Small, indie brands are having their moment—and savvy spa directors are catching on

By : Mary Bemis
Founder & Editorial Director at

“The first time they dropped off stuff, I didn’t even want to look at it. I gave it to my staff,” shares Michael Conte, spa director at Meadowood Napa Valley. Conte is reminiscing about the first time Kim Borio, founder of Glycelene, and her husband, Eric a biologist and cosmetic chemist and Glycelene’s Chief Technology Officer, brought Conte their luxury, plant-based skincare line to test. But when the couple returned a month later, Conte changed his tune after he met them in person. “They’re such a great couple,” he enthuses. “I have to say, the partnership I have with Kim and Eric has been extraordinary. When you’re working with a luxury property and spa, you want to have something unique that you won’t find elsewhere.”

That desire for [brand] uniqueness has a lot to do with what’s driving the trend of small brands that are gaining entry into high-end hotel, resort, and day spas at rapid speed. During my travels over the past year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of beautifully formulated small brands that have not only made their way onto spa boutique shelves, but also onto spa treatment menus. A few noteworthy examples in addition to Glycelene include: Pure Mana Hawaii at Spa Halekulani in Honolulu; Kypris at both La Costa Resort & Spa outside of San Diego and Hāwanawana Spa at Four Seasons Resort Lāna’i; Orgaid at Auberge du Soleil in Napa; and most recently, Blue Beautifly at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Sharon Holtz, spa director at Terranea, A Destination Hotel,  sums it up perfectly: “It’s all about it [the product] being the best for my guest, and what can give a unique experience.”

Image via: Terranea Resort 

Passion & Purity

But it’s not only uniqueness that’s at play here—passion and purity are major components when it comes to small brands. Passion, as it applies to the drive and mission of the brand’s founders, and purity when it comes to ingredients. “People are paying a lot more attention to ingredients,” notes Conte. “The bigger companies that mass produce will have problems with that. There’s a lot of room for small companies that have amazing products to do well.”

Passion speaks volumes, as well. “When a person has so much passion to do it right, it comes through in the quality of the product,” says Holtz, who just brought in Blue Beautifly, a USDA-certified organic line and B-Corp skincare company, founded by Vida Karamooz, PhD. “Vida is extraordinary,” raves Holtz. “Her passion for what she does really comes through. Her products are so beautiful that, while I’m still deciding what to do with them professionally, I wanted to make them accessible as soon as possible to my guests.” Holtz sites Karamooz’s commitment to ingredients and her attention to detail, as a major plus, noting that the brand does its production in-house. “Vida’s commitment to the purity of her product really spoke to me,” said Holtz.

Karen Ray, spa consultant for Auberge du Soleil, echoes these sentiments. “Owners of small brands bring so much innovation and passion to their work, it’s imperative that we support their efforts and acknowledge their work in our industry,” she states. “While they may be small, they will certainly grow if we help them!”

The Movement Takes Off

There’s no denying that “indie” is the buzzword of the day. The darling of skincare, there are a number of tradeshows and industry events that are now clamoring for indie brands. While there have always been small brands, they never really had a professional platform—enter Cosmoprof North America (CPNA). The behemoth beauty show launched in Las Vegas 17 years ago—and right from the very beginning, gave indie brands a platform. That platform was Discover Beauty, dreamt up by Daniela Ciocan, CPNA’s visionary marketing director.

“My insight was that I wanted to create Discover Beauty because I wanted to attract the key buyers for niche beauty brands,” explains Ciocan, who prior to working with Cosmoprof, worked for an indie brand. “I had firsthand experience of what it was like to be an indie brand. I knew how challenging it was to get a key buyer to pick up the phone and meet with you,” she states. “I thought, how amazing would it be if we could use the clout of Cosmoprof and bring lots of key specialty retailers who could nurture and work with small brands.”

In the 11 years since the launch of Discover Beauty, Ciocan has worked with hundreds of small brands. “I am very proud when I go into a specialty retailer and I see so many products that started out with us,” she says.

Four Benefits of Working with Indie Brands

  • They’re there for you. Small beauty brand owners are oftentimes more readily available, making for a more personalized relationship. “When you pick up the phone and call—you get the person,” shares Holtz.
  • They customize. Customized, specially curated product can be more easily created for the spa. Conte recently asked Glycelene to create custom bath salts.
  • They offer quick turnaround. “The orders come quickly, and everything you’d expect is there,” says Leslie Johnson, spa director at La Costa Resort & Spa.
  • They’re more personal. A more personalized partnership is what small brands are all about. Taryn Shockley, director of US Sales for Sorella Apothecary, an indie line that launched in March of 2017, and that was just picked up by Conte at Meadowood, takes pride in the company’s unique partnerships. All of the brand’s spa accounts must go through a serious application process to make sure they’re the right fit—that includes sending in photos of the location.
Image via: Spa at Halekulani 

The Challenges of Working Together

  • Lack of experience. “There’s often an education process required as we partner together on what works and what doesn’t in terms of ordering, packaging, and pricing,” states Ray. With that said, she has found that small brands are very open to discussing all of these areas, and open to customizing products so they fit the property and requirements.
  • Lack of resources. “Some indie brands don’t have the resources to pour into site visits, intensive training, gratis, incentive programs, and samples. As a result, meaningful brand knowledge suffers,” shares Shaw Cote, spa director at Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i. Cote believes working with indie brands is all about true partnership and shared goals. “When you work together and creatively you can do a lot. Picking a partner that knows how to make their resources stretch and who understands the value of training is key.”
  • Packaging. One of the biggest challenges for Kamala Nayeli, director of Spa Halekulani, is the packaging. “The sad truth about some big brands is that most of the money goes into the marketing and [nice] packaging as opposed to the ingredients.” It’s the flipside for small brands. “Fortunately, Pure Mana recognizes the importance of sophisticated design and packaging, so deciding on this brand was an easy decision for me,” she says.
  • Small Team. Small brands often have a small staff. “When starting out, they’ll have a very small team, and are doing a lot themselves,” notes Conte. When a small brand grows too quickly, they often are not prepared from a staffing perspective. “When they get to that point, they need to decide if they’re going to get help from a manufacturer or are going to hire people to help.”
Image via: Meadowood Napa Valley

Best Advice for Buyer & Brand

  • Look for brands with these traits. “I look for knowledgeable, enthusiastic owners who work with clean ingredient decks and who have chosen sharp, contemporary packaging that fits into high-end resorts,” says Ray. She certainly knows what she’s talking about. Ray started working with True Botanicals when they were a small brand—and their success has been phenomenal.
  • Find a line that can compete. Specifically, One that can compete on the research and development level, and that has a passionate and articulate team to arm your staff with confidence and wisdom beyond the ingredient deck,” advises Cote. “If your technicians aren’t in love with the line and aren’t confident in the results, keep searching. Invest your time in training of all levels of staff!”
  • Use in treatments & retail. “I would encourage all spa directors to work with small brands, both in the treatment rooms and in the boutique,” advises Nayeli. As long as they meet your needs, she notes, the partnership can be a win-win. “In some cases, small brands also have the creative ability to design signature products and protocols, when the larger, better-known brands are logistically unable to.”
  • Drive business with special promotions. Each month, Johnson, features a promotion with small lines. “It gives us an opportunity to incorporate different product from smaller or new product lines, such as Kypris, Salt of the Earth, and Farmhouse Fresh, so that we’re offering our clients an ongoing array of different options outside of our menu. For example, each month we create a massage with a different aromatherapy oil blend. It’s educational and fun!” This past December, Johnson created a “12 Days of Spa” special, with one of the days dedicated to Kypris. The spa sold $24,000 of Kypris product on that day. In 2017, the spa at La Costa brought in close to $500,000 in revenues, just on its Monday through Thursday promotions.
  • Do your research. When it comes to choosing and working with small brands, Ray notes that you need to be as clear as possible on what you’re looking for. “Research brands that are compatible to your requirements, test products, and follow up,” she advises. “If the small brand doesn’t exactly know what you’re looking for, ask if they’d be open to creating a custom blend for your spa. You’d be surprised how many will say yes!”
  • Be patient, but persistent. “If you believe in your product, continue to share your brand’s story with passion to prospective buyers,” advises Karamooz. “The only way to influence spa directors and purchasing decision-makers is to exude confidence in your products.”

Featured image via: Terranea Resort


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