The Business of Health

Springtime in New York has lots to offer and lots to recommend it, but for the spa and hospitality industry nothing compares to the education and insights it gains from the annual NYSPA Symposium. This year’s theme, The Business of Health, is especially timely. As spas move further in the direction of wellness and mindfulness, how do we, as an industry, capitalize on this trend while ensuring the profitability of our businesses?

Jeremy McCarthy, incoming Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental, set the stage for the day’s discussions with his presentation, “The Intersection of Spas and Wellness.” McCarthy began by asking the audience:  Who does “wellness” well? Audience responses included predictable examples like Canyon Ranch and Miraval, which prompted McCarthy to point out that those were excellent choices, but they only represent 2% of spas. This left the obvious question:  What are the other 98% doing?

Not surprisingly, most of the audience was part of the 98%, who can’t afford or don’t have space for Watsu pools and labyrinths. McCarthy reassured us that we bring wellness to our clients through the basic components/by-products of a spa treatment -- Touch, Nurturing Intention, Time and Space, A Healthy Nudge, and Positive Emotions. He added that, while at Starwood, he stopped using the Client Intake Form. The reason was he didn’t want clients focusing on perceived negative aspects about themselves before they climbed onto the treatment table. Starwood therapists were trained to elicit the needed information through verbal consultation. McCarthy pointed out that we, as spa operators and therapists, don’t need to have all of the answers, but we need to ask the questions that get our clients thinking and that help us better meet their needs through the  resources we provide them.

The Economics of the Hospitality Industry in NYC & NYS was presented by Anne Lloyd-Jones, Managing Director at HVS. Lloyd-Jones’ data illustrated that the NYC market is like a “Field of Dreams.” Supply simply does not seem to outpace demand. Manhattan hotels averaged 86.7% occupancy in 2013, in spite of added room supply, and she forecast that, in spite of an additional approximately 50 hotels and 5000 rooms opening in the next two years, occupancy will continue to remain in this zone.

Hoteliers Allison Hope, Head of Development for Virgin Hotels, and Adam Glickman, Head of the IHG brand Even Hotels, discussed their approaches to hospitality, by sharing details of their brand DNA. Simply put,  Even does not have spas, and not all Virgin Hotels do, but they offer an array of spa-like services and approaches, which is in keeping with Even’s emphasis on healthy lifestyles.

It was a real treat to hear from revered Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, who presented “Menla Mountain Retreat’s Mahasukha Spa – Founding Intention and Background.” The Menla Center for Health & Happiness is in the Catskills and provides integrative medicine and spa treatments based on Tibetan practices. Thurman discussed Tibetan medicine and culture and the practice of mindfulness.

A panel discussion, “Does Wellness Pay,” prompted a lot of audience interaction.  Hotel investor Melinda Bush, PKF VP Andrea Foster, architect Robert Henry and financier Will Dowling presented the point of view that hotels are real-estate driven businesses and, as such, every facet of the business has to serve a purpose -- namely, to create returns on the enormous investments required to open and operate them. The “Stay Well” rooms at MGM Grand in Las Vegas have become quite popular and currently are yielding a $30-40 premium on ADR for the property, assuming high occupancies.

Consumers are definitely interested in healthier options (Glickman’s Even Hotels presentation  was referenced throughout the day.), but there are challenges in market positioning. Wellness needs to be inclusive and has different definitions depending on who you ask. However, there’s no shortage of opportunity in this space, for both hotels and spas.

The afternoon session featured David Kerr, Director of Corporate Strategy at IBM, who showed us the progress IBM is making on Watson, a digital database and physician’s assistant for diagnostics and treatment plans of disease.

Alissa Hendel, Director of Sales for Sabre Hospitality Solutions, and Nikita Sarkar, CEO of the NSN Group, discussed “Marketing Wellness in Hospitality.”  They recommended an approach with 4 components -- Curated Experiences, Distribution Channels, Maximizing SEO and Utilizing Social Media. They gave excellent details and examples of what was currently being done in each area. SpaFinder Brand Manager Mia Kyricos delivered an excellent history of SpaFinder Wellness 365 and shared plans for its future evolution. As the “world’s largest media, marketing and gifting company for the wellness industry,” with both B2B and B2C initiatives, SpaFinder is providing excellent resources that drive business to spas and wellness destinations.

Another panel on hospitality real estate with participants Melinda Bush, Allison Hope and VP of Capital Advisors Ben Cadwell, revisited the value of spas within hotels. Cadwell stated that his company looks at two factors to determinewhether to provide a spa in a hotel property:  local market conditions and hotel marketing strategy. Cadwell observed that unless a hotel G.M. understands spa, the spa tends to struggle, and he bemoaned the “lack of high-quality spa operators” who could make it all work. Bush stated that trophy resorts, such as The Breakers and Pebble Beach, only have spas to attract high-end small meeting and convention business, which accounts for as much as 70% of their occupancy.

Professors of Neurobiology Wendy Suzuki from NYU and Jason Sherwin from Columbia presented results of the effects of exercise on the brain. Suzuki tested her own students and discovered (no surprise here) that exercise is very good for the brain and helps improve memory and cognitive capacity. Think about that the next time you put off your workout! Sherwin’s presentation used brain scans that measured mindfulness to illustrate that there are positive effects to artistic pursuits, such as listening to music or gazing at art. This led to a discussion about what spas could do to have an impact on mindfulness, which may be as simple as providing time and space for clients to explore these endeavors or, at minimum, leading guided meditations.

The jam-packed day closed with a last panel discussion, “What Wellness Means to Me.” Susie Ellis, Robert Thurman, Wendy Suzuki and Jeremy McCarthy all gave their opinions and discussed the different interpretations of “wellness” vs. “wellbeing.” Ellis said she feels that wellbeing will become an umbrella term, which will include wellness, mindfulness and many other practices. But the word “wellness” is, she feels, a “knight in shining armor” for our industry, as governments can promote wellness tourism. McCarthy added that wellness seems to be used more when referring to physical attributes, and wellbeing is applied more to psychological aspects. Suzuki shared that as a brain scientist, she was “in her head” for many years, and only recently has begun to understand the connection of the physical body with brain function, sparked by personal experience. Thurman recommended that more study needs to be done on both spirituality and mindfulness, including the many different types of meditation.

It was a very informative day. I’d like to thank Dr. Mary Tabacchi and NYSPA for feeding our brains. I’m already looking forward to next year! (Originally published on