Spas and Technology: Bridging the Gap
By Josh Corman
EVEN BEFORE MOST SPAS BEGAN TO REOPEN in mid-2020 following pandemic-related closures, a debate bubbled up in the spa industry about the place of so-called low- or no-touch treatments, many of which rely on some form of technology. Citing the hesitance many guests would feel about returning to spas to receive services that required them to be in close proximity to a provider, some spa leaders argued that “touchless” treatments may be a necessary part of meeting guests’ needs going forward. Others, however, balked at the idea—and even the word “touchless.” Their concern was those offerings could undermine a traditional spa experience deeply rooted in the idea of touch and a highly personal level of service.
More than a year later, the debate over these touchless—or “provider-free”— treatments seems to be slightly more muted. That may be because demand for traditional spa services such as massages and facials has been so high that spas without touchless treatment options haven’t experienced much downside. But it may also be the case that, as more and more spas experiment with those kinds of offerings, their leaders are recognizing that they can expand their guests’ definition of what a spa can be by delivering a blend of both service types. Instead of seeing touchless and traditional services as an either-or proposition, these spa leaders are employing both to enhance the spa experience and provide guests with outcomes that can only be achieved when multiple treatment types are used in tandem.
To get a clearer perspective on how some spas are successfully managing this blended approach, Pulse spoke with ISPA members who have embraced and benefitted from it.
Enhancement, Not Replacement
Some of the hesitancy surrounding the addition of new technologies and treatment types may stem from the understandable worry that they might serve to replace those touch-heavy services that many in the spa community have come to see as almost sacred. Some spa leaders may see these treatments as “moving away” from the kind of guest experience that has come to all but define a spa visit and creating an unwelcome disconnect between the spa, its service providers and guests.
This conflict, however, is overblown, according to Tammy Pahel, VP of spa and wellness at The Carillon Miami Wellness Resort. After speaking at the Forum Hotel & Spa in Paris two years ago, Pahel, intrigued by the wide array of technological developments on display, worked with a number of companies seeking to bring their therapies and treatments into the U.S. market, forming partnerships that allowed her to introduce these innovations to The Carillon. “Inside our industry, the pushback came because they thought I was replacing touch with technology, and that was never the case,” Pahel explains. “Touch is everything. It’s amazing. It will never compete with technology, because it makes you feel good in the moment. Technology, you don’t feel it when you’re going through it. You feel the effects after you did it, so it’s a big difference. We’re not moving away from touch, we’re just giving people another opportunity.
Adopting that viewpoint has allowed Pahel and her team to implement incredibly popular and effective “wellness circuits” designed to achieve particular outcomes, such as better sleep or athletic recovery. Members, residents and guests can choose to complete circuits that involve several touchless offerings—halotherapy, cryotherapy, a salt flow bath and red light therapy, for example—with the option of adding a traditional massage to enhance muscle recovery even further. But if the guest prefers to stick only to provider-free treatments (as many have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic), they can still enjoy meaningful benefits in way that keeps them connected to the spa and invested in their relationship to it, while also bringing in revenue that might otherwise never be collected.
At Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, Director of Spa & Wellness Katlyn Hatcher has, like Pahel, sought ways to emphasize to guests—many of whom, such as golfers playing the property’s courses, may not normally visit the spa at all—the value of blending traditional offerings with more technology-focused counterparts. The property’s Woodland Spa offers a host of those traditional services, while its Holistic Healing Center Facility provides opportunities for guests to experience the benefit of technologies such as float therapy or whole body cryotherapy. “So many of our guests will utilize both [facilities], but the Holistic Healing Center allows us to explore more alternative modalities,” Hatcher says. “When we were looking at more technology and provider- free types of services, we really saw that, and we explain it to our guests that it’s supplemental, an extension of the healing work that we’re doing on the table.”
Far from replacing the spa’s existing service providers, Hatcher shares that they are an essential part of identifying which of the services available at the Holistic Healing Center might benefit the guests they’re seeing at the spa. “If a guest is coming into the Woodland Spa for a more traditional spa experience, so to speak, but their practitioner is assessing them and learning about some additional concerns or pain or injury, they then use that opportunity to make [the guest] aware of some of this equipment at the Holistic Healing Center. So for us, it really just serves as a great supplement, a great addition to further personalize the guest experience to address their concerns,” explains Hatcher.
Upgrades and Add-ons
It’s true that not every spa has the space or resources to add a slew of leading-edge technologies to their offerings, but no matter your spa’s size or budget, determining whether to add a technology-based service to your menu or amenities list still centers on to the same guiding principles that the spa industry has relied on for decades. “What it boils down to is being able to provide the relief, the relaxation, the physical and mental rescue people need so desperately, but at the same time addressing their real concerns with regard to health and safety,” says Angela Cortwright, owner of Spa Gregorie’s.
If a technology can help the spa further its goal of bringing a greater sense of well-being to its guests, it’s worth considering, in Cortwright’s view. “I think that’s always been the goal and objective of the spa industry. Those of us who are dedicated to the spa industry, we’re ardent believers in the role of spa in the overall health and wellbeing of our guests and communities,” she says. She adds that, in the same way that many spas have incorporated practices like mindfulness and meditation, guided breathing and nutritional guidance into their offerings, introducing new technologies to the spa experience will soon become commonplace as more leaders and guests become educated about the possibilities they offer. “This is another opportunity for us to introduce our guests to a practice that can benefit for their overall health,” says Cortwright.
It’s also important to remember that many of the technological advancements that may soon represent an increasingly large part of the spa experience can only act as enhancements of, rather than replacements for, traditional treatments. Spa Gregorie’s, for example has plans to introduce Air Beautification—a specialized air filtration system capable of capturing particles even smaller than those pulled from the air by HEPA systems (see page INSERT PAGE HERE). “I love that the spa industry is able to introduce new, healthier alternatives to our guests, Cortwright says. “Our job is to educate, inspire and provide better health alternatives for our guests, so we’re going to be putting in a number of [Air Beautification] units in different areas of the spa, and in order to educate our guests on what it is, we are going to put it on the menu as a complimentary benefit that comes with every service.”
Cortwright expects that benefits and add-ons like these will become a bigger part of spa offerings as spa leaders get increasingly comfortable integrating new technologies to enhance the spa experience and add meaningful value by contributing to guests’ health and personal wellness goals. Of course, adding technological offerings or provider-free services simply for the sake of keeping up with the times is not likely to have a positive impact on any spa’s business. Just as with adding a new treatment to the menu, adding a new technology requires spa leaders to know their business inside and out, so that any addition meets a real guest need and ultimately makes financial sense. For example, Tammy Pahel shares that she recently consulted with a fellow spa leader who wanted to broaden her offerings but was working with a relatively limited budget. She advised this leader to invest in equipment that helps guests with muscle recovery because her spa is located next to a large fitness center. To promote the new offerings, Pahel suggested that she offer a free upgrade on massage bookings (guest’s choice of any of the three pieces of equipment) for the first month after the equipment is in place and partner with the gym to encourage its members to make use of it. For spas without the space or budget to invest in large pieces of equipment, such partnerships— whether with fitness centers or businesses that already offer services such as halotherapy or infrared saunas— can be a way to bring these innovations to guests and help them develop more expansive and beneficial spa routines.
Take Them to School
Of course, even the most beneficial technologies that spas can adopt won’t be worth the investment if guests aren’t aware of their potential aspect. Another crucial aspect of delivering the benefits of new technologies to spa guests, then, is education. As Katlyn Hatcher points out, being sure to frame for guests a piece of equipment’s relationship to the needs they’ve already expressed, or that their service provider has already been working on with them, can make it far likelier that guests will respond to a technological offering enthusiastically. At Nemacolin, guests are usually referred to the property’s holistic healing center by a practitioner. “We call this area where the equipment is located our ‘enhancement suite’—it’s an enhancement to the modalities that we’re doing in the spa,” Hatcher says. “It’s very important that [the experience] is guided… because there’s so much out there, so many different technologies and modalities and you lose people if you’re not really explaining and educating.”
If guests are not sufficiently educated on the potential benefits of the kinds of equipment being discussed here, Hatcher warns, it really can come to feel as disconnected and impersonal as skeptics within the industry may fear. “When researching all of this,” Hatcher says, “that became very important to me. If it’s not facilitated correctly, or maybe the ‘why’ isn’t explained correctly, you can disassociate a little bit. It feels like you’re being pushed through a car wash.” Making guests feel like they’re being pushed along an automated track isn’t an experience any spa leader is eager to deliver. Like Tammy Pahel at the Carillon, Hatcher created curated wellness packages that target guests’ specific areas of concern and blend the technological with the traditional, giving practitioners the opportunity to teach guests about alternative modalities and help them achieve the results they’re seeking.
Celeste Hilling, founder and CEO of Skin Authority (and maker of the Air Beautification devices mentioned earlier) agrees that education around emerging technologies is vital, and adds that the spa industry is well positioned to not only provide that education, but humanize the experience of a provider-free treatment. “As technology scales the human out of the equation, the one-to-one connection becomes one of the most valuable commodities. We’ve always been about using technology to scale the human touch, not eliminate it. Touch is the most valuable commodity that we have,” Hilling says.
As Hilling also points out, many in the spa industry would have hesitated at the idea of introducing virtual skin care consultations and tutorials or virtual class offerings before the pandemic, yet now many spas have integrated them into their operation. Those technological solutions, just like halotherapy machines or a devices that deliver red light therapy, are tools that spas can wield in a way that makes guests feel well served. “We can bring the knowledge of the human experience to humanize technology in a way that no other industry can, but we’re so afraid of it,” Hilling says.
In addition to concerns about altering the traditional spa experience, the fear that Hilling references may have only been compounded by the financial impact of the pandemic. According to ISPA’s August 2021 Snapshot Survey, one of spas’ top considerations when investing in a new technology is the potential return on investment, with nearly three quarters of spas (74 percent) listing ROI among the top three factors they consider when deliberating such a purchase. Upfront cost (50 percent) was similarly high on the list. Of course, no spa leader can know that a given piece of technology will add to their bottom line, but the examples set by the spa leaders featured here offer a blueprint for others to consider, both in their outlook and in the practical, guestcentered ways in which they have put a vast array of technological offerings to use in their spas.
The Air We Breathe
MANY SPAS TEACH AND ENCOURAGE BETTER BREATHING PRACTICES, but how much benefit can those practices have if the air itself is detrimental to our health? Seeking to provide the healthiest possible environment for her guests, Angela Cortwright, owner of Spa Gregorie’s has turned to technology, partnering with Skin Authority to bring Air Beautification devices into her spas. “It’s an extension of the service that we provide to [bring] healthy alternatives to our guests,” Cortwright says. “We can do better with providing safer environments, and what better place than the spa to introduce people to healthier alternatives. It’s a new technology, and it perfectly aligns with what our mission is in the spa industry.”
The devices, which, according to Skin Authority CEO Celeste Hilling, can filter down to .1 micron toxic micro particles and are designed to minimize the impact of indoor air pollution on everything from respiratory health to skin health. “The more that you keep your skin healthy, you have to care about the environment it lives in, and the healthier we can make the environment your skin lives in, the more we’re going to contribute to prevention and well-being, and that’s what this industry should be about.”