It’s hard to imagine a person on Earth who is not being impacted by COVID-19. The degree of havoc the pandemic will wreak on global health and economies has yet to be fully realized, even as many countries and regions begin to flatten their infection rate and consider when and how to resume economic activities. A consequence of social distancing, self-isolation, and face masks being the primary mechanism to curve the spread of coronavirus is that people are increasingly experiencing touch and sensory deprivation.
Despite this reality, in a candid conversation with a corporate spa director of a major hotel group, and as a spa consultant and owner/operator of an eight-room spa when asked for guidance on reopening, my response was, “As a consumer, I do not believe I would enter a large public spa for the foreseeable future. The risk-benefit analysis would cause me to explore other alternatives.”
The spa and wellness industry faces a complex existential crisis, if only incremental shifts are made in response to COVID -19.
Fundamental Changes Must Occur
Recently, a leading spa organization released a toolkit to assist spas in their reopening efforts that enhanced generally accepted practices already in place in most professional establishments. As helpful as that may be, the toolkit falls short in addressing the fundamental changes that must occur if spas and wellness centers are to overcome the spread of COVID-19 and the lasting psychological impact of traumatized communities looking to reconnect but fearing the consequences. Because public health experts expect there to be additional waves of coronavirus infections, the industry cannot merely focus on economic recovery but must also commit to transformation.
The known origin of the word “spa” is the town of Spa, Belgium. Spa has also been used as an acronym for Salus Per Aquam, meaning “health through water.” In a post-quarantine world, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how spas are viewed. Spa must evolve to mean simply “health.”
COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of a binary conversation around healthcare to be either preventative or reactive. A third approach, which I characterize as a state of preparedness, ought to increasingly become the goal. If prevention is not a sustainable option and no curative measure is available, the alternative becomes, “How I can I best optimize my health and wellbeing, and more specifically, my immune system, to weather possible infection while also incorporating sustainable preventive measures?” Spas have an essential role to play in the new approach to health and wellness if critical self-examination allows for fundamental and transformative changes in the industry. Merely incremental change will fall short of ushering spas into a new era of wellness.
We must completely deconstruct the idea of a spa, examining it from all angles, and eschew the formulaic process of spa development that makes it difficult to distinguish one spa from another and clearly articulate the inherent quality of spas that make them an essential part of daily life. Allowing for the future of the spa to be a focus on health, we should examine four key pillars of the spa experience: Facility Planning and Design, Treatment Menu and Service Offerings, Practitioner Scope of Practice/Education, and Consumer Experience and Engagement. These must all be transformed to meet the current challenges the spa industry faces.
When design and facility planning begins with a focus on health, the standard design equation that informs facility planning gives way to innovation. Priorities shift to air and water quality and selection of materials that limit bacterial or viral transmission. Spas are no longer static, but instead they anticipate and are responsive to the emotional and physiological concerns and wellbeing of the guest. Spas that focus primarily on design aesthetics, common amenities areas, and social relaxation lounges yield to more self-contained private suites that are designed with an eye on sustaining and maximizing health.
Health is personal and quantifiable. Spas will need to better assess an individual’s current state of health and curate customizable offerings to achieve the individual’s desired state of preparedness. Spa service offerings must consider the variability of clients and offer personalized services in which individual results are measurable. Spa treatment menus can no longer be vague and homogenous but must state clear targeted objectives. The integration of technology must be meaningful and meet rigorous testing standards. Treatment menus and service offerings should not be overreaching or superficial but must encompass a focused, well-articulated area of specialization instead. Measurement of time, related to treatment delivery and revenue models, will also need to evolve.
New Curriculums with an Emphasis on Health
A constant narrative I hear from spa treatment staff members is the limitations of the terms massage therapist or masseur/use, which perhaps emanate from the educational standards that inform the profession. The practitioners who perform and facilitate treatment need to be viewed as health workers, and their training should expand to encompass this broader role. Five-hundred-hour coursework programs that focus primarily on soft tissue manipulation through touch are not sufficient to provide practitioners with the skill set that will prepare them for employment after COVID-19. New curriculums with more in-depth training on par with other medical professions will need to be implemented. Beyond service providers, training for general staff and managers will also need to be enhanced to adequately address the new realities.
In the current landscape and beyond, the spa industry cannot continue to focus on “soft” content; rather, a new service paradigm must emerge that offers a more robust experience that enlivens clients’ individual identities and allows them to have more agency in their state of health. The spa must transform how consumers are engaged. Trust will have to be earned through consistency and delivering on stated goals. The spa narrative must evolve from passivity or celebratory to focused health spaces that allow for a continued state of preparedness for the guests’ wellbeing and state of health.
The spa and wellness industry faces a complex existential crisis, if only incremental shifts are made in response to COVID-19. A paradigm shift in the role spas play in facilitating an optimum state of health and preparedness will require thoughtful, innovative, and progressive ideas. A rush to reopen will not allow for the transformative changes and investments necessary to put spas at the forefront of a post-COVID-19 world where health and wellbeing take center stage.