Trying to keep up with the latest wellness trends can be exhausting. Infrared saunas, detoxification pods and vitamin C-infused shower heads are just a few of the latest innovations – or fads, depending on your outlook – to emerge. It is easy to forget that the origins of the current wellness movement date back thousands of years to the ancient civilisations of Asia and southern Europe, out of which came yoga, meditation and holistic medicines popular today.

In the early 20th century, charismatic doctor and nutritionist John Harvey Kellogg set up the sprawling 30-acre Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, US, with more than 250 hotel-like guest rooms. Patients followed a strict nutritious diet including the famous family cornflakes for breakfast, invented by John’s brother, Will. Battle Creek offered a range of therapies favoured by the rich and famous to cure various ailments. Some of these treatments, like hydrotherapy, are still widely used today. Others, including electric currents to the eyeballs to alleviate vision disorders, have thankfully been left behind.

Then, in the 1950s, physician and ‘father of the wellness movement’ Dr Halbert Dunn began to promote the idea that there was more to physical, mental and social well-being than the absence of disease, and that individuals should, instead, strive for high-level wellness. Since then, wellness has gone from strength to strength and, by 2020, the global wellness industry was worth over $4trn. It’s hardly surprising hoteliers want a slice of the chia seed cake.

Health is wealth

Like Dunn, Jeremy McCarthy, group director of Spa and Wellness at Mandarin Oriental, believes that the key to wellness is not waiting for things to go wrong. Rather, individuals should actively move towards a more positive state of health. For McCarthy, the question is: ‘How do you make healthy people even healthier?’ The answer, he explains, is to take a holistic approach to wellness, improving the quality of an individual’s physiology, movement and sleep.

At the Mandarin Oriental, wellness is the cornerstone of the luxury brand’s identity. McCarthy and his colleagues cater to two types of guest: those that already follow a healthy lifestyle and those that haven’t necessarily given wellness much thought before their stay. In both cases, daily routines are disrupted by travel. The hotel’s wellness offering provides guests with the tools they need to either continue their healthy lifestyle or experience something new, like their first personal training session or spa treatment.

McCarthy emphasises that the wellness market is extremely competitive, making it difficult to stand out. As a result, he says, hotels have to step up and deliver high-quality experiences. While he admits there is “certainly a layer of the wellness industry that can be very superficial”, he is adamant that there is also an opportunity to deliver genuine experiences that “provide real, tangible benefits to people”.

Having worked in the hotel industry for more than 30 years, McCarthy has witnessed first hand the rapid growth of the sector. In countries where affluence has risen, he says, so too has wellness. “If you’re not trying to put food on your plate and you’re doing well economically, but you still want to find ways to improve your life, naturally you’re going to turn to wellness,” he explains. While he is keen to stress that wellness is essentially free to all – everyone can drink water and breathe fresh air – he concedes that the typical wellness consumer ties in with the luxury market and takes a ‘rarefied’ approach to their health. He believes that there has been a generational shift and that, increasingly, people expect wellness in every part of their lives. Modern consumers, he says, no longer accept that they might have to sacrifice wellness when travelling.

Emlyn Brown, vice-president for well-being at Accor, agrees that the millennial generation are a central driving force behind the expanding wellness market, especially as they share information about their healthy lifestyles on social media, encouraging further bookings. The typical wellness guest, he says, is highly attractive as they spend, on average, around 55% more than leisure travellers. However, he acknowledges that more needs to be done to ensure wellness is not confined to the elite. The time has come, he says, to start thinking about how to democratise the wellness experience, beyond the luxury and premium market, to eco and midscale brands. Brown believes the growing focus on wellness in the hospitality industry reflects its increasing value in society in general. People are pushed towards wellness, he says, by the stresses of modern life. Conversely, they are pulled in by the attractive, aspirational imagery tied to wellness. Like McCarthy, Brown thinks guests should not only be able to maintain their wellness routines, but that they should also be educated on new habits and ways to improve their health during their stay.

In recent years, Accor has led the way integrating health and wellness into almost every aspect of the guest experience, from room design to food and beverage menus. Above all, the company values authenticity. “We want to separate fact from fad,” explains Brown. “What are the big macro-trends that are here to stay, and what are the micro-trends that might be around for a year or two and then disappear?” To decide, Brown and his colleagues consult Accor’s five pillars of well-being: nutrition, design, movement, spa and mindfulness. Each brand’s demographic and location is used to determine which of the pillars should be dialled up or down. “We know that exercise and fitness are really important to our guests at Pullman, so we turn up the volume on the movement element,” Brown says. Meanwhile, at Raffles, a ‘second nature’ design philosophy is employed, combining biophilia (human’s innate connection to nature) and feng shui to enhance the guest’s mood.

Fit for purpose

The outbreak of Covid-19 may have devastated the hotel industry as a whole, but for wellness, it’s a different story. The pandemic has triggered a renewed focus on personal health and the need to maintain a strong immune system. “I think we’re going to see what we call a super accelerator with the idea that wellness will be cross-generational, and an understanding that we need to take ownership for our own health and well-being,” explains Brown.

Accor has taken several steps to reassure guests that safeguarding their health is a top priority. In May 2020 it announced a partnership with insurance company AXA, providing guests at 5,000 of their hotels worldwide with free access to medical teleconsultations. Then, in June 2020, the company launched its ‘All Safe’ cleanliness programme, enhancing hygiene protocols to minimise the spread of Covid-19 as its hotels began to reopen.

Looking ahead

Brown and his colleagues believe the pandemic will spur guest demand in three existing areas: fitness, nutrition and mental health. They plan to utilise outdoor areas and digitalise content to deliver a wider range of socially distanced exercise classes. Immunity and gut health will play a central role in the latest food and beverage offerings. “Basically the premise is: let food be thy medicine,” says Brown, drawing on Hippocrates, the Greek founder of western medicine. Lastly, he is aware that, for many, the pandemic has been a stressful time and that people will be looking for ways to alleviate anxiety through mindfulness and meditative practice. “As hoteliers, we promise to provide people with that moment for pause and relaxation,” he says. “I think that’s going to be something we need to bring more strongly into our offerings going forward.”

While he is reluctant to predict just how much of an impact Covid-19 will have on wellness in the years ahead, Brown believes this will become clear over the next nine to 12 months and the hotel industry will adopt accordingly. “At the moment, we’re still in that phase where we’re waiting for things to return to a certain pre-norm,” he says, “but I think soon there will be the realisation that there’s longer-term issues we need to address.”

McCarthy also expects to see a vast acceleration of the wellness trends already under way before the outbreak of Covid-19. The pandemic, he says, has increased consumer’s awareness of their health and longevity, especially as those with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of getting severely ill. “I think the virus is a reminder of our morality,” he explains. “It makes us realise that we have a limited amount of time on this planet and we need to make the most of what we have, perhaps adopting certain lifestyle behaviours that can help us to live longer lives, of greater quality.”

Moving forward, McCarthy believes one of the biggest areas of innovation will be digital wellness. Prior to the pandemic, the focus at Mandarin Oriental was very much on allowing guests to escape technology. However, he says, technology has been the hero of the pandemic, allowing people to communicate with friends and family, work remotely and continue to pursue health practices. In response to this shift, the company partnered with Grokker, an online platform that provides wellness videos to guests in their hotel rooms.

Although more people are using technology than ever before, McCarthy predicts that at some point, there will be a backlash against it, and that people will once again want to escape technology and have “real hands-on experiences in a non-digital, human way”.

Like Brown, he believes one of the most important areas to focus on going forward is mental health. Part of this, he says, is helping guests to manage the significant disruption to mental well-being that comes with too much technology use and find a healthy balance, creating a place of “mental flourishing”. Mandarin Oriental is also prioritising employee mental health and currently in the process of creating a mental wellness course for its staff, Inner Strength Outer Strength, designed to help them build physical vitality and emotional resilience to recover from the pandemic.

Ultimately, says McCarthy, we are living through a time of massive disruption and it is impossible to predict what the future holds. However, there is a tinge of excitement in his voice as he says, “Now is the time to try new things and be creative – we have to be bold and experiment to find out what fits with the ‘new normal’ the virus is creating.”


Accor hotels offering free medical support to guests.


Compared with the average tourist wellness travellers per trip spend on international trips.