As Andre Izrailov and Simon Mirzokan prepared to open Okeanos, they faced the task of positioning the spa as something more than the commonly perceived downscale Russian bathhouse.
"It was a challenge to communicate that a category seen as downscale is really upscale ," says Lori Zelenko, LSZ Communications principal, whom they enlisted to promote the spa. "The experience defies description."
"The average PR campaign [the strategy is] you create an event, and you call the press," she says. "In this case, I took ownership of the project from the beginning and was as involved and committed as if I owned it."
The team crafted the concept of tying in the Russian tradition of tsars and Romanov-like excess, and set out to build the Okeanos brand through strategic alliances with like-minded brands.
The owners wanted Okeanos to be one of the "better-kept secrets of the spa world" and chose not to advertise, so Zelenko had to generate referrals through word of mouth and editorial alone. To do so, she had to get the press in to experience the spa firsthand.
Targeting luxury brands with Russian ties, Zelenko forged partnerships with Russian caviar purveyor Petrossian, Russian vodka Zyr, and Heidsieck & Co. Monopole champagne, said to be the favorite of Tsar Nicolas II.
Zelenko also played an instrumental role in crafting the spa treatment menu. "It's more than about the food," she notes, " it's about how the whole experience comes together."
To actually convey that experience, Zelenko created an in-depth press kit and hired an interior photographer. "We got a lot more press because our photos told the story," she adds.
After holding an opening party, LSZ invited the press in one-on-one to experience banya - the Russian steam sauna - and the spa treatments. Zelenko also targeted local Russian athletes, including New York Rangers hockey players and dancers from the American Ballet Theatre.
Zelenko met with the press night after night "to clearly and personally communicate precisely what the experience is about."
Media impressions included a cover story in American Spa, as well as coverage in The New York Times, Time Out New York, IN New York, Gotham, and the online editions of New York and Nylon. Okeanos also was one of two New York spas included on Condé Nast Traveler's Hot List, which, Zelenko notes, spurred an influx of celebrity clientele.
Not only have existing partners expressed pleasure with the attention their brands are getting, "relationships that were discussed prior to press and opening are coming to fruition now, and certainly the press has acted like a seal of approval," she adds.
As the spa business evolves, the relationship between the owners and LSZ Communications "remains incredibly positive," says Zelenko. "They're refining things and adding new treatments and anticipate expansion another several thousand square feet."
PR team: Okeanos (New York) and LSZ Communications (New York)
Campaign: A Modern Spa in the Spirit of the Tsars
Duration: July 2005 - ongoing
Budget: About $50,000 annually
Fundamental to this effort was that the spa owners were receptive to Zelenko's suggestions, even if they were outside the traditional publicist role. The campaign worked because LSZ was able to take some ownership of the project and was involved from start to finish in creating the brand. The key was not only leveraging partnerships, but leveraging the right partnerships with well-known luxury brands that tied in with the image Okeanos wanted to project.
Getting the press to experience the spa firsthand was also instrumental, as were the one-on-one conversations Zelenko had with reporters during their visits.