Hotel Spas – Assessing the Future : Spa China Interview


The good folks over at Spa China interviewed me for the cover story of their July/August 2018 issue. The title of the story was Hotel Spas : Assessing the Future. Kinda says it all, right?

Here’s the full list of questions and answers as they appear in the issue…

How do comment the current status-quo of the global hotel spa industry? What are the major problems troubling hotel spa operators

I’ve been saying for some time now that the global hotel spa industry needs a wake-up call. At the very least, it is sub-optimal. Why do I say that? Just take a look at the numbers. By any metric you want to measure, most hotel spas in most countries around the world, are struggling. And I see this as a massive positive. Let me explain.

In a little over twenty years, hotel spas have gone from a rarity to being ubiquitous. Twenty years ago, you would have difficulty finding even a 5 star hotel with a spa. Today, you can almost guarantee that any 4 star or 5 star hotel in the word will have a spa. Guests expect a hotel to have a spa. Most hotel ratings bodies require a hotel to have spa if they want a 5 star rating. Many travel agents expect the hotel to have a spa. Hotel owners thus feel they must have a spa. Spas are essentially ‘baked in’ to the system. This is good news for us in the spa business.

So, the hotel system is expecting and demanding that they have spas. The spas they have now are not producing great results. This means that for those who can truly innovate and come up with new concepts and versions of the hotel spa model, there is a big opportunity.

I’m old enough to remember a time when hotels did not have spas. When I look back on the offering of those early hotel spas and compare it to today’s hotel spas, not much has changed. Sure, we’ve had some product innovation – although not as much as many skin care companies might like us to believe. We have also had some innovation when it comes to spa equipment and machines. However, the core offering of the hotel spa has changed little over the years.

We know global consumers’ wellness awareness are getting strong, could you please share with us some new wellness concepts or trends that are popular in the global wellness sector? How do these concepts and trends influence consumers’ lifestyle and consuming behaviors?

It is true that Wellness has become a hot topic of conversation, not just in spa circles, but everywhere. I think it’s important to understand that Wellness really is a lifestyle choice. For Wellness to be something meaningful, it is something to be lived every day. So, for spas, that means if we want to go down the road of offering Wellness solutions, we need to understand our role in the total Wellness process. People are not going to just visit the hotel spa for a bit of Wellness. At least not for long. We also need to be very aware of our abilities and limitations.

Mental Wellness, for example, is something I’m hearing a lot of people talk about across many industries and walks of life. It seems like every month or two there is another story of a famous person committing suicide due to Mental Wellness issues. Of course, these are just the ones we hear about. There are, no doubt, many more examples we do not hear about. The issue is real. However, when I hear people say that spas can help with this, it troubles me. Most spas do not have the professional knowledge, skills and qualifications to deal with this. If we get it wrong, the implications are very serious. Potentially fatal. Can spas be places of serenity and solitude? Of course. But we must be very careful that we do not overestimate and over promise when it comes to offering real Mental Wellness solutions.

What are the benefits and challenges will these wellness concepts and trends as well as their influence on consumers bring to hotel spas? Can they help solve hotel spa’s problem of low profitability? Why?

Professor Gerry Bodeker once said to me that spas have the opportunity to become the Organisational Face of Wellness. And I think that’s a good way to look at the role of hotel spas when it comes to Wellness. We can help guide people on their journey into Wellness. The hotel spa can be a safe place to learn about and try new Wellness concepts and modalities. However, as already mentioned, Wellness is something to be lived every day. So, the key to long term sustainability of this idea that spas can be the Organisational Face of Wellness is to find ways to continue the relationship with the client after they leave the spa.

Wellness may well be a hot trend and something that many people want. That does not mean that simply implementing a Wellness program is right for your spa. It also does not mean that doing so is going to be profitable. There is no ‘One Size Fits All’ solution here.

From which aspects can hotel spas work to improve their ability of attracting guests and profitability?

Hotel spas need to have a better understanding of their customer’s wants and needs. And importantly, the differences between wants and needs. A guest might like a massage, but they probably don’t need one. They definitely need to eat. Guests will always find a way to eat, because it’s a ‘must have’. Most hotel spas only offer ‘nice to haves’.

I strongly believe that the hotel spa of tomorrow will look very different to the hotel spas we know today. We need to totally deconstruct the entire spa experience. Everything from the location of the spa, to the service offering, to the way we market to our customers, and everything in between.

The biggest marketing mistake we are making at the moment is that we keep asking our existing customers what they want. Chances are, as they are already your customers, they want what you are currently offering. What we should be doing is asking the guests who are not coming to the spa why they are not coming. That is how we can start getting some ideas about what new services and facilities we should be offering.

According to your experience, what kind of hotel or resort spa tend to excel in nowadays’ market? What are their basic traits?

The most successful hotel spas I see as I travel around the world are those that have not been overbuilt and do not offer an extensive range of treatments. This is almost the exact opposite of what the vast majority of hotels seem to think is required. It’s easy to understand why hotels think like this. In the early days of hotel spas, they were very much seen as a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). As more and more hotels built spas, the easy way to stand out from all the others was to build bigger and more luxurious spas. The problem is, if that is the only differentiator, at some point, it just becomes impossible to keep up.

Extensive and exotic treatment menus may sound like a good idea, but the fact still remains that the bulk of most hotel spa’s revenue comes from their more basic treatments. The standard 1 hr massage is still the biggest seller. Like everything, there are always some exceptions. But we need to remember that these are the exceptions and not the norm. That’s why they are exceptional. The problem we have is that many spas use those exceptional cases to justify a similar path.

My simple advice is…

  1. Know who your customer is
  2. Know who is not your customer
  3. Build based on reasonable expectation, not best-case scenarios

How much do you know about China’s hotel spa industry? What are the opportunities and challenges they are facing? What are the differences from those of foreign hotel spas?

Whilst I do not have extensive knowledge of China’s hotel spa industry, from what I have seen, the challenges are the same as in many other countries. Namely, that we are still creating spas that are much the same as we have been for the past twenty years. The numbers suggest this is not quite what our hotel guests want. We need to break the mould. We need to answer this question…

If hotel spas didn’t exist today, what would we create instead?

Chances are, if we really dig in to that answer, what we build today would not be the same as we are doing now.

From your point of view, do hotel spas globally do a good job in sustainable operation and development? What are their problems? In which aspects should they improve?

It’s very difficult for a hotel spa to embrace sustainability if the hotel in which it operates does not. Nevertheless, there are always small steps a hotel spa can take towards sustainability. It can be as simple as selecting skincare companies that have sustainable practices. The same can be done in terms of selecting spa equipment. For example, EarthLite, a manufacturer of massage tables, plants one tree for every massage table sold. Spas can also implement a number of procedures to reduce water consumption, energy consumption, etc. All of this helps in terms of sustainability.

Have you encounter any spa that do a great job in sustainable development and operation? If yes, please share with us some of the highlighting measures they adopted.

Five Elements in Bali is a good example of spa that has done a good job of sustainable development and operations. The FiveElements stated approach to sustainability is to ‘move our operations beyond the sustainability of Green Building and into the realm of Regenerative Design. In concept, this means that synergies between elements in our operations and those of partner organizations will create self-sustaining positive impacts on the world around us’.

They have identified a number of areas in which sustainable practices need to be in place. Water, Energy, Materials, Waste, etc., are all considered with a view to sustainability. So too Site Sensitivity and Natural Habitat.

I would encourage anyone interested in good sustainability practices to take a look at FiveElements.

How do you comment the rising wellness-themed luxury hotels in China and in the world? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Will they impact traditional luxury hotels and their spas’ business? Why?

The rise of Wellness-themed hotels around the world is a result of two factors. Firstly, an increased awareness by more and more consumers about Wellness. Secondly, and increasing competitive landscape in the hotel industry. Just as hotels once looked to swimming pools, then gyms, then spas to help give them a USP, today they are looking to Wellness.

If these hotels embrace the idea that Wellness is something that needs to be incorporated into every element of the building, the services, the systems, the processes, etc., then the will find a market. Wellness is not something to be experienced at the spa. The hotels that get this right have a big opportunity to create powerful lifestyle brands.

A number of hotel brands have added residential components to their properties in recent years. Adding a Wellness component to this real estate component also represents a big opportunity. Wellness Real Estate is an increasingly popular trend and hotels, especially branded hotels, are ideally positioned to take advantage of this.

In your opinion, how can hotels better integrate its spa into its daily hotel operation, so as to offer better wellness experience to guests and increase profitability?

A good focus point for a spa that wants to help bring an element of Wellness to their hotel is sleep. Many guests report not being able to sleep well in hotels, even in the most luxurious of rooms. There are, of course, a number of factors that can contribute to this. The spa can take the lead in educating guests on Do’s and Don’ts of getting a good night’s sleep. Spas can also help offer products, services and treatments to help guests sleep better.

Offer a Pillow Menu, with a variety of options for guests to choose from. Stock the minibar with items like a Better Sleep Kit. Such a kit could include an eye mask, lavender pillow spray, chamomile tea, etc. Create a treatment designed to enhance sleep. Even if some or all of these ideas are currently being done in the hotel, are they packaged as part of the spa’s Wellness Menu? If not, they should be.

Within the Food and Beverage department of a hotel there are a number of Wellness opportunities. Healthy food items could be presented as Spa Food. A healthy juice menu could be presented as Spa Juices. The opportunities are many and varied.