Evolution of Hotel Spas – Part I


Hotel spas as we know them today have been around since the mid 1990’s. At that time, I was working in the hotel industry in Australia. I can assure you that back then nobody was talking about spas in hotels. Instead, many hotels were still catching up with the fitness trend by installing decent gyms in their properties. Actually, we could even go back a bit further with this little study. You see, prior to the push for gyms in hotels, the same thing had happened with swimming pools. And after the gym push, of course, it was the spas. So it’s useful to understand the process followed by our predecessors.

The Power of SWOT

I recall a specific example where I was preparing the business plan for our hotel in Perth back in 1996. When I got to the section for the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), where I needed to compare our offerings to those of our competitors, I actually had fitness facilities as a strength of ours. This is not because we had a particularly good facility. Infact, even by the standards of the day, our fitness facility was average at best. Nonetheless, simply having any sort of fitness facility in a hotel in those days was considered a competitive advantage. Most of our competitive set had no fitness offering at all.

But, as it turned out, our closest competitor had managed to turn their lack of a gym into a strength. Rather than tell their guests they didn’t have a gym, they said they had access to the best fitness facilities in the city. And this was not a lie. You see, what they did was partner with a local gym that was just a few doors down the road. Any hotel guests wanting to use the gym, simply walked twenty metres down the street where they did indeed have access to the best gym in town. And the hotel even covered the cost of entry.

NB: Maybe these types of partnerships may prove to be a good option for some hotels to solve their spas dilemma in the future.

Customer Led Demand

What’s interesting in hindsight is that while many city hotels in the mid to late 1990’s were focussed on the apparent need for a gym in their property, I’m not really sure there was ever a big demand for it. At least not the sort of demand that meant it was an essential feature of a hotel. One that would result in significant loss of business if it wasn’t there. Rather than this demand for a hotel gym coming from the vast masses of corporate travellers, it was more likely the result of a push from the C-Suite. They wanted to find hotels with additional facilities for their executives when travelling. Nobody was really asking if they would use it. Rather, it was more a matter of having as many complimentary benefits as possible to make their employees happier and more productive when staying in hotels on a business trip. On the supply side, as each hotel added a new fitness facility, each of their competitors became a little less attractive to the corporate travel bookers.

So, in order to stay competitive, hotel after hotel added gym and fitness to their list of complimentary offerings. But there was little to no thought about whether the end user, the hotel guest, really wanted one or not.

Ask the right question

Hotels somehow managed to convince themselves that, based on their extensive market research – and yes, I am being a tad sarcastic here! –  of their customer’s wants and needs, a pool and a gym were essential. The problem is that in these surveys they’re asking the wrong question. The question should not be, ‘Is a gym an important facility in your hotel of choice?’. What they should really be asking is, ‘Would you not stay in this hotel is we did not have a gym?’. If it can sway the purchase decision, the impact is real.

No doubt there were and still are some guests to whom a gym is a top priority when selecting a hotel. Just as a good lap pool is an important feature to those guests who need to start their day with a brisk swim. However, much like the pool guest, the gym guest is still in the vast minority. Just like pools became a commodity in a hotel, so to have gyms. These days we just expect to have a gym available when we stay in a 4 star or 5 star hotel. Whether we want to use it or not is a completely different matter.

So, what of spas…?

Next week in Evolution of Hotel Spas – Part II we’ll take a look at how spas grew from a resort hotel concept to an every hotel concept – with a bang! And we’ll look at how this new pampering service evolved not at a time of economic prosperity, but of hardships.