OPPORTUNITIES FOR EUROPEAN HEALTH SPAS POST COVID
A typical European Health Spa resort’s website landing page is filled with pictures of alluring women (normally blond) lying in Jacuzzi’s, super healthy people exercising or being massaged and sophisticated physiotherapy treatments. The reality however, is more likely to be noisy families and seniors plonked thermal pools, consuming copious amounts of carbohydrates, alcohol and saturated fat and having the occasional, no frills, sometimes rather brutal looking treatment.
Central and Eastern Europe Spas have been slow to realize that there is more to a spa market than families and seniors with disabilities; for example, what about OPALS (old people active lifestyle), WHOPS (Wealthy healthy older people) and the ever-booming segment of millennials or older single women? The spa guest of today does not need to travel for health, wellness facilities are to be found on practically every street corner in Europe. In order to attract the post Covid spa guest European thermal spas will have to become more imaginative in their market targeting and offers.
Like their target groups, the choice of programs in most Central European Health Resorts is limited, falling predominantly into four categories; Balneotherapy for physical rehabilitation, leisure, relaxation and weight loss/detox programs. When the virus hit, many resorts went into panic gear, hastily putting together programs such as “respiratory programs for long term sufferers of Covid 19” and “immunity booster” stays – packages that in reality are only likely to attract a niche market rather than fill the void left by the pandemic. On a closer examination of the content of these packages, many are just cobbled-together-existing treatments under catchy new names. Besides there being a lack of clinical evidence that scientifically proves a significant immune system response to a spa stay, a meager three-night, six treatment package with mineral baths, a massage and a couple of inhalation therapies is not going to significantly increase a person’s T4 cell count.
In 2020 the world changed. Everything people thought was secure and dependable was swept out from under them in an instant. They have been locked up in their apartments, they have moved less, eaten more, drunk more alcohol and put on more weight. Countless academic research articles have been written about the psychological effects of lock-downs. The result is that ‘Mental health’ has become the buzz word of 2021. In her interview with Oprah, Megan mentioned it several times, soon after Prince Harry became the chief impact officer of ‘Betterup’ a mental wellness organisation. During lock-down people have had plenty of time to -reflect on their mental well-being and question their pre-pandemic priorities.
European health destinations will have to step up if they want to entice the new post covid guest. American destination spas have already been leading the way with sophisticated lifestyle and mental wellness programs that catch the imagination; ‘optimal health’, ‘personal discovery’, ‘life fulfillment’, ‘outdoor escapes’ being a few examples. This holistic approach covers all aspects of living from physical health to relationship skills, women’s retreats, bereavement counseling, metaphysical experiences and even post-divorce boot camps! In such spas it is not referred to as ‘anti-aging’, rather the more inspiring ‘celebrating aging’.
There is also more to a medical offer than just Balneotherapy for physical rehabilitation. Looking at the causes of death in Europe in 2020, 37% were circulatory diseases, 26% cancers, 8% respiratory and 2% diabetes. With some creativity spas could substantially broaden their medical offers. Vrnjacka Banja in Serbia, a thermal resort that specializes in diabetes is extremely successful partly because no one else is offering stays for diabetes on that scale.
According to Chris Kam a marketing forecast expert people will want to visit places with wide open spaces, natural beauty and peace (Forbes 20/05/2020). Thermae Laa in Austria recognised this and were well ahead of their time with their Silent Spa concept. People also will want places that are easy to get to – PCR/antigen tests, updating immunity passports and destination locations will all become obstacles to travel. They have also become socially sensitive to crowds, not just because of the possibility of viral infection, but having had the experience of not being exposed to intense interactions for over a year. For the foreseeable future crowded thermal pools and high-volume large spa resorts are unlikely to be popular – an unfortunate time for anyone who happens to be working in high volume spa facilities or the cruise ship industry.
Health resorts do have many advantages. In Europe there is no need to cross borders to visit one, they often happen to be in scenic and beautiful locations, have clinical standards of hygiene and medical staff are on hand if there is an emergency. (According to a recent article in the Business Insider hygiene is ranked as a top three factor when making a travel booking). Physiotherapists in European spas are greatly undervalued and trained to do much more than physical rehabilitation – if only they were utilized to their full potential. European Health Resorts can also offer non crowded accommodation, apartments, suites and smaller, less crowded accommodation options.
It seems that some European operators are slow to realize that demographics and demands have changed, particularly in light of Covid. Mental wellness, accessibility, hygiene are now the focuses of our time. Product diversity, specialization and attracting new markets are likely to be the pathways out of the Covid challenge and there are a wealth of ideas from outside Europe from which to draw inspiration.