Susan Harmsworth’s dictum that one should “either do a spa well or not do it at all” is founded on four decades’ experience in the industry. She’s now a doyenne of the sector, but when Harmsworth set up ESPA in 1993, the hotel spa was the sole preserve of a smattering of luxury properties, and few aspired to much beyond a massage table and sauna.

For years, this gave the impression that spas – unlike bars or restaurants – were tacked onto hotels, rather than integral to their structures.

It seems strange to consider now. Modern hotel guests expect extensive wellness programmes when they book at four-star and five-star properties, and spas have become bona fide revenue spinners.

“[A spa] must be built as a revenue-generation operation,” says Niamh O’Connell, group vice-president of guest experiences and wellness at Rosewood Hotel Group.

“That means, normally, a feasibility study needs to be done by the operator, together with an assessment to determine whether or not the spa should be built.”

O’Connell is currently overseeing the launch of a new ‘integrative wellness concept’ at the Hong Kong-headquartered operator’s properties. Known as ‘Asaya’: the idea is to “fuse alternative therapies; lifestyle and nutrition coaching; educational wellness programming; fitness activities; specialised healing treatments; and a dedication to pure, authentic ingredients; and thoughtful design”.

Asaya – which will debut at the Rosewood Phuket resort in November before being rolled out at other properties next year –is based on a 'software' approach to guests, explains O’Connell. “Operators are more savvy now, so it’s not about simply building a facility – the hardware,” she says. “They are spending more time on analysing and planning what exactly goes into fulfilling a guest journey in order to provide a flawless experience.”

Overuse of technology seems to be having negative short and long-term effects on our health, so we need to address that in our hotel spas in particular.

Changing expectations

However, the definition of wellness – still a relatively novel term in Europe in this particular context – is also expanding, says Harmsworth. Operators need to be aware of changing guest expectations, rather than just sticking to buzzwords.

“We have seen a change in attitude towards wellness over the past ten years, but I advise our spas to use ‘wellness’ with caution,” she says. “We are finding hotel operators are either taking well-being, wellness and lifestyle issues much more seriously, or it’s being driven more by marketing and terminology.

“The danger is that it doesn’t always meet guests’ expectations. I believe we shouldn’t over-promise, and should always be able to deliver.”

There is also some contention over whether the spa should be considered an amenity. For Andrew Gibson, vice-president of well-being for Accor Luxury, it’s terminology that sells the spa well short.

“It is certainly not an amenity,” he says. “If designed and located intelligently, a spa and its related services can be a valuable attraction for a hotel.”

Gibson, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the spa sector, cites the 'halo effect' spas can have on today’s operators. According to research conducted by Accor, spa users spend double on food and beverage, and stay more than half a day longer on average than other guests.

“They have a higher overall spend in every area of the hotel,” he says. “Our conclusion is that the high spenders are likely to use a spa.”

O’Connell and Gibson are excited by the trends they are observing. According to O’Connell, “Hotels are identifying deeper and more diverse layers in the market.”

For instance, operators that offer the best facilities tend to be those that understand that wellness is, in many cases, an extension of guests’ daily health regimes, which may include consciousness and mindfulness techniques, or personal trainers.

“Consciously and unconsciously, wellness is becoming more significant in our day-to-day lives, in the ways we work eat, sleep, and socialise,” she says.

“Operators must be able to appeal to diverse lifestyles. This includes consciousness and mindfulness products and services. Other important elements might be environmental aspects, animal-friendly awareness, and food-related aspects such as organic foods, or sustainably harvested food with less of a carbon footprint.”

Multisensory experience

In Gibson’s eyes, the holistic approach favoured by many of today’s leading hotels means the spa is not just limited to a single physical space. Wellness can encapsulate several features simultaneously, from water and lighting to the aroma of one’s room.“The most exciting trend by far is the development of wellness into every aspect of hotel operations,” he says.

“Guest room design is changing dramatically, with different companies taking a variety of interpretations of what this means.

“Technology and robotics will also play a part in the development and improvements of wellness services in the hotel. Our vision is to have our guests leave the hotel feeling better than when they walked in.”

Above all else, hotels are improving their wellness offerings for the right reasons. In addition to staying abreast of guest demands and trends, this also entails paying heed to financial viability – which hasn’t always been the case in the past, says Gibson.

“In the past 20 years, knowledge on design, positioning and performance of the spa has improved,” he explains.

“With some exceptions, most spas are built with realistic financial expectations, whereas just over a decade ago they were still being built based on comparisons with the competitive set, or on ego.”

“We went through an era of quick fix, where time-poor guests were looking for shorter treatments and instant results,” reflects Harmsworth. “However, we are already seeing a move away from this as a result of our modern lifestyles.”

While technology and robotics will undoubtedly play a significant role in the development of wellness services, there will always be guests who regard spas as a means of temporarily escaping smartphones and social media.

“Overuse of technology seems to be having negative short and long-term effects on our health, so we need to address that in our hotel spas in particular,” says Harmsworth.

No compromise

Perhaps the biggest decision for operators to make is whether they carve out a niche for their well-being offering, or strive for something with more universal appeal.

“Traditional luxury hotel spas will continue to have their place in the market, as many guests will continue to seek a restful and relaxing destination,” says “O’Connell, “but if operators can execute them authentically, there is also a place for wellness facilities in the market. Once an operator identifies its place in the market, it will find the space and clientele that are right for it.”

The one thing operators can’t afford to do, says Harmsworth, is offer a spa programme that is neither one thing nor the other.

“We see the market segmenting now, which I think is a good thing for clarity for the guests,” she says. “If you’re going to carve out a niche, it must produce results. If it’s nutrition-led, for weight-loss or a health-related programme, it really must work; many of those currently on offer are just tokenistic. The most revenue will still be from massage, facials and general spa treatments. In the wellness sector, you have very specialist areas, such as complementary health, acupuncture, osteopathy, nutrition and cancer treatments, so you need to have the market to make it profitable. It’s not something you can compromise on.”