InSPAration: Lessons from the land of tea salons and foot massages

The hotel experience is, by nature, a refuge from the storm (of a chaotic business day, hours of travel, miles of sightseeing). A clean room, a comfortable bed, a good shower, endless Wi-Fi — these are the bones of refuge.

But they’re also the start of a hotel’s health and wellness program. And, yes, you have one whether or not you have a spa, whether you’re high-end or mid-market. And it’s important for hoteliers to acknowledge, embrace and market that. Wellness is more than a buzzword and a state of being borrowed from the health-care industry. It’s a way to solidify your brand.

Tangibly: Health/wellness is a lobby that feels cozy or one that’s alive with energy. It’s a memorable scent, an ergonomic desk chair, a rooftop pool, a fitness center that’s not hidden in the basement, a housekeeping staff armed with sustainable cleaning products.

Here are five things all hoteliers should know about designing wellness into their program and physical space along with lessons from the spa experience:

1. A “passage.”

It’s important to give your guests a feeling of transition — an overt sensation they have entered a different space. The question is where that happens, and that’s largely a function of the property’s location and program. For many urban hotels where the chaos on the street is overbearing, guests need a passage one foot in the door. A Zen-like lobby (calm lighting, soothing music, perhaps a water feature), a subdued bar area, an invisible check-in experience — all conspire to create an immediate lowering of the blood pressure.

At other hotels and even some urban ones, the entry experience is meant to impart the opposite “aesthetic.” The lobby’s job is to be vibrant and social and feel part of the street/scene. That was the case at the JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton hotels at L.A. Live in Los Angeles. Gensler designed these hotels to have a seamless transition from the plaza outside and, by extension, from the happenings at the STAPLES Center. Their lobbies feel connected to that high energy and to the outdoors, and we were mindful of how that connection (via sunlight, fresh air) could be turned into a healthful experience for guests. 

The real passage — the refuge/wellness feeling — happens deeper into the guest experience, as people transition from those public lobbies to the respite of their guestroom.

2. Lights, smells, sound. 

The best spas have this down pat: the soothing lighting, earthy scent, serene music and subtlety of all the aforementioned. Some nice background music and even a background scent (some hotels have their own fragrance) can go a long way to stir an emotion in your guests that bonds them to the hotel and their experience of it. 

With lighting, the goal is contrast. You don’t want to have a lot of flat (uniform) light. By varying the type and level of lighting in public spaces, hoteliers can emphasize certain areas and support the designated mood. Many of the new lifestyle hotels seem darker than the norm. That can annoy guests, particularly those who need to get some work done. It’s important to find the medium ground between “too hip” and “dining hall bright.” In guestrooms, provide enough light sources so guests are able to personalize the space for the function they need. Overhead spots, table lamps, floor lamps, bedside lamps — all should play/work together like a symphony with the guest as their conductor.

3. Comfort is joy.

A great bed, pillow (perhaps even a pillow menu), sheets, duvet, towels, toiletries — these are the more obvious accoutrements of personal comfort that hoteliers can scale up and market in their “package” of wellness. But there are other, less obvious creature comforts hoteliers should consider adding or talking up. Among them: truly blackout drapes; an ergonomic desk chair (and not just a standard chair with legs) for guestrooms; a variety of seating types in the lobby; a fresh air stream into guestrooms; a memorable bathroom; and individual, easy control over all of a guest room’s systems. That’s comfort too. 

I recently stayed at a hotel in India (the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai) that made me master of my own personal comfort. With the assistance of a hotel-provided iPad (conveniently situated next to the bed), I could do everything from open the drapes to dim the lights, turn on the TV and summon room service with a touch of the screen. It was that easy.

4. Water is joy. So is sweat.

Spas have long glorified the healthfulness of pools of liquid — whether it’s a placid bath or an inspired sweat. Hotels are catching on and starting to elevate any and all water experiences. Fantastic rooftop pools are the trend right now, like the one going atop the new Westin hotel at the Denver International Airport with gorgeous views of the Rockies or the one we’re doing for the Hyatt Regency at Incheon International Airport (in Seoul, South Korea) where the pool will be “encased” in sliding glass walls that open in good weather. Exercise facilities are likewise moving up. Many hotels are relocating them above ground and even on an upper floor with a view and some terrace/outdoor space. 

There’s also a movement to integrate some of these public experiences into private rooms. Thus, the entrée of spa suites (with in-room massage tables) and rooms that include fitness equipment. Personally, my favorite water experience was in the bathroom at the Park Hyatt in downtown Seoul. All of the rooms here have showers that are located on exterior walls/windows. I felt as though I was I was bathing over the city — and no, I was not self-conscious. The rooms are high up. I was further distracted by a little TV embedded in the shower wall and then by the fantastic heated floor. When in Gangnam …

5. Sustainability counts.

Guests (particularly younger ones) do care about your hotel’s green program and, yes, that focus counts for health/wellness. It’s manifested in everything from sustainable building materials to efficient systems, day lighting, hypoallergenic toiletries, sustainable cleaning products and healthy food offerings (which might include a gluten-free menu).

Health/wellness is more than a foot massage and good workout (although they count too). It’s attention — and perhaps a more creative attention — to your guests’ well-being, which is something all hoteliers should do and can use to build loyalty and grow business.