More than skin deep

Universal distributes products to spas and resorts

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce

Marti Morenings’ name is well known among prestigious spas and resorts. The company she heads, Abingdon-based Universal Cos., is an international distributor of products, equipment and supplies used by spas, resorts and skin-care professionals. Two popular products are Puresage, a proprietary line of massage oils used by professional massage therapists, and Ecofin, an eco-friendly paraffin alternative.

When Morenings founded the company in 1982 with her father, chiropractor G.H. Morenings, she wanted to create a company with a product people could use. Today, global luxury properties such as the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton use the spa equipment and products her company distributes from its warehouse in Abingdon. The 75,000-square-foot headquarters building also houses shipping and receiving and a call center along with administrative offices.

Morenings designed the company’s first catalog, an eight-page publication, on her copy machine in 1991. Today, Universal produces a slick, 450-page catalog for U.S. and international clients.

The company initially sold skin-care products and equipment along with sundry supplies. Morenings added spa products and equipment in the late 1990s when she saw an upswing in the spa industry. “We saw a boom in the hotel market when they realized that adding a spa would attract guests and put more heads in beds,” she says.  Medical spas also were becoming more prevalent. “Physicians were realizing that people were willing to pay for wellness treatments. It fit nicely with plastic surgery and dermatologists who were doing Botox, etc. As different business segments started realizing they could get into the spa market, we began creating products and services that fit their needs.”

While Universal doesn’t make products per se, its manufacturers will produce products to Universal’s specifications. “They become proprietary to us,” Morenings says.

She describes the company’s growth as “tremendous,” with revenues often doubling from year to year. Revenues did drop about 8 percent in 2009 as a result of the recession, but that decrease was short-lived. “In 2010, we were up 12 percent,” Morenings says, noting that the company began focusing on the growing independent practitioner market during that time. “We didn’t cut back our marketing budget, and we didn’t waiver on quality or service.”

Most of the company’s approximately 120 employees live in Abingdon. A few have their offices on the West Coast and Florida, Universal’s two largest markets. Two of the company’s employees live in Cancun, Mexico, to support Universal’s new office in that city.

Morenings chose Abingdon because it was her hometown, but she has discovered the area is a prime location for the type of business she operates. “We have a wonderful work force here, and this area is great for distribution,” she says. “We also have a lot of people driving in for training, and it’s an easy location to drive to from areas like the Carolinas, Kentucky and Atlanta.”

The Southwest Virginia town sits between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains and is home to the state theater of Virginia, the Barter Theatre, founded in 1933. Actors who have performed at the Barter include Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine and Kevin Spacey.

The area also is home to the William King Museum, a nonprofit regional art museum and arts education center. It’s located in a circa-1913 school and averages nine exhibitions each year that spotlight the art and culture of the region. 

The town’s economy
Abingdon’s economy — similar to that of Asheville, N.C. — is primarily an arts and culture economy that includes the Barter Theatre and the Arts Depot, a cooperative with artist studios offering everything from weaving to pottery. The area’s largest employers include Johnston Memorial Hospital — which has received state approval to construct a 500,000-square-foot replacement facility at the same location as its Cancer Center, and K-VA-T Food Stores, the corporate offices of Food City Grocery Stores.

Also located in Abingdon are the Stone Mill Business and Technology Park and the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, created to help startup companies. Abingdon’s newest addition is Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway, projected to open in June 2011. The 29,000-square-foot facility will serve as the headquarters for The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, the Cultural Heritage Commission and Around the Mountain, a network of artisans. It also will house a restaurant and feature crafts and music from the area. It’s expected to draw 270,000 visitors a year.

Where to stay
The historic Martha Washington Hotel and Spa is a popular choice for visitors.  The circa-1832 property was built as a private residence but served as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Civil War before becoming a women’s college and eventually a hotel with a year-round heated therapeutic saltwater pool. The hotel has recently added The Spa at The Martha Washington Inn with an adjoining fitness area. Abingdon also has several small hotels and motels such as the Comfort Inn along with a few bed-and-breakfast establishments.

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