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Success Story: Andrew Gibson

As vice president of spa and wellness at FRHI Hotels and Resorts, Andrew Gibson is responsible for the development and execution of the company’s spa strategy, including defining and implementing spa standards globally across all of FRHI’s leading hotel and spa brands. He has over 25 years of international hospitality experience in the fields of spa, wellness and leisure.

How did you get your start in the spa and wellness industry?
I started my career in the City of London as a banker and studied with the Institute of Bankers. A summer break in the USA and working in sports led to a suggestion to study leisure at University. I went to the University of Manchester, UK and studied Recreation Management and environmental conservation. These were 2 new subjects and areas of interest at the time I went to University and no-one new quite what to do with them. I was fortunate to have exciting ski and soccer work during my holiday period which led to work in the ski industry and organizing summer camps throughout Europe.

I saw an advert to become the manager for the recreation club at a hotel that was building a pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam, squash and gym. This was revolutionary in the early 1980’s and I was fortunate to get the job.

The hotel was next to Gatwick Airport and we had many aircrew staying over with nothing to do. We converted my offices into a Rene Guinot salon and it worked very well. Although not spa (that would not occur for another 10 years) it was my first taste of the spa industry.

What roles have you held in the industry during your career?
The company I worked for in Abu Dhabi gave me the chance to transfer to the prestigious Al Bustan Palace in Oman as Recreation Manager. I then spent 10 years in Muscat and become involved in operating scuba diving clubs, 5 recreation clubs, organizing international yacht races, chair the tennis and squash leagues and hosting many tournaments. I also had the chance to work with a company as the business development manager and enabled us to build the new leisure facilities in Oman. This led to some private work with a wealthy individual in Saudi Arabia and then on to creating a ladies facility in Muscat. I conceived a ladies spa, operated by ladies. I spent three years designing and project managing the facility which opened the same year as Chiva Som in Thailand. The club took 600 members the first weekend.

This gave me the idea to build my own spa and with great support from my wife and years of planning and researching we moved the family (two young daughters) to Cyprus to create our dream. We raised $10million and started to build what is now the Retreat at Aphrodite Hills. A super luxury spa and health facility designed like a Greek monastery in the luxury mixed use residential and hotel resort of Aphrodite Hills, Paphos.

This led to joining Evason and Soneva to help create the Six Senses spa brand with Sonu Shivdansani which was a great experience. I was involved in business development, setting up the spa operations and creating over 33 spas in just 3 years from the Dominican Republic to Vietnam. This was the start of Six Senses and helped give them a global name for luxury, sustainable, wellness destinations.

My career kept growing with some time with Raison d’Etre and looking after One & Only spa development, Capella Hotel spa development and then to Mandarin Oriental. During my 7 years with Mandarin Oriental we grew from 10 to 27 spas and became one of the most famous spa brands in the world. With many forbes five diamond awards and numerous accolades I left to join Fairmont Raffles and Swissotels which has now amalgamated with Accor. With over 9 brands and more than 250 spas we are one of the largest in the world.

What are two of the most important resources you use to stay engaged in the industry?
As stated above the industry I am in had evolved from fitness to spa to wellness. It is important to be aware of what is happening and to be open and flexible to change. This is not easy since no-one can predict exactly when things are going to change. I think the most important resources are learning to network and identifying the key influencers in the industry. The second resource requirement is to use the organizations and associations to introduce yourself to the industry.

What's the hardest challenge you've had in your career, and what did you learn from it?
The hardest challenge I think for many people that are starting their careers is to understand why so many people say no to your great ideas. When you are young, passionate about your work and full of energy it is difficult to understand why the managers seem to not be so enthusiastic. Now I am one of those old guys I understand why they say no sometimes.

Today my challenge is to identify the best talent and give them the opportunity to shine. This requires skill to motivate them to continue with those great ideas and to maintain this when you say no to the great ideas.

What professional achievement are you most proud of and why?
I have been fortunate to have worked with some great companies and leaders but perhaps the most enjoyment I get is from meeting ex employees that have gone on with successful careers and still remember me.

Is there someone in the industry who has had a profound impact on your career? Why?
The first is my wife, who has given unwavering support, guidance and good advice on every career decision we have made. To my old school master that introduced me the opportunity to work at a summer camp in the USA and gave me the travel bug.

Thanks to whoever it was that told me I should study leisure. This changed my life.

Other people are all very good friends for many years and of whom I have the greatest respect; Susie Ellis (who has passionately built the Global Wellness summit and now Institute), Anna Bjurstam ( Raison d’Etre) the kindest entrepreneur with a wonderful vision and Sue Harmsworth (Espa) who has created the best independent spa management company in the world. Geraldine Howard who built Aromatherapy Associates into the world’s best aromatherapy company and did it with kindness.

What is the best part of working in the spa and wellness industry?
It is a happy industry that always stimulates the mind every day at work.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting out in the spa and wellness industry?
Do not let anyone dampen your passion. But to help prevent this happening back up any idea with as much fact and information to justify the idea as you can.

If you believe strongly in something then follow your dream. If the company you work for are not going to help you realize your dream then move on – life is too short.

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Head of Active Health and Wellbeing

Your Trust Rochdale
Rochdale, UK
Salary: £44,625 - £49,969pa + pension + benefits