If you’ve treated yourself or a loved one to a spa in the UK in recent months, there’s a high chance you may have a certain Abi Wright to thank for the experience.
No, she may not have paid for your trip, nor accompanied you at the pool, but this incredible businesswoman has undoubtedly played a huge part in transforming the way ‘spa’ is perceived today.
Eloquently Her caught up with her.
To say I’m feeling a little cheated is something of an understatement.
After all, wouldn’t it have been sensible to be interviewing the founder of Spa Breaks whilst wearing a fluffy white robe and coiffing back a glass of bubbly by the side of a crystal blue swimming pool in the English countryside?
Regardless of the setting, I’m just grateful to have been able to get a space in the diary of this inspirational and energetic businesswoman.
Abi Wright is only 40 years old, and yet she has achieved more in a commercial arena than many could ever dream of doing.
She’s the founder of a company which today sends some 6,000 people to a spa every week, and which ranks as Europe’s largest spa booking agency.
For good measure, in the week we speak, Abi has also been featured in the Financial Times (no less!) as part of the 2018 Financial Times & HERoes 100 Female Leaders list.
“Oh gosh yes, that’s a huge thing, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel incredibly proud to have been selected for that list,” she says, kicking off our chat. “You don’t go into business looking for that kind of recognition, but when you get those moments which remind you how far you’ve come, it’s just a huge opportunity to reflect and realise you’ve achieved a lot and are making a big difference in your sector.”
To say Abi has achieved a lot is something of an understatement.
In fact, she started her career in sales and marketing, and hadn’t initially considered exercising any particular ‘entrepreneurial muscle’.
“I worked for a large hotel collection for a number of years, and it was only as part of that work that I started to get drawn into the world of spa, and eventually to thinking about the possibilities,” she continues. “Back then, in the late 90s and at the turn of the Millennium, spa was still seen as something very niche, and associated more with ladies of a certain age, and perhaps quite clinical.
“I became more involved in the hotel group’s plans to create a multi-million pound spa at their venue in Donnington, and I literally saw the two year project through from first spade in the ground, to the opening and the incredible reaction.
“It was that chapter which really opened my eyes to what I began to see as a tipping point in how the world would come to view ‘spa’.”
Managing third party booking relationships, and constantly meeting with suppliers, agents and customers, Abi was able to use the period as an incredible phase of education and insight.
This culminated in what she recalls as an exceptionally rainy Sunday morning tour around the site, with a businessman by the name of Ross Marshall.
“Ross had already established his name in providing golf breaks for target customers, and was achieving great things,” Abi recalls. “We got chatting about the fact that I really believed spa was on the cusp of becoming a game-changer in hotel use and leisure experiences. I explained that I had a vision of something very similar to what he was doing with golf breaks – and that was it. Over that wet Sunday morning chat, the idea had started to take root.”
Ever the strategist, Abi took her time. She opted not to jump straight in with launching her intended business model, but instead, to use her marketing and PR skills as a consultant on various projects, so that she could leave her full-time job and start thinking about the future.
Eventually, after a few years of intelligence gathering around the world of spa, and falling just six weeks after the birth of her first child, Abi turned her SpaBreaks.com business live in the Spring of 2008.
“Looking back, there was a whole lot of ‘hope and pray’ about it,” she says, smiling.
“I’d done a huge amount of research and was very optimistic, but you just never know whether everyone is going to love the vision as much as you do.
“It began with just myself and a couple of placement students, and a total of 26 venues on our site. Roll forward 11 years and we have 120 staff and 800 sites.”
The phenomenal speed of growth in both business revenue and global reputation is thanks, in no small part, to Abi’s relentless energy and positive outlook in everything she does. It hasn’t been easy, and she accepts things have to give at times – particularly given that she’s a married mother of three children.
“What people don’t always find out about me when they read about me being a ‘disrupter in the arena’ or being good at the business I’ve grown, is that I’ve done badly academically for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t had a single day’s training in business related things like P&L.
“I’ve had to teach myself, and work incredibly hard to absorb what information or advice I could about the world I’m in.
“What I do have though, is an incessant need to make things the best they can be, and that means that now, years after starting with such humble beginnings, I have a huge fire in my belly to keep striving and succeeding.”
That ongoing ‘striving’ now features a vision around working more and more in the area of preventative and restorative relaxation and self-care.
Proud as she is of how far spa has come as a ‘concept’ and something understood by so many more people – men and women, young and old, able-bodied or disabled – she believes there’s so much more to be achieved.
“Perhaps it’s because I’ve turned 40 and become increasingly aware of how little I’ve looked after my own wellness, that I now realise I need to help more people make that a part of their commitment to themselves,” she continues. “We were the first in the industry to set up recovery retreats for women who are post-cancer, and we have a concept around ‘resorts for all’ which reaches disabled people who felt that often they were marginalised.
“Now I’m looking a lot at how we can do more to educate the new generation about making wellness – as well as beauty – part of their priority. The things we hear about mental health in young people are just awful, so spa can play a part in that. I have intentions around a programme to educate more youngsters (from age 12 upwards) in the preventative nature of spa.
“We know young people care excessively about their physical appearance and are often very in to hair and make-up and replicating the look of celebrities before they even reach their teenage years, but I want more of that age group to look after their mind and their entire physical self.”
It would be tempting to read of Abi’s story and think that this businesswoman, who lives in Newbury in Berkshire, really has got it ‘perfect’. She insists it’s really never that easy in any woman’s life.
Indeed, for her, there’s a continual battle with the demands of parenting, family time, friendships, business needs – and her own health. “You can look at anyone’s life and think it seems perfect, but trust me, we’re all juggling,” she says.
“My father has Alzheimers and lives a long way away, my children constantly need their Mum, and I’m due for an operation imminently as a result of having neglected my own body. Honestly – there’s not a day I don’t feel some level of guilt for something I should be doing or somewhere I should be.”
Does she believe there’s a secret then, for trying to ensure we stay stronger, more resilient, and yet more able to ‘self care’?
“Gosh – I think we just all keep learning the hard way,” she chuckles.
“I certainly believe that we as women have a duty to look at for one another and champion those around us.
Inherently, we women don’t ask for help or cry out when things are tough, as often as we should.
Perhaps we all need to be better at looking out for the friends and the colleagues and the relatives in our life. Together we can help every woman around us to thrive in her world.”
Now there’s a sentiment I think we’d all agree with!
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