Tourism & hospitality

Wealth of wellness

The MENA region is the second fastest-growing market in the world for spa operations, with its wellness tourism sector quickly maturing. But how are operators seeking to consolidate and build upon this growth? We speak to Paul Hawco, director of Talise spa operations at Jumeirah, and Daniella Russell, spa development & operations director at Soul Spa Concepts.

The UAE spa market is booming. Currently growing at a rate of 17.9% a year, its revenues are projected to surge from $1.49bn last year to $2.26bn in 2017, with visitor numbers expected to double. The MENA region as a whole, meanwhile, is the second fastest-growing market in the world for spa operations, edging just behind sub-Saharan Africa in the rankings.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, which compiled the figures, this growth can be attributed to an ‘explosion’ in luxury day spas, hotel spas and spa resorts, targeting not just international tourists but also the sizeable expat community. Dubai was mentioned as a particular ‘powerhouse’ for wellness tourism, with a hub of extravagant spa treatments to match its palatial suites and personal chauffeurs.

A glance at the development pipeline confirms the overall trend. By 2019, 139 new spas are slated to open in the GCC, which would increase spa numbers by 27% to a total of 718. While not all the rumoured openings have been corroborated, it seems clear that operators are keen for a piece of the action.

Of course, while this is good news for the market generally, it also means more competition. With so many new openings on the horizon – not to mention the expected wave of refurbishments and relaunches – operators will need to think carefully about what they can do to carve a niche.

Daniella Russell, a spa and wellness expert who has worked on Middle Eastern projects since 1997, feels that hotels these days won’t get far without some spa facilities. While this stems in part from the edicts of the luxury market, it also points towards a certain approach to wellness prevalent in the Middle East.

Hyperluxurious treatments

“Nowadays to obtain a five star rating you must have a spa as part of your offerings,” she remarks. “In the Middle East, clients and owners are very considerate towards the world of spa and wellness, and it is part of their routine in life, compared to many other countries that see this only as a treat.”

This means that hyper-luxurious treatments – such as the $515 24-carat gold ‘radiance facial’ offered at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi – are only part of the picture. For operators to truly capitalise on the sector, they will need to develop a more holistic understanding of what spa-going means to guests.

“Internationally as well as regionally, we are seeing a rapid evolution from traditional spas to a much more wellness-focused offering,” points out Russell. “Certain spas are introducing genetic testing and blood profiling, creating personalised programmes that suit the findings. Clients are interested in their health not just both from a repair standpoint but also in terms of preventative measures for their long-term future.”

Paul Hawco, director of Talise Spa Operations at Jumeirah, agrees that spas in the region are no longer just for special occasions.

“Dubai is a very fast-paced environment, almost akin to New York,” he explains. “We work hard, it’s demanding and competitive, and there’s an element of stress, burnout, needing to disconnect. So spas are about people’s need to take care of themselves. In this high-tech world, people are crying out for a high-touch environment.”

Talise, which is Jumeirah’s global signature spa brand, is far removed from a copy-paste concept that can be replicated from one hotel to the next. Rather, each spa retains its own character inspired by the local surroundings, in keeping with Jumeirah’s promise to ‘stay different’.

“Madinat Jumeirah is an Arabian spa – it specialises in wellness, yoga, meditation, workshops, retreats,” says Hawco. “Emirates Towers in the city is an urban spa, so it’s more for a high-end business clientele and has a shorter, more accessible treatments menu. Jumeirah Beach Hotel is on the ocean and we have beach cavanas and marine treatments so it’s quite a different dynamic as well.”

Hawco feels that, of all the Talise spas, Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s most fully crystallises the brand’s ethos. Rather than being solely a spa, Talise is a wellness / lifestyle brand that also incorporates fitness and nutrition, and this property places all three aspects together within a single self-standing destination. This looks set to provide a useful template for future offerings.

After all, today’s hotel guests are likely to seek out the full gamut of health-oriented activities, ranging from nutritious eating options to diving classes and beach football. As a result, the typical hotel spa is edging closer to the old destination spa model.

“A lot of spas in Dubai are in a hotel have yoga and tai chi; they have retreats; they have classes; they have cooking. These are things that only used to happen at a destination spa,” says Hawco. “We used only to provide a simplistic menu of facials, massages and body treatments, but the customers’ demands are evolving and taking it in a different direction.”

The intriguing offshoot here is that, if hotel spas are becoming more like destination spas, destination spas will need to do even more to differentiate themselves from their upstart rivals. Hawco envisages the emergence of a new, immersive type of product, which goes beyond what destination spa facilities provide now.

According to Russell, we are seeing a shift towards more substantial results-driven treatments. This could mean anything from anti-ageing or body contouring therapies, which blur the boundaries with medical spas, to services such as mindfulness classes or even sleep therapy.

As the spa development & operations director at Soul Spa Concepts, she is well positioned to observe the shifting preferences of clients and their guests. The consultancy offers one-off designs both for hotel chains and for private investors.

“At the moment we are launching a completely new concept of pop-up spa/fitness/grooming containers,” she says. “Our first client is a hotel chain that is targeting the modern traveller. They want hip but functional spaces, cost-effective and easily adaptable offerings, and fun experiences.”

Cultural considerations

Bespoke offerings, she believes, are always best. Because MENA is not an especially mature spa market, there may be a temptation to emulate designs that have worked elsewhere in the world. However, this does not take into account the specific cultural considerations that apply across the Middle East.

“Perhaps the original is a mixed facility, which includes the changing spaces and wet areas. This is not acceptable in GCC countries, so that means we often have to double up on large aspect of space to ensure no mixing of genders. If the majority of clients are Arabic, there are certain considerations such as privacy throughout, a regularly updated treatment menu, and professional and knowledgeable team members,” she says.

As a result, spas often need to be fairly large. Take Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort & Spa, which expanded its spa last November. Its new Turkish style hammam features separate facilities for men and women, as well as a dedicated hammam reception for couples.

Another issue to be aware of is credibility – or in some cases, the lack thereof. Hawco feels that some operators, in their hunger to grab a slice of the wellness market, have allowed their branding to run ahead of their actual offerings. For instance, they might claim to offer a ‘wellness’ massage, which on analysis turns out to be a normal massage appended to a buzzword.

At Jumeirah, he says, the team “doesn’t mess around”. Its yoga comes courtesy of a licensed yoga therapist from India; its Tai Chi is taught by a warrior monk of the Shaolin Temple. There is certainly a pull towards high-tech treatments – for instance, Talise Spa at Madinat Jumeirah recently partnered with the DNA Center for Integrative Medicine & Wellness to offer customised DNA testing and lifestyle medicine packages. However, this is counterbalanced by the desire to get back to basics and offer “authenticity combined with innovation”.

For Jumeirah, as for a number of other operators, spas are commanding an increasingly high proportion of overall takings. To this end, Hawco believes that the hotel sales teams will have designated ‘wellness tourism’ salespeople in as little as 18 months time.

The hotel chain is also working with a number of tourism companies in the region, to position Dubai as the preeminent choice for health-focused holidaymakers. With wellness tourism worldwide growing 9% year on year – 50% faster than overall global tourism – the time seems ripe to get on board.

“We’re excited – it’s a good time for the region, and the numbers testify that Dubai is leading the growth in the Middle East,” says Hawco. “I think we’re going to be known not just for shopping and beaches and luxury, which are currently the top three things that tourists come for, but are also going to be supported by government to develop wellness tourism. We want to draw new guests, helping them see Dubai in the same way they see Bali, Thailand or the California desert spas.”

While this is a lofty goal, it seems clear the region’s burgeoning spa market is heading in that direction.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 edition of Hotel Management Middle East


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