Thermal dynamics: SpaFinder's global trends

20 December 2012



Bathing in the glory of its ten-year anniversary, the 2013 SpaFinder Wellness annual forecast of global trends makes it startlingly obvious just how much the market has evolved in a decade; how sophisticated spas, hotels and their consumers have become. Lie back and relax as SpaFinder president Susie Ellis waxes lyrical about the sector’s three definitive trends.


As president of SpaFinder Wellness, Susie Ellis is recognised as a leading global authority on spas and wellness, while as author of SpaFinder's annual spa trend forecast she is known as a prominent writer, speaker and respected industry analyst. So who better to guide you through the hot topics for 2013? Here she details the trends that will have a meaningful impact on hotels, resorts and spas. Each is poised to transform the concepts of travel and vacation in positive new ways, especially as wellness tourism becomes the language more and more people and countries around the world are embracing.

1. The healthy hotel

First, and perhaps most significant for the hospitality industry, is the concept of the healthy hotel, and its clientele of wellness-minded travellers. These new consumers are demanding comprehensively healthy travel, transforming 'spa' and 'fitness' from mere hotel amenity concepts to centrepiece offerings, and liberating wellness from categorisation. Consider this: in a survey conducted by SpaFinder Research, 67% of travel agents reported that clients are more interested in spa vacations with a strong health/wellness component in 2012 than they were in 2011.

"Established brands are also retooling and rebranding around wellness."

The very ideas of vacation and travel have long been associated with riotous excess: too much eating and drinking, and too little sleep. For roughly a century, this model has left too many travellers less healthy when they check out than when they checked in. But, with more people working and under stress more of the time, what constitutes a real vacation and true hospitality is being redefined. In 2013 and beyond, look for many more hotels serving up health-focused guest experiences and 'wellness everywhere' environments, bent on delivering some true revitalisation for people who can simply no longer afford 'the old travel'.

And, while gyms and spas have traditionally been offered as amenities, often locked up in the hotel basement or at the end of a dark hall, now those walls are being conceptually and literally broken down, with many forms of wellness percolating across properties. This healthy hotel trend is taking many forms: from the rise of wellness-branded chains like EVEN and Westin, to fitness programming, healthy eating, healthy sleeping, mental wellness and spa experiences broken out across boundaries.
More hotels are branding and rebranding around their expanded wellness offerings, while new, entirely wellness-branded hotel chains are now hitting the scene.

A first-mover was, of course, Westin, with its multifaceted and heavily branded wellness menu, spanning everything from Heavenly Beds, Heavenly Spas and Westin Workouts to its SuperFoodsRX menu.

Meanwhile, InterContinental Hotels Group is about to take the wraps off its all-wellness brand EVEN, revolving around "the four pillars of a healthy life: eating right, exercising, productivity and rest". EVEN's first hotel will open in midtown Manhattan in 2014, and the company expects 100 hotels to be in development in its first five years. Interestingly, the New York hotel won't have a spa.

In Europe, with its stronger, longer history of individual healthy hotels, Aspria is a brand to watch. Launched as a private members health club business in 2000, it has recently added four urban wellness hotels (Berlin, Brussels, Hamburg and Hanover), where guests can hit the sports club, spa and classes, or eat healthy food at 'vital lounges'.

Established brands are also retooling and rebranding around wellness. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas recently announced that numerous rooms have been transformed into Stay Well guestrooms, packing in 16 health amenities. Meanwhile, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts' new Fairmont Fit programme, rolling out to all 80 worldwide properties by early 2013, provides Reebok fitness gear, MP3 players and free cruiser bikes, along with the new, healthy Lifestyle Cuisine Plus. Selected properties will offer "run clubs" and group hula-hooping. Say goodbye to hotel gyms resembling broom closets with a treadmill: fitness centres are getting bigger, becoming more spectacular and opening around the clock. Hotel guests will enjoy more - more innovative, indoor and outdoor classes and excursions; more in-room workout equipment and on-demand videos; and more free amenities like bikes, pedometers and workout gear.

"Say goodbye to hotel gyms resembling broom closets: fitness centres are getting bigger and becoming more spectacular."

And many more classes are available, from morning 'boot camps' to group 'yoga in the yard'. Just one example: the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in California just introduced Get Fit, Feel Good and Have Fun. Designed by fitness guru Scott Crawford, guests work one-onone with coaches, leading them through yoga, hikes and horseback riding.

Finally, nutritious, and customised food and beverage offerings, including gluten-free and vegan menus, are becoming more common at hotels worldwide. For instance, Hyatt's new programme (Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served) trims portions, uses more organic foods and includes an organic children's menu designed by Alice Waters. Meanwhile, Kimpton has partnered with expert Joy Bauer to create healthy in-room meals weighing in at fewer than 500 calories.

Far more hotels are breaking spa treatments out across properties, in rooms and outdoors. And at some properties, such as Four Seasons in Canada, 'wellness concierges' are mapping out a guest's daily wellness itinerary upfront to integrate healthy stays.

2. Earthing

The concept of making a more powerful connection between the spa and nature, elements of 'earthing' can be found in the healthy hotel trend, but the idea merits its own category and should be on every hotel's radar.

Experts point out that our brains and bodies evolved to thrive in natural environments. But today, people are disconnected from nature, living in concrete jungles and in front of various screens. The fallout? Nature deficit disorder, a term describing a range of physical and psychological ailments afflicting people cut off from the natural world.

Earthing specifically refers to promoting direct contact with the earth's electronrich surface - walking barefoot, for example - as a foundation for health. Grounding the body in this way is being studied as a possible stabiliser for its natural electrical rhythms, and for benefits in reducing disease-causing inflammation. While I expect to see more of this at spas, 'nature grounding' will be seen in a wider sense at hotels and resorts, from magical treetop massages to tented wilderness spas. Less recorded nature sounds and more real nature is the idea here. More treatments and classes will also be staged alfresco. New on the scene are beachfront yoga at Sarana Spa at the Sharon Hotel in Israel, outdoor treatment gardens at Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa in Italy, and jungle yoga and fitness at the Isla Palenque resort in Panama. Even the most urban of day spas are pushing the spa outside: CLAY's new yoga roof garden and Red Door's spa roof deck in NYC are good examples of this.

"Today, the Indian Government is putting muscle behind wellness tourism, clocking 22% growth annually."

At the same time, and in the other direction, spa design is thrusting nature inside. Check out the indoor vertical gardens at Westin properties or the coming Parkroyal at Pickering's 'hotelspa in an urban garden' concept in Singapore, a high-rise nestled in 15,000m² of vegetation.

Expect more earthing-friendly barefoot spas such as the new El Secreto in Belize or the soon-to-launch Mukul in Nicaragua, along with all-inclusive 'island without cash' concepts such as Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa in the Maldives, where 'no shoes, no money' is the new concept of luxury.

Meanwhile, look for more pop-up or tented spas such as the Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai, Thailand, set in a bamboo jungle, or The Moat in Wales, with its sauna tents and tree cocoons erected in the woodland moat of a 13th-century castle. More spa resorts will also spring up in nature reserves, such as Four Seasons Resort Langkawi's Geo Spa in Malaysia, set in a UNESCO-protected geopark with tree-hut yoga and jungle treks led by property naturalists.

3. Ancient and authentic

Spas have always broadcast the ancient pedigrees of their healing practices, be they hydrotherapy circuits originating in ancient Rome or millennia-old yoga traditions. Too often, however, a 'lite' version gets served up - a few Ayurvedic touches here, a steam room dubbed a 'hammam' there. And, typically, all this venerable ancientness gets played out in a modern, blandly beige space.

But change has arrived: expect more aggressively authentic and comprehensively executed global wellness experiences, a distinctly 'ancient' look, feel and language, and a far more expansive, exotic menu of wellness traditions at spas, hotels and resorts.

No better example of the trend exists than what's happening with 5,000- year-old Indian-born Ayurveda, a complex medical system identifying imbalances in a person's 'doshas', and prescribing a personalised detoxing regime of diet change, exercise, meditation, massage and herbal medicine. While increasingly popular worldwide, it's often consumed outside India in piecemeal form - as yoga and/or meditation - or in relaxing (photogenic) treatments such as shirodhara, the pouring of oils on the forehead.

"Look out for Turkish, Russian and Roman baths, more authentic TCM and Nordic offerings, and ‘novel’ healing traditions."

Also featuring pulse and dosha analysis, deeper, more authentic programmes overseen by Ayurvedic doctors will take off at new Indian spas and worldwide, with offerings such as panchakarma - a multiweek detox. Authenticity is, of course, always hotly contested. Maharishi Ayurveda, forged in 1980 and behind esteemed Ayurvedic centres such as The Raj in Iowa, US, or Bad Ems in Germany, was once accused of being 'flower power Ayurveda' softened for the West.

Today, the Indian Government is putting muscle behind wellness tourism, clocking 22% growth annually, with Ayurveda a campaign centrepiece. And while famed Ayurvedic players such as Ananda in the Himalayas and Soukya have attracted international guests for years, new deluxe spa resorts will continue to design more hardcore programmes (involving distinctly 'un-pampering' elements such as purgatives) to help the 'medicine' go down. The new Banyan Tree Spa Kerala houses the brand's first doctor-led Ayurvedic Centre, and iconic Indian hotel brand Taj is busy opening Jiva Grande spas at properties such as Taj Madikeri in India and Taj Exotica in the Maldives with elaborate, 'purist' Ayurvedic menus. In the same vein, watch out for the opening of Vana in 2013. With its stunning property, team of doctors and multiweek detox programmes, it's poised to quickly become one of the most talked-about destinations on the spa scene, with its focus on wellness and authentic Ayurveda.

Look out too for more Turkish, Russian and Roman baths, more authentic TCM and Nordic offerings, and some 'novel' healing traditions in spaces with unique designs or built on ancient spa sites within reclaimed historic buildings. The new Aire Ancient Baths in Manhattan epitomises 'the new Roman', with its tepidarium through frigidarum circuit and candle-lit interiors dominated by Romanesque columns.

More traditional Russian banyas (with their birch-twig-thwacking venik experiences) are opening, such as Bear and Birch in New Jersey and the new Archimedes Banya in San Francisco, a multicultural East/West bathing mecca. And the hammam trend SpaFinder identified a few years back is exploding: roughly one in three of the top, new global spas gracing Conde Nast Traveler's '2012 Hot List' showcases a hammam.

The ancient Nun Assisi Relais and Spa Museum in Assisi, Umbria, Italy.
The Talise Ottoman Spa at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Resort in Dubai.
‘Earthing’ programmes at the Isla Palenque Resort, Panama.
A wellness concierge helps visitors to the Treehouse Spa at the Petit St Vincent Resort in the Caribbean.
Socal corn salad: part of the ‘Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served’ programme at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa.


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