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A Case Study: Kohler Waters Spa

By Cathy Christensen
Posted: April 21, 2008, from the October 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

“The corporation and each associate have the mission of contributing to a higher level of gracious living for those
who are touched by our products and services. Gracious living is marked by qualities of charm, good taste and generosity
of spirit. It is further characterized by self-fulfillment and the enhancement of nature. We reflect this mission in our work, in our team approach to meeting objectives, and in each of the products and services we provide our customers.”

—Kohler Company mission statement

Within the quiet, green fertile valleys of Wisconsin lies a quaint, nostalgic village that time seems to have ignored. Instead of the trappings of an organized olden days festival, however, Kohler, Wisconsin, very much embraces current technology while maintaining the personality of a simpler, friendlier time.
       The town itself grew from the immigrants who worked at the Kohler Company factory, which was opened in 1873, in the midst of an economic depression, by founder John Michael Kohler, an Austrian immigrant. After applying a baked enamel coating to a horse trough/hog scalder created by the company, Kohler realized that he had developed the company’s first bathtub. Hence, the Kohler legacy began.
       More than 100 years later, the company began offering hospitality ventures as ancillary products. Starting with resorts, such as The American Club and The Carriage House in Kohler itself, it soon expanded to include The Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland. Looking to develop its reach even more, the Kohler Company followed the connection between its emphasis on water, graciousness, hospitality and the spa lifestyle, and on December 18, 2000, Kohler Waters Spa was opened, embodying all of the qualities subscribed to by the rest of the company in a spa environment.
       Since 2003, Kohler Waters Spa has been recognized by the travel industry leaders, such as Condé Nast Traveller, Travel + Leisure and Mobil Travel Guide, as a top destination spa nestled snugly among the bevy of spas located in glamorous and coastal regions.

Location
       In an industry that relies heavily on the benefits of location, Kohler Waters Spa has overcome the challenges offered by its remote Midwestern setting. According to Jean Kolb, spa director, the Wisconsin location does present a problem, but it is one the company continuously works to tackle. “The large majority of our market is from Chicago, so we let guests know they don’t have to get on a plane to get here. Even the drive here is relaxing,” she says.
       The spa markets its Americana location as a small, friendly village that offers top-quality furnishings and treatments. “You have to work with your department of tourism to make sure that dollars are being spent to bring awareness to the types of resorts, facilities and hospitality we have here in the Midwest,” says Kolb.
       Kohler Waters Spa also has benefited from the advantages provided by having a world-class resort and golf course on the property. Two highly regarded 36-hole golf courses—Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits—bring much attention to the middle of Wisconsin. In 2004, the flagship Straits Course at Whistling Straits hosted the 86th PGA Championship, and a U.S. Senior Open Championship was held at the course during the Independence Day weekend this year. “They may come for the golf and stay for the spa. The individual sectors of the business support each other and one positively affects the other,” explains Kolb.
       Although Kohler doesn’t have mountains or oceanfront beaches, Kolb paints an irresistible picture of the village during the year’s colder months. “In the middle of winter we have a million white twinkling lights on all the trees, and horse-drawn carriages travel through the village so you hear clip-clopping going on until 10 PM each evening. And the very best place to be when it is snowing those big fluffy white flakes is in this wonderful, warm, yellow spa; it’s fabulous. We have a lot to offer,” she says.

Spa menu development
        Many of the unique and successful aspects of Kohler Waters Spa lie within its internal structure, not its external one. One of the most challenging and necessary components to running a spa business is the creation and maintenance of a menu, and Kohler takes an interesting initiative in creating its offerings.
       Unlike many spas that consider this task to be a responsibility of management alone, Kohler Waters Spa takes the unusual approach of making it a voluntary venture for management and treatment professionals alike. According to Kolb, “We have a development committee, and we also work very closely with the company’s plumbing engineers because of all of this technology that puts together beautiful products that are ergonomically good for the body.”
       Because the plumbing products are typically designed and created for about two to four years in the future, this collaboration allows the spa to know what is on the horizon, and, conversely, the plumbing division learns from the spa what clients are requesting.
       When choosing and developing treatments, the use of water and appealing to the senses are the details that matter the most to the spa. “During our menu development, we try to incorporate as many senses as we possibly can,” says Kolb. “If we incorporate all five senses into a treatment, it is a home run.”
       Of course, water is always considered when thinking of treatments as well. “A non-negotiable is every single year we come out with a new innovative water treatment, because that is what we hang our hats on at the end of the day,” says Kolb, who also states that the spa has a higher-than-average water-based service business, constituting about 15–16% of the treatments.
        Taking these requirements into consideration, the team of volunteer menu planners gets together to identify the therapeutic benefits they would like to obtain and how they can be accomplished, while also mulling over interesting or unique aspects to include, and, above all, how to make it Kohler. The annual process begins in August and the menu is finalized by the end of January. After extensive training, the menu is debuted by May 1 each year.

Customer service and team building
       It is evident through the inclusion of treatment professionals in the spa menu development process that this spa sees things a bit differently when it comes to its team members. Because of the Kohler Company’s general emphasis on graciousness, Kohler Waters Spa works to build and nurture a team that is able to provide this attitude to its clients in all aspects of its business. This is no more evident than in its hospitality ventures.
       According to Kolb, “Our level of service doesn’t deviate depending upon where you are within the resort. We are gracious to customers and do whatever it takes to make sure they want to come back. We talk about hospitality by design, and it’s not something that just happens—it’s something you work for and design to reach.” The motto at the The American Club and Kohler Waters Spa is “Stop, drop and greet,” whether it is for a guest or a fellow co-worker. “We have to be gracious with each other in order to be gracious with the guest,” explains Kolb.
       This utopian method of building a business requires a very special kind of person, and the interview process to fill positions within Kohler differs from many others. Instead of hiring based upon past experience, the way candidates present themselves is the most important factor here. “It’s their smile, eye contact and reason for wanting to work here. If they talk about benefits and good money, it might not work. It has to come from within—that part is not trainable. You look for it immediately in the nonverbals. Our human resources department will screen people based on how much they smile and look at you,” explains Kolb.
       Before a new hire even sets foot upon the Kohler property, they must attend orientation. There, employees are educated about the resort and its quality expectations. A continuous discussion takes place about the company’s mission and the meaning of personal service. The training and education doesn’t stop there, however.
       Once the team member is in place within the spa, there is a meeting every Friday morning that often involves role-playing and discussions about hospitality, positive attitudes and engaging with other human beings. Another feature of the Friday meeting is a focus on a specific value, such as “fail forward faster,” which encourages team members to make mistakes because the sooner they do, the sooner they will learn. “All the technical is trainable,” states Kolb. “You can have experienced staff members who do not connect, and that leaves the client feeling like nothing.”
       Another point of focus for Kohler Waters Spa team members is continuing education. According to Kolb, “If someone wants to learn, as an employer, it is the company’s responsibility to find ways for them to learn.” These include providing a dollar amount for each employee to spend toward continuing education credits. The staff also is encouraged to attend industry conventions and conferences, and Kohler management often brings outside experts to the spa to train the team in a new modality or a business topic, such as customer service.
        Because of the emphasis on team members and customer service, Kohler Waters Spa experiences very low turnover, and it if someone does leave, it is often a result of life circumstances, not displeasure with the working environment.

Spa cuisine and consumables
       Kohler Waters Spa sees food and drink as an expansion upon the spa experience. Because of this, it places an emphasis on providing food that is prepared as healthfully as possible without compromising integrity or taste. “We have a policy not of deprivation, but moderation, so that people have choices,” explains Kolb. Not only does the provided lunch menu feature a variety of small, light entrees to fit the spa experience, but the facility also works with the other nine restaurants owned by Kohler, each of which features spa cuisine options.
       Also available within the spa are a variety of snacks and beverages to help replenish guests’ energy during a day of pampering. “You need to surprise people, and they need to be nourished while they are in the spa. This is the kind of detail where you can make a point of differentiation,” says Kolb. “We have little bars that are homemade by a woman in Kohler, and we change that offering every quarter. We offer seasonal juices to go with the snacks.” Also available within the spa are teas, as well as an energy snack mix for those with minimal time to replenish themselves.
       Kolb recommends using anything indigenous in your area to your advantage. “It just makes it more special. That’s why we have butter yellow on our walls. Doesn’t it make you feel good? Doesn’t it make you feel like you are in a spa in Wisconsin? People love our yellow. They equate it to the Kohler Waters Spa.”

Serve others and make a profit
       Although Kolb concedes that it is still a corporate structure and money has to made, she insists that there are different ways to be successful. “Here at the spa, we talk about how we are in the business to serve others and make a profit; we are not in the business to make a profit by serving others. Our intention is to serve others and, at the end of the day, we reap the profits,” Kolb says.
In order to do this, it all comes back to the people. According to Kolb, “We really value our staff. We have a beautiful spa here, but it means nothing without them. It’s like having your body as a vessel, and not having any breath or life in it. They are what make us tick.”