Hydromassage in Today's "No-Touch" Normal
Opportunities & Benefits of High-Tech, Automated Massage Post-COVID-19
By Kerstin Bremser Professor, Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences | October 11, 2020
Automated massage can help spas overcome social distancing rules, decrease personnel costs and deliver the evidence-based wellness that today's consumers demand.
Covid-19 shutdowns have hit the spa industry hard and "normal" domestic and international travel isn't likely to bounce back quickly. Prior to the pandemic, spa operators around the globe were already finding it difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff, and, now, when spas are reopening, pressing issues center around ensuring good hygiene and social distancing. There's no doubt that the work environment for massage therapists and estheticians will change dramatically – and much of their time will also be consumed with new hygiene protocols before and after treatments.
Previous pandemics, such as SARS in China in 2002/2003, show that travel ultimately returns to pre-pandemic volumes, but certain behaviors change. In addition to demanding increased hygiene, individuals typically take personal responsibility by pro-actively lifestyle changes to help them live longer and healthier lives. After the SARS epidemic, for example, people began exercising more, adopted healthier eating habits, and, in general, demanded more hygiene in public spaces. Much of what we're seeing today.
In a post-COVID landscape, customers will not only value high hygiene standards but also high-quality, effective, evidence-based services. Treatments involving touch (i.e. massage and facials) will certainly need to evolve.
Touchless Gains Traction
Treatments requiring minimal hands-on touch are being sought-after by both spa operators and guests. In Europe, dry hydromassage systems are already popular in the medical sector for treating muscle pain and common ailments and they comply to very strict legal requirements in order to be registered as "medical grade." Importantly, their efficacy has been proven via clinical studies, making this and ideal piece of equipment for our "new normal."
These devices should not be confused with air-compression massage chairs offered in airports and shopping malls. They are, instead, high-grade machines that have been used in the medical environment to treat issues like sciatica, chronic low back pain, pinched nerves, etc. for more than 25 years in Europe.
Dry hydromassage systems not only deliver high-quality hygienic treatments that are touchless and require minimal staff time, but they can also be customized for personalized wellness experiences. For example, guests can choose which body zones need more attention and can alter the pressure, speed and duration of the treatment. And these values can be combined and saved to form a specific individualized treatment that can be recalled from the library of programs. This way, spas can create their own massage journeys and/or personalized programs can be saved for frequent guests.
Originally designed for medical use and follow the principles of classical hydro- and balneotherapy. Within the last two decades these units have become a standard means of treatment in rehabilitation and physiotherapy. In addition, during recent years they have become increasingly common in the wellness and spa sector.
How it Works
Customers are positioned on a comfortable cover made from natural rubber that is fitted on top of a tub filled with pleasantly heated water. Water nozzles placed below the cover along the customer's body are used for the application of a relaxing massage.
Modern units offer a large variety of treatment options, enabling a personalized massage experience for each customer. Treatment focuses can individually be set on a touchscreen as can the intensity of the massage. Crucially, cleaning and hygiene measures can be easily carried out.
"The use of dry hydromassage units is paramount when treating muscle tension. Studies have proven that they are effective for pain relief." - Detlef Kaleth, MD, specialist in orthopedics, Berlin in Igel Plus.
Given that spa consumers tend to skew female and are often over 55 years old, they are considered a high-risk group for COVID-19 and, therefore, will be likely to want to take special precautions.
According to the well-established Health Belief Model (HBM), people engage in risk reduction (i.e. social distancing) as long as they perceive a threat to be severe and as long as they believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. Therefore, spa operators will be compelled to offer clients risk-free treatments that are unique yet safe.
For this article, five spa and wellness industry experts were interviewed to answer key concerns in the industry.
Question: What issues will spas need to overcome with new social distancing norms in order to deliver profitable, high-quality massage treatments?
All the experts agree that one of the most pressing issues for spa operators is the availability of well-trained staff. Industry experts anticipate this problem to become more acute due to the pandemic and that there will be increased pressure on staff with all the new, incoming protocols that are designed to protect their own well-being and that of their guests.
Since treatment rooms are the responsibility of therapists, they will have less time to dedicate to clients to allow for sanitizing and disinfecting in between each treatment. And, of course, the new protocols and social distancing rules, means that more cleaners will be needed and visible in spa areas. In many cases, this means therapists may not be able to perform as many treatments in a shift, and, in addition, spas will likely incur additional costs for cleaners and cleaning supplies.
"I believe our starting situation, i.e. lack of qualified staff, will be amplified by the pandemic. We will end up with two distinct employee groups: trained therapists with high qualifications making a high hourly wage; and a larger number of less qualified staff that are making closer to minimum wage." (Spa Consultant)
"All the experiences that have to do with touch and closeness will need to be enjoyed with caution. This can have a negative influence on staff as well as guests." (Spa Operator)
"High-grade devices that can be personalized, with a massage pressure that actually has a measurable effect on the central nervous system and comes very close to a manual massage would solve a lot of the 'hands-off' issues that our industry is grappling with." (International Spa & Expert)
Forbes Travel Guide agrees and suggests that one solution obvious solution will be an increased adoption of "high-tech touchless wellness experiences. "
Question: How can spa operators improve the appeal of their spa post-Covid-19?
All the experts agreed that people would most likely want to have back their old lives without any changes in behavior. However, due to new norms and regulations imposed to inhibit virus spread, this simply will not be possible in the near term. Spas will have to update and refine their existing spa menu, reducing treatments that demand touch (facials, massages) and turning to alternatives, such as automated massages, relaxation pods, inhalation therapy and hydrothermal bathing.
But, for now: "People are a bit more cautious with regard to physical contact," said a regular spa goer; and a spa operator worried: "Then, of course…people are afraid of touching…and yet it will make a difference whether you can touch them with your bare hand or with gloves."
Question: How can spa operators adapt spa menus for massage treatments with high treatment quality and the anticipated staff shortages?
Staff availability remains a pressing issue explained a spa consultant: "Bottlenecks due to staffing issues have dramatic consequences simply because they lead to loss of sales."
In addition, loss of staff affects treatment quality. As our spa expert explained: "It would be wonderful if we had relatively similar massage techniques, but that hasn't caught on. Because every single therapist has his/her own style, has learned his/her own way of massaging and does not want to change."
Thus, each time staff are lost, treatment style and quality can change. The majority of experts agreed, that automated massage therapies could be a solution for consistent, high-quality treatments with less touch that deliver the identical quality over and over again, using minimal staff and conforming to the strict Covid-19 rules on hygiene.
During the acute crisis phase of the pandemic where governments forced spas to close, operators have to prepare the reopening with offers that will bring clients back. This is often being done via deep discounts that will almost certainly eat into profits. Social distancing will also limit the number of guests that can be in a spa at any one time, while hygiene protocols will increase operating costs. To minimize the financial impact, operators need to be creative in their offerings and takes steps to reassure clients of a safe, hygienic and unique spa experience.
A spa menu can be segmented into "essential" and "unique" experiences. Where "essential experiences" are typically classified as pools, massages and facials. However, some of these mainstays of the spa will not be easily available or will be completely altered. An investment in medical-grade automated massage treatments will create new revenue opportunities for any spa.
Spa operators would be smart to embrace automated devices, especially as many have been medically proven to help patients suffering with muscle tension, fibromyalgia, neuralgia, disorders of the musculoskeletal system and joint-related disorders…as well as circulatory disorders and symptoms of fatigue10.
"We need to market it to make it clear to the potential customers that this is a truly good substitution for a manual massage: 'You don't have to take your clothes off, you won't be touched, the whole thing is hygienic and still effective.'"
One thing is certain: Covid-19 is not the last pandemic spa operators will likely experience. The question is not if the next pandemic will come, it is when will it come? Since the occurrence of HIV, zoonotic diseases have caused severe disturbances worldwide. Those who are prepared the best, will suffer least.
HotelExecutive retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.