International Spa Trends: Thailand

The spa industry is here to stay, and not just in the United States. A recent trip to Thailand proved that spas are a hot commodity on the other side of the globe, as well. There, it is all about culture and remaining true to the land.

“Those fortunate enough to have experienced the warmth and hospitality of Thailand will know all too well the genuine care and excellent service that are delivered here,” says Richard Williams, spa manager at Chiva-Som in Hua Hin. “As a culture that lives from the heart—even having ‘heart’ words in their vocabulary—therein lies the unique advantage to spas developed in Thailand. To have team members who take a genuine interest in their clients, care about their jobs and are proud to work in their respective fields is certainly a plus to the spa industry. All who return to Thailand will be welcomed with the warm wai, which is a prayerlike greeting—just like namaste in India—that offers respect and warmth to all who visit.”

The Thai culture also is well-known for its reputation in the service industry. “Thai spa culture offers alternative therapies with its inherited tradition of herbal practice that has been proven to give excellent results for health and well-being, both holistically and scientifically,” notes Sarah Kajonborrirak, president and founder of Sivalai Spa. “It’s part of a variety of spa treatments from the genuine tradition of the Thai people that has been practiced for more than 3,000 years.”

Facts and figures

Indeed, the spa industry is a profession that still is going strong. According to the Spa Industry Survey Thailand 2004, conducted by Intelligent Spas Pte Ltd, Singapore, Thailand is home to approximately 320 spa facilities. It is important to note that this statistic only includes spas that offer water-based body treatments, such as scrubs and wraps. The majority of Thai spas, 28%, are located in the capital city of Bangkok, which boasts a population of approximately 7 million. The second-largest concentration is in the resort area of Phuket, claiming 19%. Of these, resort spas make up 46% of the spa types, with 30% being day spas.

This same study states that about 5,260 people are employed by the industry. And international tourists paved the paths to the spas, accounting for 78% of all visits. Domestic tourists accounted for 10%, and local residents contributed 12% of total Thai spa visits, on average. Together, this totaled a whopping 3.6 million combined appointments with Thailand spas between July 2003 and June 2004. And this number continues to climb.

Key industry trends appear to be similar to those of U.S. counterpart spas, according to this same study. Thirty-three percent of spas surveyed stated that the industry is becoming more competitive due to the inception of new facilities, and 26% of respondents observed that clients were seeking health benefits rather than just pampering.

As for treatment trends, it comes as no surprise that, according to the study, Thai massage is provided by 96% of the spas surveyed. This was followed by aromatherapy in 92% of the facilities, reflexology in 56%, stone therapy in 42% and mud treatments in 32%. This trend toward massage and body treatments is quite evident in the United States, as well. Today’s American spas no longer rely on facials for their bread and butter. The new mainstay is full-body massage—experienced by 27.1 million spa-goers this past year.1

Spa journal

After discovering these figures, I decided to experience the Thai spa industry firsthand this summer, and had the pleasure of visiting some of the top spas this beautiful country has to offer. According to all of the professionals I met, the study’s figures are on the mark. One of the most popular treatments on all menus is Thai massage. “Thai massage is as innate as a mother’s care for her child that goes back thousands of years from generation to generation,” says Williams. “This service was developed by monks to heal disorders, as well as to ease discomfort. There also is a royal Thai massage called Rajanumsak that was available only to the royal family. It differs slightly from the temple style in that it was designed only to pamper and relax.”

He continues, “Just as the various types of Buddhism in Asia stem from the same foundation, Thai massage also has its own indigenous flavor. However, its anatomic and physiologic background is similar to that of its neighbor’s services, such as tuina, shiatsu, jamu and acupressure.”

At Chiva-Som, massage therapy of any kind is among the top picks by its guests. “Industry statistics inform us that the average ratio in regard to treatments in the spa is 60% massage/body services and 40% facial/esthetic services,” says Williams. “At Chiva-Som, the most popular massage is the signature Chiva-Som Massage, a classic oil-based service that combines the familiarity of a Swedish treatment with the ability to request the amount of pressure and body area needing to be addressed. Identifying guests’ needs is an essential trait for a body therapist, so this massage suits our clientele quite well.”

Each of the Thai spas I visited offered something new and unique, weaving the spa world into the indigenous nature of the land.

Chiva-Som. Chiva-Som is a luxury tropical health retreat that is located in the royal beach destination of Hua Hin, which is about 130 miles south of Bangkok. It sprawls across 7 acres of beachfront landscaped gardens, and is a world-renowned health spa dedicated to revitalizing the mind, body and spirit for total well-being and vitality. More than 100 treatments and activities are available, including spa, holistic, fitness and physiotherapy. The resort features 57 Thai-style pavilions, ocean-view rooms and suites. Designed by British architect Jean-Paul Blissett, of The Syntax Group, it is a subtle balance between Thai and Western designs.

An emphasis is placed on a balanced diet at the facility, and its award-winning cuisine combines both Thai and Western cultures. Upon arrival, all guests undergo a consultation with one of Chiva-Som’s health and wellness consultants. According to Angelika Hartung, a health and wellness consultant manager, the private consultation “is designed to evaluate the current state of health of all guests, and to determine what they would like to achieve during their visit to the resort.” Guests can select treatments a la carte. However, the spa’s strength lies in creating tailored packages with the recommendations of its advisers, all of whom are natural health practitioners. “Each guest is guided through three phases of wellness: foundation, discovery and transformation,” says Hartung.

According to Williams, Chiva-Som’s guests primarily hail from Europe, and are between the ages of 35–45. The average visitor stays at the resort for five to seven days. Repeat clients typically are expatriates, who come three to four times a year.

Devarana Spa. Devarana Spa was developed by Kajonborrirak, winner of The Executive Woman of the Year 2003 Award for Best Innovation Organization by the Foundation for the Thai Society. It is located at the five-star Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok. Devarana, pronounced te-wa-run, is a Sanskrit word meaning “garden in heaven.” It dates back to ancient Thai literature, called Tribhumphraruang, also known as Traibhumikatha, written by Phraya Lithai. In this literary work, this particular area is described as being situated at heaven’s gate, and surrounded by gardens and ponds with a delightful scent and a nurturing environment.

This feeling certainly did come across at this beautiful spa. According to Juraruk Cholharn, assistant public relations manager, the facility was created to offer guests outstanding services at select five-star hotels. “With an emphasis on pampering and wellness, East meets West with Thai health and beauty practices that have been sourced from age-old therapies and updated with modern knowledge to pamper and revitalize guests,” she explains.

The spa offers a variety of private treatment suites luxuriously designed in the contemporary Thai style, including one grand suite, four deluxe suites and nine standard rooms. Thirty-five percent of its clientele are travelers, primarily from China, Japan, Europe and the United States.

La Bretagne Holistic Rejuvenation Center. This medical spa is situated in the heart of the bustling new upscale Siam Paragon Shopping Center—reportedly the largest in Asia. It is this location that helps the business to obtain the types of clientele it is targeting—the middle- to upper-income baby boomers and Gen Xers, many of whom bring in their teenagers for acne treatments. “The mall setting fits our clients’ lifestyles,” explains Chuthamas Premchaiporn, international business development manager for Pan Beauty Care Co., Ltd., which manages La Bretagne Holistic Rejuvenation Center. “La Bretagne is a pioneer in a new concept of holistic rejuvenation in Thailand. It introduces a total solution in health and beauty to create a faster, better and longer result.” According to her, many spas in Bangkok are located in a mall setting because it is convenient. This unique facility recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary of being the exclusive Thai distributor of Repêchage products.

“Here, our medical spa is also a dermatology clinic, and offers acne and pigmentation treatments, in addition to Botox* and laser—but no microdermabrasion,” says Premchaiporn. The most-requested treatment on the menu is the Repêchage Four-Layer Facial, she says. Premchaiporn adds that skin lightening is also a popular service throughout Asia. Another trend she has noticed is that of teens coming in with their parents. “Kids are starting to learn about proper skin care at a younger age,” she observes.

The Oriental Spa. The spa was established in 1993 as an extension of the guest experience provided by the legendary The Oriental, Bangkok hotel and is rich in the traditions of Thailand. Accessible only by ferry, the spa is housed in a restored century-old teakwood house. Guests are made to feel as though they have entered a temple of well-being. “The spa’s approach to wellness is based on ancient Thai traditions that combine meditation and massage with healing Western techniques,” says Susie Hansirisawasdi, director of public relations.

“The natural ingredients used in spa treatments draw on the inspiration and medical knowledge of ancient times,” she continues. “Fragrant oils, aromatic herbs, and the juices of fruits and vegetables are featured in our formulas.”

The spa recently underwent a $1.2 million renovation and features improved in-suite facilities, including temperature-controlled scrub tables and a vitality pool designed to stimulate all the senses with a full-body water jet massage.

Seasons Spa. Seasons Spa is housed within The Conrad Bangkok, which is part of the Hilton family of hotels. It is located in one of the Thai capital’s premier integrated office, retail, residential and hotel developments, called All Seasons Place. It is situated in the heart of Bangkok’s central business district, close to major embassies, commercial centers and the “green lung” of Lumpini Park, a popular and relaxing retreat named after Buddha’s birthplace.

To quote the spa’s mission statement: “At Seasons Spa, we reclaim the ancient arts of health and meld them with modern techniques, harnessing the energies of the Earth and the awesome powers of the human touch.” Seasons Spa’s treatment rooms are unique; most are set up for couples services. Twelve luxurious rooms come complete with a shower room, private steam room, private changing room and washroom. The Presidential Spa Suite includes a Jacuzzi bathtub.

The facility is open conveniently from 7 am until midnight to accommodate its traveling business guests. Interestingly, the client ratio is 60% men to 40% women, according to Yaowaluk Porkar, spa manager. “The Conrad is a business hotel, and it caters to the business traveler. Our treatments are designed according to client needs, such as jet lag,” she states. The clientele hails mainly from the United States, Europe and Japan. Porkar adds that today’s spa guests are more knowledgeable about spas than they were a few years ago, and therefore more critical and demanding.

Featured services change every three months, and all include indigenous products. However, the spa does have its well-liked standbys. “Our most popular treatments are the Seasons Spa Massage and Traditional Thai Massage,” Porkar explains. “The Seasons Spa Massage is our signature massage, and combines Hawaiian, Balinese and Swedish techniques at a medium pressure to relieve body aches and pains. It leaves clients completely revitalized. The Traditional Thai Massage is one of the country’s ancient healing methods to relieve stiff joints, release muscular tension and assist with the free flow of the energy system. During this service, the therapist uses her thumbs, hands, fingers, forearms, elbows, knees and feet.”

Sivalai Spa. The Thai Heritage Spa Company Limited was the winning bidder among 16 other candidates in 2003 to create and operate the inclusive Sivalai Spa, located at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, which is owned by the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand. This spa concept was created by Kajonborrirak and was inspired by her ancestors, as well as the innovation and combination of Eastern and Western cultural and technical elements. “It is an indigenous spa that presents the culture of Thai massage and its traditional use of Thai herbs,” says Kajonborrirak.

“We are seeing more and more male clients coming to the spa,” she notes. “Also, we have more requests for organic products to be used in our treatments. It seems that clients want to go back to the basics instead of using sophisticated chemical products. Another trend is that our clients demand faster results from the services that they receive.”

A bright future

The spa industry in Thailand will continue to flourish. “The Thai spa industry is very lucky to be well-supported by the country’s government and also in its foundation, which already consists of regional governing bodies, such as the Krabi Association and the Phuket Spa Association. These bodies all sit under the umbrella of the Thai Spa Association,” explains Williams. “With these in place, the industry is making a concerted effort to set benchmarks, particularly in Asia-Pacific.

“Of course, Thai spas have not been immune to the international demand for medical spas, and, although Thailand already is fairly renowned in the field of cosmetic surgery, noninvasive cosmetic spas that include holistic services are a new trend,” he continues. “Thai spas realize the importance of the international market, and constantly are looking at new indigenous products and treatments to service culturally inquisitive spa-goers.”

There is a lot that American spas can learn by looking to their Asian counterparts for guidance. “Western spa models can learn from Thailand and Asia in respect to service and guest experience. It truly is an art to understand the ‘act of service’: the selfless place where one gives unconditionally and, from a therapist’s viewpoint, the treatment is conducted with pleasure or with care,” states Williams. “Certainly this type of service can be found in the United States, but with the global saturation of spas and spa services, it is what makes a good spa a great one with not only a loyal client base, but also a successful public relations machine that helps to generate word of mouth. Everyone remembers a great therapist and a great treatment.”

He suggests that industry leaders look to the multitude of indigenous treatments, as well as herbal and medicinal products that might seem commonplace but, if redeveloped, could become unique spa experiences for jaded spa-goers looking to reach beyond Swedish massage. “I think that the Asian spa industry now is widely recognized—particularly in the hotel, resort and destination spa environment—and that guests will be looking for a cultural experience that embraces the local culture, and services and products will be developed to reflect this,” Williams concludes.

By looking East, the American spa industry can gain new insights into up-and-coming trends, as well as a fresh perspective on standard treatments. This is a profession in which the human touch will never go out of style.

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