The intimacy of the spa leaves little room for design error
Spa programmes are some of the most difficult to design. The intimate nature of the spa experience means that guests need to be put at ease from the very outset, leaving very little room for error.
“The three major experiences that have to do with clothing are: fully clothed, robed and naked. In a spa, it is important to make sure that people are comfortable in all three of these stages, within a very small space,” noted Haider Sadeki of Richardson Sadeki, the design firm responsible for Espa at the Yas Hotel, in Abu Dhabi.
“Even if you have a situation where you only have one gender, for example in the women’s lounge or locker room, women may not be comfortable being naked within the proximity of other women, whether that comes from a sense of shyness or privacy, or being insecure about one’s body.
That is the technical aspect of designing a spa. You can basically lose the whole game if a client is made to feel even a little uncomfortable in any of those situations.”
There is an inherent challenge in inviting someone into a foreign space, asking them to disrobe and then creating an experience that is memorable – for the right reasons. “I don’t want you to just remember that you were comfortable,” Sadeki said.
“I want you to be comfortable enough to remember what you experienced.”
This is a particularly salient point in the Middle East, where very specific cultural considerations come into play. Given the highly intimate nature of the spa experience, it is vital that cultural sensitivities are not ignored.
“A sauna, for example, is not necessarily an appropriate solution in an Arabic country, firstly because it is so hot, but also because the tradition of being naked in a sauna does not exist in the Middle East,” said Heinz Schletterer, CEO and owner of Schletterer Wellness and Spa.
“You are much better off selecting a more local element, such as the hamam.”
A spa in Europe will be completely different to one in the Middle East, which in turn will be very different to one in China, Schletterer continued. Even colour has to be carefully considered.
For example, the warm, neutral tones that are so popular in Europe may not be appreciated in China, where the colour white is associated with death.
“There is huge potential with Islamic guests, but you cannot treat them in the same way that you treat European guests,” Schletterer said. “There are different cultural expectations so you have to create completely different solutions.
But if you create these solutions, these guests will come, and they are willing to spend a lot of money, because they don’t have a lot of facilities that cater specifically to their needs.”
One thing that is consistent across the globe is that spa users are becoming more and more discerning and, consequently, more demanding. “Pampering is always nice, but it is not enough,” said Schletterer.
In the past, spas could get away with offering a few massages, a few facial treatments, the odd signature treatment, a sauna, a steam room and a swimming pool. This will no longer suffice, said Schletterer.
“People want much more value out of their treatments; they are looking for more inventive treatments and they like to have better interior solutions. They want new sensations, new experiences, they want to learn something, and they want to do something good for their body. This is the new direction.”
Barr + Wray, a specialist in spa engineering solutions, agreed that there is a growing emphasis on incorporating non-traditional treatments, such as salt rooms and ice fountains, into the modern spa.
According to the company, creating unique experiences is essential because spas are increasingly viewed as profit centres for their associated hotels.
However, there are countless barriers to profitability in the average spa environment, Schletterer pointed out. “One big challenge is making money out of your wet area because most wet areas are free.
You don’t make any money out of the wet area, although you spend a lot of money on installations. The pool is also very important. What can you do with a normal pool? You spend a lot of money on it, yet you get nothing out of it.”
The wet area is a particular drain on resources in this part of the world, where climactic and cultural considerations make the sauna and steam room largely defunct. Yet, as Schletterer pointed out, wet areas are still a common feature in this part of the world.
Other common design mistakes include a lack of available space for technical equipment, according to Barr + Wray. The company also suggested that specialist MEP designers are often not involved in the design process early enough, and that there are still waterproofing issues and floor build ups in wet areas.
“I think the most common mistake is to design spas in a superficial manner. It is important to understand the effects of what we design on the human body, mind and spirit.
There are plenty of examples of spas that have closed because they were poorly designed,” said Markus Stebich, managing director, Stebich Hospitality Solutions, which is currently involved in the concept development of the spa and fitness areas of the new Grand Wyndham Hotel in Riyadh.
“I think the greatest challenge is often communication, especially between the client, the operator and the various consultants. Often many of the people involved have little or no understanding of or experience with spa design and development,” Stebich added.
The best spas are generally a group effort between the spa operator, the designer, the client and specialist consultants, Stebich maintained.
Schletterer takes it one step further, suggesting that in the future, spa designers will have to have a series of specialists on their team before they even think about tackling a spa project. This would include spa therapists, electronics specialists and sustainability experts, who would be able to advise on how to save energy, water and, ultimately, money.
“In the end, a normal, well-educated architect won’t be enough. You will have to have a complete team made up of specialists. The spa experience is about more than just the eyes. The eye can absorb the design vision of an architect.
But you also need perfect work flow, perfect illumination, perfect smells, special treatments and very specific work areas. This information is not offered in the education programmes of your average design universities.”
• Recent market trends lean towards more nature-orientated designs, with cleaner lines and more spacious environments, according to Bagno Design. This is driving demand for stone products in the spa.
Apart from the natural beauty of stone, its hard quality makes it durable, easy to maintain and very resilient – and therefore cost effective.
Bagno Design luxury showrooms offer unique collections by Stone Forest, which are carved from single blocks of stone that have formed over millions of years.
• Spa design has evolved in keeping with developments in spa concepts and spa products, said Markus Stebich, managing director of Stebich Hospitality Solutions. “The majority of spa design is driven by the operators, market demands and product development for the spa market,” he added.
• Barr + Wray has observed a growing focus on technology, with more treatment options and more extensive spa menus. In addition, the pressure is on, as spas are increasingly viewed as profit centres which have a significant impact on overall hotel performance.