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Rockefeller's Retreat

A new cliff-top spa at Rosewood’s premier Caribbean resort is running at record capacity. Report by Nick Ryan.

The dream of one of America's most famous, and passionate philanthropists, is carved onto the island coast of a once-sleepy agricultural community in the Caribbean.

Little Dix Bay, part of the Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels and Resorts group, sits on a crescent-shaped bay on Virgin Gorda, 'the Fat Virgin' christened by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and the second largest of the 50 islands that make up the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Founded in 1964 by Laurance S. Rockefeller, the resort nestles from view behind shaded palms as you approach by sea from the nearby international airport on Beef Island.

Rockefeller had a strong vision of "earth in balance". As the founder of RockResorts, he helped design and build hotels in imposing natural settings from the Caribbean to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Hawaii, always emphasising close access to nature. These environmentally-focused hotels, built between 1955 and 1969, contributed to the growth of what has since become known as eco-tourism.

Rosewood likes to trumpet this eco-connection for its luxury settings, and with the newly refurbished spa and hotel at Little Dix Bay – which it took over in 1993 (Rosewood is a management entity, whilst the hotel and spa is owned by an asset management firm) – guests certainly seem to like what's on offer. Occupancy runs at 86% average across the year, for rooms which can range from just under $400 in low season to over $4500 for 4-bed villas at the peak of high season. Last year Little Dix Bay was ranked number two among Caribbean resorts in the 2007 Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards.

Wilderness Beach

Dubbed "wilderness beach" by Rockefeller, the resort's pristine, half-mile crescent beach is considered one of the finest in the world. Rooms, cottages and tree houses are just steps away from the sands. A coral reef just off the shoreline provides excellent snorkeling and protects the bay, ensuring calm water for swimming year-round. Like all beaches, Little Dix Bay has to have to have public access, according to BVI law, so there are no "private" signs anywhere on the white sands.

With only 3,000 residents (including naturalised citizens known as “belongers”), and a tiny airport suitable for small prop planes, Virgin Gorda really does feel like an island apart from the world. However, if you travel the coastline of this easternmost part of the BVI you can see plenty of evidence of the 50+ private villas and new luxury homes that signify its growing popularity amongst the exclusive vacation "elite". Rock stars, millionaires and even billionaire oligarchs on their super-yachts are all guests at the resort, which has opened its doors to visitors and locals alike (though emphasises the former over the latter, with richer locals sometimes using the spa or restaurants).

“The business is growing, especially with our villas,” says Mark Sterner, resort manager, as we tour the property, passing a constant stream of guests being ferried up and down the site in electric golf carts. The growth can be attributed in part to the vision of resort director Martein Van Wagenberg, Sterner suggests, and the improvements introduced by Rosewood following the completion this year of a $25 million "resort enhancement".

This five-year project saw the addition of eight new suites and three hilltop villas, bringing the total number of accommodations to 100, with all existing guest rooms undergoing refurbishment. Elegant interiors now feature bright, pastel colors with handcrafted furniture and fabrics from the Pacific Rim, with half of the rooms outfitted with outdoor garden showers. Also added to the resort’s existing restaurants, fitness facility and tennis centre was a new children’s centre and – the jewel in the crown – the $3m cliff-top "Sense” spa.

"Our Sense Spa was launched in April [2008]," says British spa director Glenn Ross, who spent three years as group spa director with Langham Hotels International in Hong Kong before joining Rosewood last year. "In terms of where the spa is now located, and the work we've done to it, I really believe it is second to none."

As we continue to walk around the property, Martein van Wagenberg points out that the current spa was built on a bluff “where mother nature prevailed.”

“Prior to our cliff top spa, we were using two adapted bedrooms,” he says.

The three-acre spa site sits on a hilltop vista, overlooking the sea and the resort below, with stone paths criss-crossing tropical gardens, leading to a two-tiered infinity pool, outdoor yoga platform, and nine treatments cottages (including a couples’ suite) plus spa suite and a tiny cliffside beach. Separate men's and women's changing rooms have private lockers, outdoor showers, plush terry bathrobes, slippers and an extensive selection of toiletries. There is also a spa terrace, where guests are served a range of “healthy dishes” specially designed by the resort’s chefs.

The spa itself was designed by interior architects Wilson and Associates, while Mike Paneri (previously Vice President, Design & Construction for Rosewood), Katherine Blaisdell (project manager, also at Rosewood) and Chris Yates of Chris Yates Associates collaborated on the individual treatment cottages. Landscape architect Jerry Brown created the outdoor spaces.

“We preserved as much original vegetation as possible, by careful planning of individual cottages blending into the hillside, whilst still offering the amazing views over Sir Drake Channel,” says Wagenberg.

Ross adds that the site allows plenty of room for expansion. “We have the ability to add more treatment cottages on the side of the hill above the last treatment room. The stone steps to the private beach were added at the end as a special amenity. Also the teepee-style reception roof was inspired by the roof of our Pavilion restaurant. Michael Crosby from Wilson drew it on a cocktail napkin only four weeks before opening!”

Renovations were done in stages during the low seasons, says Wagenberg. “The hotel as a whole never closed. Whilst some rooms had to close, the spa was not affected at all by construction because of its private location. We encountered very few issues with guests, really, regarding the renovations, as everyone was advised in advance about the situation.”

Guests are still staying on average 6.8 days at the resort, which Wagenberg confirms was the same prior to renovation.

Marketing & Guests

The Sense Spa is intended to be an independent profit centre and is marketed extensively to resort guests. On arrival at Little Dix Bay, each room includes a spa welcome letter and a gift of a temple balm, together with a spa brochure. "We also make sure there is a spa manager at the weekly resort cocktail party to answer any guest questions,” says Ross. “Externally we market as part of promotional activities done for the hotel, as a company under the Sense Spa brand."

On arrival at the spa itself, guests are offered a local bush tea of lemon grass and chamomile. Following their treatment they are escorted to the treatment cottage's private outdoor terrace for "terrace time", allowing them to relax, meditate, etc, says Ross. Also new is the use of indigenous ingredients in treatments, such as Virgin Gorda honey, goat’s milk and Neem leaf, as well as salt from nearby Salt Island. "Unlike many spas that add treatment after similar treatment, we've actually reduced the number of treatments to hone in on those that are more reflective of the island's culture and customs," he mentions. 

It is not only the location and design of the spa which has changed. Treatments are now longer than they used to be – a full 60 or 90 minutes compared with 50 minutes in the past – and opening and closing rituals have been added.

Although in-house guests always get priority for booking, there are a couple of local residents from Virgin Gorda who use the spa, Ross points out. Current take-up is still low from this market, as the island has a small population which waxes and wanes with the vacation seasons. However, the resort has recently started offering a special residents promotion – including spa treatments, lunch and a round-trip boat transfer from the larger and more densely-populated island of Tortola. "During the sailing season, we also get bookings from boaters sailing through the islands," says Ross.

According to Ross and Sterner, a large number (75%) of the resort’s guests are Americans, many of whom fly down in charter planes from regional airports in Puerto Rica and St Thomas, on the nearby US Virgin Islands. Many of them are honeymooners. A quarter of these visitors are repeat guests, many of whom have been visiting since Rockefeller established Little Dix Bay in the 1960s. “We get entire family groups, now, including grandparents, children, their children,” says Sterner. “It’s quite amazing, really.”

However, earlier in 2008, resort director Martein van Wagenberg went on a tour of Britain and Italy, on a drive to attract more guests from those countries. "We're trying to develop those markets a bit more [because] summer in Europe is our low season,” says Ross.

“In the summer months [low season – June to November], our biggest market, for some reason, is Italians,” adds Sterner. “Many of them honeymooners.”

Green credentials

Under its pyramid entry roof, Glenn Ross shows me to the spa’s shop. Therapists are encouraged to suggest products they believe will benefit guests’ particular needs (mine was an expensive eye cream!).

As Ross reveals, the Sense Spa currently uses three product lines: Epicuren, Eminence and Sonya Dakar. "We also retail Aromafloria, Nickel for Men and other wellness products, such as Tea Forte,” he explains.

With a degree in environmental studies, Ross is particularly keen to build on the spa’s green credentials: for example, plastic cups have been replaced with corn (compostable) cups; there is a colourful line of recycled juice-carton bags which has sold out already; and Rosewood has a corporate 'Go Green' push, as part of 15 'Rosewood Responsibilities'.

"We're trying to get as green as we can. Team Verdes is part of a Rosewood initiative. Any product line I decide to bring in has to be green or have a green policy. The green market is fairly important to American guests and becoming more so all the time."

“It can be a challenge having all these products available 100% of the time due to our remote location,” chimes in Martein van Wagenberg. “Goods arrive mostly over water. In order to have an efficient and effective amount of supplies we have to count on sometimes six to 10 weeks delivery time. It is a question of good planning.”

“We used a lot of natural materials and special paints, when constructing the spa. At the spa itself,” he reiterates, “we use organic products in treatments, indigenous products and treatments where we can, and filtered water.”

Looking to next year Ross also insists that: “Sense Spa and Rosewood as a whole are exploring every opportunity to embrace and introduce products that have 'green awareness' and recycling as a core component of their business."


One thing that became obvious during my stay: many of the service staff were locals or at least seemed to be from other Caribbean nations. But most of the team heads, and majority of therapists in the spa, hailed from further overseas.

"We do try and recruit locally as much as possible,” says Ross, after I complete treatments with first a Jamaican and then a Balinese therapist. “This year one of our local staff members who was a spa receptionist went to study in one of our sister properties to become a qualified massage therapist. The pool of local therapists is very small so we do tend to recruit form overseas for these positions."

The spa currently has 13 therapists, seven of which are from the Caribbean, one from India, one from The Philippines, Indonesia, and another from Canada. Only two of the therapists are local, admits Wagenberg later.

“One of them used to be a receptionist and last year we assisted her in following courses in the USA: she’s now a full-time qualified therapist. We have put together a personal development plan for the assistant spa manager and the spa reception supervisor, so we can maintain/create the local flavour. Part of their training is to spend time at other Rosewood properties with a Sense Spa.”

Although the overall number of therapists has not changed, there are issues associated with employing foreigners in the BVI. Work permits are issued only when there is no suitable local applicant for the job and only last for five years. Most of the Little Dix Bay foreign staff come via referral, or company contacts, says Wagenberg. The actual application process for a permit can take up to a whole year, although often the resort is able to shorten this process to six weeks (“from information requested from the employee, to filing application to approval being given”).


As we talk about the future and “exciting challenges” facing Little Dix Bay, one of his biggest biggest challenges remains “staff consistency”, admits Glenn Ross. He suggests there is not the same tradition of service culture in the Caribbean as in the parts of South-East Asia where he spent much of his career.

Whilst diplomatic about what this “consistency” actually means, he maintains that at both spa and resort they feature regular on-the-job training, spot checks by “incognito agents”, ensure that sales managers for their product lines come to do on-site training, as well as invite the training managers of a number of different massage institutions to work with the staff. Resort director Martein van Wagenberg also adds that they make “consistency” one of their ‘Rosewood Responsibilities of the Day’.

His only other challenge, says Ross, is that with just one couples’ treatment room so far, he is keen to expand this offering. "When we ask couples if they'd like to be in the same room together, they always say yes."

Overall, though, Ross is feeling positive about the spa’s future: "We really have one of the best spa locations in the world with dramatic views of the ocean from every area.”

Box Out: Numbers

• Resort guests typically account for two-thirds of visits to the Sense Spa
• Over the last three years there has been an increase in guests by 750 per year for the last 3 years
• This year to date continues showing growth for the spa: treatments went up by 12 % year-on-year
• Currently the spa is responsible for between 5-10% of the total resort turnover, says Mark Sterner. Food accounts for another 18%.

Box Out: Rosewood Hotels & Resorts

Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts (owns and?) manages properties worldwide, including Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas, The Carlyle in New York, CordeValle in San Martin, California, Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, Las Ventanas al Paraíso in Los Cabos, Mexico, Hotel Seiyo Ginza in Tokyo, Japan, and a triumvirate of Caribbean properties: Rosewood Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda, Caneel Bay on St. John and Jumby Bay on Antigua.

Rosewood has been in the spa business for 15 years, but its spas had been operated independently from one another and spa managers had the flexibility to tailor services and products to the location. However, as Rosewood chief operating officer Robert Boulogne said at the time of the Sense Spa brand launch, “developers are looking for brand names…Rather than just saying, 'We run great spas, trust us,' we can now give them a very good idea of what we would do in their particular location."

The first Sense Spa opened at the Rosewood Mayakobá on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico in January this year. Each spa highlights treatments that are unique to the environment, culture and history of the location:

  • Rosewood Mayakoba
  • Rosewood Crescent Court
  • Rosewood Little Dix Bay
  • The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel
  • Cordevale, A Rosewood Resort

There will be Sense Spas in all new Rosewood hotel developments and there are plans for “a few transformations of spas in current hotels” according to Martein van Wagenberg.

Box Out: Laurance Rockefeller

Laurance Rockefeller was a tall, urbane, business-minded billionaire who operated private planes and boats for sport, and became known largely for conservation efforts. He amplified the legacy of his father -- who had created major national parks -- by expanding and preserving many of his own, from California to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Robin W. Winks wrote in a biography of Laurance Rockefeller that his service in the late 1950s and early 1960s as chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission provided the path for decades of conservation laws. In 1967, the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, called him "America's leading conservationist."

Rockefeller also was a chief advocate for investing family money in new, often bold enterprises. Particularly fascinated by aviation, he poured money into new projects so they "would not be snuffed out by a merger because of a lack of financing."

Conservation and recreation remained vital interests. He sat on the boards of zoos and parks. He created public sanctuaries in Wyoming, donating his family's property in Jackson Hole to the federal government. In 1956, he turned over half of the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- he owned 5,000 acres -- to the National Park Service to create Virgin Islands National Park.

He developed popular tourist resorts, including Caneel Bay on St. John and Mauna Kea Hotel in Hawaii. He operated the Woodstock Inn and the Suicide Six and Mount Tom ski areas in Vermont. Many of his properties were used by presidents and potentates, with whom Rockefeller was cordial.

This story first appeared in Spa Business © 2008.

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