23 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2023 issue 3

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Leisure Management - The story of Spa Business

Anniversary special

The story of Spa Business

Spa Business editorial director, Liz Terry, tells the story of how a promise made in the 1980s led to the founding of the magazine in 2003

The Spa Business team. From top left: Jane Kitchen, Liz Terry, Megan Whitby. Seated: Astrid Ros and Katie Barnes photo: Jack Emmerson
Spa and travel pioneer, Erna Low, was instrumental to the establishment of Spa Business photo: Erna Low
The first issue (L) and most recent (R) with Sonu Shivdasani, Susie Ellis and Nerio Alessandri and Deborah Szekely, in between
Love what you do: the Spa Business team enjoying each other’s company photo: Jack Emmerson

These days, the Spa Business team spend the year travelling the world, (increasingly by train) talking to industry experts to bring you the 30 Spa Business and Spa Business insider magazines we produce every 12 months, as well as the annual Spa Business Handbook, our website and news and social feeds.

But this vast scope of work has taken decades to develop and we’ve had the privilege of having grown up with the industry from very small beginnings.

As we celebrate 40 years of writing about spa and wellness and 20 years of Spa Business as a dedicated title, it’s an opportunity to look back at how all these wonderful and useful products came to be.

Small beginnings
I started work for Leisure Media as a junior business reporter in 1983. These were days before desktop computing, mobile phones, the internet, social media and AI. We worked on typewriters until the magical day in 1990 when desktop publishing on Apple Macs changed our lives forever.

We had been a complete leisure publisher from launch in 1980 and my brief covered all sectors – sport, spa, health and fitness, tourism, hospitality, attractions, commercial leisure – anything (legal) you could do in your spare time.

It was thin pickings in those days, restaurants were a rare indulgence, pubs and bars were male-dominated, short break holidays had yet to be invented, gyms were for weight lifters and sport was ‘PE’. Spas were ancient thermal baths or ‘health farms’ where the wealthy went to lose weight or get dry.

Demographics told us leisure would grow and diversify, but we had no idea how world events, technology and politics would define its future.

The plan was to cover it all in one magazine – Leisure Management – until the vertical markets could support dedicated titles.

Health and fitness was the first to boom in the mid 80s, so we spun off a magazine called Health Club Management – now HCM – and today we’re the main global media for that sector (www.HCMmag.com).

Spa came a little later, but to tell that story I need to go back to the beginning.

First job
I lucked out with my first assignments covering the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and going on a series of educational press trips around Switzerland, Italy, Austria, France and Germany, visiting spas.

These trips were organised by a formidable woman called Erna Low, an Austrian who had come to England as a student in 1930, working as a code breaker during WW2 at the top secret Bletchley Park, home of the Enigma Machine and where Alan Turing invented the computer.

Low had launched one of the first travel agencies in the 1930s, firstly focusing on ski breaks and then later on the spa market, representing key operators across Europe.

She was passionate about upskilling journalists and led educational trips for groups of reporters from national media and business press.

We travelled with Low to take mud baths in St Moritz, mineral baths in Baden in Zurich, salt inhalation treatments in Bolzano and contrast therapy and cold wading in La Plagne, among many others.

We took the mountain train over the Alps to visit Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland, at a time when it was housed in one small building – a far cry from the extensive facilities that exist today – and to be hosted by the glorious Le Mirador Hotel (now Resort & Spa) in Vevey.

Low was already in her 80s when we first met and although she could no longer ski, would tackle mountains by snowplough, appearing over the crest of snow-covered slopes like something out of an action movie.

Although it was mainly based on traditional thermal bathing, I was convinced one day spa would broaden and take off as a sector and started to dream about launching a dedicated magazine.

Low was also clear about the opportunity and said “you must promise me one day you’ll launch a magazine for the spa market – I won’t be around, but you’ll know when the time is right”.

It was a promise I was happy to make, but although we were writing about spa in Leisure Management, we would have to wait 20 years for the launch of Spa Business.

I’ve always felt that my meeting Low was very serendipitous, as it gave me the confidence to take the team into the spa market when the time came.

First signs of life
The first exciting hints a market was emerging came in the early 90s, when we became aware of the founding of a number of representative associations.

In the US, the world of fitness and spa was coming together – encouraged by Deborah and Alex Szekely of Rancho la Puerta, who championed the launch of a fitness and spa organisation in 1991 that would grow to become ISPA.

The British Spas Foundation had also been established in 1991 and the European Spas Association in the mid-90s.

Work by people such as Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, Anne McCall Wilson and Sue Harmsworth was also driving meaningful change in the hotel market, where spa was moving from being an amenity and cost centre to a compelling lifestyle offering.

The final catalyst for the launch was an awareness that people in related sectors simply didn’t know each other. We would meet contacts around the world and be astonished they’d never met (nor were aware of) companies that were a perfect fit for them in terms of collaboration. There was clearly a need to connect them.

The first steps
In 1999 we gathered a team under launch editor, Rhianon Howells, to lay out plans for Spa Business, its website, product search engine (www.spa-kit.net), ezine and news alert service.

The first task was to gather contacts globally for every type of spa – hotel, resort, thermal, destination and medical etc – while developing our editorial purpose, tone of voice and advertising and marketing product roster.

I admit we were ambitious and our shared team vision for Spa Business was nothing less than to globalise the spa market and unite the industry to enable collaboration, so people could do business. That purpose endures to this day.

We wanted to bring Spa Business to market fully-formed and hit the ground running, rather than doing a tentative launch and building slowly.

The decision was also made to target decision-makers at the very top of the sector, so we could support the people driving the industry forward.

Our editorial process was developed at the same time, based on a matrix covering every key spa sector and every geographical region in every issue, making sure we captured the hottest content in each.

We also committed to a focus on business reporting, drilling down to ensure key numbers were fact-checked and we covered research from day one.

Launch day dawns
Publishing our first edition in 2003 – with Mandarin Oriental on the cover – was a euphoric day and once it hit desks, it was as though a shockwave had gone around the world and people had seen – perhaps in some cases for the first time – that spa was one global industry and they now had a means by which they could communicate with each other.

Emails, phone calls and correspondence flooded in asking for introductions, coverage and marketing. It felt as though we’d caught a tiger by the tail.

The years since have been fast-moving, delightful, fascinating and personally rewarding for the whole team, as we’ve played our part in the incredible growth of the sector, from the early, pioneering days when passionate trailblazers such as Susie Ellis at the GWS and GWI put themselves on the line to drive the industry forward, to today, when the sector is recognised worldwide as one of the main growth markets of the future.

Erna Low died in 2002 aged 92, just a year before we launched, so – as she had predicted – didn’t live to see the promise fulfilled, but we owe her a debt of gratitude for her invaluable support.

What do we see going forward?
Trends have always been a passion for the Spa Business team and we launched an annual trends report called Spa Foresight 10 years ago, tracking and sharing trends each year in the Spa Business Handbook and in Spa Business.

Among our first predictions were hospital spas, surge pricing, wearable tech, online reviews and fitness in spas, all of which have come to pass and we’ve gone on to write 250 trend updates since.

The creativity of leaders in spa and wellness has seen the industry grow far beyond our original expectations of health, complementary and alternative medicine, exercise, sport, hospitality, nutrition and tourism, with the sector also finding synergies with fit tech, residential communities, medicine, mental health, the arts and retail, among others.

To highlight the incredible diversity of the sector in 2023, we’ve invited industry innovators and thought leaders to celebrate our 20th birthday by sharing their thoughts about the future of the sector and their career highlights (p16). It’s been a labour of love for all involved and we hope you enjoy this special souvenir edition and all the wisdom and insight it contains.

More: www.spabusiness.com

Spa Business timeline

2003 Spa Business magazine

2004 Spa Business ezine & news alerts

2005 Spa Opportunities

2009 Spa Business Handbook

2010 Spa Business social

2013 Spa Foresight

2022 Spa Business insider

Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 3

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