The Adler Balance Spa & Health Resort, in Italy’s Dolomites, is a member of Healing Hotels of the World. // © 2012 Healing Hotels of the World
Lounging by the lazy river with a high-caloric cocktail in hand before journeying through the all-you-can-eat buffet is certainly one idea of a vacation. More and more consumers, however, are looking for travel that promotes their well-being.
The first thing travel agents need to know is that well-being travel should not to be confused with medical tourism, though both are health-related. Medical travel generally offers a solution to a problem through a medical procedure — for example, a gastric bypass for obesity or a root canal for infected teeth — while wellness travel is proactive, preventive and associated with a lifestyle focused on achieving optimal health.
“There’s more talk about medical tourism, and I think people understand medical tourism better, but the opportunity is very much in wellness tourism,” said Camille Hoheb, CEO of Wellness Tourism Worldwide. “People are not going to get their knees replaced over and over again but, with wellness, they can travel time and time again.”
According to Anne Dimon, publisher and editor of TraveltoWellness.com, a well-being vacation (also called a wellness, holistic or healthy vacation) is planned with intent, and it strives to maintain, promote or kick start a healthful lifestyle.
And today, more people than ever before want to — or need to — establish a healthier lifestyle.
“The obesity rates are going up, the diabetes rates are going up and health care costs are going up, but the number-one driver of this kind of travel is stress levels,” said Susie Ellis, president of SpaFinder Inc., whose website includes a resource for travel agents to find the right spas for their clients. “These huge trends are coming together, meaning that more and more people want to access health-and-wellness options when they travel.”
In other words, well-being travel is poised for the future. Indeed, one of the most reputable research studies on the topic — 2010’s “The Spas and Global Wellness Market Report,” conducted by the nonprofit organization SRI International for the Global Spa Summit — estimated that global wellness tourism is a $106 billion industry, while medical tourism is a $50 billion industry.
Because wellness is a lifestyle — a state of being and a process — it is an attractive business opportunity for travel sellers. Erica Gragg, the co-founder of Escape to Shape, a cultural and traveling fitness spa, said that 80 percent of her clients return for at least a second trip. Anne Biging, managing director of Healing Hotels of the World, a collection of closely vetted international hotels that promote well-being, also noted that health travelers stay longer — at least seven days — and they spend a significant amount of money on treatments.
Also, by planning a trip associated with affirmative, life-changing experiences, the travel agent becomes a significant part of that powerful memory.
“Emotions make clients connected to you,” said Sione Fa, a contestant on season seven of television’s “The Biggest Loser” and a physical trainer at the Bigger Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge in Utah. “Our resort provides that emotion and opportunity to change.”
Indeed, American Marketing Group, the parent organization of TravelSavers and other brands, recognized the potentional of this growing trend and launched Well-Being Travel in 2010. Headed by executive vice president Anne Marie Moebes, the organization focuses exclusively on helping travel agents sell medical and wellness vacations and even held its first annual Well-Being Travel Conference in June.
Creating a Well-Being Vacation
While selling a trip with the intention of promoting wellness might sound foreign, these vacations can revitalize some of the products agents already sell.
“Agents have been selling wellness their whole careers,” said Linden Schaffer, director of Pravassa, a company that offers rejuvenating and restoring experiential travel opportunities around the world. “They just might not realize it.”
While spa has been a dominating sector and is considered almost synonymous with well-being tourism, these trips are usually a broad mix of niches and encompass culinary travel, culture travel, adventure travel, fitness travel and other specialties. When putting together these vacations, agents must consider wellness in many aspects and deliver the goals of transformation and optimal well-being.
Wellness vacations come in different shapes and sizes depending on the goals and individual preferences of your client. They can range from an active culture immersion in an exotic destination, such as G Adventures’ Amalfi Coast Local Living tour, to a goal-oriented week of juice detoxification with private physical training, such as Escape to Shape’s Destination Detox: Hudson N.Y. program. In other words, these vacations are highly personal and require you to learn more about your client than a typical booking might.
“It’s important to get a holistic understanding of your clients’ daily lives,” said Schaffer.
Agents must ask the right questions in order to properly match clients. Provide clients with a questionnaire with specific questions such as: What does wellness mean to you? Do you already live a well-being lifestyle or are you looking to kick start healthier living? What’s the intention of the travel?
Since de-stressing is one key element of a wellness trip, ask your clients what types of natural environments and accommodations help them relax and re-center. Rustic styles, stark minimalism, warm colors, neutral tones, organic wood — what helps them relieve anxiety and de-clutter?
It is also important to inquire about your client’s diet. Are they vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free, dairy-free or raw foodists? Some are looking to detoxify their bodies, consult with a nutritionist or learn how to cook healthier through cooking classes. Some want organic food or ingredients that come from a local radius, which feeds into another element of wellness travel — the social environment.
“We want the whole staff of a Healing Hotel of the World to take care of the client,” said Biging. “At our hotels, clients receive a plan on how to take the lessons home. They break negative habits and leave with a new plan for their life.”
Knowing how your client wants to spend his or her evenings is important as well. Many wellness travelers are expecting to catch up on sleep and enjoy quality rest.
Inquire about exercise routine and frequency in order to gauge fitness level. Physical activities typically immerse clients in their new surroundings by incorporating local assets, such as thermal waters or rugged landscapes for hiking, biking, rock climbing and more. Also popular are local rituals, such as blessings and sweat lodges, and local traditions, such as yoga. According to Dimon, yoga is the single-most requested physical activity for a well-being vacation.
Of course, ask your client who he or she is traveling with (if anyone) and inquire about the companion’s goals, their budget and their expectations. Ask if they are traveling for wellness in whole or in part and the one thing that their wellness vacation must include.
Equipped with this personal data, you can match your client to the right existing or customized package. It can be as easy as finding the correct destination spa, fitness resort or group tour, or it might involve more planning.
In addition to small companies dedicated to the wellness niche, many others are also offering specially branded wellness products.
Westin Hotels & Resorts, for example, has introduced a number of notable initiatives with the well-being of guests in mind. Westin properties offer a SuperFoodsRX menu, where entrees and a la carte options feature ingredients known for their exceptional nutritional properties, as well as a workout program that includes mapped running routes outside of the hotel, a running concierge at some properties and New Balance workout gear on loan. The company also recently announced the roll-out of a new lobby concept that aims to bring the outdoors in, through vertical gardens and natural elements.
“We are constantly focusing on new well-being initiatives,” said Jim Mooney, director of sales and marketing at The Westin New York at Times Square. “Westin is exploring the ‘Westin Weekend’ in which the atmosphere, particularly among staff, will display a more relaxed pace, plus we’re looking at potential offerings of popular fitness instruction provided on a larger scale, Pilates and yoga classes, wellness cooking instruction and more.”
According to Dimon, numerous fitness-themed products are coming into the market from established companies. Intrepid Travel, for example, is now promoting a hiking program that targets the glutes and a kayaking program that tones the arms. In other words, don’t avoid the companies you already work with or those that your clients love — many offer the ability to customize the product to include the features they want.
“Our trips are designed with lots of free time to allow for our travelers to customize the tour to their interests,” said Melissa McKee, U.S. marketing and public relations for G Adventures. “The places we travel to have loads of options geared toward those interested in their general well-being from both a food and fitness perspective as well as the overall wellness that comes from being enlightened when interacting with local people and learning new things.”
To begin booking this niche, Dimon suggests sending emails to existing clients announcing your involvement with wellness; learning about the well-being lifestyle and creating e-newsletters with valuable and relevant information; developing an expertise within the well-being niche; and forming partnerships with local fitness and wellness establishments and events. And, since most travel searches are done online, use social media to provide wellness information, engage with leads and provide an easy opportunity for past clients to recommend your services.
For travel agents interested in joining Well-Being Travel and having access to all of its educational offerings and partnerships, an application is now available on the company’s website.
Booking wellness may be just what you need to strengthen the well-being of your business. After all, suggestions based on expertise, one-on-one service and customization according to personal needs and goals are what the travel agent offers and what the wellness traveler demands — that, and perhaps a detoxifying green juice cocktail.