Where Wellness
is Woven in

By Piers Schmidt

Not that there is nothing anything wrong with a wellness model that evidently pleases most people most of the time but change is afoot and it’s being driven by the changing demands of the luxury travelling consumer.

Opinion Piece

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” said Humpty Dumpty.

Well, perhaps Humpty Dumpty was the instigator of the ‘wellness’ conundrum because are not ‘wellness’ and ‘well-being’ are two of the most bloated, ambiguous terms in hospitality today? Loaded with potential maybe but still almost devoid of universal meaning. Try it for yourself: what is wellness and how does it differ from well-being? And what do either of them have to do with hotels?

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) trumpets wellness as a $4.2 trillion global economy. What’s more, it’s a giga business that grew 12.8% between 2015–2017, nearly twice as fast as global economic growth.

Driving this growth are the industry’s third, seventh and eighth largest sectors: spa (+9.8%), wellness tourism (+6.5%) and wellness real estate (+6.4%). Their combined value of $.9 billion suggests that hospitality and wellness enjoy a healthy symbiotic relationship.

And as tourism itself continues to grow, the two industries will continue to intersect and promise interesting new interactions. From the growing role that wellness is playing in the hospitality projects that Luxury Branding works on, I sense new possibilities for greater integration between the two.

Luxury trickle-down
Luxury is a reliable bellwether of what will become mainstream later through the trickle-down effect. Once it wasn’t expected for luxury resorts to boast destination spas and it isn’t long since space for a spa in even ultra-luxury city hotels was a low priority for operators. Today a fabulous spa is a hygiene factor.

Some facilities are undeniably spectacular but the spa has become a zero-sum game longer an effective differentiator. Set in beautiful, highly-designed spaces, hotel spas offer a predictable experience. After completing a health questionnaire, there’ll be a choice of oils, room temperature and music before a cleansing footbath ritual and a regulation 45 mins of squeeze, roll, rub and pull. Proceedings conclude with a gentle boing of the singing bowl, an infusion of the day and the inevitable product pitch before being escorted to the deep relaxation room. Here, 10 minutes of deep breathing prepare you for the bill, the size of which is likely to instantly negate any state of well-being that may have been achieved.

Wherever one spas, the programmes and treatments have converged into a common experience. Little wonder that guest capture rates have plateaued and that hoteliers now regard spas as a guest amenity, not a profitable department.

So, what’s going on?
To answer this, we need to ask a more fundamental question: what is actually happening ing hotel spas as we know them? The proposition of most spas is still mainly about me-time and pampering. It’s a promise of indulgence in a cosseting luxury environment: panpipes tooting in the faux-Himalayan distance, aromatherapy atmosphere conditioning and mood lighting in showers.

A world beyond experiences
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a wellness model that pleases most people most of the time. But, as I’ve suggested, change is afoot and it’s being driven by the evolving demands of the luxury travelling consumer.

Luxury hoteliers understand the experience economy law states that as people tire of material possessions, they seek to replace ‘things’ with intangible memories.

But now the most experienced luxury travellers – typically the most affluent – have begun to tire of experiences. And experiences, themselves, are becoming commoditised (thus the generic spa experience).

Experiences have reached a ubiquity that is breeding the ‘been there, done that syndrome. Facing this new threat down, what can the luxury hotel or resort operator offer a ne’er to be satisfied Mr and Mrs Luxe? A couple that has experienced everything and is desperately seeking something more. Whether they know it, or not.

Once upon a time, products were the manufacturer’s customised evolution from commodities. The services that followed were a customised progression from tangible products. In turn, services yielded to experiences. And so we come to transformations, the fifth and final economic offering, which sits at the apex of the experience economy pyramid.

Wellness: the ultimate luxury
In a post-materialist, post-experience world a transformation that provokes a sense of wellness is the ultimate luxury. Places that once staged experiences (hotels and resorts) are no longer ‘stagers’. They are guides in transformation. This is a far more complex responsibility.

Transformation t, the fifth economic offering, is the most difficult to define and to deliver. First, change is a highly personal, subjective business. Second, recommending and guiding a transformation through which customers are improved is far harder to scale up than a merely pleasurable experience.

Indeed it is difficult to think of many commercial forms of transformation, although education and psychotherapy, dieting, personal training and cosmetic surgery are the most frequently referenced. Finally, experiences are essentially outside-in endeavours, bringing the glory of the world to the attention of the client, while transformations are just the opposite. They are inside out, bringing the client closer to the best version of themselves.

Pay attention in the back!
This is where things get technical, complicated and certainly outside the core competence of most hoteliers. Promising a transformation of any kind requires the provider to engage in a more intimate and potentially risky relationship with the customer. Mess up a bespoke experience and there’s little damage that comp or a boost to the points balance won’t fix. Mismanage an act of personal transformation and you’re likely to be hearing from the client’s attorney holding a suit for personal damages.

What do you buy the person who has everything for their birthday? More birthdays, of course
Amongst Ultra High Net Worth consumers, we are starting to see a redefinition of luxury, where the prize with the greatest value is to live well for longer Says Fflur Roberts, Head of Global Luxury Goods at Euromonitor, “Wellness is a status thing: people want to show that they care about their bodies and self-preservation.” We can be pretty certain that we are going to live longer but are we going to live ‘well’ for longer? Are the extra years going to be productive and enjoyable? Will we remain independent and immune to the effects of deterioration? As they hit middle age, most high achievers feel that there is still so much more. But they fear running out of time to do it in.

With change comes opportunity
With these consumers drawn to travel as a form of self-actualisation, personal transformation and growth, a new opportunity opens up for wellness within the hospitality environment…

While they may be seeking an experience of the world that takes them to a deeper emotional level and fundamentally changes them, paradoxically perhaps business travel and short stay leisure provide a welcome dislocation to normal routines. In this way travel is a particularly good catalyst for transformation. The fresh horizons offered by travel also help to open the mind meaning that hotels are brilliantly positioned right at the nexus of that possibility and make an excellent centre for safe discovery.

And we’re back in the spa…
And it’s in this context that spa as we know it is simply no longer enough. A massage may be a pleasant time-out from the daily routine. But it doesn’t really change anything or launch us along a path to personal growth. To accept – even partially – that wellness is the ‘new luxury’, is to accept that the spa itself is due a transformation; a metamorphosed from a discrete facility buried in the basement, the management of which is outsourced to third-party operators more expert in these matters, to a core service inextricably woven into the physical fabric of the buildings and integrated seamlessly into a transformative guest experience.

Wellness woven in
We are starting to see this new approach from a handful of enlightened owners. They have come to this realisation themselves and are asking for wellness to be woven in. Of course, it’s one thing to recognise the opportunity but quite another to address it, although the challenge of operating without a rulebook is what makes work in this emerging space so interesting. Inevitably, it will take a few iterations over a number of years for propositions that are successful both conceptually and commercially to crystallise.

But wellness and hospitality intermingled—your time has come.

This article is an extended version of a piece first published in HOTELS magazine.

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