How much tech in spa?

Posted by on March 2, 2018 in Articles

How much tech in spa?

Cozying up to tech can help your spa business. But not too close.

Last November, the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas introduced an unusual new team member to welcome guests. Pepper – a robot with big bird eyes and an endearingly petite stature – can assess gender, age, facial, body and voice cues, and even mood, then customize ‘her’ verbal greetings to each guest.

It’s not hard to imagine how a Spa Pepper could put repeat clients at ease by smiling and effortlessly remembering their names and treatments. There are already robots that can fold towels. How soon before they’re doing our spa laundries?

Don’t laugh. If you’d told someone 10 years ago that in 2018 we’d be asking our telephones to spell ‘restaurateur’ or tell us the average March temperature of Zurich, they’d have said you were nuts.

The arrival of tech portends a love-hate relationship. We are, after all, the supposed Shangri-La of hands-on healing and touch. Many of our guests come to escape the constant barrage of tweets and emails and pop-up ads that clutter our minds and schedules. In the spa trenches, spa directors wage a continuous struggle against the intrusion of smart phones tempting staffers away from their duties as care-givers and healers.

AI and robots may boost spa profits

Pepper, spa robot

But there’s no denying that advanced tech including AI (artificial intelligence) and robots are likely to boost the per-foot profitability of your facility. Today’s smartphones speak to their owners in warmer tones than many used by retail assistants – while also observing, compiling and processing data far faster and more efficiently than a human could. Need I mention how many times you may have divulged your treatment preferences to a spa concierge – only to have them ignored on your next visit – even though most spas have the software to record and recall customer histories and preferences?

The degree to which you incorporate tech mainly needs to align with your vision and your mission regarding your guests’ experiences.

AI will force us to take a hard look at how we’re doing things now. Who hasn’t gone into a store and felt the judgement and coolness of uninterested staff? The future will belong to bricks-and-mortar stores and spas that can cultivate an omni-channel, deeply conscious engaged experience with a sense of connection and community – even more so as consumers’ expectations for civility and graciousness increase.

Tech’s dark side

But before we get too gaga over gadgets, it’s useful to look at tech’s dark side. The so-called wearable technology industry, for example, exemplified by mindfulness apps and fitness trackers, has begun to lose its shine. True, start-ups like snap40 are offering algorithms that convert data into useful information for hospital staff to reduce costs and stress. But according to Thierry Malleret, an economist and author of the Monthly Barometer, what was hailed as the next big tech market a few short years ago is turning out to be a bust. Fitbit and Jawbone are struggling, while larger, more established tech players including Motorola have abandoned wearable tech altogether.

Even more onerous are the long-term effects of too much tech. According to the World Health Organization, depression hobbled 4.4% of the global population in 2015 – up 19% in just 10 years. In his new book The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig argues that technology is all about “digital nudging.” Like substance addiction, he says, the short-term rewards of compulsive email and social media checking require higher and higher doses to maintain pleasure levels.

Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey reveals that more than 40 per cent of consumers check their phones within five minutes of waking up every day. During the day, we look at our phones approximately 47 times, and that number rises to 82 times for 18- to 24-year-olds. Once the day is over, over 30 per cent of consumers check their devices five minutes before going to sleep, and about 50 per cent in the middle of the night.

Wellness spa visitors – two types

Probably the best approach is to remember the two primary varieties of wellness spa consumer: the overextended, nerve-frazzled individual suffering from mental obesity, and the isolated guest afflicted by today’s epidemic of loneliness.

The solution is to focus on the rejuvenating experience at the core of every wellness spa visit. Cultivating mindfulness in all customer interactions, for starters, will enrich the experience for both parties. A magnificent transformation occurs when we hold space as sacred and listen intensely, as consumers are longing to be heard.

But to do this authentically you need to be well rested with a foundation of self-care, and grounded in your own purpose. Sharing an intention for the wellness experience with the guest can bring about a unifying coherence.

What deeply and authentically improves wellness is our connection to each other, the cascade of wellness hormones that bathes our bodies when we have a good laugh with friends, feel connected and heard, or feel the sensation of touch on our skin.

Encouraging people to cultivate rituals of wellness – such as setting boundaries with their smartphones to help digital detox and reduce anxiety – will help spa consumers reset.

The greatest service wellness spas can deliver is to help bring guests home to themselves by delivering proven improvements in mind and body wellness. If used for mundane tasks and/or in alignment with our values and your spa’s authentic concept, technology can help. But until Pepper can put a warm hand on your shoulder or take genuine interest in how your daughter’s ballet classes are going, she won’t be replacing humans anytime soon.

Published as “A touch of technology” in Spa Canada magazine’s March/April 2018 issue

Republished as “A touch of technology” in Spa Canada magazine’s July/August 2020 issue

Article by Vivienne O’Keeffe, AAD, PEA, CIBTAC, of Spa Profits Consulting Inc. Vivienne specializes in turning wellness concepts into new spa developments and turnaround projects, and excels at creating authentic guest experiences within a sustainable, successful framework of quality operations.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash


  1. As a spa manager at a destination spa encouraging Guests to unplug is an everyday battle in order to preserve the privacy for everyone present. Some guests that see cell phones are instantly nervous of photos, however some guests are anxious and irritable without the electronic connection their devices provide. Finding the right balance is a challenge everyday. Technological help in the spa sounds tempting but I agree caring hands and voices and touch are the core of what spa is about, I wouldn’t want to loose that connection and I’m not sure we are setting the right example for our guests when we introduce technology.

  2. Excellent article Vivienne, I don’t frequent spas as I never think to “treat myself“, a girlfriend tells me it’s a necessity, not a treat. I was lucky enough to receive a gift certificate for a well known spa in Kelowna and my experience there left me in no rush to go back. Baby crying in the background, cold and damp mud wrap left me feeling as though I was trapped in a bog somewhere with no hope of being found before I froze. I welcome advances in technology and hope that spa owners don’t miss the importance of creating a connection with their clients instead of trying to make a slick experience handled by tech not humans.

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