Across chain scales, hotels step up wellness efforts

From luxury hotels to those at the economy end of the spectrum, wellness features have become staples as travelers become increasingly aware of the importance of staying healthy on the road. The Global Wellness Institute’s most recent “Global Wellness Tourism Economy” report released in late 2018 predicted wellness travel would grow 7.5 percent yearly to reach $919 billion by 2022. Perhaps more importantly, secondary wellness travel (meaning people who visit a gym, book a massage or prioritize healthy food during a trip) is growing at 10 percent per year, accounting for nearly 90 percent of wellness tourism trips and 86 percent of spend in 2017.

Hotels worldwide have been finding new ways to meet this demand, incorporating wellness-focused changes at both the macro and micro levels.

“There isn’t a mainstream brand that hasn’t jumped into some kind of wellness programming,” said Beth McGroarty, VP of research and forecasting at the Global Wellness Institute. That programming, she noted, can focus on a range of elements. “The industry has gone mad for sleep,” she said. “Westin has Sleep-Well menus and they offer foods they say help promote sleep ... Raffles has a sleep rituals menu. The Equinox Hotel in New York City, that hotel is all about sleep. They have everything from melatonin minibars to sleep concierges who figure out your circadian rhythms.” 

Even focusing on a single element like sleep can take many shapes. For example, as wellness experts recognize how much light affects sleep patterns, designers are tailoring guestroom lighting to prevent insomnia. “IHG is now partnering with smart lighting brands to try and stimulate natural day-and-night lighting within rooms,” McGroarty noted. 

Related: How hotels bring wellness spaces outdoors

Slow travel is also a buzzword, growing from increased awareness of sustainable tourism. “You see more walking, hiking, cycling—getting people on the ground,” McGroarty said. “They’re getting out of the building and moving in a natural way.” Travelers, she added, are “aching” for nature, as evidenced by increased interest in outdoor excursions, biophilic design (designing with nature) and outdoor spaces turned into revenue generators. “Even most urban hotels [are] bringing yoga to a rooftop or terrace,” she said. “One big trend in wellness and hospitality is the growth of urban wellness resorts.” That concept used to be a contradiction in terms, but the Six Senses resort brand is set to make its North American debut at the end of this year over New York City’s High Line.

New Initiatives

With demand on the rise, brands up and down the chain scale are investing in expanding their wellness offerings. The upper-upscale through luxury brands, which have traditionally offered wellness programming from fitness rooms to spas, are extending their focus to “restorative and recovery work,” said Melissa Walker, senior director of global wellness at Hilton. “Thinking about how you recover from a workout, how you prepare for workout and what you do in between workouts is actually one of the top trends right now in wellness, and there are a lot of examples of tools like the Hypervolt or the Theragun [massage devices or] different types of stretches that people are utilizing—hot and cold therapies, using the spa to go through a thermal circuit that helps your muscles recover [and] helps you be more mindful of your body.”

The upscale Hilton Garden Inn brand has expanded the minimum size of its fitness centers as part of updated brand standards. “And within that space we are making sure that we clear the middle of the floor so that people have the opportunity to do a lot more body weight workouts, a lot more [high-intensity interval training] or functional-type training,” Walker said. “And then we're also including cardio units now that are meant specifically for those high-intensity, one- to two-minute bouts of exercise.”  

Extended-stay hotels present a unique challenge when it comes to wellness. “As great as a gym might be, if it's the same gym three days, four days out of the week, week after week, people get burnt out,” Walker said. For Hilton’s all-suites brands, the company has outlined designated walking and running routes on well-lit streets as part of its “Hydrate Your Run” program to get guests outside. “You'll start to see soon a lot more thought around ‘how do you make the outdoor space usable for wellness?’” Walker said. “And it doesn't necessarily mean that we're creating an outdoor gym. It could be creating a meditation garden, it could be creating space for families to work out together.”

Outdoor wellness has also become a staple at transient hotels. Three years ago, Marriott’s Westin Hotels & Resorts brand launched a global campaign to position itself as a leader in wellness tourism. Today, the brand has more than 225 run concierges who host group jogging events and help guests find their ideal route in a range of destinations. 

In-Room Wellness

Convenience is always a key factor in all aspects of hospitality, including wellness. In 2017, Hilton announced its Five Feet to Fitness guestrooms, which are filled with workout equipment guests can use in privacy. “Our consumers understand that it's unrealistic to feel like they're going to be able to travel or go out with their families and have an hour to hit the gym,” said Walker. “They're looking for that very effective, quick workout that still delivers the physical fitness parameters that they're looking for—getting their heart rate up, stretching, doing a strength workout—but they want to be able to do it in a manner that's just more effective and quick.” With the right high-intensity interval training, an athlete can accomplish as much in 10 minutes as they used to do in 30, she added. 

Related: Hilton promotes wellness with fitness-focused guestroom

Other brands are following this initiative. The Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in East Palo Alto, Calif., is the luxury brand’s first to put Tonal, a smart gym and personal training device, in guestrooms. Guests can also get a Peloton bike, a Streamline treadmill, a stretch ball or a yoga mat in their rooms upon request.

High-Tech Wellness

In November, The Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina in Hawaii partnered with “immersive wellness” company Sensync to open The Vessel, a virtual experience that combines “mixed reality” with “advanced therapeutic technology” for a virtual reality experience that promotes relaxation. 

Taking a cue from the growing awareness of biophilic design, guests in the Vessel can see, hear, smell, feel and touch a VR version of nature to “unlock new approaches for relaxation and restoration,” as the company described it. Wearing a helmet and sitting in the machine, guests can float in space or through clouds, travel within a jungle or walk through a garden—seeing, hearing, smelling and even feeling the environment around them. 

Sensync co-founders Alex Theory and Adam Gazzaley, are “very cognitive people, very Type A, who have a hard time shutting down the mind,” Theory said. Their goal, then, was to create an experience that would engage both the body and the mind to help similar Type A people unwind.The duo started to research techniques to calm the mind, looking at meditation and different types of cognitive behavioral therapy, innovations and neuroscience. They found it easier to relax with their senses engaged and experiencing physical interactions, and began leveraging virtual reality technology to safely copy these sensations in a controlled environment. “We engage the senses in such a way that it’s not overwhelming,” Theory said. “It’s just engaging enough that the mind has a chance to relax itself.” 

The machine uses several different technologies to target each sense, such as low-frequency sound waves to act as a gentle massage. “It’s like laying on a giant cat that’s purring,” Theory said. “It’s a sound massage. It relaxes all the muscle groups in your body.” The sound waves are also synchronized to the music coming through the headphones and to what guests see through the helmet’s screen. “If you see an object like a cloud floating toward you, as it passes through you, you feel a vibration,” he said.

As the Vessel gains ground in the hospitality segment, Theory sees it growing beyond luxury spas. A session, he noted, can take as few as 10 minutes for guests in a hurry or can last for an hour for those with more time. Unlike a traditional spa experience, users do not need to change clothes before using the Vessel, and a unit could be placed in public lobbies for guests to use as soon as they arrive after a long flight, promoting wellness from the minute they walk through the door. 

Wellness Events

Some hotels are attracting wellness-savvy guests with dedicated events. In Chicago, the Kimpton Gray Hotel teamed up with wellness media company aSweatlife to host the inaugural Sweatworking Summit wellness event on Jan. 25 and 26. “People don’t want things, [they don’t want] tangible items,” said Dina Fenili, The Gray’s director of sales and marketing. “They want to spend their money on experiences.” The hotel already targets wellness travelers with a complimentary yoga mat in every guestroom, and the fitness center includes a Peloton Commercial Bike with access to classes streamed directly from Peloton’s NYC studio.

The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in Hilton Head, S.C., meanwhile, is set to host the Inaugural “Be Well Hilton Head” festival from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2. Activities will include educational workshops, cooking classes and “approachable runs.” 

“Wellness means different things to different folks,” said Steve French, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. The event, he explained, will educate attendees—“or kickstart things they may already know but forget after holiday season”—about realistic exercise goals, healthy eating and even healthy drinking. “We partnered with Tim Bradstreet, who works with Gaylord brand within Marriott, to talk about healthier cocktail alternatives where you can use natural ingredients instead of mixers filled with artificial sweeteners,” he said.

In Atlanta, the Waldorf Astoria Atlanta Buckhead will launch a new wellness retreat at the 15,000-square-foot Waldorf Astoria Spa on Feb. 29. Lena Franklin, a psychotherapist and wellness teacher, and yoga teacher Christina Garrand will offer guided meditation and yoga classes. A locally sourced lunch is also included as part of the event.

While events like these can attract wellness-minded guests, French hopes the Westin festival will make wellness approachable to a wide range of travelers, and encourage healthy changes. “It can be intimidating,” he acknowledged. Rather than promote healthy activities like a high school gym class, he said, hotels should make wellness “fun and inviting” so guests will take the lessons they’ve learned home with them at the end of their stay.