Indulging Insights

Sep 07 2010

Indulging inspiration

Whilst many brands claim they offer customers an “experience”, this is perhaps no more true than in spas.  Customers are taken on a journey which is specifically designed to stimulate their senses.  Spas are places that put people literally in touch with each other.  Touch as we have seen is a basic human need.  Spas create a safe environment, through the use of design features that allow privacy, rituals which engender trust, and professionalism of the therapists who are licensed to make a connection with the guest.  Moreover, spas are a melting pot for a range of products and services that enhance health and wellbeing.

What insights could I learn from the Spa phenomenon?  Seeking inspiration for a proposal for research on spas, I decided to visit a premium hotel spa this weekend and took along Dr Disruption.  Dr Disruption to chill after a week of innovative thinking, and went for a Relaxation massage and I took a Revive massage after a hectic travel schedule.

Global temples of wellness

Before we share our experience, let’s look at where the Spa industry has come from, as it contains many relevant trends.

The spa industry has emerged as a global phenomenon, through a convergence of industries, traditions and therapeutic practices.  Spas from around the Globe integrate the American commercial emphasis on beauty and destination experiences: Asian service ethics and holistic spiritual practices; European medical traditions, and the indigenous knowledge of many local cultures.

Since the turn of the millennium there has been a shift towards sustainable living on a global scale.  In particular since the financial tsunami, people have started to question runaway consumerism.   A search for global wellness and sustainability is mirrored at a personal level.  Fueled by aging populations, unhealthy lifestyles and greater awareness of toxins, people are increasingly interested in issues of health and promoting physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.  Spas in some respect have become modern day temples with their own rituals and practices.

Boomer business

The emergence of spas has also benefited from generational shifts.  Spa culture sits at the intersection of the global jet set elite and hippy counterculture, typified by the baby boomer generation.   It was our open minded baby boomer parents with their expanded view of individual freedom, emphasis on spiritual experiences that placed a value on the transformative experience.  Globalisation in turn has provided people with greater access to alternative ideas, cultures and practices.

In an increasingly transparent and connected world we are caring much more about what products we are consuming.  Who made it?  Where?  What was its societal and environmental impact?  This has of course impacted on the development of spas themselves, with a shift from what might be seen as frivolous pampering and wasteful luxury to sustainable health and wellbeing.  It is difficult to view personal wellness separately from the environment in which is occurs.

Integrated thinking

Spas are also shifting towards offering more integrative and holistic medical concepts.  People are increasingly disenchanted with the medical professions seemingly one sided emphasis on rational science.  The general population is more informed than ever about health.  Western medicine in particular is based on an illness rather than a preventative model.  Studies have shown that more preventative care and disease management has great opportunity to enhance health potential and reduce societal costs.   Traditional Chinese medicine has, for example, developed a sophisticated framework for conceptualizing the “Chi” or flow of life energy throughout the body.

Pain and disease are said to result from a disruption in the balance and flow of energy in the body.  Indeed, Spas draw on deep traditions, as the first natural springs in Europe became the famed Roman baths. The European spa in the 1990s developed this tradition attracting the rich and famous who escaped hot cities for the pastoral countryside.  Spa “cures’ and “taking the waters were combined with medical treatments, sporting events and even gambling.   Asian spas draw on the rich traditions of healing cultures of the East, intertwined often with religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.  Thailand in particular dominates the industry in Asia.

The spa culture

What is fascinating is the way that the focus is in tune with the different cultures and trends around the world.  In Australia, Spas have seen growth among male visitors and increased numbers of couples and group bookings.  Australian spas also distinguish themselves with a focus on nature.  Busy image conscious cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore are dominated by day and salon spas.  South America is known for ancient herbal techniques, shamans, healers and medical lore.  In North America the Spa industry is developed around fitness, weight loss, health and beauty.

So how about our experience?

The physical design of the spa is clearly designed very carefully to provide a smooth experience and flow for the guest.  As you move from the reception area to the treatment rooms, then back to shop afterwards, everything is carefully designed.   There is clearly a lot of effort put to manage all the senses, from the aromas, to the music and the colors and finishes of the areas you pass through.

Sensible proposals

What was missing? Well it turned out that whilst the experience was exceptionally well delivered, it lacked a sense of personalization.  After some contemplation as we made our way home, we felt that we would like to know more about the treatments, to be asked why we had chosen what we had, what sort of week had brought us there, and what our expectations from the experience had been.

It’s potentially very challenging to “measure” this kind of experience and to diagnose the positive and negative parts of such an experience without interfering with the experience itself.  Research doesn’t sit well with the calm and tranquility of a spa, where the mind and body are relaxed, and relatively free of structured and directed thoughts.

We learnt a lot from indulging our curiosity, which will be used in creating a much more focused and relevant proposal.  [Inspector Insight's tip for the day is to always experience for yourself the product or service that you are researching.]

In fact, many of our thoughts would apply to the research of hospitality services and experiences generally.  For example, it is critically important to capture the key aspects of the experience soon afterwards, while minimising the invasiveness of the questions.  This might mean that more detailed feedback on specific features would be undertaken in a second follow up interview or questionnaire, or by creating a research community of regular spa users.  As we have often noted, it is also important to obtain information on context as much as possible.  The reason for attending and the customer’s state of mind have a huge impact on their expectations and enjoyment of this kind of experience.

To really understand how we felt about the spa treatment, you would need to understand the occasion which brought us there and to obtain our feedback in the Spa just after the treatment.

The secret to evaluating customer experience is to understand the individual experience in the context of the individual situation, without changing that context.

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