Feel the Heat

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Today’s spa-goers are warming up to the modern hammam experience, which blends ancient traditions with timely touches.

The hammam experience is an age-old ritual of cleansing and purification in a heated chamber. With a long history in the Mediterranean, hammams served as places where people went to bathe, relax, and socialize. Originally featuring elaborate designs made of marble and stone, traditional hammams were architectural marvels that flourished in European and Middle Eastern countries. Today, they can be found in many spas worldwide, including North America. “A hammam, be it influenced by Turkey, Morocco, Rome, or Asia, can serve as a focal point for a modern spa and is often a strong, unique selling point for both spas and hotels,” says Paul Hawco, director of Talise Ottoman Spa at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel (Dubai, United Arab Emirates).

According to Erin Stewart, spa director at Joya Spa at Montelucia Resort & Spa (Scottsdale, AZ), there are many benefits to visiting a hammam. In addition to eliminating dead skin cells and increasing circulation, hammams can help improve mental and emotional states, strengthen the immune system, and detoxify the body. “Hammams consist of one or more rooms that are heated from within to promote health and healing,” says Shannon Stringert, director of spa, salon, and fitness at Sahra Spa & Hammam at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. “Some hammams also contain steam rooms, relaxation lounges, and hydrotherapy tubs.” A typical hammam service includes an exfoliation on a marble slab by a therapist or spa attendant, using a coarse mitt to remove dead skin cells, an application of a mud mask or soap, and a rinse. Many of today’s hammam services also include a massage. “It is more than just a cleansing of the skin but also of the soul,” says Stewart.

Spa-goers in good health can certainly benefit from the hammam experience, but it is advised that guests with very sensitive skin and certain health conditions, like high blood pressure, avoid them. Also, pregnant women should steer clear due to the risk of overheating. While some spas are making the hammam experience a personal one, many are still communal. Therefore, guests should be comfortable sharing a space with others before booking the service. “Because the hammam experience is a social one with up to six people, often strangers, in the room at the same time, guests should be comfortable with being slightly exposed and scrubbed in public, in order for the experience to be an enjoyable and beneficial one,” says Hawco.

There are some differences between traditional and modern hammams. According to Surinder Bains, founder and owner of Miraj Hammam Spa (Toronto and Vancouver), many found in spas today focus less on the spiritual, cultural, and hygienic aspects. “Hammams in the past were very utilitarian,” says Hawco. “They served a purpose, which was cleansing the body, and therefore, descriptors such as pampering, relaxation, or exfoliation were not used. As the spa industry has evolved, so has the experience. The hammam, where possible, remains authentic in design to those of the past. However, five-star spas have updated the experience to be more in line with a modern spa guest’s expectation.” At Miraj Hammam Spa, for example, guests can choose from a variety of options, including the Hammam & Gommage with 60 Minute Massage & Aromatherapy Facial ($275, 90 minutes), which takes place in a Jerusalem-gold marble steam room and includes a black Moroccan soap body exfoliation, a 60-minute full-body relaxation massage, and a facial. Guests can add on a Papaya/Clay Toning Masque ($45, 15 minutes) or Moroccan Rhassoul Clay Masque ($45, 15 minutes) for an additional charge. “Hammams now include niceties, such as honey and gold-infused masks, pure olive-oil soap from Turkey, and Moroccan muds,” says Hawco.

Traditionally, hammams were considered a group or family activity designed to cleanse and detoxify the system and promote bonding in preparation for an important event, such as a wedding or a celebration. “Today’s hammam aims to provide an individualized and personalized experience that leaves the guest relaxed, re-energized, and renewed,” says Stringert. During the Red Flower Hammam Experience ($300, 80 minutes) at Sahra Spa & Hammam, guests relax on a warm stone surface before basins of water are poured over the body. A vigorous scrub is performed, followed by a purifying clay wrap with essences of cardamom. “By using researched and highly effective products, which still pay tribute to those in hammams of the past, the guest is receiving the highest level of pampering,” says Stringert. “Our hammam gives guests a unique glimpse into a centuries-old ritual while still providing a luxurious spa escape.”

While hammams are becoming increasingly popular worldwide, most are still located in Middle Eastern countries. In fact, some of the savviest spa-goers in the U.S. are still unaware of their benefits, but, that is changing. It’s fortunate, as hammams present a great business opportunity for spas. According to Hawco, a hammam can run at a fairly low cost, yet yield a higher return, all while lending authenticity to the spa. “Further benefits include its operational diversity—it can be available for couples, large groups, small groups, or individuals, and treatments can be easily adapted to suit business needs,” he says. “The tradition of the hammam is based around a philosophy of community. It’s the perfect place to come together, relax, and experience a true and authentic ritual.”

To educate guests on the hammam, it is important for spas to properly market the service. “It is the actual experience and subsequent word of mouth that is the strongest marketing tool,” says Hawco. “It is easy to list the benefits of the hammam but hard to truly describe the experience. Through traditional public relations and marketing activities, we tend to focus on the history, traditions, and beauty of the hammam, as well as the benefits.” Amanda Schmiege, director of The Spa at Trump SoHo New York, uses photographs of the hammam to attract clients. “Just showing photos of what the room looks like seems to be a great marketing tool,” she says. “It really illustrates the beauty and uniqueness.”

According to Stringert, introducing guests to the health and wellness benefits offered by hammams and what the procedure involved is also important. “Trained technicians and massage therapists are able to speak to the historical significance behind the ritualized experience and about the health benefits of each step in the treatment,” he says.

The fact that savvy spa-goers are becoming more interested in trying lesser known services has also helped the hammam grow in popularity. “In reflecting on the last few years and forecasting into 2014, we’re seeing an uptick in the diversity of treatments guests are exploring,” says Stringert. “Five years ago, even with a worldly and healing menu, guests still ventured toward a traditional relaxation massage. Now, we see guests exploring more healing treatments. A hammam experience is more than just a body treatment; it is a truly decadent head-to-toe ritual that balances mind, body, and spirit.”