Funny how certain gifts – a book, a banjo – can change the course of one’s life.
Thirteen years ago, Larry Schoonover treated his wife, Jan, to a spa visit. The experience was so pleasant that when Jan learned the spa was about to close, she decided to rescue it.
“I thought it was sad for Spokane to lose something so beautiful,” she recalled. “I thought people needed a place to go to escape.”
So she bought Spa Paradiso, then located in the basement of downtown’s Bank of America Financial Center. When the Davenport reopened in 2002, the Schoonovers moved their business into the hotel’s basement, where it has been ever since.
The Schoonovers recently shared their memories of how Spa Paradiso evolved and what big changes lie ahead.
S-R: What did you know about spas before you bought this business?
Jan: Nothing. I’d been to a spa once in my whole life.
S-R: What made you think it was a good fit?
Jan: I was in management and wanted an opportunity to create an environment where people could come to work, be happy and be comfortable.
S-R: At the time, Larry, were you still at Cheney Cowles Museum (now the MAC)?
Larry: Yes, I was director of exhibits and programs.
S-R: Did any of that expertise carry over to the spa business?
Larry: There’s certainly a vast difference between the nonprofit world and the for-profit world. At the museum we always had our hands out looking for donations, and now the shoe’s on the other foot: We probably get 10 requests a week for donations. But whether you’re in the museum environment or the business world, it’s still a constant struggle to maintain cash flow. Another strong correlation between the museum and this business is the emphasis on presentation.
S-R: How is today’s Spa Paradiso different from the one you purchased in 1999?
Larry: This is three times as large, with four times as many employees.
Jan: And we’ve created more elegance. We didn’t want to be in the Yellow Pages; we wanted our reputation to spread word of mouth.
S-R: Was relocating in the Davenport part of cultivating that image?
Jan: Yes. People come from all over the world to stay at the Davenport, so that’s also been a big part of our evolution.
Larry: But hotel guests only account for about 10 percent of our business. Our success really depends on repeat customers who come here for the hair and nail salons because it’s a different experience than going to the mall.
S-R: What has been your biggest challenge?
Jan: Clients today are very demanding, but that’s a challenge we’ve met. It forces us to be better.
Larry: Another challenge has been Internet discounts such as Groupon. Some spas virtually give away their services to get customers through the door.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Larry: If you treat your employees properly, they’ll treat the guests properly. And Jan takes very good care of our employees. She really cares about them.
Jan: Our culture is one of respect.
S-R: What questions do you ask job applicants?
Jan: What are their expectations, and how do they handle unhappy customers?
S-R: Does client traffic vary?
Jan: Definitely. Holiday season is heaviest, and fall season is the lightest.
S-R: Has the recession impacted business?
Jan: Yes, because many people think this is a luxury. But more women and men are realizing it’s not a luxury. It’s a stress reliever.
S-R: Are gift cards popular?
Larry: They represent about one-third of our guests. And they’re very important because each person who comes in with a gift card spreads the word about Spa Paradiso to another five or 10 people.
S-R: When professional athletes or celebrities stay at the hotel, do they typically come down for spa treatments?
Jan: Yes, and it’s really entertaining. They talk to everyone and want everyone to know they’re here. You expect them to be just the opposite, but they’re not.
S-R: What’s the most common question you hear from clients?
Jan: “Should I take off all my clothes?” Whether they leave anything on under their robe is always up to the guest.
Larry: The therapists are well-trained, so if you’re having a massage, nothing is exposed.
S-R: How long do treatments last?
Jan: Anywhere from an hour to all day. And you can order lunch from the Davenport room service.
S-R: Do clients usually tip?
Jan: Most people tip 15 percent.
S-R: What are keys to success in this business?
Jan: Good employees, top-notch services and a beautiful, relaxing atmosphere.
S-R: Is there anything you’d like to offer but don’t?
Jan: I’d like to offer botox.
Larry: And acupuncture massage.
S-R: How important is your location in the Davenport Hotel?
Jan: It’s the best location we could have.
S-R: Your lease with the Davenport is up at the end of the year. What are your plans after that?
Larry: One disadvantage here is we don’t have street-level visibility. So we’re looking for a location that has a sidewalk presence, high traffic and proximity to a university. Of all the audiences in Spokane, probably a younger crowd is what’s going to help us sustain Spa Paradiso in the future. And we’re excited about moving on.
Jan: Both our daughters – Sarah and Katie – work here, so we want the business to continue thriving.
S-R: Your business is helping others relax. How do you relax?
Jan: When we have family dinners, we never talk about business. It’s hard – all four of us work here every day – but we have to take a break.
S-R: What do you like most about owning a spa?
Larry: When I watch a guest fall asleep in a pedicure chair, or a young bride walk out of here glowing on her wedding day, that’s very gratifying.