When was the last time you went to a spa? Did you enjoy it? Did you feel comfortable, at ease? Or, in fact, was it not as relaxing as you’d hoped it would be? For many, a spa experience can be a let down – at best baffling, at worse intimidating. But when a spa gets it just right, it can be a wonderfully holistic experience.
Spa expert Abi Wright, founder of the innovative spabreaks.com, believes that the spa industry does need some shaking up. Having started her career as a journalist, before progressing into marketing, she went on to discover the wellness industry and started noticing gaps in the spa sector. In 2009 she went on to launch Spabreaks.com – an online hub, which specialises in spa days, short breaks and wellness retreats, as well as gift cards, available to purchase online to use at over 700 venues in the UK and overseas.
By 2012, the business was worth £10 million and had claimed second position in the 2012 Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table, which identifies Britain’s top private companies with the fastest growing sales. Today it is worth £27 million, with a predicted growth to £50 million by 2018, and employs 70 staff.
Spabreaks.com has also pioneered the initiative for an inclusive, industry-wide ‘Spa for All’ ethos, to ensure that the benefits of spa treatments are accessible to all, particularly to those with disabilities and those most in need. Spabreaks.com now features a collection of ‘Recovery Retreats’, designed especially for cancer sufferers or those undergoing treatment, so that they can enjoy a spa day without questions.
Here, I talk to Abi about the concept of Spabreaks.com and the spa industry in general…
What was the driving force for setting up Spabreaks.com?
When we started eight years ago, the spa industry was very limited in what it offered and was often seen as inaccessible and a tad elitist. It was the domain of middle class women with too much time and too much money on their hands. So, the idea behind Spabreaks.com was to open the industry up and show what it can really do – it’s about spa days, spa breaks, afternoon tea, health, wellbeing, group getaways, romantic mini breaks, babymoons, spa days for men. That’s in addition to making it more accessible for anyone with illnesses, such as cancer, or for anyone with a disability who may require a little extra information to find the right venue for them. You can have a spa day for £20 or £2,000, and we have more than 850 venues that you can access.
Do you have a background in beauty or spas?
I started my career as a journalist before quickly realising that wasn’t where my skills were! I moved into PR, finding a happy home in spa hotels. Having worked in-house for a number of years, I then started my own PR company, Pink Fudge, where again I was mainly working with spa hotels. It was with that combination that I realised there was a gap in the market to present spas differently. So yes, my professional background has predominantly been in the spa world.
How has the spa industry changed in the last five years?
It’s constantly changing and evolving, and I am not done with all the changes I want to push yet either! The main thing is that both spas and spa travellers are much more clued up now than they were eight years ago. Travellers know what they want and spas are considerably better at tailoring the experiences to the client – it’s all about the individual. Spas are also much more accessible than they once were, in all ways, the variety of packages has changed considerably, and wellbeing travel is now a much bigger trend than it ever has been – we’re all so much more aware of our health and how spas can play a part in that.
What other changes would you like to see?
I know from personal and professional experience that spas have the potential to play a powerful role in our health and wellbeing. I know that while the aesthetic (think: beauty, hair and nails) side of a spa break is fantastic, they also have very meaningful contributions to offer when it comes to our mental and physical health and I want that to be more widely understood and realised. We have made huge headway in the UK towards building a positive relationship between spas and cancer sufferers and at Spabreaks.com we’re extremely proud of the role our Recovery Retreats (spa days and breaks for anyone with or recovering from cancer – an industry first) have had to play in that. However, I would like to see them go further. One thing I am trying to facilitate for example are spa breaks for new mums suffering from Post Natal Depression. A spa break will never be the ‘cure’ to PND, but a little time out to look after yourself can be a little step towards something positive. In essence, I want to see the industry continue to become more accessible and utilised to the best of its capacity.
With a wealth of spas out there, what advice would you give a spa novice on choosing a spa that would be right for them?
It will sound self serving, but this is where a booking agency like Spabreaks.com shines. You’re right, there is so much out there – we work with 850 venues and it doesn’t begin to cover everything (although we’re working on it!) The best advice is that when you’re talking to your spa booking agent, tell them as much as you can. Are you looking for a health break or a champagne afternoon tea? Is it romantic, a solo break, a group break with friends, or a girly day with your mum? How far do you want to travel? Do you want to be in the city or the country? Do you want to go for a day or a week? Are you taking children or do you want to avoid them altogether?… The more information you can give, the better equipped we are to find the perfect venue for you. Also, if you do happen to have cancer or any other health problems, do mention it at the time of booking so we can advise you before you travel. It may mean that treatments need to be adapted for you or that you need to bring a doctor’s note with you to the spa, and it’s always best to have that kind of thing organised before you travel so we can make sure you’re looked after.
What are your top three tips on spa etiquette?
Turn your mobile phone off in the spa, take two swimming costumes – one for swimming and one to have your treatment in, and don’t be afraid to tell your therapist if you want your treatment adjusted – for example, if the massage pressure is too light or too hard, if the room is too cold – it’s your treatment and we want you to enjoy it!
What are some of the things that spas can get wrong?
I am not sure it’s really a question of spas getting things wrong, it’s more about understanding the type of venue you’re visiting. There’s a very wide spectrum of spas out there. We classify them as leisure venues, hotel spas, and destination spas to help. Leisure venues for example would be places that have other things going on – perhaps it’s also a gym and there may be more children’s swimming times – in essence, they are not specialised spas but they have spa facilities. Hotel spas vary – some are very luxurious and others are less so, but they tend to be a midway between a leisure venue and a destination spa. They are often very romantic and great for couples. Destination spas are for your adult-only, all singing, all dancing health breaks.
On a personal level, what are your favourite spas to visit?
Always a difficult question! It really depends on why I am going somewhere. If I want a day of total luxury then Pennyhill Park in Surrey is hard to beat (it is truly five-star at every level). If I want to travel with the kids then Aphrodite Hills Hotel in Cyprus is a favourite because it combines everything that makes up a wonderful family holiday. For a break with my partner I am currently a big fan of Ramside Hall Hotel in Co. Durham – it’s romantic, elegant and spacious with the most amazing views across the grounds and golf course. Then, for a complete health retreat, I would either go to Grayshott Spa in the UK. All that said, we have some amazing new venues in Slovenia and Budapest at the moment, so it’s really hard to choose; it’s so personal!
What treatment would you recommend for spa aficionados?
It’s all about spa journeys rather than individual treatments at the moment. A real favourite at the minute is The Gainsborough Bath Spa, which involves a pre-treatment ritual and therapies based on Malaysian influences, as well as taking the history of Bath and its spa background into consideration – it’s really special.
What is the concept behind Recovery Retreats?
The fact of the matter is that the spa industry has a historically poor relationship with cancer, which alienates anyone with or recovering from it at a time when they probably need TLC the most. The reason isn’t a lack of care, it’s a lack of education and understanding, and as with all of these things it stems from not wanting to cause harm. Unfortunately, the way it has been dealt with has caused no end of psychological damage over time. So, as mentioned before, we decided to create Recovery Retreats, which were an industry first when they launched and have since been part of a growing movement in the UK spa industry to change the way anyone with cancer experiences it. The idea is to offer safe treatments and an emphasis on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Guests have a consultation over the phone before they visit so they don’t have to discuss their health at reception, and we do everything we can so that when they get there they have time to enjoy their day just like anyone else – safe and looked after in their fluffy white robe.
What are the important factors for you in selecting a spa for the website or a visit?
We’re about spa experiences rather than one off treatments, so venues that join our site have to have a certain number of facilities in order to join. After that, it’s really important for them to understand how we work and how to make the most of the relationship with us. We have a team of product managers who really know what they’re doing and work with our spas to create packages and position them in a way that best suits their brand on our site. When spas ‘get’ what we do, it really creates something magic for them, for us, and for our clients.
Can you name three big spa trends for the future?
Wellbeing travel isn’t going anywhere, it’s only going to get more popular, and with that, spa breaks are becoming ever more sophisticated, offering longer treatments as part of a basic package and a more bespoke experience. I think combining business and leisure travel is definitely a popular trend – tagging extra days onto the end of a business trip to make the most of it – and I think that’s great because we all need regular time out to work effectively, so everyone wins!
I also think eco travel and environmental awareness is really important – spas are increasingly eco aware in everything from their treatments to the functionality of their pools and it’s great to see.
We are also increasingly seeing a rise in two night spa breaks where once upon a time it was all about the spa day. In times of economic uncertainty people tend to book more short breaks rather than fewer long breaks, and by turning it into a spa holiday, it’s like you super-charge the benefits!
Read more of my work onmy blog at angelinascasa.com