By Babs Harrison
Spa directors are in a funk. Many see declining bookings and just about all see diminished buzz but face reality: the pendulum has swung and the spa that had been so in maybe 10 years ago now is plummeting towards obsolescence.
There's a stampede of guests occurring – just not for the same-old spa services. Smart properties already are enjoying boom times.
That's the boldfaced message in a New York Times story by reporter Elaine Glusac headlined "Your Next Trip Might Change Your Life."
Once upon a time, a pampering vacation involving lots of massages, some Sanskrit chanting, a twirl of a crystal, and definitely a Tarot card reading sounded like an ideal destination spa getaway. Pampering was so right in 2008.
That guest maybe had a low-calorie meal plan, maybe didn't, often engaged in scant fitness activities, may have spent the whole week in a robe, and possibly went home weighing more than when he/she arrived at the property.
Learning? Not really. A whole lot of pampering.
It all sounds so, well, yesterday now.
Now what guests want are life-changing experiences. Wrote Glusac: "Industry growth indicates those places that once dispensed pampering are now expanding their reach into adventure trips, hotel design and even cultural programming under the banner of wellness travel."
A lot of spas are still wrestling with these new realities.
But those that get it are winning both guests and lots of notice, in both traditional and social media.
Ten years ago it was fine to come home from a spa week and contently sigh, "I feel so very relaxed."
Now the guest wants to come home where the energetic pronouncement is: "In Bali, I learned to start my mornings with jamu, a tumeric-ginger drink, and then I sit for a 20-minute meditation and, did I mention, I did a spiritual purification ritual with a healer and I can't tell you how much more centered I feel now. And how was your week?"
Forget spa. The structure no longer has much marketing draw. Now guests are going to hotels with associated spas, also to new-style destination retreats (think the Ranch in Malibu) and, increasingly, they are asking for venues that include significant DNA testing (generally done before arrival) so that regimens can be precisely tailored for this guest, this body, this biochemistry.
How cool is that?
In rethinking the spa, start by recognizing that a half-dozen treatment rooms – once the essence of a spa – are just a start. The guest wants to experience the place, to go local, to eat local, to experiment with local folk medicine.
Always ask: what can we bring into our wellness regimen that's part of the local culture.
In Arizona, where I presently live, there are rich native American cultures with vibrant traditions that will enliven any wellness stay. This can – and should – shape everything from cuisine to activities.
In Bali, an island I know well, there is remarkable richness, in cuisine, music, spirituality, and fitness so that a visitor can genuinely go home after a week feeling she/he had been immersed in a truly different culture.
One fact that has become plain is that in today's wellness world wellness genuinely matters. Guests want to do things, and even better learn things, that let them live a life that has more wellness baked into it. It's about walking the talk.
Rather than experiencing pampering they want to hear about and immerse themselves in Blue Zones and Japanese Ikigai and when they return home they want stories to tell about what they did and learned.
Nobody wants to say, I spent three hours a day on massage tables and, wow, do I feel relaxed.
Mind you, some massage – some pampering – may well fit into many wellness vacations. A few properties – think the Ranch – may not go very far in that direction but I'd say the majority still do and many guests want that. After jamu in the a.m., a brisk six-mile hike, a spiritual cleansing, they may also want a pampering massage, just to to revive the muscles and freshen the mind.
No harm in that.
But never forget: if all you offer, really, is pampering (and that's the reality at many spas), you are getting left behind by the 2018 guest.
Wellness has to be your guiding mantra – and today you really have to mean it.
Guests won't settle for less.
And they shouldn't.