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The thermal area has always been integral to the spa experience. However, while the traditional sauna and steam room combination was a few years ago considered more than enough as a heat experience, a greater availability of high tech features and a more discerning and results-driven clientele means the thermal game has been raised. 

The sauna and steam room may remain the staple thermal facilities for any spa, but they are not sufficient to set your business apart or create a USP. “Simple, standard features no longer excite guests; gone are the days when a sauna and steam room provoked enthusiasm,” says Heinz Schletterer, founder and chief executive of Austrian spa planning, design and consultancy company Schletterer. 

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Above: Image courtesy of Klafs

Rupert Lowes, national sales manager for UK thermal specialist Nordic Sauna, echoes this view,commenting that, “Five or 10 years ago, you would put a sauna and steam room in, and that was about it. Now, you have Rasuls, hammams, ice rooms and all sorts of other facilities.”

Schletterer explains that customers are now looking for an offering that provides relaxation, incorporates health benefits and is innovative on a number of levels. “Guests want to get away from everyday life and immerse themselves in a feel-good multisensory thermal experience with health-enhancing benefits,” he says, adding that “there is a noticeable trend towards holistic and multisensory experiences.”

Examples of facilities that deliver this are, Schletterer continues, thermal areas that incorporate the use of herbs, crystals, minerals, salt or gemstones.

Flexibility and versatility

Antonio Vanzetta, sales manger for Italy-based Wellness Today by Happy Sauna Group, affirms that the more discriminating spa-goer now expects a variety of heat experience facilities. “The most [informed] client looks for a complete wellbeing and relaxation experience,” he says.

“There should therefore be different areas with different temperatures, humidity levels and so on; in order to offer a 360° sensory path.” However, while few spas would dispute that providing an impressive range of heat experience facilities of varying temperatures and with different features and benefits could go a long way towards attracting customers, creating and maintaining such an area is inevitably a costly exercise.

“While these facilities are still [normally] being offered free of charge, investment costs have risen enormously, which clearly affects [profitability],” says Paul Haslauer, founder of German concept and facilities provider Haslauer.

One way to offset the cost of the more advanced thermal offering clients now demand is opting for features that allow you to provide chargeable treatments and services. “With the Rasul, for example, you can offer mud, oil and skin peeling [treatments] at a cost – which is clearly an advantage,” Haslauer says.

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Above: Image courtesy of Schletterer 

Adrian Egger, managing director of the spa division at German company Klafs, which provides solutions and facilities for the spa and wellness industry, explains that the profitability factor means thermal spaces with mutiple functions are now increasingly popular.

“Multifunctional rooms is a big trend; they’re becoming more and more important because, as we all know, flexibility helps you be more cost-effective,” he says. That multifunctional products are in great demand is also something Mike Robinson, managing director of Euphoria Lifestyle, which distributes Jacuzzi and Helo sauna products in the UK, has noticed.

“One of the most popular of Jacuzzi’s products is the Sasha, where the ‘sa’ stands for sauna, the ‘s’ for shower and the ‘ha’ for hammam,” he says. “So what you have is three wellness modules in one product.” Gerard McCarthy, sales director for UK-based sauna, steam room and pool specialist Dalesauna, says a growing number of spas are now investing in thermal facilities that enable services to be offered – often without a therapist needing to be present throughout.

“Hotel spas in particular are seeking additional revenue that isn’t therapist-driven, so features like Rasuls and dry flotation tanks, where treatments can be delivered that don’t require a therapist being present the entire time, are proving popular,” he says.

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Above: Image courtesy of Dalesauna

McCarthy adds that, “Once you’re in a spa that has these features, you might have a Rasul mud treatment, which isn’t therapist-led but which you pay for, or try a dry flotation treatment – where the therapist applies a product but then leaves you for half an hour while she goes off and does something else.”

The revenue potential in treatments that free therapists up for other tasks is obvious and Haslauer explains that clients also enjoy the element of activity in what is otherwise a fairly sedentary way to pass the time. “Guests appreciate having some ‘action’ added to the rather tedious waiting time in saunas and steam baths,” he says.

Knowledge is profit

While clients across the board and around the globe now have higher expectations of thermal areas than ever before, the features that are right for a spa to offer will depend on its individual circumstances.

“It is of course very important to really understand your target group and know what they’re looking for and we recommend all our customers to think about who their clients are and who their competitors are, and to take their location into account,” Egger says. Knowing who your thermal area is for, how it will be used and what you want to achieve by creating it will shape its structure and identity, so it’s essential to have a clear concept going in. 

“You’ve got to ask yourself a lot of questions before you even start,” McCarthy says. “First of all, what are your objectives, what are you hoping to achieve with it? And what type of users will you have?” The latter question is, he adds, particularly important if you are spatially challenged.

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Above: Image courtesy of Happy Sauna 

“If you only have space for one item you would probably put in a sauna if the users will predominately be men and a steam room if they will predominately be female; as men tend to like the aggressive heat of the sauna while women prefer the more gentle and humid atmosphere of the steam room.” Lowes agrees that space is integral as a guiding principle, often even more so than budget. “The size is really the defining factor, people sometimes have more money than they have space,” he says.

“You have to look at the space you have available for the thermal area and at the amount of people you envisage will be using it and from there you can determine the types of rooms that are going to be most relevant for you.” You may also wish to charge, not just for any treatments carried out in the thermal area, but for the use of the facilities themselves. If so, that is, again, something you need to be clear on at the outset.

“If you’re going to charge for the use of the thermal area, you have to have a certain level of provisions,” McCarthy says. “You’re probably looking at a minimum of four different experiences and it has to be an area that people will want to spend a few hours in. Think about what you are going to provide, and how much you think you can charge for it.”

Upkeep and efficiency

Once the thermal area is in place, the objective of any spa is to run it as efficiently and as profitably as possible. However, suppliers in all markets testify to the fact that operators often overlook aspects that, while rudimentary, are essential to financial efficacy.

“Basic, simple, housekeeping such as cleanliness and operator maintenance is where a lot of people fall down,” McCarthy says. Egger similarly comments that “companies unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to maintenance, even though it’s easy to maintain [an area] well, or have someone else do it for you.” And, as Lowes points out, even the most high-end of facilities will quickly become unappealing if standards are not upheld.

“Cleanliness and hygiene and making sure the facilities look tidy and in good order are key considerations,” he says. “You can spend as much money as you like but if you don’t maintain the facilities, they will look horrible within a year and then they will just put people off.”

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Above: Image courtesy of Nordic Sauna 

Part of this, Robinson says, is working with a supplier that can provide you with the maintenance you need, when you need it. “You don’t want to be taking bookings only to find out that, when a facility breaks down on a Friday night, you won’t be able to get someone out to look at it until the Monday,” he comments.

Reinforcing this, Vanzetta says that, “The first step to ensuring return on investment [on the thermal area] is carrying out a preliminary study and putting a business plan together. The second is to entrust the realisation to a company that has experience and that is able to provide suggestions on the best solutions when it comes to management and maintenance.”

Another aspect of upkeep that has become increasingly important, particularly in light of rising costs the world over, is energy efficiency. A number of companies, including Klafs and Schletterer, have developed products designed to reduce energy usage as much as possible.

“If spas don’t tackle energy costs, they won’t survive in the long term,” says Schletterer, adding that the company “has developed technologies that can help spas save up to 50% on the running cost of a sauna or steam room”. Klafs also offers energy-saving options, including the Green Sauna – designed to reduce energy consumption by 40% – and Eggers points out that “saving on energy costs helps you get return on investment a lot faster, which is of course very, very important”.

Hot trends

The cost factor is not the only reason to look at energy efficient alternatives more closely. Both Egger and Schletterer explain that sustainability is now an important factor for many spa-goers. “Green spas is a universal industry trend,”

Schletterer comments, while Egger says that “the green trend is very strong already and is becoming more and more important”. He adds that “customers are paying more and more attention to eco-friendliness and to having facilities that save energy, not just in terms of electrical or heat energy, but water as well.” Being able to position itself as green could therefore give a spa the USP all businesses look for.

Sustainability is not the only notable heat experience trend; the importance of the multisensory experience is also a key current development. “We’re seeing a particular growth of products where you’ve got more than one experience, where you’ve got colour, sound, touch, and so on,” Robinson explains. “There is definitely an interest in features where you have different temperatures, light, music – in facilities that you can get total relaxation and wellness from.”

Lowes confirms that this is also the experience at Nordic Sauna. “Biosaunas and Alpines saunas are proving very popular, because they create a nice, fragranced, aroma and lighting is a very popular feature at the moment as well.”

The emerging importance of lights in the thermal environment is, Lowes adds, partly a result of advancements in technology. “Up until about three years ago, it was primarily a case of a fluorescent type of system that flickered every time it changed colours and while LED lights were available, they weren’t really suitable for hot environments and would fail quite quickly,” he says.

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Above: Image courtesy of Euphoria Lifestyle 

“Now, however, systems are becoming much more reliable. They offer seamless colour change, with an infinite range of colours and can be dimmed much more effectively.” Another visible trend is the focus on salt experiences in the thermal area.

“There is currently a great tendency towards salt rooms and other cabins that use the property of salt,” Vanzetta says, with McCarthy adding that, “Salt vapour rooms and the use of salt and salt water is definitely a rising trend in heat experiences, largely for the health benefits it offers”. Asked which trends they think will continue to gather pace in 2014, suppliers highlight the move towards increased privacy.

“Privacy is more and more in focus now and is one of the big [trends] for the future,” Egger says. “Not all customers like the big sauna or steam facilities, some would like things a little more private.” Robinson says this is a phenomenon they have definitely noticed at Euphoria Lifestyle.

“Private wellness is a fast growing area and we have seen quite a big growth in private whirlpools baths that allow people to have a private soak after a treatment,” he says. “Private wellness zones, where you can have an experience alone or with a small group of people, are now setting some leading spas apart.”