New England is famous for its summer retreats: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket. But for eco-conscious tourists and those committed to nature conservancy, the first stop on any Northeast jaunt will likely be the ferry to Block Island (BI), located 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. This porkchop-shaped “Bermuda of the North” boasts more than 40 rare or endangered animals and retains a full 40% of the land conserved as untarnished, open space. And residents and visitors alike are intent on keeping it that way—bikes are the preferred mode of transportation, and even in the high-end restaurants and inns, air-conditioning is a dirty word.
So it only makes sense that as BI’s lone day spa, Koru Eco Spa would embrace a commitment to the environment. For Lauren von Bernuth, owner of this 1,300-square-foot space, dedication to green goes beyond her facility’s moss-colored linens. Von Bernuth opened the business in 2007 after falling in love with the island during her summer breaks from Tulane University.
“I’m passionate about making the environment and our customers’ health a top priority,” she says. “We’re not selling a gimmick because being organic is trendy; we really want our clients to get a top-quality experience that also happens to be natural.”
Indeed, Koru’s hair, body, skin, makeup and nail services feature only high-end, 100% organic products, including vegan wax, reports the spa owner. “It was sort of shocking to find out what’s in some of the regular stuff,” von Bernuth says. “My belief is, the fewer chemicals, the better.” The spa’s treatments also blend in natural ingredients from the island itself. Examples include the Block Island Sacred Stone Massage (50 min./$135; 80 min./$175) that makes use of large, heated rocks selected from the area’s 17 miles of beaches, and the Spa Manicure (50 min./$55) and Spa Pedicure (50 min./$65), which incorporate honey from a local apiary.
But environmental awareness goes beyond products and services. The spa offsets its carbon emissions as well. Paint on the walls is non-toxic, uniforms and linens are made of organic cotton—even the four pedicure stations are fashioned from reclaimed wood. “I found an artist in Brooklyn to make them,” confides von Bernuth. “They’re like the opposite of the vibrating massage chairs you see in a lot of nail salons.” —Shari Goldhagen
Being eco-conscious isn’t without its hurdles. Block Island is only accessible by ferryboat, so getting materials to and from the spa is an expensive endeavor involving some forethought. “If you run out of something, you can’t just have an employee run over to the beauty supply store like you would on the mainland,” explains von Bernuth. “You have to order ahead and make sure someone can pick up the shipment at the dock.” Plus, the natural product lines Koru uses tend to carry higher price tags than do some conventional products. All of this translates to a higher ticket for customers.
“It is a challenge with the pricing,” admits von Bernuth. “And some people are never going to be happy, no matter what.” Fortunately, because BI is such a haven for nature lovers, many of those who happen upon the spa (mostly from New York City, Connecticut and Rhode Island) already place a premium on organic products and don’t mind shelling out a little more. For others, a little information goes a long way.
“We’re not preachy about it, but we love to educate our customers about our mission and why we use the products we do,” says von Bernuth. “Usually, once we explain, clients are excited about having the natural experience. Oftentimes they had no idea about what kinds of chemicals are in some of the stuff they had been regularly using.”
Koru’s team does try to accommodate the somewhat less eco-inclined client whenever it can. For instance, if a patron brings in a favorite polish, the manicurist will good-naturedly substitute it. However, they do draw the line when it comes to gels and acrylics, and their accompanying chemicals and fumes.“Whenever you see people in salons getting acrylics, the technician is wearing a mask,” says spa manager Jill Seppa.
“That’s not something we offer.”
And some treatments simply aren’t right for an organic spa. A few years ago, Koru tried offering brush-on natural tanning, but quickly found it didn’t jive with the spa’s relaxed feel. “The product was difficult to apply and the service very hard to train,” says von Bernuth. “It became stressful for our staff, and the results were mixed, so we just dropped it.”
What Koru may lose in beauty customers, however, it might make up for in male clients, who are attracted to the spa’s emphasis on all things natural and the absence of a “girly” or “perfumey” atmosphere. “With the ocean right here and all the green, we have a pretty friendly, open feel that’s not particularly feminine,” Seppa acknowledges. She reports that fathers and sons come in regularly for facials and massages, and there’s a thriving couples’ demand for side-by-side massages and wraps. One couple with a summer home on the island even enjoys a weekly pedicure date.
In the summer tourist season running from May into October, Block Island’s Inns, B&Bs and vacation homes reach maximum capacity with as many as 10,000 people on the island. Come winter, the population dips to just under 1,000 and Koru, like most BI businesses, shutters its windows and closes down. But just because the spa doesn’t take clients off-season, doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done during that period.
“Almost as soon as the season ends, we start working on the next one,” says von Bernuth, who divides her winters between the island and New York City. First, von Bernuth and Seppa address renovations or repairs that couldn’t be performed during the peak season; then, the focus shifts to improvements. Last winter, von Bernuth put together a front-desk manual and an employee handbook to help ease the transition for new employees. Koru also sells its sunscreen line through its online store, so Seppa—who lives on BI year round—makes weekly trips to the spa to handle shipments. BI is also a hugely popular wedding destination, with brides beginning preparations months or even years in advance, so winter months are often spent setting up bridal appointments (thus assuaging nervous brides) for the coming season.
By far the greatest off-season challenge for von Bernuth is lining up and training staff for the upcoming season. While some Koru staffers, like its hairstylist and two massage therapists, have fallen in love with the island and return summer after summer, others are only there for one season. “We have about a 50% return rate of staffers, which is actually very high for the island,” says von Bernuth. “But it still means we’re replacing half our people each year.”
Finding and hiring skilled professionals is a time-consuming process that begins in January. “My friends make fun of me because I’m getting massages and manicures all winter long,” says Seppa. “But it’s not like hiring a waitress or a bartender, where I can just look at a resume. I need to actually experience candidates’ services to know if they’re good.”
Once the crew is hired, there’s the matter of housing them. Many new staffers are unfamiliar with the island, so to ease their transition von Bernuth and Seppa secure a block of apartments each season that they then rent out to employees. Usually by April, a month before the spa opens, the entire staff is assembled and learning signature treatments. Year-round BI residents can score complimentary services if they want to volunteer as “guinea pigs” for the new staff. But treatment training isn’t these newbies’ only challenge.
“That first month is really their orientation to the island,” says Seppa. “We have to prepare them for life here. We show them where they can eat on a budget and where they can do laundry. We tell them about stocking up on their favorite toiletries and dry goods—if there’s a cereal they like, I tell them to bring five boxes because here, it might be hard to get, and more expensive.”
Attracting clientele to Koru is done the old fashioned way: word of mouth. Although von Bernuth has flirted with websites like Living Social and has placed some ads in mainland papers, she has found that the most successful strategy is simply making sure that everyone on the island is aware of the spa’s existence and its offerings. That comes down to pounding the pavement to ensure that Koru brochures are displayed at area hotels, shops and restaurants. Most importantly, von Bernuth says, she makes sure that all of the island workers know about Koru. To familiarize these folks with the spa, she even offers an “Island Day” every Sunday during which BI workers can receive treatments for 35% off.
“People here become a tight community, whether they’re here every year or one summer,” says von Bernuth. And while she admits that the small town feel can occasionally be “frustrating,” she’s quick to add that the close-knit, environmentally conscious community is one of the reasons she fell in love with Block Island in the first place.
“The other day, I needed a handyman, so I went to my friend’s vegan lunch counter, and she told me that I should see this person at one of the local galleries,” von Bernuth relates. “I had to talk to a few more people, but eventually I found the guy I needed. That’s just the way things work here!”
Shari Goldhagen is a New York City-based writer.
Koru Eco Spa
Year opened: 2007
No. of employees: 14
Average service ticket: $130
Product lines: Living Nature, John Masters Organics, Priti NYC, RMS
Most popular treatments: Block Island Sacred Stone Massage; Deep Tissue Massage (50 min./$130 or 80 min./$175); Spa Pedicure
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