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Asia takes the lead in lucrative Spa & Wellness business

By Ravi Chandran

Spas in Asia have come a long way since the Banyan Tree in Phuket led the world in this new luxury form of pampering in the early 1990s. Now, what started as old fashioned pampering has morphed into a growing wellness business, in which spas are central.

With the essential “Asian” holistic, cultural and traditional understanding of administering spa treatments and wellness, this region is today a global leader in spa retreats that confront the toxic “overload” of the stresses and strains of modern life, two decades on from when spas were still a curiosity.

The theory of where the word spa comes from is that it is an acronym for the Latin phrase “salus per aquae” or “health through water.” Another theory is that it comes from the Belgium town of Spa, known since Roman times for its baths. Modern spas have their roots in ancient towns famed for the healing powers of their waters and hot springs. Spas, therefore, hark back to ancient Roman and Greek times.

But the luxury spa common throughout Asia now really started here in Thailand in the early 1990s. And spa developments, influenced by new ideas in health, wellness, fitness, beauty, design and cuisine have accelerated in the last decade.

Examples of this include “in transit” spas at airports (Thai Airways is an aviation industry award-winning leader at Suvarnabhumi Airport), eco-friendly facilities and even so-called “appetizer” 25-minute treatments, likened to ordering tapas in a restaurant and described by Luxury Travel as: “Lots of different flavours, for a lot less dough.”

One interesting fact is that while global hotel occupancy dropped dramatically during the recession, spa usage did not decline in proportion; it was far more resilient. And the “knight in shining armour” for the spa industry, which 10 years ago was in danger of degenerating into a repository of pampering for the well-off and privileged who could afford it—with fluffy pillows, pink robes, primping and indulgence - is “wellness.”

In Asia, this has been recognised by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), which has created the Healthcare Travel Advisory Task Force, which along with MEDICO Services International, will identify opportunities and challenges for the industry. It will highlight key “non-pampering” issues, such as liability related to medical tourism, medical travel insurance, and networking and data exchange for medical tourism specialists.

Last year, 300 spa owners, managers and industry leaders attended the inaugural Asia Spa & Wellness Festival Gold Awards in Bangkok, celebrating 28 award-winning spas from the region - further proof of the industry’s growth.

Awards chairman William Ng commented: “The Awards have raised the bar for the spa and wellness industry. It bodes well for our quest to make Asia synonymous with the best spas.”

PATA has also recognised the development of regional spas in its annual awards and this year conferred a Grand Award for Education and Training to the Banyan Tree Spa Academy.

Consumers across Asia have definite preferences when it comes to spas. For example, massage is the preferred treatment; more than 90 per cent look for a spa resort or day spa when travelling on vacation; and pure relaxation is the main reason for using a spa.

But consumers are increasingly seeking integrated spa/wellness treatments, with hospitals even evolving to embrace spa-like offerings and hospitality. Spa innovation and influence on traditional and alternative/complementary medical treatments is growing.

Spa/wellness centres have, in fact, become “laboratories” for testing new health and wellness approaches, from fitness, nutrition, acupuncture, yoga, and sleep and fertility solutions.

And countries like Thailand, through world-leading spas like Banyan Tree in Phuket, Chiva Som in Hua Hin and the Oriental in Bangkok; China, which has more spas than any other country; and Singapore, where the spa industry is booming, have the cost structures, experience and an inherent knowledge of traditional spa treatments that few in the Western world can match.

There are now more than 80,000 spas globally, generating more than US$255 million a year. What has driven this huge growth?

The ubiquitous mobile phone and the internet can take some of the credit, as more and more citizens are trapped on an exhaustive 24/7 treadmill driven by constant “new media” communication channels, global television and financial challenges.

Scientific research shows stress is responsible for up to 75 per cent of doctor visits. So the two “Ps” and “W” become very important: Pampering and Prevention = Wellness.

Spas in Thailand have moved with the global trends, increasingly offering integrated traditional spa treatments and wellness services, much of them based on Eastern therapies and a holistic focus.

And spa design has kept pace with customer demands. Natural materials and products, particularly from the region or country the spa is located in, are more important to create a natural “cosiness” for guests.

Other innovations include smart lighting to create an atmosphere rather than illuminating the room; creative architecture that aligns with the hotel or spa’s overall strategic approach; and holistic spas using innovative equipment such as relaxation beds, multi-media technology, sound systems, aromatic scents and smart lighting to create relaxation.

So Asia is a global leader in providing increasingly integrated spa/wellness services and facilities. But while lower costs and that inherent Asian sensitivity toward administering key spa skills should always give the region an edge - supported by organisations like PATA and the Asia Spa & Wellness Promotion Council with its Gold Awards - constant innovation will be necessary to keep abreast of new world trends.

This Op-Ed piece originally appeared in the Bangkok Post. Published on October 25, 2010.
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Ravi Chandran is Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Spa Operations of Banyan Tree Spas and Angsana Spas, which has five spas at Laguna Phuket, a total of 64 spas worldwide.




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