27 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2021 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Stelian Iacob


Stelian Iacob

A pioneer in contemporary thermal wellbeing resorts, Therme Group already attracts 3.4 million visitors a year to its sites in Germany and Romania. And now the COO reveals exciting global expansion plans to Spa Business

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
Stelian Iacob photo: Therme Group
Therme Bucharest opened in 2016 and is one of the first LEED Platinum-certified thermal resorts in the world photo: Therme Group, Bucharest
photo: Therme Group, Bucharest
Complexes are split into zones. Spa areas include ‘exquisitely designed saunas’ and infrared lounges photo: Therme Group, Bucharest
photo: Therme Group, Bucharest
Therme Manchester will be able to host up to 7,500 visitors a day and is a new wellbeing concept for the UK photo: therme Group, Manchester
The 28-acre site is due for completion in 2023 photo: Therme Group, Manchester
Therme Art invests in installations by companies like Superblue photo: Therme Group, Therme Art*

We redefine the concept of wellbeing with activities for children, adults and seniors – offering them both fun leisure time and relaxation,” says Stelian Iacob, COO and senior vice-president of the Therme Group, adding that the company is leading the charge in making the traditional thermal facility model more relevant to today’s consumers.

“Wellbeing has become a luxury for the privileged few,” he says. “But looking back to Roman and Elizabethan times, thermal spas weren’t just about relaxing and unwinding. They were for people of all backgrounds to meet, socialise and immerse themselves in culture in a way that benefitted all the dimensions of wellbeing: mental, physical, social and spiritual. And this is our goal.”

There are four operations for day guests run by Therme Group and Thermengruppe Josef Wund (see p59), three in Germany and one in Romania, which welcome 3.4 million visitors a year. Most recently, Therme Group secured planning permission for its biggest venue to date – a £250m (US$353.3m, €290.4m) development in Manchester, UK. But plans don’t stop there. The group is also looking at three other sites in the UK, one in Scotland, Wales and another in England, near London.

On a world-scale it’s working on further projects in mainland Europe – one has just been confirmed in Frankfurt – Asia Pacific and North America. Iacob insists none of these have been affected by COVID-19. If anything, they’ve been bolstered by it.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the global wellbeing crisis,” he says. “We’re seeing a much greater focus, by countries, organisations and the population at large, on the need to integrate healthy living into daily life and reconnect with nature and each other.”

So just what is the Therme Group concept, how was it created and what else can Iacob reveal about the rollout?

Technically speaking
Therme Group is headquartered in Vienna, Austria, but also has offices in North America, Europe and Asia. It’s a part of A-Heat, a global firm specialising in heat exchange engineering.

It’s this background that led it to plan and develop large-scale thermal resorts. To give you an idea of size, Therme Bucharest in Romania, opened in 2016, covers 30,000sq m and can fit in up to 4,000 guests at a time. Iacob describes it as “the world’s first fully sustainable thermal resort with LEED Platinum certification”.

He explains: “We use state-of-the-art sustainable systems based on natural processes to purify the environment, so guests are always breathing the freshest air and swimming in the cleanest water”. Plant-based air filtration systems monitor and adapt levels of air flow, heat, humidity and light, for example. Meanwhile, he claims that water recirculation systems create, in a matter of hours, geological processes which would normally take hundreds of years to produce water as “clean at the purest spring water”.

The water at all of Therme’s resorts is heated in a sustainable manner, whether from a natural source, like the 3km deep geothermal well in Bucharest, or man made via processes like heat recovery, heat exchange, trigeneration and solar panels.

The first resort launched in Schwartzwald, Germany, in 2010 in collaboration with Wund Holding, a worldwide developer and operator of bathing and leisure facilities. Since then, the two companies worked on projects in Sinsheim and Euskirchen in Germany, prior to the launch in Bucharest.

Just before the global pandemic hit, Therme and Wund announced a strategic partnership that sees them joining forces on an ambitious international expansion. The move includes the consolidation of their architectural and planning services to create a new division called Therme Arc. However, specific owner/management structures have not been disclosed and Iacob says these will “vary by global region, country and project”.

Wellbeing for all
“We’re returning to the essence of global bathing traditions, but have reimagined them for the modern, urbanised world, driven by our belief in ‘wellbeing for all’,” says Iacob of Therme Group’s concept. The facilities do this by offering a broad range of water-based and wellness activities all under one roof and in accessible locations at affordable prices.

The thermal complexes are split into distinct zones. In Bucharest, for example, these include Galaxy, with its 16 waterslides and wave pools and The Palm which focuses on relaxation with a huge tropical lagoon, aromatherapy pools, outdoor pool and an external beach for summer use. Elysium, for people aged 16 and over, is the spa and wellness area which can host up to 800 people at a time. It features a panoramic pool enriched with zinc and selenium, six themed saunas, an infrared lounger area and three treatment cabins.

“The dedicated adult areas offer an essential opportunity to ‘unplug’ from the stresses and strains of daily life, including the always-on digital world,” says Iacob. “They enable people to focus on personal wellbeing while socialising with others and are perfect for couples, singles, groups of friends and seniors.”

He feels “guided multi-sensorial aufguss journeys in exquisitely designed saunas” are a particular highlight, along with the nature-based surroundings – Bucharest has up to 800,000 plants, including 1,500 palm trees and countless species of orchids – which create areas for yoga, pilates and meditation.

Located 10 minutes outside of the capital, Therme Bucharest attracted 4 million people in its first four years and while locals are its biggest market, Iacob says it’s becoming known as a worldwide wellbeing destination which draws visitors from the UK, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Israel and the US.

As with all Therme venues it’s a day attraction but it partners with local hotels for overnight deals. And many spas could learn from its dynamic pricing. Guests buy a time slot – 3 hours, 4.5 hours or all day – per zone, but costs vary according to time of day, whether it’s a weekday or weekend and age. Plus there are various family packages and concessions for people with disabilities.

In Elysium, the most expensive zone, prices start at RON79 (US$20, €16, £14) in the week for a single adult for 3 hours, or RON88 (US$22, €18, £15) at weekends, and go up to RON100 (US$25, €20, £17) and RON109 (US$27, €22, £19), respectively, for a whole day.

In Germany the model is slightly different. Costs change per time slot, day of the week and user, but also according to lounger location – you can view an entire plan of the complex online and see which ones are booked – and type, such as a luxury bed in a private room with food/drinks service.

A UK first
In early 2020, Therme Group revealed plans for its first site outside of mainland Europe in Manchester, north England. Located in TraffordCity, a retail and leisure destination five miles to the west of the city centre, work is already underway on the development which covers 28 acres, the equivalent of 19 football pitches, and is still on track for completion in 2023.

“This a major project for the leisure and wellbeing sector in the UK,” says Iacob, hitting the nail on the head when he calls it “a completely new concept for the country”. The building itself will take up 100,000sq m, making it three times the size of the facility in Bucharest, and will have the capacity for around 7,500 guests at a time.

“The location has excellent public transport links, serving a regional population of over 6 million,” he explains, “which will enable us to bring an everyday holiday to people throughout the north-west of England. Within the first few years of operation, we anticipate up to 2 million visitors annually, making it the most visited all-season water-based attraction in the world.”

The Manchester complex will be based on the zoned approach of other Therme sites, offering hundreds of water-based activities for family fun. But in comparison, more space – at least half of the facility – will be dedicated to adults and focus on relaxation, spa and treatments. Features will include indoor and outdoor pools, swim-up bars, mineral baths of selenium, calcium, lithium and Dead Sea salt, vitamin-enriched pools, beautifully designed steamrooms as well as aufguss saunas.

The show-stopper looks set to be Genesis, a new zone which Iacob bills as a “completely new concept in the world of wellbeing”. While he’s reluctant to give away precise details, he does reveal that “advanced body scanners and expert therapists will be used to personally design programmes for guests picked from authentic treatments from around the world”.

With worldwide expansion on the cards, he also hints at further evolution focusing on areas such as nutrition and biomarker testing, live monitoring of physiological indicators, on-site urban farming, advanced wellness concepts and even brain-computer interface therapies.

Nature and art
Nature, art and culture is also key to Therme’s approach to wellbeing. Green building is a priority for the group and, like Therme Bucharest, Therme Manchester will be built to LEED Platinum standards, Iacob says, explaining that Therme Arc has created its own BioTrue approach to development which is based on biomimicry and biophilic design principles.

A central focus of the Manchester project will be a 2-acre wellbeing garden in the shape of a rose, the national flower of England. “We’ve even developed technology delivering wellbeing for trees,” says Iacob. “Our bespoke systems monitor thousands of trees to deliver the necessary water, cooled air and nutrients to optimise plant health.”

Therme Group is also looking to align itself with WELL certification where buildings are designed according to their impact on people’s health and wellbeing. On top of this, it’s working on a five-year research fellowship with the University of Glasgow to research how architecture and the environment, including thermal baths, can foster a sense of wellness.

Therme Group is just as passionate about art and culture and under its dedicated Therme Art initiative is investing in companies like Superblue, which specialises in digital and experiential art installations and exhibitions. The idea is that such experiences will be made available in its resorts worldwide.

COVID-safe measures
Since coronavirus, Therme’s resorts have been operating intermittently based on case numbers in Germany and Romania.

“It’s only natural to expect guests to have a greater focus on hygiene and safety and the important takeaway is that our facilities provide the safest spaces against COVID-19 and virus transmission,” Iacob says, adding that the group already uses HEPA (medical grade) air filtration and double UVC treatment on recovered air. Ozone is used in the water to neutralise 99.99 per cent of bacteria and viruses “three times faster than chlorine-based systems”.

Most new safety measures have been digital – using the existing customer wristband system to ensure zones don’t go over new capacity restrictions and introducing advanced online booking. Iacob says: “This has enabled us to deliver an exceptional experience – we’ve had our highest satisfaction levels ever in the past year – with a minimal drop in revenues by optimising venue usage.”

He’s also adamant that there’s been no substantial impact on the time line of the Manchester development and remains confident about existing sites and the global rollout. “We take the long view in our approach to projects around the world,” he explains. “As a business model, a Therme project is highly resilient with stable and strong returns and double-digit EBITDA margins in every location.”

In fact, given the company’s multi-faceted wellness proposition, Iacob expects it to do well as consumers begin to focus more on their health. “We have an extremely positive view of the future. Both for the industry and the advance of human and planetary wellbeing.”

Katie Barnes is the editor of Spa Business magazine | katiebarnes@leisuremedia.com

Originally published in Spa Business 2021 issue 2

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