The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Hotel spas are an expensive luxury, but are they worth the pain?
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi traces the history of hotel spas, and how they evolved from being strictly Western attractions to a lavish melding with Asian traditions.vir sanghvi Updated: Nov 08, 2017 18:52 IST
Think of a luxury hotel in the 1990s. Now think of one today --- the same one, even. What are the differences? Well, the hotel is probably more tech-savvy now and brags about its Wifi speed. And it charges rates that would have been regarded as unimaginable and excessive until well into this century.
But apart from that, the formula hasn’t really altered much. There’s still the same guest relations, the same housekeeping, the same lobby, the same emphasis on luxury, the same number of restaurants, etc. Basically, the formula hasn’t really changed that much in 20 years.
Except for one thing.
In the 1990s, few luxury hotels bragged much about their spas --- even if they had them. Now, they can’t stop talking about them. Every hotel manager will tell you how large his spa is. He will brag about the treatments on offer. All publicity material for the hotel will include at least one image (if not more) of the spa.
Some hotel chains have created their own spa brands. ITC has Kaya Kalp. The Taj has Jiva. Shangri La has Chi. Some hotel companies are even based on spas --- take away the massages and there isn’t much left to talk about when it comes to Banyan Tree. Some hotels will boast about the external spa brands they have housed: the Leela has Espa. So do many hotels from the Corinthia group. Caudalie, Champneys, Six Senses, Clarins, Red Door, Bliss --- the big spa names just keep coming.
So, when did spas become so big?
My guess is that it happened some time during this century. In the old days, a spa was a town or a village where the water had curative powers. You went there for treatments and the emphasis was in the healing power of the mineral waters, not on luxury pampering.
This tradition was distinctly Western. In England, the town of Leamington Spa got its name from the properties attributed to its water. All over Europe, a spa town was one where natural springs provided water with a high mineral content, which was supposed to be good for you. (That was the original basis for bottled mineral water too.) Over time, some of these towns began to boast of luxury hotels but the water was always the point of the resort.
The European spa tradition was merged with Swedish massage treatments in some hotels but even when massages were offered, they were no-nonsense affairs, administered in brightly lit, clinical rooms by white-coated specialists whose manner was as far removed from the idea of luxury as it is possible to imagine.
But there is an Asian massage tradition that is even older than anything in Europe. Thai massage is an ancient art. In India, Ayurvedic massages in Kerala use herbal oils to cure a variety of ailments. Bali has its own style of massage.
Even in the 1980s, you were offered massages at many luxury hotels in Thailand and other East Asian countries. But though these could sometimes be naughty, they were never regarded as particularly luxurious. Usually they took place in the hotel’s health club or in the privacy of your own room.
At some stage, in the 1990s, the European idea of a spa hotel and the Asian massage tradition merged. I haven’t been able to figure out who did it first but I can remember some early pioneers. In 1994, Banyan Tree opened its first hotel in Phuket. I went a few months after it had opened and was floored. It wasn’t just the level of luxury --- these were the first large guest villas I had seen with large individual swimming pools --- it was that the whole hotel seemed to have been constructed around the idea of relaxing massages. You were offered a spa menu of a dozen treatments, the massages took place in a building specially constructed for this purpose, and even the food was light and refreshing: what later came to be called ‘spa cuisine’.
In a sense, The Banyan Tree was basing its central concept on what Bangkok’s The Oriental had already done. In 1993, the legendary General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl moved out of his home across the river from the hotel and The Oriental built a lavish spa in its place.
I interviewed Kurt about it and he was clear that the spa was going to be central to The Oriental’s appeal. Guests approached it by boat, which he said was an important part of the ritual --- guests had to feel that they were being taken somewhere special.
At the time, the bulk of the Oriental’s guests were wealthy Americans and Europeans who loved the East so much that they did not mind paying the Oriental’s rates which were nearly double those of its nearest competitor. According to Kurt, South East Asia had really began to open up in the 1990s. Bangkok became the gateway to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.
The Oriental’s globe-trotting regulars wanted to explore these new countries and Kurt began to sell the Oriental as a staging point for the East. There were few good hotels in the newly opened tourist spots of East Asia so tourists had to slum it. “We told them to go off and be adventurous,” Kurt said, “and we would look after them once they got back with our massages and treatments.”
In the Bangkok of the mid-1990s, The Oriental Spa was unusual. But within a few years, every hotel had opened its own spa, usually basing it on The Oriental’s template. By the end of that decade, many deluxe hotels in the Far East had also begun to brag about their spas.
I don’t know where Kurt and the Banyan Tree got their inspiration from (perhaps there are other pioneers I am not aware of) but the formula was a sure-fire winner: do away with the no-nonsense air of the European Spa, incorporate Asian massage traditions, use female therapists and make the whole thing seem like a luxury experience.
It took a decade or so but eventually hotels in the West also decided that a spa was as integral to their appeal as say, a coffee shop. Many simply followed the Asian model that had become popular on Thailand and Bali. Others tried to get Western luxury brands involved. But the essence of the Oriental’s model remained: the room must be dark, mood music should be played at low volumes and the guest should relax so completely that he or she feels like going to sleep. The aromatherapy massage (a fancy name for a massage that used a sweet-smelling oil) which was purely Asian in origin, became a key offering at hotels all over the world.
Why are massages so popular?
I have some theories. My cynical view is that people who stay in hotels so far from home like being touched by strangers (not necessarily in a naughty way but in a comforting and slightly exciting sense). A massage makes the touching seem legit. A second reason is that hotels always need to offer something guests can’t get at home. You can get good food at your own house and your bedroom at home is probably larger than your hotel room anyway. But you can’t get a spa-massage experience at home. So a luxury hotel with a spa can offer you something totally different and special.
And then there’s the innocent reason as well. If done properly, a massage can, in fact, feel good. Most hotel guests are business travellers who work hard or have just got off long flights. A massage can take away the aches and pains and relax them.
The problem with all this, in my view, is that there is now too much bulls**t attached to the spa phenomenon. There are good masseuses and bad ones. But there is no way of predicting which one you will get when you go to a spa. You will know how good the massage is only when you are on the massage table/bed.
Hotels now spend less and less time guaranteeing the quality of the massage and more and more on the hype. Millions will be spent on decorating the spa, on building the brand, on choosing the location, on designing the uniforms, etc. The quality of the massages will seem secondary to the bulls**t quotient.
I call it the ‘Bloody Mary principle’. In an ideal world, every bartender should know how to mix a good Bloody Mary. But, in reality, a surprisingly large number make terrible Bloody Marys. Nor do their bosses care. All the money and attention has gone into designing the bar, outfitting it, putting leather on the barstools, choosing the logo etc. The quality of the cocktails has become a secondary consideration.
It’s exactly the same with spas.
But, despite these reservations, credit where credit is due: the global hotel industry has created a profitable new luxury product that guests seem to love. Only when you consider how little luxury hotels have changed during the last few decades, do you realise how significant an achievement this is. To create a profit centre out of thin air, to invent a product that everyone wants as a tremendous feat.
In some ways, it is also an Asian feat. Now when I go to the spas at some great European hotels and see how they have incorporated Ayurvedic language (even if they treat it like mumbojumbo) and Thai techniques into their regimen, I feel a tinge of pride. In this, as in so many other areas, Asia has taught the West about luxury.