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Cynthia Chua - rejuvenates a tired industry

Cynthia Chua
rejuvenates a tired industry
by Adeline Chong
December 4, 2006

What do NASA astronauts and spa-goers have in common? According to Cynthia Chua, managing director of Singapore-based spa and beauty group Spa Esprit, it's the zero-gravity chairs that form the focal point at the group's newest venture, Mask.

It is this knack for staying at the forefront of the spa industry that has seen the group build a multimillion-dollar business that today employs 130 people across 13 salons and outlets in four countries.


Credited with introducing the holistic day spa concept to Singapore, Spa Esprit opened its first spa in 1996. At that time, most day spas were medical or European-style spas that imported most of their treatments, interior design, and philosophies wholesale.

From the start, Spa Esprit was determined to differentiate itself by offering treatments that weren't yet available in Singapore. For instance, Chua went to New York City to learn how to perform a massage using hot stones. Spa Esprit was the first to introduce this therapeutic massage, which later became one of its signature treatments.

In terms of interior design, Chua and her partners also saw an opportunity to make an impact. The spa's look and feel was inspired by New York City's Greenwich Village—and more importantly, was fashioned to make clients feel at home with touches of eclectic style. It helped that the spa was located in Holland Village, arguably the only area in Singapore that had a lively, bohemian atmosphere with its two-story shop-houses occupied mainly by local business owners. The name chosen for the spa, Spa Esprit, evokes this spirit of bohemia.

Spa Esprit takes its holistic tag seriously by professing to eschew synthetic or chemically derived products. Part of the group's success comes from branding its holistic products and treatments with creative names. There are Happy Oil aromatherapy oil blends, the Scrub-a-Dub-Dub range of scrubs made from all-natural ingredients, and treatments like Cheeky Chai Detox, which uses a blend of natural curatives such as basil, cinnamon, and cardamom.

Chua says the group has always prided itself on being a pioneer in its field. The group's introduction of an Herbal Lab retail section is a good example of how it stays ahead of the competition. The Herbal Lab offers off-the-shelf tonics said to ease common chronic ailments such as fatigue, insomnia, stress, and cellulite. On-staff herbalists can also develop customized tonics based on clients' specific ailments.

In 2002, Chua spotted another opportunity to fill a gap in the market. She was chatting with an expatriate male acquaintance who bemoaned the lack of grooming "down there" on otherwise gorgeous Singaporean women. Asking around, Chua discovered that waxing suffered from a poor reputation, with even her best-groomed girlfriends confessing to ignoring that kind of personal maintenance.

Thus, Strip was born, offering hair-removal treatments including the all-revealing Brazilian wax. Chua was not surprised to find the going slow at first—with only about 60 customers a month—so she ran an advertising campaign to educate women in a tongue-in-cheek manner. As word spread and women in Singapore warmed to the idea of waxing, Chua soon found Strip deluged with bookings. Today, six Strip salons serve up to 5,000 customers monthly. "We've done 150,000 waxes and counting," she laughs. Strip is also the biggest moneymaker in the group.

Not content with her success, Chua went on to launch another concept salon, Browhaus, focusing solely on brow shaping, in 2004. She also entered into other ventures like massage parlor Qi Mantra and a fashion boutique.

Which brings us back to the group's latest venture, Mask, and its zero-gravity chairs. So what exactly is the place of a zero-gravity chair in a beauty salon? According to Chua, with the client at a 45-degree angle and the client's lower legs positioned above the heart, circulation increases, which enhances the effectiveness of the treatment. This efficiency is spot-on for Mask's target clientele—busy executives short on time.

The year 2006 has been good for the group. It has signed up new partners in London and New York City, and launched the Strip brand in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. And Chua says the group is far from done: "Having partners in the fashion and lifestyle capitals of the world means that there are strong leaps to launch our brands in these places as well."

As expected of someone who's proven to be a true go-getter, Chua says, "In addition to our expansion plans in Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, and New York, the Spa Esprit group will continue to focus on ongoing research, development, and training so that it can grow with strength and confidence." It's safe to say that spa-goers in Singapore and elsewhere would expect nothing less from this enterprising group.

Adeline Chong lives in Hong Kong.
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