We all know the industry mantra: hotel spas face multiple challenges; from stand-alone wellness access points such as spas or wellness centers to home-spa products. In such an ever-changing market environment, it is crucial, if not essential to be able to pinpoint what current and prospective guests may be looking for and really want. The standard industry approach has been to anticipate and then model the expectations based upon each major guest segment. This antiquated approach should be reconsidered or, at the very least – extended.
There are consumer expectations that are not necessarily based on what the hotel or spa customers want, but more than likely the opposite: that which is not needed and/or wanted. The umbrella term we introduce for such counter-intuitive demand is the ‘”free from”‘ movement. The most relevant application of the “free-from” concept, may be easily observed in the food industry and consequently as it relates in to the beauty product industry.
“Free-from” is not only driven by the growing importance of various food allergies, i.e. gluten, egg or nuts, it also extends to consumers consciously searching out products that are “free-from; animal testing, parabens, preservatives and/or synthetic ingredients. Cruelty-free face cream, anyone?
Hotel spas do need to create treatments, source product lines, much like modern day gastronomy, providing consumers with products, services, concepts to meet their expectations and satisfy their demand. As we look at the positive aspects of the “free-from” movement, like any other ‘trend’, there may be unexpected side-effects and consequences. Many customers may experience disappointment and/or disillusionment based on unrealistic expectations and assumptions. Just as what would be assumed would be a healthy results from healthy eating, people may become obsessed, which may lead to orthorexia or less critical, yet negative, products and practitioners that sell “hope in a jar”.
Since anything and everything imaginable is now available on, any day and any time, through the world-wide-web, consumers develop unrealistic expectations and beliefs. Magical – solutions, components and ingredients impacts appear on in stores, spas, and on the internet, on a daily basis, some of which are not tested, approved and/or justified by any reasonable manner, other than trend, popularity or influencer endorsement.
On a positive note, hotels and spas can, and do offer exceptional wellness services and products that can be delivered with proper consultation. In the spa, guests receiving a treatment or consulting with a licensed therapist, receive one-on-one education on use, realistic benefits, and ultimately, to return for additional relaxation and education, vs instructions listed on-line or on a box.
Consumers still tend to believe that what is “free-from” something (anything), may as a result become instantly healthier or better, too. The realistic observation is that for this trend of belief is that there is a mismatch with consumers’ perception and reality. Take for example; “free-from” foods are less processed and healthier than conventional products. Euromonitor, (the world’s leading, independent provider of strategic market research – www.euromonitor.com), highlighted in one of their research reports, that the high levels of sugar and fat in gluten-free foods has actually become a threat to normal human growth!) As the playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde once said: “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and rest of the day taking it out!”.
Many guests who visit hotel spas now schedule their Anti-Aging Facials, organic body wrap and paraben free massages, with these types of expectations. They look for products used in the spa that are free-from something (anything), not necessarily knowing or caring about any other features and/or downsides of that product or service. Such expectations are not limited to spa skin-care lines, and may also be applied to an assortment of linens, air-fresheners, cleaning products and detergents, foods and drinks on offer, oils, creams used in the spa, (and the list goes on and on…), as well as products used for treatments, communal pools, saunas, steam and locker rooms.
The question is – How far can and how far should hotel spas take these unlimited, and often unreasonable expectations into consideration before, while attempting to satisfy the demand, facing unwanted financial and/or brand related consequences? You can believe that guests with ‘free-from’ demand may not represent enough volume to make substantial impact or change to the services on offer, which may also be unknowingly linked to product lines or to operating brands that cannot currently provide the necessary alternatives.
Concurrently, we can observe that more and more exotic treatments as well as products and product ingredients are being incorporated within hotel spa operations and offers. Treatments and products from regions and countries afar such as skin care lines from South Korea, (aka K-Beauty), body treatments from the Philippines, F&B influenced by Russian culture, etc. can improve the appeal of a hotel spa offerings.
In such cases product knowledge, the story about the treatment and “real time” information, becomes a crucial component, unless, of course, operators do not want really to field unexpected questions from the guests. The free-from movement also often resonates with broader issues that are very much global, and incredibly personal, such as sustainability, veganism, animal rights or wider cultural, religious, holistic and spiritual associations and references.
From a demand perspective, exotic treatments, ingredients and results expectations are not vastly different from that of the ‘free-from’ consumer. Two of the primary motivators behind the demand for exotic services are that of “momentary hedonism” and the “self-gifting” phenomenon. Momentary hedonism captures the expectation that consumers seek out products and services that can instantly improve, not only the physical, but also their happiness and wellbeing.
Consumers may be not look for long-term improvement, or quite frankly, are willing to expend the time, energy and commitment for the desired results, instead they desire the special “something” that is relevant for the heightened ‘momentary sensation’. Self-gifting is closely related to psychological state of the customer. Spa treatments or products may represent a real demand, but often can be viewed a gift to oneself as compensation for something else, or a “reward” for a real or imagined accomplishment.
And still, demands and expectations that are linked to and based upon seemingly niche rational, reasoning and concerns, provide hotel spas with multiple opportunities. When we are aware of how and what influences and directed the guest mind-set, observed by their various components that may seem independent from spa treatments, we may approach, and satisfy demand from two, seemingly separate, but not, altogether, independent angles:
- Natural components and resources; thermal resources, clay and muds can represent great assets, and naturally lending themselves to the concept of “free-from”
- Digital detox spaces offer being “free-from” the stress of being consistently connected and lending themselves to ‘analogue wellness’ offerings
- Holistic services advocating freedom from stress created by social media and enjoying being imperfect, etc.
Brand and Service Communication
- Social spaces designed for group treatments that can be enjoyed together with friends, creating community and/or provide solutions for loneliness
- Being “free from” work and stress and self-gifting themselves, or buying back personal time and attention, etc.
While this may all appear to new and revolutionary information, it is actually ‘reverse logic’. Product development and marketing would be well advised to pay as much attention to what a treatment or product actually does, versus drawing attention to what it does not do. Focusing on the “free-from” marketing can often create brand as well as segment clashes. If the hotel’s brand did not include and did not support the “free-from” based service development and communication the result may create critical impacts, and confusion for walk-in guests and memberships and missed reactions from hotels guests. The importance of value-based segmentation cannot be undervalued, especially during times when social media and reviews can support or destroy businesses very quickly.
It is very likely that the “free-from” movement is not a short lived trend, but may have staying power. One may consider it as a response to certain medical conditions, i.e. allergies as a consequence to urban living. One can also look at it as a fad that may pass soon. Still, hotel spas in urban areas may respond to such demand differently than spas in a resort setting:
The market competition from stand-alone facilities and other sources may force hotel spas in urban areas, not responding to the free-from expectations, especially if they did not have significant local demand. Alternatively, the response may to quickly replace current treatment and product portfolio with more fitting “free-from” treatments and products.
Spa hotels can respond differently from how resort spas may choose to. If in the main motivation for the visit was fundamentally determined by the spa or wellness component the “free-from” movement may be needed to be interwoven and integrated in to the hotel resort’s service portfolio. Adding couple of treatments and replacing the product line may not be enough.
Hotel spas need to consider the “free-from” movement as good reason to not become complacent, and to revisit what they offer and how they offer it.
We must keep in mind that the application of the “free-from” approach does not necessarily represent conflict with the segments that are not motivated by free-from expectations! Consumers may appreciate features and qualities of treatment and products even if they did not intentionally or consciously seek them out.
The “free from” movement represents market directions and it is not a one-off fashion trend. How consumers search, evaluate, compare and select products and services is no longer a simple segmentation issue. What services and products do, do not do, have or do not have needs to be considered with equal importance.
Hotel spas have different options that they can and should employ to prepare for the inevitable changes in market demand and expectations. They need to work very closely together with the hospitality partners. Customers’ needs are certainly not limited exclusively to the spa environment, but they do represent the same needs and desires as in the hotels, too. What may have been a novelty 5-10 years ago, may no longer qualify as novelty or point of difference any more, as it has become fully integrated, and expected, into the culture, (for example, Spas or Wellness facilities).
Boundaries between hotels, spas and other wellbeing facilities, improving services and amenities diminish or at least become less defined. The good news represents great opportunities for hotel spas but the challenge is that answers may not be the easiest to be found. This market experimental opportunity calls for working teams where hospitality, spa and wellbeing experts work together.
Do not forget that the application of the free-from approach does not represent conflict with the segments that are not motivated by free-from expectations!