Seven essential keys to success

Owning your own medical spa facility can be a rewarding and lucrative experience. Whether you are a physician thinking about enhancing your aesthetics services or a spa owner who wants to affiliate with a physician as a business opportunity, helping people look and feel younger, reduce their stress, and improve their productivity and energy is a win-win situation.

As with any business endeavor, there is a myriad of details to consider; and they can be daunting—unless you have some guidance and professional experience behind you. We highly recommend getting in touch with a medical spa business professional or company, and an attorney who deals in health/spa facilities, to help you get started. Always do your homework. Laws governing spa-related businesses vary from state to state.

Seven Essential Tips To Get Started

Here are seven tips that will help you build a firm foundation of information that you will need to open and operate your medical spa facility:

1) Know Your Market

Research the demographics and location of your medical spa, or you may be building the equivalent of an igloo on Miami’s Biscayne Blvd. It is imperative that you know your customer base, the trends related to the services you anticipate providing, the region’s economy (or your proposed clientele’s income), and whether there is a need for your facility.

You can determine your proposed location’s socioeconomic makeup by gathering information from the US Census Bureau (www.census.gov), the town clerk’s office, or real estate agencies and associations in the area. If you plan to use professional consultants, they can provide this analysis as part of their services.

Check out the competition thoroughly. How? Start by visiting their Web sites. Look at staff credentials, number of people on staff, services offered, and fees charged. Make numerous phone calls to gather menus of everything being offered in the area. Then make personal visits, or have trusted colleagues schedule a variety of treatments. Remember: The nicest Web site may be just window dressing for a “ho-hum” operation.

Once you have checked out the competition, you will know exactly what services they offer. To launch a success medical spa, you will need to provide alternative services—give the public what it’s currently lacking.

Make your medical spa unique. How? By creating a niche market for yourself. Find and fulfill a need that will make you stand out from the crowd, no matter how great the competition. You might decide to specialize—focus on acne treatments, mesotherapy, age management, or antiaging medicine. Alternatively, you might decide to have a “men-only” facility. No matter what services you provide, let your uniqueness be your selling point.

Check the pattern of foot traffic in and around your proposed site. This is especially important if you are a startup operation. You need to be visible and provide easy parking—free, if possible. That is why strip malls have turned out to be great locations. They are both accessible and visible.

If you are opening a new facility, you might want to start small and enlarge your space and staff as your business grows. If you decide to follow this strategy, make sure there is plenty of room available for growth in the location you are considering.

2) Determine the Structure of Your Practice

The services you provide will depend on the results of your market research. However, you must remember that physicians are not usually taught business and marketing practices in medical school. Business is often a whole new world for them. Even the nomenclature is different—patients versus clients, examining room versus treatment room.

That is why our favorite kind of partnership is a physician paired with an entrepreneur. The exchange of experiences from both worlds makes a great business relationship, especially since the key to your success is customer service. We have several clients who are involved in a physician/attorney partnership—this works quite well in keeping up with the legalities of the business.

Although your practice may be changing direction toward a more relaxed environment, you still need a thorough knowledge of privacy laws. These can affect the setup of your medical spa and its services. They also can dictate that your staff be trained to use discretion concerning treatments, and storing or discussing medical charts.

3) Determine Your Services

After completing your research, you are ready to get down to details. Determine your range of services. Will you be performing treatments such as peels, lymphatic drainage, microdermabrasion, or laser hair removal? Will you be working on ethnic skin? Will you be working on small or large areas of the body (such as men’s backs versus bikini areas and upper lips)? Answers to these types of questions will determine both the staff and the equipment you need.

The services you provide will depend on your target market and the volume you’ve determined your location can handle. If your business is located in an area with lots of baby boomers, you need to know that the most popular services offered for that age group are botulinum toxin, as well as other injectables, laser treatments for wrinkle and line improvement, and hair removal.

You can stay up-to-date with trends in medical spas by subscribing to industry trade publications; joining antiaging associations; getting on the mailing lists of various industry companies and associations; and exchanging information internally from the spa side to the medical side of your business, and vice versa.

4) Prepare Your Office

Make certain that all of your rooms are multipurpose. If every treatment room is multifunctional, you may not need to add extra space. Your staff also needs to be cross-trained. The receptionist or appointment booker needs to be just as conversant and knowledgeable about your service menu as the physicians themselves. However, that does not mean that he or she should start giving medical advice over the phone to your clientele.

You will make your choices about equipment, design, and décor based on your research. You are now in the business of pampering as well as practicing medicine, so you should aim for a soothing, nonmedical environment.

Remember: Some of the people that will be coming to your new facility will be “clients,” as opposed to “patients.” They are coming to destress. They are looking for the relaxing “spa” aspect of the medical spa, as opposed to the sterile atmosphere of a physician’s office. Also, changing the décor or ambiance of your facility doesn’t have to be dramatic. Something as subtle as using earth-tone colors on a wall or replacing the Muzak with some New Age CDs goes a long way toward modifying your atmosphere. And, by the way, a subtle change in environment also works wonders for your staff. They will be more productive and happier in a more pleasant atmosphere.

5) Select the Right Equipment and Distributor

Equipment can either be bought or leased. We prefer the latter, because it gives you the important option of constantly upgrading equipment—which is essential in a service area such as this, where technology changes so rapidly.

When planning your facility, you are no doubt looking for competitive pricing that suits your budget. However, remember the old adage “buyer beware.” While you may find that there are some distributors who have significantly lower prices, they may be carrying overstocks or discontinued products, or the services and support they offer might be limited.

Look for an equipment supplier that has many years of experience in the medical or spa industry. Partnering with the right distributor will reap great rewards for many years. Select a partner that, across the board, offers a large selection, highly trained staff, and outstanding customer service. Make sure the company has a good support/service staff that will be able to replace equipment within 24 hours should a problem occur. When you choose a supplier, you create what can become a lifelong partnership. So do your homework.

Select equipment that fits your budget and allows you to perform all of the treatments listed on your menu. The best distributors offer a large selection from which to choose, saving you time and effort. You do not have to do exhaustive research and make calls to several different companies if the distributor offers a vast enough selection. Utilize the distributor’s knowledge and expertise. It is their business to offer innovative solutions that meet your needs, while you concentrate on providing your patients with a truly unique experience.

After you have made your choices, your distributor partner will make certain that you get what you need when you need it. Because different pieces of equipment may have to be shipped from different locations  around the world, select a distributor partner that has experience in working out logistics and agreeing on suitable time lines for your deliveries.

Obtain required information in advance for architects and designers. Because this information often goes through several hands during the design/planning phase and can get lost, an electronic format for documents is great because it can be stored and printed as needed. Your distributor partner should also be able to provide you with warranties and operating manuals for each piece of equipment you purchase.

6) Select the Right Staff

While this may seem a bit shallow, it is important to remember that when you decide to open a medical spa, or add aesthetic services to an existing practice, you need to take a hard look at your staff. We cannot emphasize this enough. Customer service is key, and your staff can be your best marketing tool. They can either make or break you. Keep this in mind during the interviewing process, and you will probably find yourself looking for different qualities in future hires than you did in past hires.

Both existing and new staff must have the right professional look and convey an attitude that matches the atmosphere you want to provide. They must be trained in customer service and understand the principles of pampering. No gum-chewing grumpies need apply!

7) Train Your Staff

Make sure that you allow at least 2 months prior to your opening to hire new staff or give your current staff the additional training they may need. Most companies that sell products or equipment have trainers that can either offer training at your facility or can accommodate training off-site at their facility. As as alternative, you can also choose to hire an outside professional consultant to provide the needed training.

Start with training days as a kind of preview before the public opening. Then, budget for continued training, which is critical to keep your staff abreast of current and evolving trends. New and improved equipment using cutting-edge technology is always on the horizon, so training needs to keep apace. Every few months or so, upgrade your staff’s expertise with in-house training; or, better still, send them to a trade show, which not only educates them, but motivates them.

Making It Work

There can be a staff-saving symbiosis between the medical and spa sides of the business.

Nina Howard, owner of Bella Nina Day Spa in Ann Arbor, Mich, is partnered with a plastic surgeon, yet she says, “We dedicate one person on our staff to answer all queries about his services as well as ours. That also brings in customers. It’s like adding another relationship. The key is that we have the clientele and the business. We have a number of skin care clients who could easily transfer to more aggressive treatments [offered by the doctor].”

As with any endeavor, having a business plan is key for financing, expectations of revenue, and future growth. All new ventures take time to grow. The beauty of the medical spa business is that in its short history, it has proven to be a quick-return business. It is not unheard of to have a good handle on your success after just 6 months. But be prepared to work hard.

If you are a physician, you must be aware that you now have more than a practice—you have a business. You must think about being open during not only traditional office hours, but normal “retail” hours as well (although the physician may not need to be there during all the hours that the spa is open). However, the physician will need to be available on some nights and weekends for patients who are employed during the day and can only make appointments for off-times.

If you are an aesthetician, you may feel you’re running an “inn” for a while. Rely on feedback from your clients, and make adjustments accordingly to accommodate them. Do not forget to give yourself time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Remember, the whole point of the business is to make us all feel better and look younger. That means you, too!

Any Questions?

Can any medical doctor open a medical spa?

Yes. While each state has different laws regarding who may do which services, medical spas can legally be operated by any medical doctor. In addition to cosmetic dermatologists and plastic surgeons, we know of obstetrician/gynecologists, neurologists, gerontologists, and urologists who have opened or expanded into medical spas. There is also a growing trend among chiropractors and cosmetic dentists to associate with medical spas.

Some states require that a physician always be on the premises to oversee treatment; others have a different interpretation of what “supervision” is, which can extend even to over the telephone. You have to check your state’s regulations with a health care attorney.

What are the estimated startup costs?

For a midscale design, the estimated startup costs would be about $300,000 for approximately 1,500 sq ft. That covers only the build-out and assumes that equipment would be leased, rather than bought, which is additional, as is cabinetry, furniture, and other amenities. Of course, costs vary according to taste and the image or environment you are trying to brand. Obviously, using granite instead of laminate on counters says upscale, as does plush or high-quality leather furniture versus wicker. You should brand your environment to say what you want it to say, but be prepared to pay accordingly.

How do I avoid sacrificing the professional atmosphere of my office for more of a “spa” feel, and will the latter hurt my medical business?

If you set up your medical spa professionally and according to codes, you can create a very professional environment. Sterile doesn’t mean all-white. A more subtle color palate might actually be less stressful. People come to a spa for stress reduction, whereas a physician’s appointment may be stress-provoking. You can’t argue with reducing stress.

Is there a startup kit or some kind of program/process that makes it easy?

Yes and no. It would be great if there were somewhere a physician could go to learn how to create an instant medical spa. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any such product currently on the market; but those of us in the industry are constantly working on ways to package our expertise.

Until that time comes, however, the best advice is for you to research consultants or advisers in the industry. You can find them on the Internet, under associations, organizations or trade magazines. Just Google “medical spa industry” or “medical spa consultants.” Visit their Web sites, follow up with phone interviews, and talk to clients with whom they have worked. Any good consultant will be happy to refer you to clients. Research to find which one is a good fit for your business and budget. Having someone to guide you can save enormous amounts of time and money, as well as prevent costly mistakes that are sometimes made by others who don’t have this advantage.

If you feel that it is an extra cost you don’t want your practice to shoulder, keep in mind that the extra money you spend for an adviser might save you money in the long run for such things as volume discounts on resources that include private-label retail product lines (which usually offer free staff sales training), financing, and equipment. n

Cheryl Whitman is a founding member of the Medical Spa Society and is active in the Day Spa Association. A consultant in the beauty industry for more than 2 decades, she has authored numerous articles in trade/consumer publications, including Skin Inc, Women’s Wear Daily, Bride’s, Dayspa, Anti-Aging & Cosmetic Surgery, Spa Management and American Spa magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]

Lisa Travis directs medical sales for the Universal Spa­MD division of Universal Companies. She is exclusive to the medical spa industry, and she successfully implements medical spa services for patients of many physician practices in the United States. She can be reached at [email protected]