The business of relaxing

A designated, beautiful space for you to let your troubles evaporate, your stress dissolve. Treatments to relax and re-energise your tired, hard-worked body and mind, over the course of just a few hours. Welcome to the day spa concept: already wildly popular in places like the US and Singapore, Thailand has only recently caught the bug.

"I think there will be a big burst of day spas in Bangkok over the next few years," says Ukkrid Sresthaphunlarp, co-owner and manager of Thailand’s first day spa Being Spa. Ukkrid and his wife opened their spa in September 2000, following two years of research, design and construction. "We predict that the next really big growth industries globally will be in health and fitness. And we believe Thailand is one of the best countries in the world to provide treatment and destination spas."

Ukkrid says Thailand’s assets include good food, unique treatments, a developed hospitality industry, and service-minded people. "And it’s a cost effective place compared to other countries, which is important because spa operations are labour intensive."

Back when they started their research, Ukkrid and his wife noted that spas in Bangkok were invariably located in hotels. They wanted to offer a simple alternative: resort-like spa services outside the hotel environment, targetted towards the international market, expatriates and "the top tier of local Thais". After spending ten months developing treatments and constructing their spa, they opened to the public and the induction of many Thais into the world of day spas began.

"Some hotel operators thought we were crazy, opening in the crisis period, with no developed local market. We knew it would be a lot of work," says Ukkrid. "Now it’s paying off, and other spas are opening too, which helps awareness grow – and that helps us too."

Towards the end of his first year of operations, Ukkrid says they "did okay". His market is 85 per cent foreign, half expatriates, half tourists, and 15 per cent local. A third of his visitors are first-time spa goers. But he warns potential market entrants that there is much more to successfully operating a day spa than just building and opening one. "Finding a market to target, and marketing, they’re very important. Hotels have their customer base right there; day spas don’t. And quality of service has to meet customer expectations."

Nevertheless, he says there is room in the market for more day spas. "People like to change their spas- they want to experience different atmospheres. They may choose three or four spas that they visit regularly – so long as you manage to make it onto their shortlist, you’re doing okay," says Ukkrid.

He concedes that people will always go to hotel spas. "What someone like The Oriental is doing is completely different – we’re not competing with them. The Oriental and Chiva Som really paved the way in Thailand for spas. But if guests want to leave their hotel to try somewhere outside, that’s when they will come to us," says Ukkrid.

So how did things get started – and how are they going – at The Oriental’s spa? Hotel general manager Kurt Wachtveitl explains that the idea for their spa was generated more than eight years ago when staff noticed an influx of stressed out businesspeople checking in. Add in the fact that Thailand’s neighbouring countries at that time didn’t offer much in the way of comfort – with many travellers using the hotel as a base to travel there- and the impetus to open was sufficient.

Several factors drove the spa’s development. "It was important to integrate the spa into the hotel, for it to be part of the whole Oriental Hotel experience," Wachtveitl explains. "We also decided to go it alone – to develop all the products we would use locally. We didn’t want to have a consultant from England telling us we should have the same stuff as you find in spas in Miami."

Keeping the environment uniquely Thai was also seen as being essential. A Bt130m teak building, housing 15 treatment rooms, was built on the Oriental’s property on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. "We really didn’t know what we were getting into," Wachtveitl says candidly. "It was difficult to convince the shareholders that we should spend the money."

But once the spa opened in 1993, offering a mix of Thai and western treatments with a Thai influence, they saw they’d made the right decision. "We hit on an absolute goldmine. From day one until today, we’ve been full. The concept we created hit the nail right on the head. We made our money back in a year."

And despite demand that often exceeds supply, there are no plans for expansion. "No product is more successful than a product that is scarcely available."

Attempting to corner the local market across town in the Thong Lor area is Palm Herbal Spa, a home-style day spa located in a renovated house. Dolchai Boonyaratavej, CEO of advertising agency Dentsu, Young and Rubicam, created the concept for the spa along with 15 friends. "We liked spas, but not the prices charged by hotel spas – they’re too expensive to use once a week. But we didn’t like going to roadside places for massage either. We were aiming for something in-between."

So Bangkok’s first "home" day spa opened in March this year, with treatments being a mix of traditional Thai massage and western aromatherapy. Like others in the business, Dolchai knew it was important to hit on something unique. "Our prices are reasonable, our therapies are good, and we developed our products using Thai herbs. The ambience at Palm is casual, not too elegant or stiff."

Dolchai says business has been very good. "For the first four months we struggled because we didn’t have a budget for PR, but news about us has spread by word of mouth." There has even been some interest from Singapore in franchising them.

Forty per cent of Palm’s market is local Thais. "Life is too stressful for people," says Dolchai. "They want to relax, reward themselves at the end of the day. Going to a spa has now become another option, along with going to a restaurant, bar or a movie."

Pirom Spa is one of the newest market entrants. Opening in June this year, it’s another boutique home-style spa, featuring a garden too. Owner Kornsuang Pirom started researching the market in 1999, and decided to target foreigners, who now make up 80 per cent of her clientele. She says numbers are slowly but steadily increasing. "People who want to invest in the spa business are still confused about what a real spa is – it’s not an attachment to a beauty salon. Investors have to study in detail what people want, and develop a good concept and name."

For Kornsuang, the concept is a homey spa complete with a garden where people can relax. And she focuses on using products that foreigners are unlikely to have experienced before: thanaka, tumeric, tamarind, bergamot. When the garden opens at the end of the rainy season, she hopes her spa will become a venue for businesspeople to negotiate deals – an alternative to golf.

Kornsuang doesn’t believe she’s competing with other spas. "I’m happy that [spas as a group] can help each other make this business grow and meet international standards. I’ll be happy when tourists confidently spend money on this industry in Thailand. It’s important to establish a reputable industry." That’s why Kornsuang has been involved in the formation of the Thai Spa Association, currently in the process of registering with the government. Directors have been elected, with Being Spa’s Ukkrid taking the role of vice president.

Ukkrid says that the Association has around 50 or 60 members so far – vendors, suppliers, operators, therapists. "Our objective is to promote, develop and help the industry develop standards. Indonesia and Singapore already have their own association – it’s time Thailand had one."

The association is developing criteria for spas to meet in order to attain a certified plaque. They also hope to hook up with government bodies such as the Ministry of Health, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Department of Export Promotion.

So stay tuned, and keep your eyes peeled. A haven for relaxation might soon be opening near you.

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