Once the dedicated spa offering at Harrods, Urban Retreat has recently opened its first standalone beauty and wellness space in Knightsbridge. Caroline Neville MBE, president of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) UK, speaks with managing director Reena Hammer about the exciting transition.
What is your experience in beauty and what have you seen as the most significant changes in the industry?
I started in 2004, working directly with brands on a commercial level and putting together campaigns in response to their creative briefs. I built creative teams across marketing, PR and e-commerce, as well as working from an operations level, which has given me a well-rounded perspective. I think the two biggest changes have been consumer education and the transition to clean beauty products. Back then, we took at face value what products to buy on the recommendations of the beauty elite (journalists and beauty experts) and customers didn’t feel confident to question that. Today, we see how educated the customer is and the increase in readily available information compared to 15 years ago.
What led to the decision to open Urban Retreat’s first standalone concept?
After 17 successful years in Harrods, the time was right to shift from being a tenant to becoming the landlord. Now, we have a much more intimate customer environment, enhanced by other key areas and services that could never work in a department store setting. We made a conscious decision to remain in Knightsbridge so we could continue to serve our regular customers. I have loved having creative reign across the house and decorating the space how we want. We’re now masters of our own destiny.
How did you come across the distinctive The White House building that is Urban Retreat’s new home?
My dad [Urban Retreat founder and entrepreneur George Hammer] deals with old, listed buildings around London and transforms them into events spaces. He was shown this property four years ago, but the space couldn’t work for events. Luckily, four years on, the house was still available, which gave us the idea to create a new home for Urban Retreat – we were in the right place at the right time.
Are you able to share any challenges that you experienced while developing the new space?
The funniest was when we ripped out an old master bathroom and the ceiling caved in due to an old plumbing system. Apart from that, nothing unusual happened, considering we were renovating a building that had not been touched in 30 years.
What are some of the brands that you offer?
We made a conscious decision to partner with brands that are not readily available. ‘Superbrands’ we’ve previously worked with are incredible but as they are available at Harrods and Harvey Nichols, we wanted to offer something different. We have curated a selection of cool, new brands including Haute Custom Beauty, ALBIVA, BeGlow, CellCosmet and Kjaer Weis. Some of these would often get lost in big department stores, whereas here they are given a spotlight. Obviously, they have to be effective in making you look and feel great, that’s a given. We always test every brand that we bring in.
What about the partnerships you’ve formed with prolific names in the medi, beauty and wellness spaces?
It’s largely a result of the trusted reputation with people that value and know us, so we are often approached to work together. Our year-long closure allowed us time to develop the right partnerships. No one else has what we offer as an integrated format under one roof, usually, it’s a very clinical environment. It’s exciting to have a lot of people with varied disciplines and expertise coming on board.
Can you explain why you’ve chosen to include a body art studio within Urban Retreat?
Times have changed. Piercings and tattoos, which are at an all-time high in popularity, are forms of self-expression and are no longer seen as a taboo. Our client base varies widely between 18 to 80-year-olds, so we can provide balance with a serious offering alongside light-hearted, fun stuff. We are able to move with the times while keeping to our philosophy in offering a high-quality service that our customers trust in.
What’s your favourite feature of the new space?
I love our Guest Lounge – once you sit down, you want to stay and hang out. We’ve purposefully made it to have a non-traditional and non-clinical feel, something that wouldn’t have worked in Harrods where every square inch of space drove density. We have decorated the space with sofas and art and installed a popcorn machine. There are also two separate terraces, which open up the space and fill it with natural light. The bar inside the lounge offers juices, coffee and champagne, really making it the perfect place to relax pre- or post-services.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
‘Inspect what you expect’ – don’t be overbearing, as you do need to trust people, but equally, you cannot and should never assume that something has been done just because you’ve said so. Attention to detail is also key.
Which three items/products do you always keep with you?
Lip Balm, my phone and my Surface laptop.
How do you start your day?
My husband is up for work two hours before me, so I give him a kiss goodbye before rolling over back to sleep. After waking, I drink a glass of water before I get up, then head straight into the shower. After I get dressed, do hair and makeup then head downstairs all within 15 minutes. I then let out Bruce, our dog, who is picked up by his dog school. I’m then in the car and I have coffee and breakfast at Urban Retreat.
What was the last book you read?
The Last Empress by Anchee Min – I tend to read more historical fiction. This book is about strong women and the controversy of the last Empress of China.
What do you do in your downtime?
Mainly chilling with Bruce for cuddles and walks. I also love switching off with a TV series, anything from Big Little Lies to Made in Chelsea. I also enjoy training, usually boxing at White City House.