Back at the start of 2021, luxury Utah desert resort Amangiri was adding the final touches to its new spa package: the sleep retreat. Set to have spanned four days in February 2021, the sleep retreat would have been a masterclass in the art of rest, informed by genetics and psychology. “The inspiration for the sleep retreat started pre-pandemic when we started to identify the focus on restorative sleep as one of growing interest,” Julien Surget, managing director of the Canyon Group, explains. “At around the same time, we were introduced to Dr Breus, a well-known psychologist who lives relatively close to us.”

Dr Michael J Breus – otherwise known as ‘the sleep doctor’ – is a clinical psychologist and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Author of The Power of When, a guidebook to biohacking, Breus was poised to collaborate with Amangiri to deliver a “combination of workshops and learnings, nutrition, post-sleep analysis with the help of a tracking device, and other curated activities to take our guests to a level of well-being for optimal sleep and recovery”. But, as 2021 rolled in, and the Covid- 19 pandemic showed little sign of letting up, the retreat never materialised.

The proposed sleep retreat was just one among a number of packages offered by the wider Aman group that Amangiri belongs to. “Aman is fortunate to have a number of practitioners that travel from property to property to facilitate such programmes,” Surget explains. “We had a very successful meditation-oriented retreat and are in planning stages for a silent retreat, which is also an interesting theme to explore. Other practitioners include disciplines as varied as yoga, Pilates, and cold-water therapy.”

From pampering to well-being

For now, plans for Amangiri’s sleep retreat have been put on ice – though a reboot in the future would likely have popular appeal. In the US, lack of sufficient sleep has been declared a public health epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to a 2019 assessment by Frost & Sullivan, the global ‘sleep economy’ is set to reach $585bn by 2024 – a figure that has no doubt risen since the onset of the pandemic, which triggered a sharp increase in anxiety-related sleeping problems and insomnia in the UK, according to the Guardian.

Figures like this reveal a cruel irony in the cancellation of Amangiri’s sleep retreat by the Covid- 19 crisis: although the retreat was dreamt up pre-pandemic, the impact of successive lockdowns on mental health, not to mention the effects of long Covid on physical well-being, has made the health and wellness sector all the more desirable and, in some cases, essential. Covid-19 may have brought this into sharp focus, but the broader shift within the spa sector from pampering towards health and wellbeing had been in motion for some time before the onset of the pandemic.

In 2015, the global wellness market – including fitness, beauty, anti-ageing, alternative medicine, healthy eating, weight loss and mind and body training – was estimated at $3.7trn, with wellness tourism one of the fastest growing sectors in the industry, according to the Global Wellness Institute. This tourism trend coincides with a wider cultural interest in wellness, life-styling, and the holistic meeting of mind and body – or “the general focus on biohacking and life prolongation”, as Surget puts it, which “are very exciting topics to [Aman’s] niche, sophisticated and curious clientele”.

The cult of biohacking – the manipulation of mind and body to optimise performance outside of conventional medicine – is a driving force behind the wider wellness shift within the spa sector, and often goes hand in hand with trends towards alternative therapies, spiritual discovery and holistic self-improvement. Luxury hotel, Mandarin Oriental, Bodrum in Turkey, offers the ‘Mindfulness and Body Bliss’ package – an intensive four-day programme of personal fitness, detox yoga, traditional hammam rituals and breathing exercises that combines health tourism with spiritual tourism. As Ferbâl Yaman, marketing and communications manager at Mandarin Oriental explains, the spa “uses natural, handmade ingredients from the resort’s own gardens for its remedies […] and guests can discover invigorating, centuries-old Turkish water therapies in authentic hammams”.

The Mindfulness and Body Bliss retreat is designed not only to improve one’s physical well-being, but to reach a state of inner peace. “Our Mindfulness and Body Bliss package is a way to rebuild your strength, both mentally and physically,” Yaman explains. “You let go of the complex world outside to reach a powerful peace within. It is the path to a pure and empowered mind. The experience of this pure mind, released from the world, is incredibly blissful.”

Even the interior architecture of the spa – designed by Antonio Citterio – has a spiritual quality, with “elegant, contemporary, free-flowing spaces where smooth lines, natural colour palette and organic textures combine to create a soothing environment, [while] stone walls, wood-panelled ceilings, a relaxation lounge surrounded by water features and an outdoor sauna are architectural touches that makes the spa a sanctuary of serenity”.

Finding inner peace

For many people, the ‘inner journey’ that these spa packages promote is beginning to take precedence over the physical act of travel that used to guide spa tourism. No longer a means of temporary escape from the routine of daily life, these retreats are now an all-encompassing, quasi-monastic programme of self-improvement that can be taxing and intensive rather than relaxing or indulgent. As Yaman explains, Mandarin Oriental’s “comprehensive wellness programmes, conducted by in-house specialists and internationally renowned spa gurus, enable guests to improve their lifestyle by passing on good practices to them that can be continued in daily life after they leave the resort.” As such, the line between wellness spas and medical health centres has become increasingly blurred – but the distinction is usually located in the preventative (rather than curative) approach to health that commercialised spas tend to offer.

The combination of a growing wellness industry and the world’s slow emergence out of the Covid-19 pandemic is no doubt reshaping the hotel sector, as well as travel and tourism broadly – but what does the future look like? “The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable our industry is when government restrictions are put in place,” Yaman says, “[but] demand is on the rise, as consumers increasingly focus on the importance of their well-being, mental health and stress relief.” In the coming years, Yaman predicts that wellness will drive the growth of the spa industry, too. “Consumers seek to reset their physical, spiritual, and psychological well-being and bond with a likeminded community on wellness trips,” she adds. “People who travel for business or leisure often incorporate wellness activities into their itinerary as well.”

Surget, too, notes the double impact of Covid-19 on the spa sector. On the one hand, because of the intimate nature of the spa, “the treatment experience for guests and providers alike [was] considerably disrupted. In the short term, it turned it into an almost clinical experience, with masks, wellness checks, gloves and so on”.

“On the flip side, it also provided an even more exceptional experience for our guests when, for example, we started to privatise spaces that would have been [public] in the past, such as the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room. The spa industry has certainly been heavily affected by the crisis,” Surget acknowledges, “but we are glad to see confidence in both travellers and providers growing, as time and knowledge progress.”

Looking ahead, Surget says that the biggest shift he has observed is that wellness goes beyond the rooms of spa treatments in hotels. “Guests now want to be immersed in a generally well-balanced environment, and while the spa remains the inner sanctum, they also look for wellness-focused execution in terms of menu curation, ability to be active, environmental awareness, community relation and so on – anything that allows them to indulge guilt-free, knowing that even on vacation they are doing good to themselves and to others.”

The future of spa, Surget believes, “will generally lean in the direction of biohacking and life prolongation through wellness […] and I think we will start to see a growing focus on the general topic of ‘what can I do to live longer, healthier and happier?’”.

With any luck, the future will also hold the relaunch of Amangiri’s sleep retreat in the Utah desert. After two years of a global pandemic and all the lockdowns, health crises and general disruption that it has entailed, I am sure we could all do with a good night’s sleep.