How Akasha Spa is making urban wellness work

Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre at London’s Hotel Café Royal is growing its wellness concept, with a focus on complete lifestyle solutions in a city environment

"Last year was about fixing the foundations; this year it’s about pushing the limits a bit more, figuring out where we can go and what we can really do. It’s going to be a fun year,” says Robin Mauras-Cartier, regional spa and wellness director for boutique group The Set Hotels of Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, the spa at the group’s London property, Hotel Café Royal. Mauras- Cartier joined the company more than a year ago and part of his initial focus was to strengthen Akasha’s brand identity, which he felt was not quite where it needed to be.

“We needed to educate the company on what spa is, how a luxury spa should be managed and what the should focus be. So it was a year of rebuilding the foundations with Gemma, the spa manager, and the team.” This, he says, included “training the team, giving them the tools to succeed and the faith that the spa is operating to a very high level”. It also entailed initiating a long-term strategy for putting the spa and health club at the fivestar Hotel Café Royal, located on the lower ground floor by Piccadilly Circus in central London, more firmly on the capital’s spa map.

“We have a great spa: it’s [stylish] and comfortable, we have a really great range of treatments and the therapists are very good and work with passion. But we need to be better known by the public, to become synonymous with spa in London for the aficionados who go regularly,” he says. Part of the work to raise the profile of the six treatment-room spa is to establish it as a go-to for more than “just” treatments.

Four-pillar wellness
The philosophy behind Akasha (a Sanskrit word that in Hindu tradition means “the essence of all things”) is based on the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. Earth represents nutrition; fire signifies the gym; water not only means pools and other facilities but also treatments such as watsu; and air is embodied by practices like yoga, pilates, meditation and tai chi. The four pillars make it clear that a wider view of wellness has always been core to the Akasha concept, but Mauras-Cartier is reinforcing this by growing the specialists and outside practitioners the spa is working with.

“We have brought in specialists like [watsu teacher and “aquatic bodywork” expert] Steve Karle, Louka Leppard [creator of Tulamassage and Tulayoga, offering a holistic approach to both practices] and other movement specialists; for yoga, pilates, personal training, mindfulness and things like that,” explains Mauras-Cartier. “We want to elevate what we offer. We’ll still have the [core of] what a great spa and a great team does but for people who want more, we’ll have the yellow pages of wellness; experts we have carefully selected for you.”

At the moment, the Akasha clientele consists of roughly 7% members, 23% hotel guests and 70% outside guests. This is a breakdown Mauras-Cartier, whose previous roles include spa manager at Sofitel London St James, says is standard for high-end hotels in the capital. “That’s normally the way it is in London, you can’t really rely on the occupancy to fill your spa. The average stay in a five-star London hotel is less than two nights and to fit in a spa treatment in those 1.8 nights, when it’s not even one of the things you traditionally do in London, is not necessarily [high on guests’ agenda].”

At the moment, around 35% of hotel guests come down to Akasha even if they don’t necessarily have a treatment, “to use the spa facilities, the gym, the pool and attend classes” and Mauras-Cartier explains that even if they don’t book in for a service, “I’m happy to see them because I’m proud of the facilities and the approach we have”. Unlike many hotels, where guests have complimentary access to the spa and fitness facilities but classes are for members only or a paid-for add-on, Hotel Café Royal residents can attend classes free of charge.

The weekly fitness schedule includes a wide choice, from energising bootcamp, TRX and sunrise yoga, to circuit training, mat pilates, and mediation and relaxation, and Mauras-Cartier takes pride in extending this service to hotel guests. “It’s amazing to have this complimentary schedule of classes that you can come and join when you’re staying at Hotel Café Royal; it’s part of being a wellness destination,” he says.

Urban escapes
The plan for 2018 and going forward includes “putting together urban wellness retreats” in collaboration with the expanding set of Askasha wellness specialists. “Whether it’s for anxiety, stress or you simply want to be the best version of yourself, we have a team of experts that can put together a programme to help you achieve your goals in a holistic way,” says Mauras-Cartier. The use of the word “urban” is central and he explains that: “It’s about helping you change your lifestyle within your own environment.

“A lot of people go to a retreat in India, Bali or Thailand, spending £5,000 on whatever goal they have, but when they come back it all collapses. Because they were ‘fixed’ somewhere else but when they return, it’s hard to maintain that change.” The objective behind Akasha’s planned urban retreats is to show that it’s not necessary to fly halfway across the world to embrace wellness or make a change. It’s also about drawing on the pool of specialists a city like London gives you access to.

“We’re lucky in London to have this amazing playground of opportunities; you can experience everything and find the best experts, you don’t have to compromise,” says Mauras-Cartier. This year he also plans to grow the range of wellbeing practitioners Akasha guests and members have access to by “selecting a new speciality every month and adding one or two ‘blank’ classes a week on that theme; introducing our community to new wellbeing techniques”.

Wellbeing community
Unlike many other fitness centres and private members clubs, Akasha has only one type of membership. “You’re a member, you have access to all the classes and all the spaces at any time, and you have a special discount on treatments and several day passes and that’s it,” Mauras-Cartier says. Right now there is room to grow the membership, though there will always be a cap. “At the moment, I have about 130 members. I think we can probably go up to 170 and then we’ll reassess.”

The membership is, he comments, a mixed group that includes “artists, models, designers, people working in fashion, PR and the film industry, and investment bankers. It’s very diverse which is great because you’re not always having the same conversations with your members.” What they do have in common, he says, is that they tend to “work fairly locally. Most of them are director, chief executive or vice president level. They often don’t have 9-5 jobs and they come in when they have space in their schedules.”

While excellent service is naturally a priority, Mauras-Cartier says he has a “relaxed, friendly relationship” with most of his members and that a personal, genuine approach to dealing with guests and members is something he encourages in his team. “I think it’s very important in the luxury sector to be equipped to make conversation with people, and that’s something that a lot of people lack.” The in-house Akasha team numbers around 25 (going up to about 45 with freelancers and outside practitioners).

While the spa was, at the time of going to press, not recruiting, Mauras-Cartier explains that when they are, he normally lets the spa or membership manager do the first stage of interviews. “I then have a chat with the candidate to understand their personality a bit better. Because that’s really important to me. You can’t have a team of therapists where everyone is the same, where everyone is very holistic or very experienced or inexperienced. I don’t want a team where everyone reacts in exactly the same way to a situation.”

Brand strategy
While Akasha has reason to be pleased with its stylish facilities – including the Instagramfriendly 18-metre swimming pool – Maura-Cartier is planning small design tweaks to some spa areas, including the treatment rooms, this year. “We’re going to change the décor a little bit: add some flowers and books, make it a bit cosier. We have a minimalistic look at the moment and some of the rooms lack that cosiness,” he explains. “They’re just tiny touches and won’t require a big investment, but they’ll add something special to the rooms.”

The skincare brands at Akasha include exclusive Swiss line Valmont, and next month the spa is adding Aromatherapy Associates. “It’s a British brand and this is a British hotel. It’s also holistic and I think what they do is very much in line with the Akasha approach,” explains Mauras-Cartier. “They also have amazing massages and a strong retail offering; they’ll be a great partner.”

In addition to Hotel Café Royal, The Set Hotels includes the Conservatorium in Amsterdam, with a third hotel, Lutetia, scheduled to pre-open in Paris this spring. Akasha is the spa and wellness brand across all three and while the group is keen to incorporate elements that reflect the location of each one – such as a British spa brand in London – consistency is also of the essence.

“My role is spa and wellness director for the group, so part of my job is to look at the bigger picture and the overall strategy. It’s important to us that Akasha is a trusted brand across the properties, with its own identity,” says Maura-Cartier. Ensuring this, he adds, includes knowing which wellness trends are worth incorporating and which ones to pass on. “It’s good to innovate and try new things, but don’t lose your identity over some fad,” he says.