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Spa Business
2023 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Niamh O'Connell

Interview

Niamh O'Connell


Appointed by Jumeirah Group as its first vice president of wellbeing, what does spa industry veteran Niamh O’Connell have planned for the global hospitality group? Julie Cramer finds out

O’Connell’s spa career spans three decades photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Talise spa at Jumeirah’s iconic Burj Al Arab photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Wellness facilities in Dubai attract up to 40,000 visitors a month photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Jumeirah’s spa in Capri is renowned for its Leg School programme photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Wellbeing will be a core pillar for the group in the future photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
The male/female split in spas is 40/60 photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
“The family market is hugely underserved,” says O’Connell photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Women’s wellness, especially menopause, will be brought to the fore photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Opening in 2024, Marsa Al Arab will rival Jumeirah’s iconic Burj Al Arab photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
A Middle Eastern influence runs through all spas photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Jumeirah is known as a Middle Eastern brand, but is prioritising global expansion photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Half of Jumeirah’s 27 sites feature Talise, the group’s in-house spa brand photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts
Attentive service and empathy are key to creating unforgettable experiences, says O’Connell photo: Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts

When Niamh O’Connell arrived in Dubai to take on the newly created role of vice president of wellbeing for Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts in June, she landed in a scorching hot Emirati summer. Having spent almost two decades working in five-star wellbeing in Asia – for Hyatt then Rosewood – Irish-born O’Connell was more than ready to take on the heat of the Middle East along with a whole new culture and career challenge.

“Asia stole my heart for 18 years and it was hard to leave. But when the offer came from Katerina [Giannouka, CEO of Jumeirah] it was impossible to say no,” says O’Connell. “The company has never had a dedicated VP of wellbeing before. It’s a massive opportunity and the scope of the work is vast, touching on all elements of the brand.”

Since starting, O’Connell has wasted no time in diving deep into Jumeirah’s current proposition and operations. She says: “Going forward, wellbeing will be a core pillar for the brand and very much at the forefront, which is very exciting. It’s so rare to be offered the chance to shape a brand and there’s so much appetite at Jumeirah for this change.”

Talise, Jumeirah’s in-house spa concept, currently exists in 14 of its properties along with a handful of other non-Talise facilities. While there’s a ‘golden thread’ of Middle Eastern influence that runs through the spas, they’re all adapted to their particular location and clientele.

Jumeirah is a subsidiary of Dubai Holding, the investment portfolio of the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. It owns 27 properties, 12 are in Dubai and others are nearby in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

As part of the group’s Mission 2030, revealed in June, its goal is to become a global hotel leader. There are already sites in Bali, the Maldives and China, as well as the UK (London), Italy (Capri), Spain (Mallorca) and, most recently, in Switzerland following the acquisition of Le Richemond hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva.

The Dubai market
For now though, at least, O’Connell’s remit is firmly on Dubai. She says: “Jumeirah properties are heavily patronised by the local market and visitors from the UAE. They regularly use the restaurants, spas and membership clubs or enjoy staycations on their time off. Local expats make up the next tier of customers, followed by international tourists, with many from Britain, Europe, Russia and CIS countries.

“Jumeirah welcomed a lot of tourists from new destinations during the pandemic because Dubai opened up when many other countries were still closed. For instance, the Chinese stopped visiting during COVID-19, but we saw a big rise in visitors from South Korea and they have continued to come.”

So gifted with almost a ‘blank canvas’ in terms of what comes next for wellbeing at Jumeirah, what is O’Connell looking at? While she hints at ‘new projects in the pipeline’ and creating brands, at the moment, the focus remains on the Talise spas and wellness interpretation and integration into all aspects of the estate. “We don’t want to see wellbeing isolated to spas – it’s going to be part of the overarching Jumeirah experience with different touch points throughout all hotels,” she says.

“We think the family market is hugely underserved, so we’re looking at how we create offers that parents and children actually want. Families face enormous time pressures these days, so how do we create an environment where they can come together, switch off from social media and enjoy healthy activities? It may be that only one parent visits the spa, but how can we ensure that the whole family can benefit from a wellness experience while they stay with us?”

Women’s wellness, in particular perimenopause and menopause, and the male equivalent ‘andropause’, will be brought more to the fore as well as more medical offers focused on longevity, with Jumeirah currently in ‘advanced talks’ with two potential medical providers.

While there are currently no medical offers across Jumeirah’s UAE properties, O’Connell says there is a medical spa in its Capri property that’s especially renowned for its Leg School, a unique programme developed by the resident professor Francesco Canonaco which treats vascular problems of the lower limbs. “I was there just a few weeks ago as part of my research and met two ladies who’d flown in from New York just for the Leg School. It’s highly regarded and very popular.”

She continues: “I believe medical offers and spas can coexist perfectly together. We need the medical tech to be able to offer diagnostics and a baseline that proves to guests that the programme they’re following is working. Incorporating nurturing experiences such as touch therapy or mindfulness can further enhance a medical offering.”

Other propositions in the planning are cognitive health programmes, incorporating hyperbaric oxygen chambers and the use of nootropics, as well as looking at gut health.

Wellness expansion
While all these ideologies may take time to filter through the estate, we’ll soon get an insight into the future of wellness at Jumeirah with the much-anticipated opening in 2024 of its biggest property to date, the Jumeirah Marsa Al Arab. Commanding a prime location on the Dubai peninsula, adjacent to the group’s current iconic jewel, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, this new ultra-luxury hotel will feature 10 world-class dining concepts, a spa spread over three floors and rooms inspired by ‘glamour of a bygone era’.

“Jumeirah Marsa Al Arab will feature our most significant wellbeing offering so far, which will be very much ingrained in all aspects of the property from spa through to F&B,” she says.

As Jumeirah’s new world of wellness unfolds, O’Connell will most certainly be keeping a close eye on the business figures. She’s spent three highly productive decades in the spa industry across Asia, Europe and the US, including working for Steiner on its cruise ships in the early days, followed by 11 years with Hyatt and most recently six years with Rosewood in Hong Kong, where she was VP of wellness and brand experience. It’s fair to say that what O’Connell doesn’t know about running profitable and successful spas, isn’t worth knowing.

With the move to Jumeirah, she’s walked into a wellness business that’s showing healthy returns, but that also has huge potential for growth. She says: “Across its Dubai properties, Jumeirah welcomes around 40,000 unique visitors each month to its wellness offers (including gyms and membership clubs) with a 60/40 female/male split.

“Among the many KPIs we look at, some of the headliners are therapist utilisation, capture rate, guest mix and average cheque. From these metrics, we can gauge the success of marketing initiatives. Our therapist utilisation currently ranges from 52 to 73 per cent, the guest mix comprises 45 per cent from in-house and the average treatment time is 120 minutes. The spas have been excelling in the past two years, due in large part to the boom in ‘revenge travel’ post-COVID.

“The wellness aspect will evolve as part of Mission 2030 and our strategic growth plan. The interest in these new activities and products are intended to bolster the revenue streams from spas.”

Personalisation matters
With such big plans ahead, it’s just as well that O’Connell managed to take her own extended spa break – an 18-month sabbatical immediately after leaving Rosewood, which saw her travel to India and Spain. She says: “I went to Spain to learn the language and of course indulge in all the wonderful cuisine. In India, I spent a lot of time doing yoga and enjoying traditional ayurvedic treatments.”

Refreshed and re-focused, O’Connell is now very much concentrating on the immediate tasks at hand, while keeping a well-trained eye on a future where the wellness landscape is ever-evolving.

“We’re currently piloting smart hotel beds,” she says, “which adjust to support the sleeping position of the guest as well as their body temperature, to help enable a healthy and uninterrupted night’s sleep. We’re also looking closely at our food and beverage operations. We don’t want to call it ‘wellness food’ but we’ll be creating more nutritious dishes to help people live well.”

While a high degree of customising is always expected by Jumeirah’s ultra-wealthy guests, it’s a central concept that has been fundamental throughout O’Connell’s career. So what does ‘personalised wellness’ mean to her?

“It’s about developing deep listening skills and anticipating what a guest wants and needs, perhaps even before they know it themselves,” she says. “My very first boss and mentor in Ireland was a nurse who had opened a small clinic to heal and really take care of people. This was way before wellbeing was even recognised as a thing. Through Helen, I learned about developing empathy and truly listening to a person’s needs. This approach lies at the core of everything I create and it’s something that makes for a standout and unforgettable wellness experience.”

With this deeply personal approach and an unparalleled knowledge of spa operations, all backed by the might of a formidable and ambitious luxury hospitality brand, it will certainly be interesting to watch where O’Connell takes Jumeirah’s spa and wellbeing offers in the years ahead.

FAVOURITES

Treatment – Choosing only one is tough! I’d say chi nei tsang

Spa – I’m still in search of the ideal spa experience destination

FilmGoodfellas

BookTinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre

Place – Southern Spain

Season – Summer (although in Dubai I prefer winter!)

Best advice – Gordon Fuller, who was an area VP at Hyatt, used to tell me: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” He inspired me to challenge the norm and mentored me in change management


Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 4

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