Luxury Wellness

Wellness Woven In

BY Piers Schmidt

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

Humpty Dumpty’s is an attitude that describes very well many of the common definitions of ‘wellness’ and ‘well-being’. Surely two of the most bloated and ambiguous terms in hospitality today, both are ‘fat’ words loaded with potential and yet 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) promotes an eye-watering statistic that 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%).

Even though their combined value of $.9 billion doesn’t come close to the $1.8 billion of the personal care, beauty and anti-ageing segment, spa, wellness tourism and real estate do suggest that hospitality and wellness enjoy a healthy symbiotic relationship. And as tourism itself continues to grow, the two industries will inevitably continue to intersect and promise interesting new forms of interaction. From the increasingly prominent role that wellness is playing in the hospitality projects that Luxury Branding is working on currently, I am sensing the emergence of new possibilities of integration between the two.

Blazing a trail for the elite consumer, the luxury echelons of many industries provide a reliable bellwether of what will become mainstream later through the trickle-down effect. I remember when 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, however, a fabulous spa is not just de rigueur but almost a hygiene factor.

Some facilities are undeniably spectacular but spa has become a zero-sum game and is no longer an effective differentiator. Set in beautiful, highly-designed spaces, albeit that the obligatory Technogym studio will most likely occupy a windowless basement, hotel spas offer a more or less consistent 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 light boing of the singing bowl, an infusion of the day and the inescapable 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 temporary state of well-being that may have been achieved.

Wherever one spas, the programmes and treatments have converged into a common experience. So perhaps it’s little wonder that guest capture rates have plateaued and that hoteliers now regard spas as a guest amenity more than than a profitable department. So, what’s going on?

To answer this, we need to ask a more fundamental question: what is actually going on in 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 ersatz Himalayan distance, aromatherapy atmosphere conditioning and mood lighting in showers where if you close your eyes and really stretch the imagination, you might be bathing in the rainforest. And don’t forget the Prosecco, cheeseburger and fries because F&B data suggest these are actually the golden keys to the pearly gates of earthly happiness and contentment.

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

Luxury hoteliers are now familiar with the experience economy law, which states that as people tire of material possessions, they seek to replace things with intangible memories, Now, however, the most experienced luxury travellers – typically the most affluent – have begun to tire of experiences, which are, themselves, becoming commoditised. When almost every upscale hotel brand delivers immersive local programming to Millennials and even the Gen Z that is following, where is the mature luxury traveller to go next? Experiences have reached a ubiquity that is breeding what we call 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 is desperately seeking something more.

Once upon a time, products were the manufacturer’s customised evolution from commodities while the services that followed were a customised progression from tangible products before yielding themselves to experiences. But now we come to transformations, the fifth and final economic offering, which sits at the apex of the experience economy pyramid. Transformations are the most elevated form of experience and may be described as the ultimate luxury because it’s only when people can meet all of their basic needs that they are free to search for satisfaction and fulfilment on a higher level, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. For this reason, in a post-materialist world, wellness is fast becoming the new luxury and whereas in the experience economy the producer’s role was a stager (and don’t hotels make excellent stages?), in the transformation economy this, too, transforms to that of a guide, a much more proactive and complex responsibility.

As may be expected at this rarefied height, the fifth economic offering is the most difficult to define and to deliver. First, change is a highly personal business for which there is no one size fits all solution. Second, recommending and guiding a transformation through which customers are improved is a smaller scale business opportunity than offering a pleasurable and valuable experience of the world.

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.

And that’s 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 an entirely more intimate and potentially risky relationship with the customer. Mess up a bespoke experience and there’s little damage that a 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.

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 life longer, well. It seems we have finally an answer to that old conundrum “what do you buy the person who has everything for their birthday?” More birthdays of course. 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 longer well? Are the extra years going to be productive and enjoyable? Will we continue to be independent and immune to the effects of deterioration? As they hit middle age, most high achievers feel that there is still so much more to do but fear that they won’t have the time to do it?

With these consumers in particular increasingly drawn to travel as a form of self-actualisation, personal transformation and growth, a new opportunity for wellness within the hospitality environment opens up. 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 opening the possibility to explore alternative wellness opportunities. In this practical respect, 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 it’s in this context that spa as we know it is simply no longer enough. A pleasant time out from the daily routine a massage may be but it doesn’t really do very much, change anything or leave us feeling enabled to continue making more change for ourselves.

If we accept – even partially – that wellness is the ‘new luxury’, then it is not now well overdue that spa itself transformed? Metamorphised 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.

We are starting to see this new approach from a handful of enlightened owners that 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 an opinion piece first published in HOTELS magazine.

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