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Despite the recession, the spa industry shows no sign of slowing down. Suzanne Archer discovers that combining meetings with massages can have huge benefits for corporate groups
In a year when it’s hard enough to convince your boss to boost the budget for the Christmas party, campaigning for a group spa trip might seem a bridge too far. But far from being an unnecessary indulgence, a few hours spent relaxing in a spa can not only help to de-stress employees and improve staff health but also present opportunities for client bonding in a more informal environment. In turn, a hotel stands to benefit hugely from having a spa: a high-end luxurious offering can improve the hotel’s reputation and ensure it becomes a destination in its own right. ‘You need to take a long-term view when investing in a spa,’ says Sarah Ward, editorial director of European Spa Magazine. ‘It’s not all about an instant return on investment; rather a spa represents a huge USP in terms of attracting the corporate events market.’ A recent industry survey commissioned by the Global Spa Summit estimated Europe alone has more than 22,000 day and stay spas, which generate $18bn (£11bn) in revenue. And as spas become more mainstream, that growth is predicted to continue. ‘These days, any top hotel without a spa is behind the times and will have to fight harder to hold on to its market share,’ claims Ward.
While it’s true that a spa will always feel like a luxurious treat (and so it should), it’s not all about self-indulgence. ‘The brain gets overworked at conferences and the need for wind-down time is key,’ says Noella Gabriel, director of product and treatment for award-winning spa and skincare brand Elemis. ‘Chilling out in a spa can stimulate the creative thought process, benefiting delegates’ overall performance. And of course, specific treatments can also help to reduce stress.’ Anna Dowling, managing director of The Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa in St Helier, points out that a break from business is now more important than ever. ‘Corporates are under more pressure at the moment, while at the same time people are taking better care of themselves than they have in the past, and taking a proactive approach to their health,’ she maintains. ‘A spa is therefore a major trigger point in a company’s decision to purchase.’
‘Stress is such a massive problem within companies now that managers can justify adding a holistic side to a corporate event,’ agrees Cathy Ball, spa director at Calcot Manor in the Cotswolds, quoting one client who told her: ‘I don’t care how bad things get – this is the last thing I’ll give up.’ At a time when stress levels are rocketing, looking at a spa stay as a form of preventative healthcare and a way of motivating staff becomes a persuasive argument. ‘Stress has reached pandemic proportions worldwide and never more so than in the corporate arena,’ says Sarah Ward. ‘Therefore, hotels that can provide first-class spa services as part of their overall corporate package can really offer a point of difference when it comes to business bookings.’
Haralambos Stavrou, director of event organisers Beyond Certainty, recently organised an off-site at The Grand Jersey for a client who specifically requested a half-day of treatments in the spa as a way for execs to wind down following two intensive days of meetings. ‘We created a menu beforehand in conjunction with the spa so treatments could be chosen in advance,’ says Stavrou. ‘Bathrobes and Elemis products were waiting in their rooms on arrival and the hotel drafted in extra therapists as well as setting up a nail bar specifically for our group. The spa’s flexibility was a key factor in our decision-making process and the group left feeling as if they’d really been looked after.’
With expectations riding high, it’s not surprising that every four- or five-star hotel is scrambling to open a new spa that’s bigger and better than the competition, or speeding up plans to refurbish an existing one. A spa with at least an indoor pool and steam room or sauna is fast becoming as standard a requirement as free Wi-Fi. ‘People are looking for five-star spa facilities ahead of a quality restaurant these days,’ says Gabriel.
At luxury resort Fairmont St Andrews, £2.5m of last year’s £17m investment programme was spent on the spa. It’s proved a popular choice with corporate groups ever since. ‘A spa is an absolute necessity if you want to compete in the five-star market,’ says the hotel’s GM Charles Head. ‘The main reason we expanded the treatment rooms from seven to 12 was because we didn’t previously have the capacity to support the corporate and incentive market.’ The spa also has treatment rooms designed specifically for men, with flatscreen TVs and wireless headsets, as well as a private suite of three therapy rooms with a relaxation lounge for small groups.
At the Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa in St Helier, whose spa was named UK Residential Spa of the Year (11 Treatment Rooms or Under) at this year’s Professional Beauty Awards, Dowling certainly hasn’t seen any downturn in spa bookings as a result of the recession. On the contrary, demand is exceeding supply, despite the spa having launched just seven months ago. ‘We have six treatment rooms and six therapists but I’m looking at recruiting double the number of therapists this year,’ she says.
Over at Pennyhill Park in Surrey, an expansive 45,000sq ft spa with 22 treatment rooms and eight indoor and outdoor pools has seen spa bookings rise by 15-20%. This is no doubt in part thanks to the hotel’s focus on tailoring treatments to guest requirements. ‘When corporate groups come to us they are often pressed for time, so we send therapists to the meeting rooms to give oil-free Indian head massages during breaks and little energisers before meetings, such as a yoga session or mini back massage,’ says general manager Julian Tomlin, who adds that it’s not unusual to look out of the restaurant at breakfast to see a group of 15 delegates doing Tai Chi on the lawn. If you’re lucky, you may also spot members of the English Rugby Union team, which has signed up to use the hotel as its training base until 2012. Though the team has its own private gym, you could well be sharing a swimming pool with Phil Vickery or sweating it out in the tepidarium with Paul Sackey.
An ongoing concern for many spas (and an issue to bear in mind if you’re planning a corporate spa visit) is how to balance the demands of three key groups: hotel residents, non-residents on day spa packages and local health club members. ‘In our experience, the sector that books the furthest ahead is conference and group clients, so they usually secure first priority within the spa; after that we can top up the bookings from our local membership group or non-residential spa days,’ says Charles Head.
The ability to slow business down or speed it up makes an experienced spa director such as Cathy Ball a valuable person to know. ‘We can control numbers and footfall in the spa to ensure that
corporate groups always have enough space and time,’ she says. ‘For example, I would advise groups to come in August when a lot of the local membership base is on holiday. We have also introduced a
weekend-only membership, so out of 500, only 200 of our members have access to the spa during the week. Additionally, if I know a group is booked in, I’ll limit day spa packages on those weekdays.’
Ball adds that she is looking at getting a freelance pool of therapists whom she can draw on at late notice during busy times – something which larger venues such as The Grand Jersey already have
If you have a large group on a residential package, it’s worth taking a look at the ratio of treatment rooms to bedrooms to give you an idea of how busy the spa is likely to be. Pennyhill Park, for instance, provides a generous 22 treatment rooms to 123 bedrooms, and Stobo Castle an impressive 40 to 42 bedrooms. It’s difficult to give a standard recommendation (a spa is as much about its relaxation areas, thermal suites and pools as the number of treatment rooms) but a good rule of thumb is to look for one treatment room per 20 bedrooms. More important is to book ahead as far as possible rather than waiting until your group checks in before reserving treatment slots.
Competition between spas is fierce, not only in terms of the number of treatment rooms and product lines, but the design and interior of the spa itself. ‘The challenge is to invest wisely and carefully when creating a spa to ensure that it delivers a memorable spa experience to your chosen market,’ says Ward. ‘A great spa has potential to bring new life to a hotel or resort’s existing offer as well as new business.’
Health journalist Jo Foley, in her book Great Spa Escapes, agrees, stating that ‘spas are often at the forefront of hotel excellence in design and service’. It’s certainly true that a no-expenses-spared spa, with some unusual design features, can make a name for a hotel and add to its reputation. Think of The Grove, famous for its black-tiled mosaic pool; Pennyhill Park’s thermal suite, the most advanced in the UK; The Berkeley’s rooftop pool; or The Forum Spa at Celtic Manor, which boasts the largest hydrotherapy bath in Europe. Even small touches, such as being able to select different styles of music in your treatment room (a recent introduction at The Dorchester), can turn a good experience into an outstanding one.
Martin Hulbert of Fox Linton Associates, the designer behind the multi-million-pound revamp of The Dorchester, believes that a spa should reflect the nature of the property it’s attached to. At The Dorchester, the art deco theme is a nod to the heritage of the hotel, built in 1931, while Coworth Park, the latest Dorchester Collection property due to open in summer 2010, will have a more organic, contemporary feel. ‘All eight treatment rooms will look out over the surrounding parkland and benefit from natural light,’ explains Hulbert. The spa aims to be the first carbon-neutral eco-luxury spa in the UK, with a ‘living roof’ to grow herbs for treatments and treatment rooms with walls made from hemp. In an ever-growing eco-aware market, these sorts of details are bound to attract corporates with a green conscience.
Similarly, Wiltshire retreat Lucknam Park has worked on bringing the outside in, with the launch of its ambitious new spa last November. ‘We tucked the spa away within the walled garden of the hotel grounds, with a glass roof over the pool and a glazed wall overlooking the distant fields,’ says project architect Carolyn Merrifield of Holder Mathias Architects. Nice to note, however, that as plans surged ahead to fulfil the owner’s dream of making Lucknam Park a world-class hotel spa, guests were kept very much in mind. ‘The managing director Harry Murray was always focused on the client experience, keeping a keen eye on practical issues such as how to get behind unusual design features to clean them, disabled access and keeping us down to earth on the more fantastical design elements,’ says Merrifield.
It’s not always possible to take over an entire spa exclusively as local members need to retain access, but larger spas will often offer private treatment suites coupled with relaxation rooms for small groups. If you’re looking to treat important clients, the InterContinental London Park Lane, following its £76m revamp last year, has opened London’s first ‘spa bedroom’. Stay overnight in a junior suite opening on to an adjoining private spa suite complete with massage table, wet room and relaxation area, with therapists from the hotel’s Elemis spa at your beck and call. You can also hire the suite alone for four hours.
Elsewhere, Northamptonshire’s Fawsley Hall has just opened a new spa in a former coach house which offers an ideal self-contained space for small groups of six. Its Grayshott Studio Spa, sister of the famous Grayshott Hall in Surrey, has six treatment rooms and above them, six guest bedrooms (which can be made into twins or doubles), as well as its own private garden. ‘We found that converting our former stables into a self-contained conference and banqueting venue was really popular with the corporate market so we wanted to ensure the spa had the same level of privacy,’ says general manager Brian Garside.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, summer 2009