Destination Wellness – from Fat Farms to Fitness to Hotel Spas and Beyond – Part I


WARNING: For those of you in the Destination Wellness or Fitness realms, I would ask you to suspend your current beliefs on what your industry is, where it came from and where it’s going. If you can do that, you just might find some food for thought in the following article.

The resort spas of today owe much of their existence to the Fat Farms of yesterday. The destination spas of today owe them everything. We truly have come a long way since those early years and of course I can not imagine anyone today marketing their destination wellness retreat as a Fat Farm. Nonetheless, an awareness of where we came from is always helpful in understanding where we are today and where we might be able to go tomorrow.

These health resorts started to appear in the US market in 1960’s, not so much as an alternative holiday destination but as a place to get your diet and fitness plan sorted out. Fitness and nutrition were far from mainstream so for those people who did want to take action, the only practical option was to check in to one of these resorts for a week or two for a strict regimen of healthy eating and vigorous daily workouts. Initially, there was nothing particularly glamourous about these places. You only went there if you really needed to.

At some point, however, the dynamic shifted. Health resorts became something for the rich (or at least wealthy) and famous. To have made it through ten days at the resort was not just a personal achievement, it was a statement of status. Before too long, the basic accommodation at these resorts gave way to the more luxurious amenities demanded by their ever-discerning clientele. It seemed like this was going to be the beginning of something big. But somehow the concept never really took off. They were not able to achieve significant scale. Instead, the fitness industry swooped in and stole the momentum.

An increasing awareness about being fit and healthy, fueled in part by the health resorts, led to the rise of the fitness industry. Now, instead of having to drive for a few hours and stay for a week or more, the health-conscious consumer could sign up at their local fitness centre and go in every day for their endorphin rush. This was a business model that could scale, and it did. Fitness Centres made health accessible to the masses. Sure, you still needed to pay some hefty membership fees, but if you wanted to take action with your health, the solution was now within reach. These new temples of health provided access for so many more people than the health resorts could ever hope to.

The fitness boom was loud and long. Health resorts in the meantime slipped quietly back into the realm of a niche specialist service for a select few clients. Like with any bull market, the Business Cowboys appeared from nowhere with short term schemes and scams designed to make a quick buck. Membership models that require upfront payment for several months or more at a time was the lifeblood of these businesses. Such models can be a great option for both the business and the customer. The business gets access to extra cash up front to help them grow the business in those critical early stages, while the customer usually gets discounts or additional benefits by paying in advance for something they know they will use – or at least have every intention of using. Unfortunately, these same models work well for the Cowboys too. Drive the annual membership sales, get cashed up, then close down and run away. This is what happened a lot in the fitness industry and as a result many customers lost their money and lost their trust in the industry.

The fit and healthy became disenchanted. The stage was now set for a disruptor.


In Part II of Destination Wellness – from Fat Farms to Fitness to Hotel Spas and Beyond, we’ll explore the rise of the hotel spa concept, what it meant to the destination spa business and how the stage may well be getting set again for another disruption.