Twelve years after starting Spabreaks.com, founder Abi Wright shares her views on what it takes to build a successful business from scratch.
How did Spabreaks.com come about?
Sixteen years ago, I was working for a hotel collection when I identified a gap in the market for a forward-thinking spa-booking agent. While I was working with the likes of Lastminute.com, I felt that it didn’t reflect where the industry was going.
It struck me that spas back then were seen as something extremely exclusive, only for these wealthy, beautiful women who had lots of time on a Tuesday lunchtime to get their hair and nails done. But I felt we were sitting on an incredibly powerful and tangible resource for people in society to address mental and physical health and wellbeing issues.
What did you do?
I thought, ‘If I don’t believe anyone’s doing this particularly well, why don’t I go and do something better?’ I set up a PR agency so I could mix with hotel and spa specialists to fully understand what that industry needed and what was missing.
Luckily, Ross Marshall and Andrew Harding were in the process of setting up Your Golf Travel, which is the biggest golf-trip booking company. As you can imagine, there are lots of synergies between golf and spa breaks, and they also saw the value in the spa space. It made a lot of sense to work together. So about 12 years ago, I started at the back of an office, working on branding and the website with two brilliant placement students; we launched with 26 spas that I’d picked up along the way from my PR agency days.
I set out with the mission to make spas more accessible. The more I dug into the industry, the more cross I became that these perceptions of it being superficial were quite true. The people I thought should be in spas were being massively marginalised – through budget, location, choice, physical accessibility, a lack of inclusivity – and I wanted to widen that out and show that a spa visit is not just about getting your nails done, but that it can also be a powerful healer.
What was your eureka moment?
In 2008, about a year after I launched, I had a phone call at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning from a lady who was in tears. It turned out she had cancer but hadn’t told us that when she booked. When she arrived for the treatment, her young, hungover therapist had looked at her consultation form, where she’d revealed she had cancer, and said, ‘Sorry, love, I can’t touch you with a bargepole’.
One in four people is affected by cancer and we were sending 2,000 people a week to spa experiences, so I thought, ‘Wow, that’s 500 people a week who I could be putting in that vulnerable position.’ That was a real wake-up call for me. Since then, I’ve tried to work proactively with spas to create offers and packages so that people with cancer will feel welcomed. I still battle with this all the time, but I feel like I’ve kick-started the movement of making spas more accessible to people with cancer and changed the way it’s approached. That’s definitely been one of my prouder moments.
I’ve been called a disruptor and questioned the status quo, but I don’t see what’s so remarkable about thinking that a healing environment should be offered to people who are struggling with illness.
What was your biggest and most unexpected challenge?
We’ve been very lucky. The way we set up the business model means that we take full payment 30 days before customers travel and we don’t pay the spas until 30 days after their visit, so cash flow has never been a problem for us. The three of us are still the owners which, on one hand, might have stifled growth because we haven’t had investment, but also means we’ve retained control at all times. We’ve been able to manage our own destinies – if I want to change something, I can.
We write all of our own dev and tech, we write our platforms, we build everything bespoke and nothing’s off the shelf, which is brilliant. But if you look at it objectively, maybe we haven’t moved as quickly as we otherwise would have done.
I’ve got a very commercial head and it’s my job to ensure we’re a profitable, high-yield business. We’re a valued affiliate, not a third party that’s only interested in commission. Of course, spas would prefer to take bookings directly, but we get 1 million unique users to the site every month, so we’re able to bring reach at times when those spas would usually be very quiet.
My baby was three weeks old when I started this business, and I’ve now got three kids. I think there’s generally a sense that you have to choose between work or family, but I’ve tried to turn that expectation on its head. These days, I work with younger women in the business to show that it’s possible to be a working mum who can find balance.
What kind of working environment have you tried to create?
I’ve never had a separate office – I’ve always sat on the sales floor with the team. I recruit everyone who works here and I work very closely with my staff. They all have my mobile number, they can email me at any time and everything comes into my inbox.
I have a direct line into exactly what’s going on, so that I can find out why things are going well or badly. We have a programme to address mental wellbeing, desk massage, yoga and we have external agencies come in to talk about diet, posture and assertiveness. Generally, we have an open and transparent management structure. We try to work things through collaboratively. I’m a mum first and foremost, so there’s almost a built-in nurturing instinct there. I think that’s why we’ve got 4.8 out of five on Glassdoor.
How do you find a balance between work and other things?
Over the past 12 years, I’ve had very little downtime. I was back at work after 11 days with all three of my children. They’ve come back in with me as newborns and they’ve sat in board meetings with me. I think if you’re passionate enough about something like this, then it’s basically an extension of your family.
Now, I work three days a week in the office and two days from home. On those home days, I don’t have childcare: I make their lunch, I drop them off, I pick them up, I’m always home for bedtime, and I’m always there when they wake up in the morning. They’ve grown up with this business and they care about it.
My personal health has suffered; I slipped three disks (which had slipped three times in previous years) and the operation I had didn’t really work because I was back at work too quickly and commuting. I now have metal rods in my back. Honestly, I’m probably not as good a friend as I should be, but people who are closest to me and who understand me know I have a good balance.
How do you unwind?
For me, it’s all about nature. I grew up on a beach in Devon so I’m a big believer in being connected to the sea and the coast. I start every day walking my dogs – it’s one hour where I have the head space to map out what I need to do next. I also have a six-hour daily commute, so I use that time to clear my head and get the downtime I need to deal with everything.
I read an article recently about how pressure and stress can be used to your advantage – if you channel passion and stress in the right way, you can absolutely harness that positive energy instead of it becoming negative.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the business?
I’m about to launch a hand-picked selection of the UK and Ireland’s highest-rated spa experiences. We live in a world where cheap is celebrated, but we want to show people that sometimes you really do get what you pay for – some experiences are worth the money.
I also want to work more with underprivileged and disadvantaged women on business ideas, trying to help them and prove that anybody can start a business if you’ve got the right support behind you.