The Growth of Medical Spa in the Hospitality Industry

By Peter Anderson Founder, Anderson & Associates | October 28, 2008

One of the fastest growing segments of the spa industry is the medical spa and ironically it is one of the hardest concepts to define. For many years "medical spa" was short hand for a great dermatologist's office that had nice furniture, good tea, and current magazines in the waiting area.

While some medical spas still provide very valuable state-of-the art care for skin, the scope of many medical spas has expanded along with our definitions of medical treatment, health care and overall wellness. Medical spas today are highly inclusive and are anchored in various health care modalities, best described as something that is "more significant than" the traditional fluff and buff spas (i.e., small pores, great hair and perfect nails), and "less serious than" medical procedures that manually redistribute ones fat cells. "Medical Spas" and "Wellness" are first cousins with some very interesting family ties. Simply put, the definition of "spa" and "medicine" are both developing into areas that have a huge amount of tangible overlap. A savvy resort operator and hotelier can use this trend to his or her advantage to extend demand during low and shoulder periods, increase rate premiums with minimal capital expenses, enhance revenue from other profit centers at the hotel or resort, and double or even triple the average length of stay.

In order to best understand the interrelationship between spas and medicine it is probably best to look at the origin of spas. Salus Per Aqua, or healing through water is where the word spa originates. Spas were places where people would go to relax, take the waters, (which were often naturally mineral-infused hot springs) and "rebalance". In ancient times of Greece and Rome, spas represented the latest and greatest of medical advancements. Without the help of electron microscopes, or even electricity for that matter. The ancients understood that creating an environment for healing was often enough to let the body and the mind to do the rest. In fact, the innate understanding of the body-mind connections was so prevalent that many of the doctors and priests of ancient times were one in the same.

While taking of the waters has always been a staple in many European health regimes, it had only a brief naissance in North America, from the mid 19th to early 20th century, much of which was due to the waves of immigration from Europe during various decades. While western or allopathic medicine by definition treats symptoms, and is a necessary intervention, (especially when experiencing acute chest pains or resetting jagged bones) it is the complimentary and alternative medical (CAM) modalities that have helped create and anneal the tangible link between medicine and spas. Non-western medical practitioners often see CAM as an inferior sub-set of "traditional medicine" and can include, but is not limited to treatments and cures that include chiropractic, acupuncture, mineral soaks, herbal teas and lotions, dietary modifications, and even chanting and meditation. The market, especially aging baby-boomers are changing this way of thinking, especially as noted in a study by Dr. David Eisenberg of Harvard University.

In 1993, Dr Eisenberg and his team cited that 1/3 of all patients had visited a practitioner of alternative health care in the past year at a cost of $13.7 billion. This indicated to the traditional medical community that the significant out-of-pocket expenses being spent on alternative medicine, implied not only a loss of revenue to them, but a broad dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine. A great number of people were taking the issues of health and well being into their own control, thus setting the stage for proactive wellness programs, i.e. medical spas. In 1997 Eisenberg updated his study and found the updated number of visits to alternative medical providers was estimated to be near $30 billion. The expenditures continue to grow today. Medical spas, when done correctly, provide the benefit of integrated health and wellness with the relaxing and pampering environment a spa. For this reason, destination resorts, as well as day and mineral spring spas all have the potential to incorporate medical components into their menus. This will not only provide a wider draw for customers, but also has the potential to quantifiably enhance the quality of life and longevity of their patrons.

The point of this article is not to support or refute the benefits of any particular health -oriented modality, but to acknowledge the overlap between proactive wellness and reactive sickness care. It is in this growing area there is great opportunity to understand consumer needs and respond accordingly. The market has spoken with their wallets, and in a tacit way has given progressive hoteliers, who want to have cutting edge spas, the permission and responsibility to create programs that combine proactive and reactive components of wellness. To that end we have listed nine issues to consider when incorporating medical components into your spa, be it a day, mineral or destination environment.

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