24 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2023 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Paul Simons


Paul Simons

An important figure in the European spa industry for the past 30 years, Paul Simons has retired from GSTE. Spa Business sat down with him to hear about his long and esteemed career

Simons was behind the UK’s famous Thermae Bath Spa photo: Bath & North East Somerset Council.
Simons has been a key figure in several spa associations in Europe photo: Paul Simons
Thermae Bath Spa attracts up to 280,000 visitors a year photo: Thermae Bath Spa
The newly restored Cleveland Pools was a passion project for Simons photo: Anthony Brown and Cleveland Pools Trust.

An architect by training, Paul Simons has been an influential figure in the preservation and promotion of European spa towns for the past 30 years. While he has retired this year from his day-to-day duties in his position as secretary general of the Great Spa Towns of Europe (GSTE), he will remain involved in an advisory role on many projects, including the recently restored Cleveland Pools in Bath, England – the UK’s oldest outdoor public swimming pool.

How did you first get involved in spas?
I’m an architect who specialises in the conservation of historic buildings and I know that the solution to any historical building is to identify its use and its future use. I’ve been involved in bringing cultural life back into city centres and so I became involved in tourism. In 1994, I was named director of tourism in Bath, England. Nobody told me about the spa – it had closed down in the 1970s and we had a lot of empty buildings associated with the spa.

At around this time, the advent of budget airlines meant that our city break heritage business was instead going to Amsterdam and Barcelona for the weekend. So I said ‘let’s do a major project to have tourists not only visit our Roman baths and stare at the thermal waters in the historical site, but let’s let them bathe in them again.’ I was able to convince the local authority, Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES), to give me money and then we raised money through a government fund to resurrect the thermal baths in a modern building in the centre of the town. That was Thermae Bath Spa, which I was the project director for. The operator says up to 280,000 people visit the property a year and estimates that they also spend an additional £13.5 million (US$16.4 million, €15.5 million) locally.

How did your career evolve after that?
BANES sent me all over the world to look at spa towns – which is a pretty good job – and I suddenly became incredibly fascinated with the concept of spa and health and wellbeing and what it could be in the future. They are places dedicated to health, hospitality and welcoming and looking after people. In all the books on urban planning globally, nobody defined spa towns, but it is a very specific use. We realised we were sitting on a gold mine in many ways and it all goes back to hot springs, mineral waters and natural resources.

In the last 20-odd years since building Thermae Bath Spa, I’ve been involved in what was the British Spas Federation and the European Spas Association, as well as GSTE and the European Historic Thermal Towns Association (EHTTA). My focus has been the preservation of spa architecture, promoting the importance of thermalism and balneology and its significance for the future. And I’ve left a mark on the city of Bath that I’m very proud of.

Why are spa towns important?
Spa towns created what we in the West call national health services (NHS). The rich and the famous visiting the these towns – who could afford to go to the opera when they weren’t bathing in the water or drinking it – also set up charities so that the ill and the elderly and the infirm could access the water for their health. And way back in the 18th century that created the concept for what would become the NHS in the UK and others in Europe. Spa towns were at the fundamental centre of the democratisation of health.

We’ve realised that significance now. Spa towns are significant architecturally, urban-planning-wise and in terms of landscape, but they’re also key to governmental responsibility towards people’s health and wellbeing and vital to the core of health across Europe.

Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 4

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