Some business owners will tell you they never intended to launch a company – it just sort of happened. The women behind Viva Day Spa tell no such tales. Entrepreneurial musings bubbled for years among these three ladies before they came to discover their common calling to help Austin relax, one massage at a time.
As day spas go, the quaint little building just east of MoPac Expressway on West 35th Street has the market cornered on unassuming and inconspicuous. But in a business where personality and skill win out over flash and crass every time, Viva Day Spa has quickly infiltrated the ranks of the city’s most active houses of relaxation. Inside, nine treatment rooms, where antique Asian accents marry with more modern, clean-lined furnishings, exude a warm charm. But this isn’t a temple of solitude and isolated reflection – it’s a place where staff and guests have fun while letting go.
In the two years since it opened, Viva has grown from a staff of seven to more than 30, expanded its line of treatments and services, and has built a wide-ranging clientele. Behind the success are sisters Laurie and Maya Aroch and their friend Shannon Mouser.
Call them the “viva divas.” Talking to the three of them together, listening to them finish each others’ sentences and feed off one another’s ideas, one gets the sense they were destined to be business partners in addition to the best of friends.
Born in Isreal, the Aroch girls moved with their parents to the United States in 1988. In time, Laurie came to Austin for school and Maya later went to Atlanta for the same purpose. Here in Austin, Laurie and Shannon met and became fast friends.
“We always thought we would open a business together,” Laurie says of the hypothetical musings between she and Shannon on creating their own spa. “But it didn’t come to fruition until Maya came to Austin.”
For her part, Maya earned an engineering degree and worked in that field for five years in Atlanta before deciding it just wasn’t for her. On her frequent visits to see Laurie in Austin, she fell in love with the city. “I started to know everyone here and it just became apparent that I should move here,” she says. “Maya was almost like Shannon’s sister too,” says Laurie. “We had all become so close.”
Contemplating what she would do for work once she arrived, Maya secured a clerical gig at the spa where Shannon worked as a massage therapist.
“They had been talking about this idea for a spa for a while, but I’m much less of a risk taker than they are,” Maya admits. “After just two days, I got to see the business side of all this and I realized, wow, we could really do this.”
Having the right attitude was just the beginning though. Despite their determination and the help they had coming to realize the dream, there were times it didn’t appear Viva would ever become a reality.
“It was very hard at the beginning, and from day to day, it was going to happen and then it didn’t look good,” Laurie recalls. “One day it looked like we might not get the lease. We would come home and it would be: ‘Today was a bad day for Viva.’”
Interestingly, being three attractive women, each of the Viva ladies had someone coming on to them at some point during the process of retrofitting the former office building into a spa – from the plumber to the sign guy. The attention wasn’t solicited, but it became part of the drama of getting up and running.
“We were supposed to get these cool signs,” Laurie laughs. “The sign guy had a thing for Maya but she ditched him, now we don’t have those signs.”
Despite such trials, Viva debuted in June 2005 and was a near immediate success. “Really, we opened the doors and started making money,” says Laurie.
The trio was able to pay back the limited money they had borrowed within six months. Smartly, they had started off small, with just the necessary equipment and staff, and very few frills. Many of the furnishings and accents that make Viva what it is today were added in time as the business prospered.
To be sure, there were kinks that had to be worked out and changes made. A hair salon that played heavily in to the initial concept was later nixed in favor of additional treatment rooms. It was a decision the women agonized over initially before finally determining that the salon didn’t gel with the focus on the mind and body they were creating at Viva.
Still, each major decision that had to be made in the business only brought the partners closer, they say.
“We’ve known each other for so long and now we’ve been in business together for more than two years,” says Laurie. “In all that time, we’ve never had a disagreement that wasn’t healthy.”
Today, massage makes up half of the spa’s treatment business, with skin care and other services taking up the balance. Shannon oversees the treatment menu, developing different services and packages. From lavender body wraps to four hand massages, the spa offers a full lineup of treatments. Laurie, also a pharmacist and clinical nutritionist, offers wellness consultations to help those having health issues find relief through natural supplements.
More than a few lesbians on staff, coupled with an overwhelmingly open attitude and a significant homosexual client base, have garnered the business the tongue-in-cheek moniker Viva Gay Spa. As for the proprietors themselves, there’s a lesbian, straight and bisexual among them. You figure it out.
Of course, like most spas, the staff is heavily skewed in favor of the fairer sex. That’s largely because there simply aren’t as many guys getting in to the business. “Let’s face it,” says Shannon with a bit of a laugh, “this is the one industry where women dominate – except pornography.”
But while men are lacking on staff (there’s only one at present), they are well represented in the clientele. About 40 percent of Viva’s business comes from guys, and it’s also guys who are more likely to come back more often than women. “Once they’ve broken down the barrier, they will nurture themselves,” asserts Shannon.
The women all say, from the start, they wanted to raise awareness among people that getting regular spa treatments isn’t impractical. “We wanted to let people know that this isn’t out of their reach; that day spas are for everyone,” says Maya.