Volunteerism and genuine concern for staff, neighbors and other businesses has been overwhelming. To find out how to donate to the victims of the wildfires and to learn about how to prepare your business for an emergency, log on to and access this Web-exclusive information. Also, keep up-to-date on the status of spas, suppliers and schools affected during this disaster by checking out Skin Inc. magazine’s Bulletin Board at, where you can chat with peers and give your general good wishes to all those recovering from this disaster.