The therapists at the Rait Spa at the Suryagarh Palace Hotel in Jaisalmer travel 300 km west in the Thar Desert to hand-harvest salt from the banks of the Luni River. As part of its signature Thermal Salt therapy, the guest is covered from head to toe in the river salt, known for its therapeutic qualities, and then wrapped in a muslin cloth.
Such locally found ingredients are what differentiate the high-end spas in places as far and wide as Oberoi's Wildflower Hall in Shimla, Warren Tricomi Salon and Spa in Goa, and ESPA spa at The Leela Palace in Udaipur, from your neighbourhood spas. "Luxury is no longer about the grandest option but providing the experience that is rare and absolutely authentic - the way it is meant to be," says Mahesh Natarajan, Senior Vice President - Marketing at IHHR Hospitality, which runs the wellness spa Ananda in the foothills of Rishikesh.
Spa therapy has become the big trend in the wellness industry for a few years now, both at the top end of the market as well as the bottom. But what distinguishes the true luxury spas from the plain vanilla ones that the hoi polloi frequent is the degree of attention paid to everything - from the special ingredients used to coat the body, to the masseurs who have undergone specialised training or flown in from distant shores, to the exotic detox packages they source and offer from around the world. It is not just the prices they charge or the celebrities they attract that make the top-end spa special. It is often the lengths they are willing to go to provide that something extra that no other spa can.Of course, the economics of the luxury spas are also different from that of the normal spas. They usually charge Rs 4,000+ for a one hour session that can go up to Rs 1,50,000. For these luxury spas, actual therapy is only 30-40 per cent of the overall experience; it is the added attractions and attention to detail that truly differentiate them from the rest, says Manish Patwardhan, Founder of Spa Consultants. Hence, they are positing themselves as complete wellness centres promising to take care of the mind, body and soul.
The problem is not just lifestyle. Natarajan believes it is the overall healthcare system with a focus on curative medicine that is unable to give a healthy lifestyle to the people. "There is a strong need to revive the traditional healing systems, which focus on preventive care, for a more holistic approach for living."
This has paved the way for age-old healing methods such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda and Western therapies such as aromatherapy, craniosacral therapy and Reiki in these spas. Kate Sim, Head of Spa Operations, The Oberoi Group, says the biggest change they made at the Wildflower Hall, Shimla, was doing away with 'fad' treatments such as the chocolate spa and papaya wraps, and reviving the authentic massage practices of Bali, Thailand and China which, over the years, had become refined at their spas. "The only difference is that the delivery of these traditional massages is in a more sophisticated fashion. For instance, instead of neem wood beds used traditionally, which can be quite uncomfortable for today's guests, we use hydraulic beds," she says.
Their therapists are flown in from Bhutan and then extensively trained for two months, followed by an apprenticeship for six months. "The innate quality of serving others is ingrained in the Buddhist-dominated Bhutanese people and that is a great asset for spa therapists," she adds. Thai massage experts and TCM specialists are flown in from their countries of origin during the lean seasons to provide advanced skill training to the staff. Similarly, Ananda Spa, spread over 24,000 sq. ft, too, offers ancient therapies such as Yogic Detox that uses hatha yogic cleansing techniques to detox in a natural and effective way. Its Renew programme focuses on anti-ageing and rejuvenation treatments for senior citizens, while the Ananda Active programme - a combination of treks, yoga, aqua fitness and therapeutic spa - caters to younger consumers. Ananda now has more than 80 body and beauty treatments; the durations varying from three days to 21 days. The price range per night can vary from Rs 22,000 to Rs 99,000.
Suresh Chhabra, a Delhi-based businessman, visited Ananda three years ago and can't stop raving about it. "It is like visiting a holy place. The welcome with rose petals and a rudraksha mala sets the mood for a soulful stay. They provide white kurta-pyjamas to all their guests. Shedding city clothes seems symbolic of leaving the humdrum of city life behind," he adds.Spas are also bringing local flavour and setting into the therapies. At the Rait Spa, the ambience, treatments and products are designed keeping in mind the raw natural beauty of the Thar Desert, says hotel manager Nakul Hada. Products to make the unguents for body massages are locally sourced; Fuller's Earth is freshly brought in from Bikaner where it is abundantly found; spices such as cumin and turmeric are sourced from the farms and hand-ground afresh for body wraps and facial packs. The cost of services at Rait Spa can range from Rs 7,500 to Rs 12,000 for a minimum two-hour session.
Apart from Indian healing practices, these spas also provide international therapies to appease the well-travelled Indian. The Warren Tricomi Salon and Spa at the Novotel Resort and Spa in Goa, spread over 20,000 sq. ft, offers the hammam treatment. "The idea is to provide a treatment that is not easily available and create an exclusive experience. In line with the tropical feel of Goa, all the furnishings, walls, ceilings, hammam beds are imported from Bali," says Darpan Sanghvi, MD, Sanghvi Brands that operates the spa. The space has been designed to give a beach feeling even while indoors.
A considerable part of the treatment is customised for the guests, be it the spas, baths or scrubs. At the ESPA luxury tented spas at The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, all the treatments start with a private consultation so the therapist understands what outcome the guest is looking for. Therapists always explain the products being used and their benefits to the guest. "This helps guests understand their body types and implement the regime in their daily lives," says Dr Tania Bardhan, Group Spa Manager at The Leela. Guests are taken through a sensory test to smell the oils and decide the ones they prefer. "The body is smart to choose what it needs," she says.
The entire spa journey is curated as per guests' preferences. Upon request, guests are brought to the hotel in a private boat which takes them directly to the spa reception. The Leela Udaipur's 'Spa and Spiritual Journeys', launched two years ago, offers packages that include spa therapies, fitness sessions with local experiences and visits to heritage sites and spiritual abodes."Spa is a sensorial experience that has to pacify all the five senses. Be it the upholstery, artworks or products used, everything oozes opulence," adds Bardhan. The spa suites at the ESPA Spa at The Leela Palace Udaipur have private plunge pools and relaxation areas overlooking Lake Pichola. All its spas are scented with the 'Leela Signature Blend', a specially developed fragrance that has a strong essence of jasmine, geranium and sandalwood.
One can also expect an enhanced level of sensitivity at these luxury spas. For instance, at the Oberoi Hotels, as the spa progresses, the volume of the background music is lowered to offer guests a tranquil experience. "It is a better way to inform the guest than physically tell them that the massage is over," says Sim of Oberoi.
Gastronomy is another area where personalisation plays an integral role, as the spa restaurants are built around the concept of wellness. For instance, at Leela's ESPA, personal butlers customise the menu based on guests' dietary preferences, while at Ananda, chefs dish out meals based on guests' body types. Personalised yoga and meditation programmes are also charted out for guests so they can follow it every day.
Although these spas look impeccably impressive, running one comes with a set of challenges, of which unavailability of talent is the biggest. "There is no licensing or registration process prescribed by the government, so anyone with a shop and establishment licence can start a spa. This lack of regulation puts the industry in a grey zone wherein families don't want their kith and kin to join the spa industry," says Patwardhan of Spa Consultants.To overcome the dearth of skilled therapists, hotels and spa chains have started their own academies. Ananda started a spa institute in Hyderabad in 2008, which produces certified spa professionals in the fields of ayurveda, international therapies and spa management. Sanghvi of Sanghvi Brands has set up three training centres in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune, to provide training and certifications to beauty professionals. "Investment in academies is a must to provide the right experience to the customer and strong back-end operations. It also helps in scaling up much faster," he says.
Turns out, the business of making people feel stress-free is a stressful one. While in India a treatment in an upmarket luxury spa costs around $60-80 per hour, it is around $180-plus in the US, says Sanghvi. "For a truly luxury experience, everything has to be top of the line. You can't compromise on quality and hence it becomes very difficult to sustain." Besides, the lack of an accreditation system that differentiates the existing spas makes it difficult to charge a premium, he adds.