Is your spa business ready to go hydrothermal?
By Vivienne O’Keeffe
Growing up in Ireland and being led all over Europe by my parents to the natural waters of places like Lourdes (France) and the stunning Italian Alps, I never doubted the therapeutic benefits of soaking in water.
My most memorable demonstration of water’s restorative properties, though, was on New Year’s Day, 2013. I was boating with a group of friends up to Hot Springs Cove in the western Clayoquot Sound region of Vancouver Island. We had just been enraptured by the pristine coastline and a playful passing whale, and had disembarked for the 30-minute hike to the springs along a wonderfully maintained boardwalk through old growth forest.
I could smell the sulphur as we approached our destination, and eagerly disrobed despite the frosty temperatures. As I sank into the steamy pools, I sensed only the beauty of the clear blue sky and soaring eagles, the joy of friendship, and the profound gratitude in my heart. We had lots of laughs as we bravely willed ourselves outwards against a progressively cool tide that washed over us amidst the rocks and numbed our skin.
The therapist in me today would describe the session as a combination of four natural treatments: balneotherapy (immersion in geothermal minerals), thalassotherapy (regenerating power of seawater), contrast therapy (alternating hot and cold) and a dash of ecotherapy. In lay terms, it was pure fun.
Water’s amazing capacity to take us from our heads into our bodies and hearts is hardly new. Ancient Mesopotamians recorded water therapy as far back as in 3900 BC. Natural hot water and bathing rituals span the globe from Japanese onsen (hot springs that contain dissolved minerals) to ancient Roman baths. Indigenous peoples from as faraway as Tibet or as near as the Pacific shores dunked themselves in naturally occurring hot springs for cleansing, therapeutic relaxation or ritual traditions.
Numerous studies spell out the medical benefits of hydrotherapy for arthritis, chronic pain, nervous disorders, cardiac and respiratory disease, immunology, dermatology, sports medicine and even veterinary care. Naturopathic pioneer (and Catholic priest) Sebastian Kneipp 1821-1897 developed his own water cure for healing his tuberculosis. Immersion in water permits us to relax, let go, and feel the buoyancy of the water as it surrounds and supports us. We have nothing else to do but to be – not so easy in today’s frantic world.
Contrast therapy benefits
Contrast therapy alone brings a number of physiological boosts including:
- Improved mental resilience and focus
- Stimulation and tonifying of the vascular system
- Improved immune system
- Reduced pain and inflammation
- Improved detoxification and elimination
- Increased metabolism and burning white fat
Amazingly enough, although one of the oldest proven spa therapies available, hydrothermal bathing is still growing in popularity. According to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), the $56.2 billion thermal/mineral springs industry comprises 34,057 thermal/mineral springs establishments operating in 127 countries. The majority are traditional bathing facilities targeting local markets and charging relatively low admission fees. The remaining 25% or so are higher-end establishments aimed at tourists and offering value-added spa services. These more modern facilities account for 66% of overall industry revenues – the lion’s share – and are enjoying revenue growth of 7.4% annually* versus 0.5% for those without spa services.
Today’s consumers are seeking highly engaged, in-person wellness experiences combining authenticity with fun, play, connection and community, and ideally in a natural setting.
Reports the GWI: “The industry is heavily concentrated in Asia-Pacific and Europe, reflecting the centuries-old history of water-based healing and relaxation in these two regions. Together, Asia-Pacific and Europe account for 95% of industry revenues and 94% of establishments.”
Governments in countries with long-established thermal bathing traditions are increasingly promoting these to tourists, while investing in renovations and/or reopening outdated facilities to meet the standards and expectations of international tourists, GWI says.
Here in Canada, hydrothermal based spas are opening in many areas. They typically combine a range of therapies including therapeutic pools, steam, sauna and sunbathing in interior and exterior settings – with the bonuses of nature and ecotherapy as well as the healing power of community.
Since the introduction of the spa industry in North America, individual hydrotherapy tubs have been used to deliver customizable hydro-massages with therapeutic muds, clays or essential oils. Swiss (vertical) walk-in or Vichy (horizontal) showers employ a therapist controlling pressure and massage directions.
Therapeutic water treatment circuit
Today’s consumers are seeking a much more integrated, self-directed journey through a therapeutic circuit, that may include the following:
Kneipp Walk therapy – a mix of hot and cold water (contrast therapy) as the user steps through a circuit that stimulates blood circulation.
Traditional timber sauna – with a heat source from heated stones warmed by log fires, electricity or gas, temperature is between 70 and 105° C. Alternatively consumers enjoy the gentle detoxifying wellness benefits of an infrared sauna.
Steam room – typically a tiled or stone room combining temperatures between 42 and 48°C with 100% humidity from hot steam, sometimes incorporating essential oils.
Hammam – ranging from 40 to 42° C and with up to 60% humidity, these are Turkish baths using one centrally positioned rock that radiates heat. Usually has an independent steam source and separate private rooms for traditional treatments.
Laconium – heated from 38 to 42° C, and particularly suitable for relaxation between treatments in the wetter areas of a spa, these are rooms furnished with heated loungers or chairs, and are sometimes infused with aromas from essential oils to promote well-being and relaxation.
Salt room – with halo generator or by nebulizer, helps cleanse the respiratory system.
Cold plunge pool – with temperatures of 12 to 20° C, a powerful therapeutic tool to contract blood vessels, increase mindfulness and alertness while invigorating.
Vitality and mineral pools, snow rooms, Russian banya etc. can also form part of providing a hydrothermal wellness journey.
The pros of adding hydrothermal therapy
Should you consider building a hydrothermal therapy facility? Let’s first consider the market forces at work:
- Consumers are becoming more informed and educated on all matters that interest them, including wellness.
- Consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of their own empowered wellness care and advocacy, taking their self-care more and more into their own hands.
- As consumers travel more, they are exposed to other cultures and their rituals of wellness, such as Japanese onsen and European unisex hydrothermal experiences.
- Core spa consumers are seeking digital detox and silence as they journey inwards to connect with themselves. The combination of water and nature is a powerful catalyst for this experience.
- Millennials and the younger generations seeking group wellness activities understand that being with their tribe is more beneficial than going to a spa alone. Surprisingly enough, this latter cohort is most affected by loneliness.
So, today’s consumers are seeking highly engaged, in-person wellness experiences combining authenticity with fun, play, connection and community, ideally in a natural setting.
Financially speaking, one of the largest operating costs for most spas is labour. But a properly conceptualized, designed, constructed and operated hydrothermal facility in a spa or resort reduces the high labour costs associated with one-on-one spa treatments like massage. Entry fees across Canada vary from $49 to $78, often making these facilities the lowest-priced items on the spas’ menus, and therefore attractive to new or peripheral spa-goers. The potential return on investment is excellent, too – even more so considering today’s shortage of qualified experienced spa professionals. And the relatively low operating cost allows room for compelling discounts for promotions, loyal VIP clients and groups.
In short, a hydrothermal facility can turn an ordinary spa operation into a destination – boosting client visits and creating authentic upselling opportunities for all demographic groups.
And the cons of adding hydrothermal therapy
- If not designed by experienced professionals, a hydrothermal therapy facility can be a nightmare of delays, refits, customers rejections and lost business. Health, safety and hygiene are paramount.
- The biggest obstacle is clearly the startup cost. If you include thermal pools (mineral or vitality) and cold-plunge pool, traditional or infra-red sauna, steam room, it will run into the millions.
There are too many types of treatments to cover in this brief article. But I hope this sketch of hydrothermal therapy helps you make a decision one way or the other.
One thing’s for sure: after 6000 years, it won’t be going away any time soon.
Published as “In Hot Water” in Spa Canada May-June 2019
Vivienne O’Keeffe, AAD, PEA, CIBTAC, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., and an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She is also an international consultant in developing product lines, quality systems, treatment plans and training programs, a member of ISPA and a recipient of the Spa Industry Association of Canada Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012.
 Source: Global Wellness Institute, Global Wellness Economy Monitor, January 2017
Amen Vivienne! Canadians have been doing this so brilliantly for years, it’s time we catch up in the US!
Thank you Suzanne.