When you look at the numbers, it all makes sense. Globally, the industry is worth approximately 3.7 trillion USD, accounting for a little more than 5% of the world’s total economic output.
This swift growth has impacted the hospitality industry in remarkable ways. From 2014 to 2016, the wellness tourism industry grew 14% – more than twice as fast as overall tourism during the same period. No longer a niche market for hippies or new-age, patchouli-scented spiritualists, wellness tourism now accounts for 16% of all tourism expenditures. That’s one in every six tourist dollars spent.
Over the past decade, wellness has become something of an omnipresent mantra, a catch-all panacea for any brand at all that wants to stay on-trend and capture consumer interest. While the details shift from year to year – 2018 just can’t get enough moringa, 2017 was all about turmeric, and before that kale and quinoa – the overall concept of wellness is generally presented as an inherent and indisputable component of human life.
The wellness industry was not always the marketing juggernaut it is today. Just 40 years ago, it was considered a fringe, cult-like fad, with little scientific basis or credibility. Few had even heard of the word wellness, things like nut-milk yogurt were weird and gene-based dieting was something from dystopian sci-fi. So how did wellness become so deeply ingrained into our everyday lives, and why does it now play such a prominent role in the hospitality industry
“ The wellness industry was not always the marketing juggernaut it is today. Just 40 years ago, it was considered a fringe, cult-like fad, with little scientific basis or credibility.”
From Mumbo-Jumbo to Mainstream
Though its origins stretch back thousands of years to the teachings of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and ancient Greek medicine, our modern idea of what ‘wellness’ constitutes only began during the 1950s, developing over the 60s and 70s. Our present day use of the word – first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1650s – can be traced back to physician Halbert L. Dunn, chief of the U.S. National Office of Vital Statistics from 1935 to 1960.
In 1961, Dunn published a book titled ‘High-Level Wellness’, which he defined as ‘an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable’. The book was not exactly a best-seller, in fact it struggled to make an impact at all.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, before a small group of doctors and thinkers – including Dr. John Travis, Don Ardell, Dr. Bill Hettler and others – began to embrace and expand on Dunn’s ideas.
Interestingly enough, the term ‘wellness’ itself also took a while to gain traction. Dr. Travis, an early advocate of Dunn’s concepts, initially “thought the word ‘wellness’ was stupid… it would never catch on”. Nevertheless, he still used it to name his pioneering Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, California, in November 1975, thus sealing its fate as today’s biggest buzzword.
The Wellness Resource Center was instrumental in gaining a wider audience for the fledgling movement. There, Dr. Travis and his small team of doctors focused on addressing an individual’s overall state of wellbeing and championed self-directed approaches to treatment, rather than traditional illness-oriented medical procedures. In 1979, Dan Rather brought international attention to the Center with a short segment that aired on ’60 Minutes’.
“Wellness,” Rather says, introducing the segment, “now there’s a word you don’t hear every day.”
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
One of the first business to jump on the wellness bandwagon was Canyon Ranch, which opened in 1979 in Tucson, Arizona. Founded by an overweight property developer named Mel Zuckerman (he’s since slimmed down) and his exercise enthusiast wife Enid, Canyon Ranch was billed as ‘America’s first total vacation/fitness resort’.
It’s telling that one of the first modern wellness-related business ventures was in hospitality. At the time, the idea that you might need to travel hundreds of kilometres to have such an experience made sense – there simply weren’t many other options. However, there was also a historical precedence for such retreats, which could be traced back to European spa towns like Baden Baden, where baths were first built during the Roman Empire.
Canyon Ranch got off to a slow start, but by the late 80s they were financially successful and ready for expansion. They’ve since built a brand that’s well-known for its upmarket interpretation of wellness (rates start at USD 1,000/night), as well as its variety of products, including spa clubs, Las Vegas hotel spas and cruise ship spas. In many ways, their story epitomises the rise of wellness itself, from a small, fringe concept into a global symbol of luxury and status.
Wellness for the rich and famous, however, is only part of the story.
In the mid-80s, nearly half of the U.S. population worked out on a semi-regular basis (up from 24% in 1960) and they were starting to demand more from hotels than just a room to sleep in. Travellers increasingly wanted new amenities like a pool, a spa and a gym included as part of their stay. Hotels were slow to get with the programme, however. By 1991, 40% of hotels in the U.S. contained some sort of gym, but the quality was inconsistent and often gym-goers were squashed elbow-to-sweaty-elbow into an unused guest room or a dim, shag-carpeted basement.
Finally, in 2003, Westin launched WestinWORKOUT, effectively reimagining the hotel gym for a new generation of travellers. Featuring state-of-the-art equipment, workouts designed in partnership with Reebok, upscale amenities and a focus on natural lighting, Westin made wellness an integral part of the travel experience, rather than an add-on feature. In doing so, they sparked a hotel gym arms race that, 15 years later, shows no signs of slowing down. One only has to look at upscale gym Equinox’s move to launch a hospitality brand in order to understand how important the gym, as well as the broader concept of wellness, has become to hotels.
Wellness on Steroids
So why has wellness exploded to the extent that is has? Much of it has to do with the same global and technological forces that have transformed overseas travel from a relatively expensive and uncommon undertaking into a far more accessible, familiar and varied experience. And just as travel and wellness have become mass-market industries, they’ve also become the perfect status symbols for those living today’s most luxurious lifestyles. Both are powered by the same type of desire for rare and remarkable experiences, as opposed to traditional material objects.
The ever-growing wellness industry also taps into our age-old thirst for better health, better bodies and just generally better selves. And the future of wellness in hospitality will be focused on enabling this transformational potential, not simply providing a physical escape from daily life or throwing a yoga mat into the wardrobe your guest room. As Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, argues, ‘the path to wellness is much more about embracing enriching experiences than avoiding stressful ones’.
Hotels occupy a singular position within the wellness spectrum. They have the power to create immersive and highly impactful experiences, which can play a big role in our overall happiness. Like any diet or exercise programme, only the brands that can enable sustainable lifestyle changes will go on to define the future of wellness hospitality.