Weekly Local Biography

  Toby Allen

I must confess that I love spas. I love the flowers and silk cushions in the reception areas. I love the quiet music that invites you to relax. I love the smells of herbs and soaps and scrubs. I love the big towels and long showers that follow the treatments. And I love, really love, quality spa treatments. So when Toby Allen suggested we meet at his most recently opened Oasis Spa to talk, I was delighted.

Toby is a native of Florida in the United States, a man who grew up on a dairy farm. The third of five children, he says that he was shy and timid. He didn’t think of himself as a great student, but he graduated from college with a degree in engineering. He went to work in an engineering firm, and that was when things changed dramatically for Toby. A member of the firm recognized his potential, and became his professional mentor. With encouragement and direction from his mentor, the shy boy from the dairy farm was soon on his way to success at the top of the firm. In only a few years, the newly confident young engineer found himself with more material possessions than he had ever dreamed of but nowhere else to go in the firm. He was on top. And he was bored, really bored. As a matter of fact, he was bored enough to quit his job and sell his house and sailboat. There was definitely more to life than an office, and he was going to find it.

He traveled around the U.S. for a year, and then found himself talking to friends one night in Alaska. They were going to China and invited him to go along. Little did he know that this was to be the beginning of a long love affair with Asia. In a strange way, Asia felt more like home than the U.S. He moved to Hong Kong, and went to work in the tourism and hospitality industry. He arranged and led tours throughout China for five years, and visited 300 Chinese cities in that time. He made friends for life; the kind of friends he says would die for each other. He stays in touch with them.

He returned to the U.S. for a few years but still traveled overseas about 80 percent of his working time. Tourism was booming, and he circled the globe once a month. He dealt with tours and conferences, booked flights and hotels, arranged for caterers and speakers. He slept in a new hotel every night, and lived with chronic jet lag. His life during his years in the business was on the road. He visited 72 countries. I asked him about favorites, and, of course, he talked about China. But then he said that he has many favorite countries, each for a different reason. He loves American Samoa, describing it as “Hawaii without tourism”. He said that the snorkeling and coral reefs are breath taking. He described a flight over northern Madagascar - “Talk about natural beauty!”

As I talked with Toby Allen, it became apparent why he was so successful in the tourism industry. He has a genuine appreciation for the diversity of countries, cultures, and people. His excitement is infectious.

About seven years ago, Toby came to Chiang Mai. He was growing weary of the constant travel, and searching for yet another direction in his life. He met a Thai man who would become his business partner, and who was also struggling with an exhausting job. Talks and more talks led the two of them to believe that they could succeed in business in Chiang Mai. At first they considered opening an upscale massage house, but the idea simply continued to unfold and their first spa was born.

He describes his Thai partner as the creative side of the partnership, and himself as the business and marketing side. Regardless of the division of labor, I am impressed with their management philosophy. They hire local people and work with them to develop the skills they need to succeed in the business. And then they train and retrain to assure quality. They are far from autocratic in their approach. The management team is genuinely the management team. Toby says that “as it grows, so can we”. There is a team approach from housekeeping to accounting, and – amazingly – a profit sharing program. Toby reflected on his hiring philosophy. He looks over credentials and experience, of course. But when interviewing a prospective employee, he focuses on family history and personality. Are they polite? Do they care about customers? Are they eager to learn?

We talked about his personal achievements since the first spa opened. He told me about the computer program he had developed to manage payroll, track services, and help with the many accounting chores generated in the day-to-day operation of a business. The program is a work in progress, and he consistently looks for ways to improve it.

So what, I asked, do you do for fun? There was a brief silence and a slightly guilty smile. Obviously, he works for fun. When he travels, he visits spas in other countries. He seeks out spa owners and managers to talk about the latest treatments. It has been two years since he opened his first spa. Now he has a second spa in full operation, and a third is scheduled to open at the end of the year. It is obvious how he succeeded in engineering, and how he succeeded in the travel and hospitality industry. He is a long way from that dairy farm in Florida, but the work ethic is alive and thriving in Toby Allen.

One thing worries me. I can’t make the numbers work. Graduated from college, worked in engineering, twenty-five years abroad? Toby Allen looks very, very young. He must have found a fountain of youth somewhere. Maybe his combination of work, ethical personnel management and the spa life is the magic potion.