The staff at Rivage Day Spa have been working under additional safety precautions to protect themselves and their guests.

The staff at Rivage Day Spa have been working under additional safety precautions to protect themselves and their guests.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Luxury service industry pushes on through pandemic

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 26, 2020

 Esthetician Allison Giampaolo prepares for a client in a face shield, mask and goggles at Rivage Day Spa.

Esthetician Allison Giampaolo prepares for a client in a face shield, mask and goggles at Rivage Day Spa.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


BIRMINGHAM — If there’s one thing the Birmingham-Bloomfield area knows how to do well, it’s relax.

There are no shortage of high-end dining options in town, along with state-of-the-art spas, renowned salons and other ways to treat one’s self. But how well can those businesses possibly do during a pandemic, when personalized services are in essence de-personalized for the sake of public health?

For Rivage Day Spa in Birmingham, business has been booming, although the job for spa attendants has become significantly harder.

“We were doing wonderfully in 2019 and getting into 2020. We had a wait list of more than 200 clients, and that was at full capacity. Then, it all just came to a halt,” said Rivage Day Spa general manager Jessica Lundberg. “Not just our business, but people’s physical and mental capacity just shut down. How do you go back to a business where you have to touch people when you can’t touch people?”

The spa opened its doors to clients again June 22, about a week after the state allowed spas and salons to resume business. Lundberg had already been prepping her staff, though, meeting with each person individually to gauge their readiness to get back to work and train everyone on how their already strict hygiene regimen would become even stricter.

“Really, it just came down to allowing only one service per person, limiting relaxation time, making every person wear a robe,” Lundberg said. “We already wrap our (tools) and towels a certain way, and every service is an individual appointment set ahead of time in separate rooms, so not much has changed as far as that goes.”

Rivage had the challenge of finding disinfectants that would be easier on guests’ respiratory systems — the point is to relax and breathe deeply, after all. They’ve also nixed refreshments like coffee, tea and treats, and sparkling wine is definitely off the menu for now.

“Some of my competitors have brought all that back, but I refuse. Especially the alcohol. If you have a few sips of Champagne, slowly the mask starts to come down. Your inhibitions are down and your guard is down,” she said.

And of course, the entire staff wears masks and face shields from open to close, no matter what the guest has to say about it.

“We’ve had a little pushback. Some clients have sent us messages and said they don’t feel comfortable with (staff) wearing a mask,” Lundberg said. “At the end of the day, it is what it is, and it’s our business protocol. If you’re not comfortable then, honestly, what we do is not a necessity and you don’t need to come in. Our gift cards don’t expire for five years. You don’t have to be here. My employees are of the utmost importance to me, and I need to make sure they’re safe and comfortable.”

Most visitors seem more than OK with the new safety procedures. The waitlist to get in for a service is back up to more than 100 people deep.

Down the street, reservations are also on the rise over at The Townsend Hotel. Managing Director Steven Kalczynski said that guest rooms have been needed, despite the shutdown, to host any leisure travelers there might be in town, but also business travelers in town who have been placed on 14-day isolation periods before they can return to work.

In general, the hotel industry is faring worse than The Townsend. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, there’s been a nearly 50% decline in business during the last six months, leaving an average of eight out of every 10 rooms vacant. The impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry has been worse than that caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

To keep guests from spreading the virus to each other or hotel personnel, The Townsend has employed a number of new safety measures, including an infrared temperature-check kiosk in the lobby to screen for fevers above 100.4 degrees.

Recently, The Rugby Grille and the adjacent Gallery announced the installation of a new state-of-the-art ultraviolet air purification system that will sanitize the air of those spaces as well as the Tea Lobby, the main lobby of the hotel and the Regency Ballroom.

The system, from American Ultraviolet, sends ionized oxidizers into key high-traffic areas to reportedly destroy airborne viruses and bacteria on surfaces before they reach guests and staff.

“We have implemented many new safety processes to counter COVID-19 into our hotel services over these last few months, and this is one additional process we have added to make our visiting guests feel safe. We reviewed many systems, but we felt this system was by far the most efficient in reducing and eliminating most airborne and on surface contaminants,” Kalczynski said in a prepared statement.

Hotel staff has been good about masking up and encouraging guests to do the same, though Kalczynski said there are complaints from time to time about visitors spotted without a mask. The in-house restaurant, the Rugby Grille, has been operating at the state-mandated 50% capacity, but during the summer, business was still booming with additional seating available outside on the patio.

“Our Rugby Grille has been very busy over the warmer days because of the additional seating that was graciously allowed by the city of Birmingham commissioners,” Kalczynski said. “We’ve been grateful of their relaxing policies that allowed the additional seating outdoors based on the 50% reduction of seating required by Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer. There is no question that we are like most restaurants (in) that we continue to suffer due to reduced seating capacities.”