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

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Leisure Management - Sue Harmsworth

Spa People: 20th anniversary issue

Sue Harmsworth

By 2050 the term spa, and possibly even wellness, won’t exist

Sue Harmsworth, Integrative health, wellness and spa expert photo: Sue Harmsworth
Creating ESPA Life, one of the first integrative hotel spas, is a highlight for Harmsworth photo: ESPA Life, Corinthia
ESPA Life launched 12 years ago and the concept was ahead of its time photo: ESPA Life, Corinthia
Harmsworth is creating a national standard for cancer-friendly spas photo: rudding park hotel & Spa
Carden Park has a SATCC-certified spa photo: carden Park hotel & spa

What are your career highlights?
There are so many – I’ve been in the industry for over 50 years. Having built one of the first spa, hair and beauty businesses in North America in the 70s, I returned to the UK and my inaugural wake-up moment was working at Grayshott Hall in Surrey in the early 80s.

Spas didn’t exist. This was the era of ‘health farms’ and my first experience of the medical integrative approach. There were three doctors, 13 nurses, eight osteopaths and separate departments for beauty, fitness and nutrition. We ended up with 200 practitioners of various skills. We treated guests with issues ranging from weight, alcohol and drug addiction to cancer and lifestyle issues that the National Health Service wasn’t dealing with. It was eye-opening because I realised how even a week – it was a minimum seven-day stay – could change someone’s life.

In the late 80s, I started a consultancy and my inaugural project was creating the first proper five-star hotel spa for Turnberry in Scotland which had seasonality issues. Back then there were no hotel spas and I drew on my experience to create a facility to address stress which was the main concern of the time. This softer approach, focusing on relaxation and escapism, combined holistic treatments, fitness, beauty, hydrotherapy and thermal experiences. The supportive owners also invested heavily in training which made a huge difference to the quality and long-term reputation of that spa.

Any other pivotal moments?
Getting my MBE from the Queen for services to the spa and beauty industry in 2010. Training thousands of therapists globally in post-graduate work. Designing over 500 award-winning spas!

The idea for ESPA was born at Turnberry. I’d done a short stint designing and managing over 100 spas on cruise liners and knew that the multi-brand approach – separate product houses for skin, body, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy etc – was too confusing for the customers and therapists and required too much stock and training. So I developed a range of products that covered all these key elements, naturally. The products flew off the shelves from day one and by 1993 ESPA had launched and the rest is history.

My next pivotal moment was launching ESPA Life at Corinthia London, one of the first integrative hotel spas in the world at a time when operators were focusing on massage, beauty and relaxation. That was 12 years ago. We had great success financially, however, it’s only now that the market is really ready for the integrative and more medical aspects that I had envisioned years previously.

What do you still hope to accomplish?
I sold ESPA in 2017 and am now focusing on health, prevention, wellness and bringing the spa, beauty, medical, fitness and complementary worlds together.

I’ve also launched the Standards Authority for Touch in Cancer Care (SATCC), a charity to train qualified therapists to really help those touched by cancer and for the patients to find a trusted practitioner. There are now 400 spas with SATCC-certified staff in the UK.

What radical change do you predict?
The future of the sector is going to be very different. By 2050 the term spa and possibly even wellness, won’t exist, as our industry merges with public health and other industries under a broad prevention umbrella. The best of traditional medicine will come together with complementary and preventative approaches in a new model. I foresee destinations that have a certain number of rooms set aside for recuperation, pre- and post-rehabilitation and diagnostics where guests will be able to go pre- and post-surgery and then transition into the integrative side for longer-term recovery. They will have all the facilities of modern-day wellness destinations, enabling guests to make lifestyle changes. These will be supplemented by city centre hubs for ongoing maintenance.

What’s holding the industry back?
The lack of qualified staff. Especially at the advanced levels. Educational courses have got shorter – six months versus a minimum of two years – and many therapists and practitioners are younger, with few or no life skills.

As we morph from spa to wellness/wellbeing/integrative health and medical, we’ll need more advanced practitioners. We must go back to training and creating a career pathway that enables therapists to hone and advance their skills and to explore additional roles in the wellness arena, such as those in health coaching, nutrition, mental health and many more. We also need to reimburse them according to their skill set, experience and qualifications. This is the only way the industry will retain and grow its talent and continue to thrive and flourish.

Read more: www.spabusiness.com/SATCC

More from spa industry leaders...

In celebration of Spa Business’ 20th anniversary, industry leaders take a look at how far the sector has come since the magazine’s inception in 2003, share personal career highlights and reveal their plans and ideas for the future.

View next: Mark Hennebry

Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 3

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