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12 May 2021

Sue Harmsworth: “I’m starting to hate the word wellness”
BY Megan Whitby

Industry influencer and founder of ESPA Sue Harmsworth has spent five decades shaping the spa, global wellness and beauty industries, having designed 500+ spas in 65 countries

Industry influencer and founder of ESPA Sue Harmsworth has spent five decades shaping the spa, global wellness and beauty industries, having designed 500+ spas in 65 countries

In the Global Wellness Institute’s (GWI) latest Q&A, spa and wellness icon Sue Harmsworth spoke to VP of research and forecasting Beth McGroarty about the trends and challenges facing the spa and wellness industry.

“I’m starting to hate the word wellness because it’s become so generic it’s utterly confusing the consumer,” she began.

In her opinion, the industry should begin differentiating between light wellness and serious wellness.

“As the spa industry took off, the word and concept of wellness became confusing, and it has to do with what the US means by it, versus the rest of the world.

“In the US, every beauty salon, or every two treatment rooms by a pool, suddenly became a spa. When the spa movement became powerful in the 90s, stress was the overwhelming focus and most spas were built for relaxation – from massages to meditation. What I would call light wellness – with no negative connotations.

“But now, we have a much more complex set of modalities and advanced practitioners at wellness destinations. Plus, we also have more medical or ‘serious’ wellness.

“So, you have light wellness, which spas and hospitality destinations have excelled at and you have medical or serious wellness, but it’s different this time around. It’s preventative, functional medicine and diagnostics.”

Ultimately, she believes the word wellness alone is too imprecise to mean anything and that spa businesses have got to focus on what their consumers want and be clear about what they’re delivering.

Integrative wellness is the future
According to Harmsworth, an integrative approach to wellness will become standard practice due to the prevalence of so many lifestyle diseases in today’s society.

“Mental and cognitive health will be huge coming out of the pandemic, with depression and anxiety having risen exponentially since COVID and now affecting a third of the population globally.

“I’m working on properties now that bring everything together: functional medicine and diagnostics, an aesthetics clinic, and all the traditional wellness, from complementary medicine to fitness to serious meditation,” she added.

In her opinion, functional medicine and diagnostics will be a huge part of this trend and are important because they provide people with tangible results.

“It seems crazy, but you really can significantly impact your blood pressure or cholesterol in one week. What I want to do is to be able to programme individuals on a personalised plan with a very full set of stats so they can see their results over time.”

Growing interest for wellness real-estate
McGroarty next touched on how the pandemic has given wellness real estate new momentum and asked Harmsworth for her thoughts on this.

“COVID has obviously woken all of us up to working from home, and this ongoing reality will drive real growth in wellness real estate and communities. Plus, lots of people are spending a lot or all of their time in their second homes.

“As a consequence, more people will choose a wellness community as their primary (or near-primary) residence.”

Harmsworth believes this demand will naturally drive more projects to be conceptualised with more affordable options.

She illustrated this by drawing on one of her current wellness real estate projects, where the most expensive villa costs US$1mn (€825,000, £708,000) while artisan homes sit at US$300,000 (€248,000, £212,300).

"Now that’s relatively affordable," she said, "it's going to be an interesting community where everything will be grown themselves and have its own Waldorf school for the kids."

She firmly champions that the way forward will be affordable and multigenerational wellness communities encompassing an entire lifestyle of wellbeing.

The need for more intensive therapist training
Harmsworth believes the spas that will thrive in future will be underpinned by exceptional flow, therapists, treatments, design and thermal areas, as well as great hardware, air quality and infection control.

However, she urged that spa therapists and practitioners are going to have to be much better trained with deeper skills because the majority of consumers that walk in now will have some kind of contraindication.

“Therapists need a much broader knowledge set to be able to deal with all the things increasingly coming their way. They’re already being bombarded with more serious issues such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression and grief.

“This is why I’m so strong on what we’re doing in the UK with the training ruling bodies, putting modules together so that well-qualified therapists can keep adding extra modules (whether cancer or nutrition training) so they can deliver more 'wellness' than just massages or facials; be empowered to deal with the day-to-day realities they see and be set on a career path of constant skill-upgrading.

“The spas that will take it to the next level will focus on training in a much more intensive way.”

To read the whole interview and hear Harmsworth’s views on why integrative wellness resorts will require a whole new kind of operator, visit the official GWI website later this week.



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