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Meet the Inspiring Executive
Behind the Iconic Retreat’s Recent Revamp
Since its first year as a high-end health camp in 1958, the Golden Door has always been ahead of the curve. However this legendary destination hasn’t maintained its status as the world’s best wellness retreat, serving every A-list star from Elizabeth Taylor to Nicole Kidman, without an update or two.

In 2012, new ownership kicked off a fabulous renovation and by 2015 the Golden Door was totally back on top, even winning Travel & Leisure’s Best Destination Spa award.

Among the brains behind the Door’s recent comeback is COO and General Manager Kathy Van Ness, whose resume includes executive-level roles at Diane Von Furstenberg and the Trimera Group. Kathy’s amazing career in fashion has given her a unique perspective in hospitality and empowered her to dream really big about all that the Golden Door brand might become.

It was a delight to meet Kathy during my stay at the Golden Door and even though I was in an otherworldly vortex, I could not wait to find out more about the business behind it all. Read our interview below as we talk about branding, leadership and the little details that make the Golden Door experience so magical.

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When did you first hear about the Golden Door and what inspired you to take the position of COO?
I heard about the Golden Door as a young fashion executive and as a matter of fact, I bought their very first cookbook. I remember sort of bragging to my friends, “Oh, my gosh! We all have to make the Golden Door Tecate bread!” So when the Golden Door contacted me about helping them with their turnaround, I was incredibly intrigued. There was an opportunity to take my experience in consumer products and fashion and apply it to the world of hospitality.

And then when I met the owner, I knew it would be a good fit. She has been a super great partner. She gave me lots of white space to do a lot of different things that aren’t happening in the hospitality business, like turning the Golden Door into a lifestyle brand.

We have this incredible property and it transforms people’s lives every single week. Now we get to step outside the enclave and take our products to the rest of the world and say, “This is the Golden Door.” The bigger mission is we give away 100% of our profits to eliminating child abuse in America. By having those two paths of conversation, we get to expand our voice.

Talk to us a bit more about coming from the fashion industry. How has that translated into hospitality?
I think my experiences from the fashion world have allowed me to move into hospitality with more of a consumer perspective. Not to say that hotels aren’t involved in consumers at all, but when you’re in the consumer products business, you have to be pretty right. You have to really understand the look and feel. It was kind of a new marriage to bring an outsider into hospitality with a completely fresh look on how to run a business.

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The first thing I said when I came on board is, “You have to stop discounting.” The hotel world is discounting all the time. $25 off, $199 and get a free massage. Meanwhile luxury brands do not discount. You do not go to Louis Vuitton and get a Birkin bag on sale. Period.

Luxury brands understand that the way to get confidence from consumers is not to take away services, but to add services. While we saw the whole world discounting and reducing services, we added a starlight mountain dinner. Can you imagine? On the top of the highest mountain, we’re setting tables and lights. Our guests love it.

That’s how you create an emotional connection with consumers. You give them more value. You don’t take it away.

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Brands that are very confident don’t have to be afraid. It’s an honor to be involved with those brands. People want to wear those clothes. People want to wear that bag. People want to come to the Golden Door. Once you believe deeply that your brand is cool and important and transformational—and by the way, that you’re going to make a difference in people’s lives—you are so confident about your product that you’re not afraid to make bold decisions.

Beautiful, I couldn’t agree more. What does being the COO of a fabulous destination retreat really entail?
Oh, gosh. The work is endless. For my company, my role is really about providing the strategic direction of, “Where are we going?” If you would have told the company three years ago that they would have a food line in stores, they wouldn’t have believed it was even possible.

With a company like this, there’s so much potential for a brand that can speak to people in a way that is different than anything else in America or the world. And we’re world-renowned because of the way we speak to our guests, because of the little details people notice every week when they leave that have them saying “Oh, my gosh!” Being able to take that outside our walls is like goose bumps.

I love that. Tell us more about the different brand extensions you’ve created.
We’ve launched a brand new skincare line with all the right touches and feels and smells and natural ingredients. We’ve also launched an artisanal food line that’s already in grocers like Jimbo’s—and our beauty line is in Whole Foods. We also make clothes—from the guest wear in our rooms to active wear we carry in our boutique. Actually 50 percent of what’s in our boutique is our own product with our own label and logo on it and it’s doing really well.

And we now have just launched our produce business. We’ve got 600 acres of citrus and avocados and all kinds of other stuff, and now we’re offering it direct to consumers.
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Amazing! Okay, so we know you have so many fabulous products at the Golden Door (and I’ve rounded up my favorites in this week’s Divine Finds!) but we want to hear from you—what are the top things people can’t stop raving about?
Easy! You either have to have the Irresistible Ginger Cookies because everybody loves them, or you have to have the Bamboo Scrub and the Gold Mask. It doesn’t matter, man or woman. You want your face to look awesome? You put on your Bamboo Scrub and your Gold Mask and I guarantee your face will look better.

Fabulous! Okay, so we never refer to the Golden Door as simply a hotel or resort. What makes it so much more than that?
We’re really an experience destination you go to for many different reasons, whether it be for just getting off the fast track and taking a moment for yourself, or getting your body back into shape. This is not just about a fitness class or a massage. It’s a much deeper expression and you really get to step out and take a look at yourself.

We have people who come here every single year and say “This is part of my check-in process for my health regimen.” Sixty percent of our business comes ten times or more—and that’s extraordinary.

I have this great honor of seeing it in the eyes of our guests everyday. When they cross that famous bridge at the beginning of the week, they are ready. They’re frustrated. They’re tired. They want to reignite. It’s different than just going away for a weekend with girls. When they cross back over on their way out and make that final bend, you hear them breathe and you see their face and their eyes and there’s this total transformation.

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I have a personal, emotional response to that every time I see it because I come from the world of lifestyle brands. Brands are emotional things. The only way they survive is by speaking to the emotions of the consumer and motivating them, right?

If you don’t emotionally get a response out of your guests or clients or consumers, then you’re just a product and you can be any product—and that’s where price matters. It’s whoever has the best price—and that’s not the Golden Door.

Totally. When you trust the brand the price does not matter! What about the Golden Door experience do you think really resonates with people?
There are two things, I think. One is that we take over the entire thing and work with you to totally personalize your experience.

Everybody is busy. People don’t have enough time to take care of themselves. It’s one of the biggest crises in America—we don’t have enough time off and we don’t make time to reflect back on ourselves. And even if you want to plan to go away, you have to stop, think, call, book your appointments. If you don’t book some of those things far enough in advance, you’re not going to get the times or you may not even get the services.

At the Golden Door, you just have to tell us a date. We do it all. We know what you want, what you need, when you need it, what time you need it, and we cater to that personalized experience because none of us is the same.

The second thing is, this property is exquisite. The physical experience of coming here is extraordinary. It’s acres and acres of perfectly manicured Japanese gardens, with millions of dollars of lanterns lit every night. We have this beautiful, calming inn on 600 acres of mountains and lands all covered in trails. You don’t have to get on a bus to go hiking—you just walk outside your door.

It’s true—the property is magical! Getting back to the business and leadership side of things—what’s your #1 piece of management advice for women entrepreneurs?
I’m going to give you two things. One, it’s critical that you have a vision of where you want to go, even if your vision is a tiny pinpoint on the wall. Especially when you’re running companies that require some change or some dramatic evolution. As a leader, you have to be pretty clear on where you’re going because the people around you have no idea. They’ve never been there before.

You also need to know that the pin dot can move slightly to the left or right, but it can’t completely fall off the wall. It’s really critical that you know that you’re heading toward that pin and you’re gathering your people with you who become believers.

The second most important thing is to hire the very best people you can find. Empower them to make the decisions that you would like to make going toward that pinpoint and make them feel really good about what they’re doing everyday. And remember that every single person is important. It’s like a giant wheel and every spoke is critical.

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Fantastic advice, thank you so much Kathy—it’s been so great speaking with you. Since this is our Health & Wellness issue, we have one last question for you. What health trend or innovation are you currently working into your programs?
Fun! That’s key. There are so many people talking about wellness and exercise and diets and you think it’s just so difficult and hard. The piece that we want to start adding back is fun. We’ve put together multiple programs that are actually launching now that are all about fun.

When the men come, they play volleyball everyday from 12pm to 1pm and they have fun. When our women come, we want to create that same experience. Sometimes that can be by getting in a bunch of pink flamingos and racing up and down in the pool. Getting exercise while you’re with all your other friends at the pool!

We forget what it was like to just stop and have fun with exercise. You’re used to sending the kids out, “Go have fun. Go run around the block.” But as adults, we don’t get to hear that anymore. We just hear, “You have to exercise this many hours a day. You have to eat this.” It becomes just more work. So I think where we’re moving now is we have a very intense, incredible program, but we’re going to add in fun.

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To learn more about the Golden Door or book your escape click here:
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