Evolution of Hotel Spas – Part II


Last week, in Evolution of Hotel Spas – Part I, we took a brief look at the processes of our predecessors – the hotel pool and the hotel gym. This week, with the stage set, we take a look at how spas arrived on the scene.

Meanwhile, as city hotels were struggling with their fitness centre dilemma, some resort spas were starting to explore this new thing called spa. With guests coming to resorts to relax, unwind and indulge, the idea of providing massage, beauty and pampering services seemed like an obvious fit. And it was. Massage was the key component of the early spas. Beauty treatments in general though were still something that you would go back home to your favourite salon for. Interestingly enough, those beauty salons would soon begin rebranding themselves as spas too. We will take a closer look at the day spa evolution in a later article.

These early resort spas were a far cry from what we see today. No fancy reception and lounge areas, no spacious treatment rooms with steam showers and couples Jacuzzi baths. Most spas back then were made up of little more than a few empty guest rooms, side by side, with the hotel beds taken out and replaced with massage tables. Those resorts that were a little more creative made use of a gazebo or bale that was already in the gardens and setup a massage table, draped some sheer curtains to offer at least the illusion of some privacy and called it a spa.

In speaking with Tom Gottleib, the founder of Mandara Spa (full disclosure, this is the company I work for), about those early days he says the spa concept just resonated with resort guests immediately. His company went from zero to 70 spas in just a few short years. He likened the rapid growth in the business to strapping on a jetpack and just holding on tight. Spas were the new shiny toy and everyone wanted to play with it.

Economic Climate

Given that hotel spas were all about pampering and indulgence, it would be reasonable to assume that they must have come along at a time when the economy was strong and people felt good about their future. The reality though is that in the late 1990’s the world was plunged into a global economic downturn. Many refer to this period as the Asian Financial Crisis, as some of the most dramatic impacts were felt in key Asian economies such as Thailand and Indonesia. However, it is probably more accurately described as a Western Financial Crisis with Asian victims. Sounds like a global financial crisis to me. Stock markets were tumbling and economies around the world were collapsing.

Hotels obviously felt the pinch of the economic troubles of the day, with occupancies and room rates dropping rapidly. So from a business perspective, it made perfect sense why they would latch on to any new concept that offered them a chance to make some incremental revenue. As for the guests, I am sure there are experts in psychology and sociology who can offer more scientific explanations, but perhaps it was something as simple as the spa offered them that little bit of extra indulgence at a time when they needed some gentle reassurance that all would be ok.

Is that bandwagon I see before me?

Seeing the success of spas in resorts, it wasn’t long before city hotels jumped on board the spa bandwagon too. Just like resort hotels, many the early adopters also made use of empty guest rooms to create their first spa experiences. Some hotels that had gone all in on the fitness trend already had an advantage. They had a room or two as part of the hotel gym that was used to offer sports massages to their guests. For a long time, these cramped rooms, with the overpowering aroma of menthol, were the only option you had if you wanted a massage in hotel. Hotels had not yet realised that a typical hotel guest was not a finely tuned athlete in need of a deep tissue muscle massage. Rather, they were a non-athlete in need of some pampering and relaxation.

Over the past twenty years or so we have seen hotel spas evolve from a tiny room at the back of a gym or a converted guest room to what is today in many cases a substantial footprint, with significant investment, complete with extensive services and facilities. Spas today are still often built with the specific goal of becoming the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of the hotel. As I have continued to explore throughout my articles, such a strategy has not always worked. More importantly, it’s almost certainly is not the way of the future of hotel spas.

If we want to read more about my thoughts on the future, I wrote an article a few weeks back about the Future of Hotel Spas which was published in Hotel Business Review.