Wellness travel is emerging as an important and increasingly lucrative travel market – one that is growing in size and scope.
Today, wellness tourism is a $106 billion global industry, according to “Spas and the Global Wellness Market,” a 2010 study by the nonprofit research and consulting firm SRI International.
The SRI study describes wellness tourism as one of nine sectors in a larger “wellness industry” that also encompasses medical tourism, which it estimates to be a $50 billion industry globally.
To explain how the two are related, SRI depicts a continuum, with reactive approaches to health and wellness (i.e., treatment of existing conditions) at one end. At the other end are sectors such as the $60 billion per year spa industry that are involved in proactive measures to enhance quality of life.
(Editor’s note: For travel agents, wellness tourism can be an entry point into selling medical travel. See related article, “8 Steps to Breaking Into Medical Tourism,” Sept. 8, 2011.)
To help travel agents understand and profit from the burgeoning area of wellness travel, Travel Market Report spoke with Susie Ellis, president of SpaFinder, Inc., a spa and wellness media and marketing company.
Ellis also serves on the boards of the Global Spa Summit and the Center for Medical Tourism Research (CMTR), as well as the Spa Advisory Board for the University California-Irvine’s Spa and Hospitality Management Program.
Can you define wellness travel for us?
Ellis: Wellness travel is about the desire to promote, maintain and improve one’s health and well-being. Wellness travel can take a number of forms and encompass a lot of different activities.
Spas are a big part of wellness travel, especially destination spas. The concept of wellness can incorporate stress reduction, meditation and yoga. It can also refer to adventure travel, hiking and eco-tours.
How does wellness travel fit in with medical tourism?
Ellis: They are really two distinct areas. More people are familiar with medical tourism, because it has been actively promoted for the last seven or eight years. Clearly, people do travel across boundaries for treatment or to undergo procedures. That’s often motivated by the desire to obtain services at a lower cost.
Medical tourism by necessity involves regulations. I consider things like detox to be in the category of medical tourism, because it involves experts and medical supervision. With wellness travel, you don’t have the same type of regulations that you have with medical travel.
How does spa travel fit into the mix?
Ellis: Spas fit in as a type or a component of a wellness vacation or getaway. That’s especially true as spas expand into preventative health and overall fitness. Spas can be the centerpiece of a wellness experience. Spa travel is definitely thriving.
At the same time, spas can play a part in medical travel. They can be involved in a patient’s recovery after a procedure, for example. I would encourage agents to take a look at our SpaFinder spa specialist program if they’re interested in developing more expertise in these areas.
What types of wellness travel products and experiences are popular with U.S. consumers?
Ellis: Our research shows that the number one thing people are looking to do is reduce their stress level, which they can do through programs like yoga, meditation or mindfulness training. Starting a fitness program or losing weight is also a high priority.
People want to kick start a lifestyle change, and they find that a spa wellness experience is the perfect place to do so.
How are U.S. consumer preferences in wellness travel changing?
Ellis: There is more emphasis on stress reduction than weight loss and more programs like yoga and meditation. More people are traveling to wellness destinations in groups – friends, family, couples, and even children.
Also, people are doing wellness travel in all types of climates, not just environments that are warm year-round. For example, visiting Kohler Waters Spa in Wisconsin or Sparkling Hill Resort and Wellness Centre in Canada.
What do agents need to understand about wellness travel in order to sell it effectively?
Ellis: First and foremost, it's essential that the agent is familiar with wellness travel options available around the globe. We think SpaFinder's Travel Agent program is a great place to gain an understanding of how to profit from this booming market. (Editor’s note: see resources below.)
Then, it is important to understand the client's specific goals and interests in a wellness experience. Is he or she looking to de-stress? Address a specific health concern? Simply try a new experience – or lose a little weight?
Then match those goals with the region or regions the client is interested in. For example, if the client is looking to create a less-stressful lifestyle and has always wanted to travel to Asia, he or she would enjoy Chiva-Som in Thailand or Kamalaya Koh Samui in Thailand.
Do agents or their clients have any misconceptions about wellness travel?
Ellis: A common one is misunderstanding the definition of destination spa, compared to a resort/hotel spa. Destination spas offer a full-immersion spa experience in which all guests participate, with all-inclusive programs that provide fitness activities, spa cuisine, educational classes, therapeutic treatments and more.
Resort and hotel spa properties offer a wide variety of recreational amenities, including a full-service spa.
Another misconception is that wellness travel is restrictive or spartan. Quite the contrary, as many wellness spas offer five-star cuisine and accommodations, along with programs and treatments that provide an experience that exceeds the expectations of the most discriminating traveler.
What trends do you see on the supply side?
Ellis: More and more, we are seeing international governments promoting themselves as wellness travel destinations. Examples include the government of Bali. You also have Thailand. They are investing heavily in destination spas as a distinct niche.
Spa Specialist Program: SpaFinder’s certification training course for travel advisers.
SpaFinder’s SpaMatch: Online tool to match an individual’s wellness travel goals with the appropriate destination.
4WR: Wellness: for Whom, Where, and What? – Research report by Wellness Tourism Worldwide