How to incorporate design trends into your spa

Guest blog: Learn how to spot design trends from fads with advice from Sean O’Connor, group spa manager, design and development for Mandarin Oriental.

As spa, fitness and wellness facilities evolve, so have the appetites of owners, operators and designers to experiment with new ideas. Trends, although exciting, can be a double-edged sword, backfiring dreadfully if not properly considered and thought through. Following a popular trend can project your facility as cutting-edge, but it can also trap your operation in a time warp and before long it could be considered passé.

At Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG) we are proudly conservative in our approach and restrained in our operating values and methods. We adhere to a philosophy of genuine, natural and therapeutic treatments, with carefully selected therapists who have “healing hands”. It’s referred to as the low-tech, high-touch approach and has been a guiding principle that’s kept us out of trouble and true to our core whenever considering new ideas.

Whenever tempted by a technological breakthrough or results-oriented “high-tech, high-profit” toy, in the first instance we shy away if it does not fit with our mission, philosophy and guiding principles. 

Another defence against adopting impulsive trends that could turn into a big mistake is our spa journey. We have a defined arrival and departure protocol for guests, with the journey between the two punctuated with memorable milestones and ceremonial and ritualistic elements, sprinkled with Oriental heritage. All of this is in a logical order, with the apex being the principal experience – the treatment itself. 

So, under the umbrella of a written mission statement, bracketed between clear philosophies and a defined spa journey that follows the company’s guiding principles, there’s little room for spontaneous, hasty or impetuous faddish foolery – and this should be the same for your business. There should only be room for well-researched and piloted novel improvements. 

Design rules 

When thinking about renovations or additions to your spa, you should separate trends into categories – some of which may be timeless and others more transient:

• Floorplan space planning – space zoning, allocation, connectivity and flow (guest, colleague and supplies, including towels and professional products)

• Material finishes (timber, stone, marble glass and fabrics), colour schemes and applications

• Thermal bathing facilities and designs

• Artwork graphics (2D and 3D) and signage

• Lighting

Image Credit: Mandarin Oriental

• Audio visual and IT

• Fixtures, furniture, equipment, supplies and accessories

• Uniform and wardrobe designs. 

An example of a layout design which was accidentally stumbled upon a decade ago but has become a staple standard for our group, and is now becoming a wider trend, is the vestibule design of treatment rooms. This refers to a vestibule at the entrance of the room or suite, originally intended as a setting down and picking up area for towels, supplies and used tea sets.

If the vestibule has an entrance to the dressing and bathing area on one side and a door to the treatment space on the other, then it can be used by attendants and therapists to strip and re-set a room while the guest is bathing and changing after treatment, significantly reducing turnover time. It can also be used to slip into the dressing and bathing space while the treatments are ongoing, freshening up the areas and adding post-service treats. 

This is a small detail but it does wow the guest because they appreciate the attention to detail – something that’s not a service fad. But like other floorplan and space allocation decisions, it is a permanent feature and would be pretty expensive to modify or delete, so take caution before investing in a new layout and flow idea. Think it through and test it before committing to the overall design. 

Fads vs trends

A mistake often repeated in this industry is the temptation to pioneer inappropriate facilities and services simply to make headlines. One hotel, for example, decided to introduce a Vichy shower treatment annex room to a single treatment room and a hydro tub bathing annex room to another, plus an Ayurvedic treatment room in the same city-centre, eight-room spa. This was when Ayurveda was hot and everyone was talking about it.

It didn’t take long for this ambitious drive to be first-to-market with new ideas to show up as an expensive mistake in the turn-away reports. In this location, what the market wanted and supported was regular treatment rooms and it didn’t have the capacity to have novel and trendy new concepts. After years of promoting, packaging and giving away the treatments as tasters, all three spaces were eventually converted into simple treatment rooms and both revenue and guest satisfaction soared.

Conversely, an example of a successful early adoption of a technical trend is when the iPhone and iPad came along. Operators watched with amazement as clients swiftly made these devices a core part of their daily lives – some even bringing playlists to treatments. 

At MOHG, we tapped into the trend by inserting iPod docking stations in the walls of our treatment rooms. However, it wasn’t long before Android appeared on the scene and then Apple came out with new smartphones that had different connectors. 

There were a few years of confusion and disappointment for guests but now a relatively inexpensive solution of adaptable charging sockets is in place so anyone can use their phone. The same goes for USB charging ports in the lockers – it was a great idea until the tech companies came up with wireless charging.

The most valuable element of an innovation cycle is the creation of new ideas and pushing the boundaries, but a close second is the post-mortem – checking the level of success and asking colleagues and guests how it could have been done better. 

This allows you to engage with the guest about the atmosphere, ambience and environment, and show them that you are striving to constantly improve by listening. 

Sean O’Connor is group spa manager, design and development, for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, based in the company’s corporate office headquarters in Hong Kong. He was also a speaker at the 2018 World Spa & Wellness Asia Convention in Phuket, Thailand.