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  • Writer's pictureElise Garner

Spotlight: The Rye Retreat

For our first Spotlight feature this April, we spoke to Felicity Sturgeon from our longstanding members, The Rye Retreat.

1. So lovely to talk to your Felicity! Could you describe your business to us?

We’re a centre of excellence for hair and beauty, we’re all about making people look and feel fantastic. We look after them while they are here, and we want them to leave feeling a like a million dollars.

2. When was your business founded?

We moved into our building in November 1999 but before that we were Rye Cutters – just along the road. We’d been at 54 Cinque Ports Street for ten years and had outgrown the premises. Jenny (Sperring – business owner) had long since had her eye on this building, she really had her heart set on it! But it was derelict and needed a lot work and of course we’re situated in a conservation area so all of her plans for the building needed to take that into consideration.

Felicity Sturgeon, Admin & HR Manager

Initially the building was sold to someone else, but Jenny and Ralph negotiated a three-year lease on a promise to completely renovate the building in return for being able to buy it back at the original price once complete. The work far exceeded the original budget – it was a nail-biting time – there was a lot on the line but eventually, the building was transformed into the salon we now call home.

To begin with we were just a hair salon, the beauty spa followed later. We are, first and foremost - the Rye Retreat - an independent business but we happen to use Aveda products which we love because they share our values when it comes to sustainability and looking after the planet. That led us to become an Aveda Lifestyle Salon – gaining this status initially involved an enormous number of requirements - we needed to offer a Café, to sell clothes, and flowers – all of which we did at the front of the salon for a long while. We initially thought that we’d work with another business to provide the beauty element, but in the end, we did that ourselves too.

Over time we moved away from the ‘extras’- the clothing and the flowers went first, and the café was the last to go, but the beauty element has just kept on growing. The beauty spa as you know, is in the basement of the building, to begin with it was just the cellar. we used it for storage! Renovating it was a challenge – there were lots of issues to overcome in order for it to become usable – it was like the Blair Witch Project down there, dark and rather scary! Totally different from the welcoming and relaxing space it now is.

3. So, what's your background – how did it lead you to this business?

Well, there are two stories here – how Jenny and Ralph met and eventually started the business, and how I came to the business!

Jenny and Ralph met through mutual friends when they were teenagers in Newcastle. Ralph played in a band and Jenny was his groupie! So they were pretty much childhood sweethearts!

Much later, when they moved into the area, Jenny originally worked in a salon in Tenterden before she took on Rye Cutters. Her goal had always been to own her own salon and as I said, this building in particular was at the heart of that vision.

I originally went for an interview for the position of a receptionist at Rye Cutters. I was fresh out of college and very shy and didn’t get the job. Soon after the move here Jenny contacted me to see if I would waitress in the salon’s café. So I started as a waitress and two weeks after that I found myself on the reception desk and two years later, I was manager of the salon! It has been my life ever since! I call it my second baby – I eat, live and breathe the Rye Retreat. In many ways I’ve grown up here – Jenny and Ralph have taught me so much.

4. What do you think makes your business unique?

I think there are several things. First Jenny and Ralph’s ethos and vision and second our staff. We really are like a big family. We have an amazing team of stylists, therapists and front-of-house staff who are trained to the highest standards and are also incredibly caring and supportive of their clients and each other.

5. What are your business values?

Without a doubt, customer service is at the heart of the business. We always want to be sure that we are going above and beyond to show we care and that we’re providing the very best service, skill and expertise.

The environment has always mattered to Jenny. Every decision we make for the business always must factor in sustainability. We also always support local. These are non-negotiables for us.

Looking after our staff is a core value. Many of them have been with us for years, some have left to start families and then returned further down the line. It’s a revolving door of familiar faces, the Rye Retreat family. That level of loyalty to the business speaks volumes about how it feels to work here. Staff feel valued and that’s so important. Many of the team are working mums and the culture of our business is always to make sure we’re as flexible and supportive as possible when it comes to things like childcare challenges. No matter what someone is going through there will be someone on the team to give you a boost or a shoulder to cry on and that counts for a lot. We also have a great deal of fun together!

6. What are your plans for your business in 2023 – what are you focusing on?

We’re looking at expanding the spa and doing more in the way of treatments for clients who have life limiting illnesses or who are recovering from illness or surgery. Our philosophy is that we never want to say no to anyone. Most colleges teach student therapists to say no to treating people whose health may be compromised – but we believe that there are always adjustments that can be made and alternatives that can be offered. It’s these clients who are so often in more need of some gentle touch and soothing care than anyone. It really is important to us. To that end we’re very pleased to be working with Rock Rose Beauty which is a local brand that has developed a range of gorgeous skincare products using rockrose oil specifically for those going through cancer treatment.

While Aveda’s products will always be important to us, their product development on the beauty side isn’t as rapid as we’d like – it takes a long time for them to bring things to market, and of course as a business we’re always looking to keep up with the latest products and therapies. That means sometimes we have to be a bit creative and look to other brands with similar shared values to enhance what we offer as a beauty spa. Rock Rose Beauty is a good example of that.

7. What challenges does your business face this year?

Energy bills are a big concern, for a start - as you can imagine with the volume of towels and gowns being laundered our washing machines and tumble dryers are always running. Our gas bills have gone up by 74% and our electricity by 105%. Coupled with that, there’s been a price hike on the products we buy from Aveda. So the ongoing business challenge is to make sure we can continue paying the bills.

Recruitment is also a challenge – particularly for beauty therapists. One of the issues is that many newly qualified therapists don’t want to work at weekends and of course the weekends are peak trading times for businesses like ours! Of course we understand the need for work/life balance, but weekend work comes with the territory of being a stylist or a therapist.

8. What are you most proud of in your business?

I think the fact that we’re still here and still thriving after such a challenging few years is something to be very proud of!

We’re also incredibly proud of our people – the team! We couldn’t do what we do without them. Some days are tough – we often say that we hear everything in our client’s lives – the happy news, the sad news, the ups and the downs. No matter what a client is going through, our stylists and therapists will do their best to listen and show they care, because they really do. We take those roles very seriously. To go back to our philosophy of providing treatments for those with life limiting illness our therapists have counselling training from the Sara Lee trust so we can be sure that we are providing the best support for our clients.

We’re also very privileged to be able to use the platform we have to help fundraise for so many good causes across the years.

Our status as an Aveda Lifestyle Salon is also something we’re proud of. There are only 13 salons with this status in the entire country – there were 8 more that sadly didn’t survive the pandemic. Our status is reviewed every three months by Aveda – these days the designation is all about footfall, so given the size of Rye it’s quite something to have this accolade in a small town when most of the other lifestyle salons are in large towns and cities. We certainly work hard to keep the business as successful as it is.

9. If there was one piece of advice you wish you’d had been given when you opened your business what would it be?

I think Jenny and Ralph’s vision for the business has always been clear and they wouldn’t have been swayed by much. They’ve instilled that drive in me too – it’s probably summed up best as – just keep going!

On a practical level – looking back at the headaches that the basement has given us over the years - for example the challenge of soundproofing against noise upstairs from the salon, and issues with flooding, we’d have probably done well to develop the first floor as the spa instead. Go up, not down!

10. What's the biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?

Client expectations have changed massively in recent times – we’ve really seen a change since reopening the business after the pandemic lockdowns and sadly it’s not for the better. It’s a frustration because we work hard to deliver really good customer service and when that is undervalued it can be demoralising for our staff who really put their hearts into everything they do.


Thanks for talking to us Felicity! To book a treatment & find out more, click here.

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