· 3 min read · Features

City Spotlight: wellbeing is in the water at Thermae Bath Spa

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A rooftop pool, warm as a bath. Steam rising upwards, over the tops of Victorian buildings and the spire of a Gothic abbey. I can think of worse places to work.

Little wonder then that Vanessa Lowes, HR manager of the Thermae Bath Spa, can't remember the last time she had to advertise a job vacancy. "I am inundated with emails, calls, CVs through the door," she says. "I can never believe how many therapists from all over the world apply to work here."

The natural thermal waters of Bath Spa, known for their healing properties, have been used for bathing for more than 2,000 years, from the Celts and the Romans to Jane Austen heroines 'taking the waters'. After a lengthy closure from 1978, the Thermae Bath Spa reopened to the public in 2006, having undergone significant refurbishment. "It was putting the heart back into the city, whose history has been linked to spa bathing for thousands of years," says Peter Rollins, marketing manager.

Both Lowes and Rollins have been running the spa since before the grand opening, with Lowes personally recruiting every member of the 171-strong, 17-nationality team. "The original plan was 65 people," she recalls. "Within about a day, we caught on that would never work. It just grew and grew."

The impressive surroundings and natural thermal waters may be what initially attract visitors to the spa, but it's the employees who are absolutely critical to ensuring each trip is a success. "Our staff is what makes us different," says Lowes. "We recognise that they are key to achieving our vision, and for us to do so, they need to enjoy their work, take pride in it and feel passionate about the service they offer." As for recruitment, it all comes down to personality, whether the employee is customer-facing or not. "It's not just dealing with people," says Rollins. "But we know the importance of first impression, last impression, body language and a genuine smile."

"It has to be natural," adds Lowes. "You can't teach people how to act with other people."

A result of this focus on finding people with the right personality means the team is remarkably unsiloed, with everyone mucking in. "We're good at making sure people move around departments," says Lowes. "And everyone is happy to work outside their role if it's busy. We never hear: 'I'm not doing that, it's not in my job description'." It is this "family atmosphere", as Lowes calls it, that means people mix both in and out of work. "If a therapist put a poster up inviting people to the pub, you'd get kitchen staff, housekeeping staff, lifeguards…" says Lowes.

"It's all about making people feel welcome when they first come on board," she continues. "Making sure they feel part of the business." All this adds up to a remarkably high retention rate for the leisure industry, which normally suffers high levels of attrition. Turnover stands at around 23%, low for the sector, and even more impressive when you consider many of the staff are university students who naturally move on every year. Nearly 30% of the current staff joined the company in its first year.

Lowes believes people stay for "the atmosphere". "It's not hierarchical here," she says. "When our MD is here, he's creating a one-to-one relationship with all the staff. A lot of time is taken to get to know people."

The perks of working in a spa must also help: free treatments from training therapists and unlimited use of the facilities outside of work, with the chance to bring guests 12 times a year. "Prevention is better than cure so making sure people stay relaxed is important. It's wellness of body, mind and soul," says Lowes.

"Using the waters means staff feel ownership towards the spa," adds Rollins. "They come back with family and friends and there's a real sense of pride about working here. And when employees visit, they tell us if they notice anything amiss. That feedback helps us maintain standards. So, we look after their wellbeing, and they contribute to the wellbeing of the building. Even when people move on, they continue to act as ambassadors."

The team at Thermae Bath Spa is responsible for attracting many of the city's tourists, but the business does not sit in elevated isolation; it works closely with local organisations. Lowes has forged strong links with Bath City College and has helped develop a new spa management and therapy course for students. As part of that, she takes on a group of work-experience students each year, with the hope of offering them permanent work first as a therapist's assistant, then as a fully trained therapist - development and upward progression are a crucial part of the spa's people strategy.

When it comes to other businesses, Rollins works in partnership with local hotels, guesthouses, tour companies and more. "Bath is a destination for wellbeing, and we see ourselves at the forefront, but not in isolation," he says. "We say: the spa is part of your city, we want to work together." So, that might involve partnering with a museum to offer a deal to visitors, or inviting all the city's taxi drivers to come and enjoy the waters. "We do it for Bath Plc" he continues. "The more we can support each other, the better chance Bath can survive what are tricky times for any destination."

Thermae Bath Spa might be steeped in history, but looking to the future, a building next door is being converted into a five-star hotel with its own spa facilities. Some might see this as competition, but Rollins says it is a positive. "That building has been empty for 10 years. Without Bath being recognised again as a centre for wellbeing, it would not be being converted. But because we've been successful, it's given businesses confidence for investment."