The Convergence of Healthcare and Hospitality

In an era where wellness and travel intertwine more than ever, the hospitality industry stands at the crossroads of change. We sat down with QUO Director of Healthcare + Wellness Ruben Toral to discuss the convergence of healthcare and hospitality. From the evolution of wellness in hotels to the future of ’healthy hospitality’, Ruben sheds light on the transformative journey of the industry.

QUO: Wellness now seems to be ‘everything everywhere all at once’ to quote the Oscar winning movie. Do you see it that way too?

Ruben Toral (RT): I do. Wellness is permeating industries from healthcare to hospitality and literally everyone everywhere is looking to develop a strategy in this space. 20 years ago wellness was fringe, 10 years ago it went mainstream and today it is a requirement. No hospitality, healthcare or property business can afford to ignore this segment, in my opinion, because it plays into macro-trends like ageing and rising healthcare costs and into micro-trends as well.

QUO: The Global Wellness Institute’s 2019 report valued the wellness tourism market at $639 billion. How does this compare to the general tourism market?

RT: The global tourism market is valued at $10.5 trillion and growing at a CAGR of 5%. So while the absolute number is big, on a relative basis the wellness related tourism market is only 6% of the total tourism market. However, wellness tourism is growing at double the rate of global tourism. If the surge I see in post-COVID medical tourism numbers is any reflection of the demand for wellness tourism, then we will see annual growth rates much higher than 10% in the coming years. Mind you, COVID is a reminder of how exogenous events can both propel and punish tourism.

QUO: How are the healthcare and hospitality industries responding to this surge in wellness interest?

RT: Healthcare, hospitals mainly, traditionally viewed wellness as a small, outlier business, consisting mainly of annual check ups. Today, they see wellness as a much bigger part of their business, and not just in terms of revenue, but as a requirement to deliver a ‘total care’ model of healthcare—one that offers customers ‘well’ care and ‘sick’ care. As a result, they are expanding their portfolio of services to include genetic testing, customised supplements, immunity boosters and more. Wellness has helped shift the model of care from episodic (use of healthcare only when sick) to a continuous model of care (use of healthcare more frequently for disease prevention).

Hospitality had a similar mindset to wellness in the past, and really viewed it through the lens of their spa business. For all intents and purposes, the spa was the wellness option for hospitality until very recently. Today, I think hospitality views wellness either as an amenity or as a philosophy that is woven into the fabric of everything they do. Viewed as an amenity, wellness is an expanded list of services that include, but are not limited, to the spa. Viewed as a philosophy, wellness is infused into restaurants, rooms, fitness centres as well as programming and staffing. It’s a holistic approach.

QUO: Is there now an overlap between healthcare and hospitality when it comes to wellness? Are they competitors or collaborators?

RT: There is overlap, but it’s not competitive. People are not saying to themselves, “should I go to a hospital or a hotel for wellness services?” As a rule, hospitality reaches out to healthcare if and when they decide to offer medical services, because hotel brands and operators do not want the risk, costs or liability associated with delivering medical care. If they do decide to offer medical services, it is usually in partnership with a doctor, clinic or hospital that has the medical licence, staff and expertise. Those arrangements can range from offering services to leasing space to full blown partnerships.

The area where collaboration opportunities are greatest is in wellness resorts. Hospitality companies are moving aggressively to build more destination wellness resorts and hospitals are looking for new ways to expand their reach beyond the clinic or hospital. At QUO, we see new businesses and brands being created around these partnerships, and that trend will continue, I believe.

QUO: You isolated wellness resorts as a growing category within wellness. What do you see happening in this space?

RT: A lot of activity, that’s for sure. Increasingly, developers and hospitality companies are looking at wellness retreats as the product to attract high value, long stay guests who want an experience that goes beyond room and restaurant. Over the next 3-5 years we will see an explosion of wellness retreats around the world catering to this guest typology. This opens the doors for a lot of new players, partnerships and concepts, so I think this will be one of the most active categories in hospitality and healthcare over the next decade—and that’s exciting.

I temper this enthusiasm with the caveat that this space is also at risk of oversaturation. Everyone will see this segment as the next El Dorado and go for the gold. That scenario leads to ‘wellness wars’ where companies compete to see who has the biggest facilities and the most amenities. The product cycle will be shorter as innovation quickly turns to normalisation, if not commoditisation. We saw that in the spa category.

QUO: Is the same true for the large hotel chains that have spas and are shifting to wellness?

RT: It’s my experience that mass market hotels view wellness more as an amenity rather than as a driver of stay, i.e. a reason to choose. These guests have a shorter length of stay and may ‘get a little wellness on the side’, but their intent is more room focused than wellness focused. From this lens, the goal is to enhance guest experience and drive incremental spend. The more forward-looking chains are looking to weave wellness into the stay or elevate the wellness offering so it is a stand-out rather than a side dish. There is whitespace here, I think, but the window of opportunity gets smaller over time as more brands come to market with their interpretation on wellness.

QUO: If commoditisation is a potential threat for wellness, then how do you protect against it?

RT: I believe it comes down to specialisation. To provide real value requires understanding your audience, having a clear purpose, great programming and ultimately delivering on a desired outcome. The fundamental ingredients of wellness are known, but the value is baking those into a cake that people want to buy and recommend to others. The healthcare industry is a good teacher in this regard. Everyone pays more to see a specialist rather than a generalist, because they have narrow but deep expertise in their field of medicine. People always want to know what a given hospital specialises in, because that influences their choice. The same will apply to wellness. Without specialisation you have commoditisation, and no one pays a premium for a commodity.

QUO: What role does branding play in wellness? How important is this to the guest and the operator?

RT: I would say it is very important. To differentiate, to generate a price premium and to retain customers you must have a brand that communicates purpose and branding that drives awareness, choice, pricing premium and loyalty. Guests will not spend more or stay longer for a generic, non-branded experience. They don’t do it in any other segment or sector, why would they do it in wellness? In fact, I would say it is even more important in areas like healthcare and wellness, because guests (or patients) make their selection on the basis of trust. No one will select a care provider they do not trust, at any price.

Branding in wellness needs to go beyond facilities and amenities and focus on purpose and outcome. Full stop.

QUO: You talk about ‘healthy hospitality’. Is that the same or different from wellness?

RT: Healthy hospitality is the outcome. Wellness is the way. My view is that if you can make a stay feel healthier then you win the hearts and minds of guests, because you appeal to their emotions and intellect. If I select a hotel and they have healthier menu items, better fitness facilities and programmes and sleep-friendly rooms, then chances are I leave the hotel feeling better than when I walked in. That’s a win at every level.

As I have said before many times, ‘wellness’ can be anything. The word almost has no borders. Therein lies the risk of commoditisation, because there is no barrier or restriction to label something as ‘wellness’. ‘Healthy’ is more tangible and visceral. People know when they feel healthy. They have more energy, more endurance and more clarity of mind. My sense is that if you offer people a ‘healthier way to stay’ that they will reward you in loyalty.

The Doctor-Hospital Branding Conundrum


Consumerism is a mega-trend that is reshaping healthcare, and the internet has made it easier than ever to access endless sources of information. However, one area that lags behind all others is information and reviews about doctors, particularly here in Asia.

In the US, websites like Healthgrades, Vitals and WebMD provide consumers an independent source of information about doctors so that they can verify credentials  and validate the experiences of others. According to Healthgrades, 90% of patients use online reviews, 80% of customers trust these reviews as much as a personal recommendation and 77% use these online reviews to find a new doctor.

Here in Asia, most hospitals have information about their doctors, but the quality of those profiles tend to be weak when you take into account that 88% of patients view ‘clinical expertise on my condition’ as a ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important reason for choosing their doctor.

Doctor profiles are a key touchpoint for customer engagement. So why do hospitals invest in the doctors, but paradoxically spend so little on branding them to their full potential.

Data shows that more people are using online channels to search and vet doctors, creating an unparalleled opportunity (or challenge) for providers to improve doctor branding. But doctor branding is a double edged sword for hospitals. Heavy promotion of doctors can lead to unintended consequences that create friction between the hospital and the doctors.

This creates a conundrum: how to promote doctors without eclipsing the hospital brand? Despite the challenges, the opportunity to pivot doctor branding from a lose-win scenario to a win-win solution is available. Let’s start with the facts:

  • The doctor appointment/referral is the start of the hospital’s revenue cycle. Nothing happens without seeing a doctor first—no orders are made, no medicines are prescribed and no admission is approved. So if the doctor is the start of the clinical journey, then it stands to reason that making doctor search-find-connect should be priority number one.
  • The doctor search starts online. If the clinical journey starts with the doctor, then the customer journey starts with Google. Anything that improves search ranking improves the chances of selection.  If doctor profiles are not optimised for search, internal and external, then ranking suffers.
  • Consumers rely on reviews and ratings for everything—restaurants, appliances, cars, etc.  Reviews and ratings are social proof mechanisms that help consumers make informed choices, but hospitals avoid physician reviews and rating at all costs, because they open a Pandora’s box of problems.

Ask any hospital CEO why patients choose their facility, and virtually every one will list their doctors as one of the top three reasons. Now ask the same CEO how much they invest in doctor branding and marketing. Typically the amount is negligible. There is clearly a disconnect between input and output, and much of it boils down to tactical execution. How to do it?

Bottom line, doctor branding and hospital branding are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, smart doctor branding creates a virtuous cycle that impacts reputation, improves search and enhances customer experience.

The Shape of Experience

Creative concepts can transform the dullest spaces into remarkable guest journeys, writes QUO Chief Branding Officer Catherine Monthienvichienchai.

Google Maps told me I’d arrived, but I wasn’t so sure. In front of me was a store, long since closed for the day. Beyond that, a dimly lit street with barely a person in sight. A flicker of light catches my eye. A hint of life behind the shuttered windows of the second floor. Maybe I was in the right place after all. Up a small spiral staircase lay an incredible hidden space. An unassuming shophouse transformed into a Japanese bar, a speakeasy of sorts, that would be more at home in the winding alleys of Kyoto than the humid streets of downtown Bangkok.

The hidden nature of the space was just the start. Inside, a series of carefully curated rituals unfolded. Spirits served in your choice of beautiful crystal tumblers; beer decanted into stainless-steel cups; individual wooden bowls of savoury snacks. Every item meticulously placed in front of you, its relative position on the table considered with almost mathematical precision. It was simple, yet executed with unbelievable attention to detail. An experience that will surely lead me to return.

In cities where space is becoming increasingly scarce, operators are learning the value of even the tiniest, most secluded spots. Putting use to unusual, under-utilised spaces, they lure customers by promising an experience, even if that experience is as simple as searching out the place itself.

How we think about space, interact with it, deconstruct it, plan and distribute it, is at the heart of many of today’s most successful hospitality brands. Smaller guest rooms, bigger public spaces, social spaces, co-working spaces, dynamic, multi-functional spaces. All buzzwords amongst the plethora of lifestyle brands flooding the hotel world in recent years.

Yet it is more than just cleverly used space that surprises and inspires. Whether it is 20sqm or 200sqm, integrated or closed, it is impossible to win any loyalty or create much of a buzz if it doesn’t come with an experience customers will remember.

Brands such as Aman leave nothing to chance with the arrival experience, creating incredible spaces that bring to life the brand’s core DNA as a ‘place of peace’ – the meaning of the word ‘Aman’. Even in the midst of downtown Tokyo, home of the brand’s first urban retreat, it stays true to this commitment.

After being whisked up to the 33rd floor of the Otemachi Tower, guests emerge into a spectacular space, where the upper walls and 26-metre-high ceiling are lined with translucent washi paper to give the effect of being inside a vast paper lantern. At the centre lies a zen garden, with a pool that rises out of a seasonally changing ikebana flower arrangement, and beyond that, two meditative rock gardens. An intense and remarkable space that is as dramatic as it is calming.

Few brands can match the extraordinary efforts of Aman to create this type of space and experience, but nor should they. Guest experience doesn’t have to be spectacular to make an impression. It does, however, need to be relevant and meaningful; connected to your brand’s core values and identified guest needs. For years Sofitel Hotels & Resorts has simply greeted guests with a distinctive ‘Bonjour’ on arrival at their hotels, wherever you are in the world. Love it or hate it, with that one word your understanding of the brand’s roots is confirmed – Sofitel is unashamedly French.

Hyatt’s Andaz, meanwhile, promises to immerse guests in the ever-changing, native cultures of their spaces through a combination of design, food and service. Merging themes of London’s financial area with the “gritty quirkiness” of nearby Shoreditch, guestrooms at the Andaz London Liverpool Street combine pinstripe patterns with tattoo art and local photography.

A similar attention to local culture is brought to the fore at the Andaz Singapore, one of the newest additions to the brand. As the first non-Hyatt brand from the Hyatt portfolio, it set the bar for many of the lifestyle/local neighbourhood brands that have since followed.

Andaz was not the first to create unique experiences within the spaces it occupies. Over a decade before, the late Alex Calderwood and friends turned an old halfway house in Seattle into a desirable destination with reclaimed furniture and contemporary art. The resulting hotel marked the birth of Ace Hotel, now a 10-property strong brand with hotels across the US, as well as in London and Panama City, with Kyoto in the pipeline.

Ace Hotel has always set itself apart from other brands with its unorthodox approach to hotel spaces. Described as “place whisperers” or “the neighbourhood foragers”, Ace sees the potential of both under-utilised buildings and the under-rated neighbourhoods in which they’re located. In each destination, the brand spends time connecting with local creatives, entrepreneurs, real-estate developers and small retail brands. The idea is not to simply “drop into a place and throw open the doors”, but to become an integral part of the community; a gathering point in neighbourhoods that don’t have one.

Done right, brand experience is neither fast nor easy, but, as Ace has proven, it’s more than worth the effort. Building a strategic, insights-based approach helps to channel creative thought. The world’s most innovative minds still need a starting point, even if the ideas they eventually come up with take an altogether different direction.

Each concept must be considered against a range of key criteria: does it fit the brand and differentiate us from our competitors? Does it meet the needs of our target guest? Is it operationally viable? Will it generate ROI?

Not every experience needs to tick every box, but a balance must be struck. A radical lobby concept may require huge capex, but if it is a defining feature of the brand and will guarantee immediate differentiation, then it could be worth the investment. Similarly, a small welcome gift costs money and has negligible ROI, but if done well, the feeling the gesture generates for the guest is priceless.

Even the best ideas on paper don’t always work out, which is why testing and piloting is key. Operational restrictions rear their ugly heads, unexpected costs get in the way, or maybe the concept just doesn’t resonate with guests as anticipated. Then it’s time to modify, adjust, or possibly throw out the concept entirely.

It can take a year or more from idea to full implementation; longer for a more complex concept across a larger network of hotels. But it’s worth the wait. Hotels are no longer simply places for sleep. Each space is a stage upon which a series of experiences is waiting to be played out.

The story you tell, the actors you employ, the props you use all serve a purpose in bringing your brand to life, making that abstract construct of who you are into a living, breathing reality.

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