When Vickie and Victor Bennett opened their first Vasaio Life Spa on East Paris in the Terrazzo Fine Shops in 2004, they wanted to give the spa an Italian feel to match the theme of the new shopping center. So out came the couple’s English-to-Italian dictionary.
“Vasaio means ‘the potter,’” says co-owner Vickie Bennett. “We thought it was perfect because just like a potter and his clay, we help to discover the beauty in our guests.”
The concept behind the spa was to approach the body as both a piece of clay ready for forming and as a priceless piece of pottery demanding considerate care and respect. Its treatment can range from the skin deep to outpatient medical procedures, including injectable cosmetics and laser, light and chemical skin treatments. And again like the potter with his clay, Vasao is now helping to mold residents’ and visitors’ perception of Grand Rapids with its three-month-old second location in the JW Marriott hotel downtown.
“People look at Grand Rapids differently after coming into the hotel or the spa,” says Vickie. “The hotel really is a gift to the city from the DeVos and Van Andel families, and we want to serve the people who are already here — not only visitors from other cities.”
One way Vasaio is reaching out to local residents is through the introduction of the spa’s lunchtime retreat, which the Bennetts have dubbed the ‘Luxe Lunch.’ During their lunch hour, guests can indulge in a manicure, pedicure, massage or facial before munching on healthy ‘spa cuisine’ from the hotel’s restaurant, six.one.six.
The Luxe Lunch concept seems to be drawing more locals into the hotel. “When we started, our customers were primarily all hotel guests,” says Vickie. But she says this is changing, as more people realize that everyone is welcome. “In one recent week, 60 percent of our customers were either living or working downtown.”
In addition to stopping in for lunch, Vickie says the JW is a great way for those working in local businesses to wine and dine prospects. “The hotel is so beautiful, trendy and alive,” she says. “And you can really level the playing field by bringing clients to the spa and putting everyone in robes!”
Taking Luxury to New Heights
When walking into the Vasaio Spa on the third floor of the JW Marriott, don’t be surprised if you’re welcomed personally by the smiling spa owners. “Victor and Vickie Bennett are hands-on business owners,” says George Aquino, the hotel’s general manager.
In addition to the Bennetts, you’ll be greeted by a cheery reception area decorated with displays of natural lotions and potions, plus the Bennett’s own homemade soy candles, with bowls of rose petals, thyme and lavender giving hints to the ingredients and scents of each. To your right you’ll find a small room lit by soy candles, containing a high-tech, yet comfortable-looking, massage/pedicure table. There is a hallway lined with windows and massage chairs, used for the free 10-minute massages offered to hotel guests.
Upon opening, the Bennetts soon discovered the space wasn’t nearly large enough to accommodate their increasing flow of guests, especially on busy weekends. They first responded with ‘Suite Spa,’ a traveling spa cart that provides hotel guests with the option of receiving spa services in the comfort of their hotel room.
Next was the addition of a larger space on the 19th floor, originally earmarked as the women’s lounge for the hotel’s proposed and eventually tabled women-only floor. This new location gives Vasaio more room to host group spa parties and provides guests with a new and exclusive perspective of the city.
“I love hearing all the praises of the view of the city from our 19th floor spa. People are really wowed by it,” says Vickie. “We always keep the shades open to share the unique view; it’s not dark like spas can tend to be.”
Another way Vasaio is inviting residents and visitors to look at the city differently is through its Sister Cities spa menu. Keeping with the hotel’s sister cities theme, the Bennetts created unique services to reflect Grand Rapids’ six global sister cities. One popular treatment is the Chocolate Silk Mud Wrap, inspired by the dark chocolate produced in the sister city of Perugia, Italy.
“We have received outstanding reviews from our hotel guests, especially about the unique services Vasaio Spa offers,” says Aquino. “Vasaio Life Spa is known for providing luxury and service in our community. The addition of such an elegant spa is a perfect complement to our hotel’s amenities.”
A Family Business
While Vickie provides the vision and creative direction for the spa — coming up with unique services such as the Michigan-inspired Cherry/Green Apple Manicure — her husband and partner Victor manages the operational side of the business. “I am the dreamer, and Victor is the one who puts my dreams into action,” says Vickie.
Her dream of opening a medical life spa was fueled by her extensive training in cosmetology, medical aesthetics, medical laser and medical massage, and her ongoing interest in medicine. Vickie even flirted with the idea of attending medical school, instead opting to open the first Vasaio Life Spa after many conversations with Victor.
“He knew that I would rather create a place where a medical doctor could experience what they really want to do — incorporating the spa look and feel with medical benefits,” she says.
So the family put all of its energy into Vasaio, with the couple’s four daughters actively involved in the family business. And although Vickie half-jokes that enrolling in medical school would have been a lot less costly than opening a spa, Vasaio has become a sense of pride for her and the family, not to mention, it seems, her city, “People say that they didn’t even know Grand Rapids could do something like this,” she says.
Moving Up in a Down Economy
So how does a luxury spa experience endure a slow economy? Are guests willing to get chocolate wraps while complaining of rising gas prices?
“We feel the economy is down a bit, but if we keep focusing on the negative, we can’t build,” says Vickie. “As a business, we just adjust the prices to be more affordable for more customers, and we make it up on volume. It is key for businesses in a struggling economy to be creative and make adjustments.”
In fact, the spa is doing so well, that they are looking to build franchises across the United States. “We always knew we wanted to open more locations after getting the processes and systems in place,” says Vickie. She says that they have received interest in Northern Michigan, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina.
“Having the location at the JW is great for Grand Rapids,” says Vickie. “We came from Grand Rapids, and it shows that positive things are happening in Michigan, and businesses are doing well.”
Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Company. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about Grand Rapids multimedia production company Creo Productions.
Photos:Vickie and Victor Bennett in the 17th floor spaView from the massage tableMassage table and a portable treatment cart for more private in-room servicesVasaio products in the luxury tubWide view of the spa on the 17th floor
(home page photo courtesy of Jennifer Marie Photography)
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved