On the surface Abi Wright, the founder of Spabreaks.com, has it all. At just 40, she is mother to three children. She loves early morning walks with her dogs in the countryside near her home in Berkshire. And she has built a thriving business that has earned the respect of her peers.
But success isn’t always what it seems. When The Independent reaches Wright on the phone in January, she’s sat outside her physiotherapist’s office. Just a few weeks after she was heralded as “entrepreneur of the year” at the Everywoman Travel Awards in November, Wright collapsed on the Tube going into work.
She was taken to hospital where she learned she had squashed a nerve in her back and would have to have a disc removed. The doctor warned her that if she carried on working so hard, she would be in a wheelchair in five years. Ever since, she’s been working on getting the feeling back in her lower left leg.
“It’s a bit of a shock,” Wright says. “My children were all over nine pounds, all C-section, and I commute five hours a day up to London. I came back to work two weeks after my last baby and my back suffered standing on the commute. I have to realise I am not invincible. I don’t practise what I preach.”
Wright founded Spabreaks.com to promote the idea that wellbeing is not a luxury. Yet for many entrepreneurs – especially female founders trying to juggle businesses with the demands of a family – taking care of themselves is the last thing on the to-do list.
Wright’s idea for Spabreaks came when she was working for a hotel started by Sir Peter Michael, the founder of Classic FM, in Berkshire. During her time at the Vineyard Hotel in Donnington Valley she managed the opening of a spa. In the process she discovered that there were only a couple of companies marketing spas, despite growing demand.
“I realised there was a hole in the market for someone to create a more forward-thinking agency to promote spas and open it up to a wider audience,” she says.
In the meantime, she met Ross Marshall and Andrew Harding, the young founders of an online golf holiday business. Marshall and Harding started sending groups of clients on golfing holidays through their site yourgolftravel.com, initially working from Harding’s bedroom. Since then, the business has grown to have a turnover of £21m as of 2017.
One day, during a tour of the spa at the Vineyard Hotel, Wright explained her spa idea to Ross Marshall. “He said it was a brilliant idea,” she remembers. “Golf and spa: golfers want to go away and play golf, but they can take their wives with them and earn some brownie points.”
In 2008, with some investment from Marshall and Harding and when Wright’s first child was just three months old, Spabreaks.com was born. It started with two or three interns and just 25 spas on the site.
“People thought I had postnatal depression and had gone mad – but I just saw an opportunity and felt I had to take that leap of faith,” Wright says.
In 2012, The Sunday Times said Spabreaks.com was the second fastest growing private company in the UK. It now employs 150 staff at offices in London and Brighton and sends 6,000 customers to spas every week. According to its latest set of accounts, the company had a turnover of £11m in 2016, but Wright believes turnover will grow to around £50m in the next five years.
Wright credits the company’s rapid growth to a strong domain name that helped drive web traffic and low startup costs. But it has also undoubtedly come at a personal cost.
“I find it quite difficult reading about women in business and finding that it’s not real women that are being represented, it’s that top 5 per cent who probably have a team of people helping them run their families. That isn’t realistic,” she says.
Wright says she “writes off” three days a week with her children. On those says, she leaves them with a nanny to go to work early in the morning and may just catch them to say goodnight when she gets home. The other two days a week she tries to be completely present: waking up with them, picking them up from school and making tea.
“There are times when, as hard as I want to focus on my children, I am running a multimillion-pound business and I have to put the business first,” Wright says. “That’s really hard. There’s constant guilt. You never feel utterly content with where you are, and you have to have a strong belief in what you’re doing.”
But Wright knew she was on the right track after a phone call led to the start of her recovery retreats for cancer patients.
In the early days of the business, Wright put her number on the website as the emergency out of hours contact for customers. “I had this one call that when I picked up the phone, there was a lady sobbing. She had booked through us but hadn’t mentioned that she had had cancer. At the spa, someone said: ‘I’m sorry love, but I can’t touch you with a barge pole.’”
Fifteen years ago, cancer patients were advised not to have spa treatments in case stimulating the lymph nodes through massage made the cancer worse. “All I could think was, ‘This can’t be right,’” Wright says. “Insurance and health and safety were a massive part of it. Miseducation that had been passed down to the spas. Everyone thought that was the case and no one was prepared to challenge it.”
Wright learned that while certain treatments are off-limits during chemotherapy, many others are possible with specially trained therapists. She introduced a range of recovery retreats where customers and their conditions are handled sensitively.
“At the spa we’re all in a robe and we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter if you have cancer, a disability or post-natal depression: all your senses are awakened and for a few hours of time you have complete escapism.”
That’s a message that Wright wants to take to workplaces in the coming years. She has plans to work with corporate clients on wellness, selling them the concept that it is an employer’s responsibility to help employees take care of themselves.
“We’re about making sure people realise wellbeing is not a luxury, not just once a year for your birthday,” Wright says as the interview is wrapped up so she can get back to physiotherapy. “If you don’t take it seriously there are consequences.”
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