Striving for the Well-Being of Guests

Hospitality companies work to cash in on $640B wellness travel sector

Guests at Fit Farm in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, on May 27 help Executive Chef Ryan Ellis harvest lettuce for the evening meal. (Photo: Judy A. Maxwell/Long Live Lodging)

The Global Wellness Institute reports wellness tourism is a $640 billion industry.

In North America alone, travelers made 204 million trips and spent $242 billion on wellness in 2017.

Wellness is an emerging sector in hospitality, growing at 6.5 percent a year. Globally wellness spend is expected to reach $920 billion over the next three years.

The growth is spread across hotels of all price segments and guest demographics.

Wellness-minded travelers seek a path that not only introduces them to healthy concepts and choices, but allows them to return home feeling better than when they left.

If your hotel can live up to that promise, you can build a healthy bottom line.

The Global Wellness Institute reports business and leisure travelers spent $550 billion in 2018 on hotels that offer fitness amenities and wellness programs.

Hilton Worldwide launched Fit Feet to Fitness in 2017. It’s an in-room fitness kiosk that includes equipment and video instructions. (Photo: Hilton)

Wellness travel is growing so rapidly, hospitality industry players don’t want to miss out on what the future may hold. To that end, a group of hospitality leaders last year formed the Wellness Tourism Association. Members include tourism and visitor boards, destination resort managers, hoteliers, travel companies, wellness practitioners and educators and industry consultants.

The association said its members are noticing several significant trends taking place in wellness travel.

  • More people are traveling to wellness retreats and destinations alone because they want their journey of self-discovery to be immersive and private.
  • More than half of the guests at wellness-focused retreats are first-time visitors.
  • Those who frequent wellness destinations are staying longer, more than two weeks.
  • Guests who stayed two to three weeks often return throughout the year for long weekends to refresh their wellness mindset.

Andrew Gibson is chair of the association. He has been in the wellness hospitality realm for more than 30 years.

The Wellness Tourism Association in about 18 months old but, Gibson said, the movement toward wellness travel has been happening for quite some time.

“The actual though process behind wellness tourism has evolved because of public demand and also industry demand,” he said.

Gibson also is a co-founder of the Global Wellness Institute, which in recent years formed a task force to define and categorize wellness tourism.

Wellness tourism is different from medical tourism, which deals with the countries and facilities people travel to for procedures and health care services.

“There was this growing group of people who didn’t fit into medical tourism but were still providing some kind of a program that was a very specific niche and that niche was wellness tourism,” Gibson said.

Wellness tourism is not prescriptive or curative. It is more preventative and those who seek it out will travel to “clearly defined places” such as wellness retreats and spas to detox and destress, Gibson said.

Besides specific health-focused sites, wellness travelers also want to integrate physical activities into their vacations such as hiking, bicycling or swimming. They do this alone or with friends and family.

The Wellness Tourism Association was formed to help those in the niche industry come up with creative and efficient ways to market their businesses and services.

It’s a challenge, Gibson said, because the definition of wellness tourism is so broad and each sub-category takes time to explain to prospective guests, travel agents and meeting planners.

Time is money and the association is working to come up with efficient ways to manage the stories of wellness programs.

Down on the Farm

One business that clearly defines what it’s all about is Fit Farm.

The 160-acre bucolic setting in rural Tennessee is all about helping guests focus on fitness. Goals include improving physical strength and endurance and mental clarity through diet and exercise. The programs take different forms depending on the guest’s goals.

A.J. Kelly, the head trainer at Fit Farm in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, coaches guests and employees, seen jogging up the trail behind him, during an early morning workout. (Photo: Judy A. Maxwell/Long Live Lodging)

Guests of all ages and fitness levels come to Fit Farm from all over the U.S. They stay several days to several weeks to recharge themselves physically, mentally and spiritually.

Fit Farm is the brainchild of Kristen Intress. She founded the retreat two years ago after searching for a hospitality business that satisfies an unmet need in vacationers as well as herself.

With a varied business background in health care and hospitality, Intress was owner and CEO of InnLink, an online reservation platform for independent hotels. She sold the company in 2014 and went on to become CEO of World Hotels in Frankfurt, Germany.

She grew the inventory of independent luxury properties, but left the demanding job in 2016 when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She took time off to recalibrate and to be with her mother, who passed away that same year.

Intress spent some time at a health retreat. Ever the entrepreneur, she figured she could do the same, only better.

Today, Intress and her husband, Pat Steffen, live in a house near the entrance of Fit Farm.

They acquired the former horse farm that had been vacant for several years. They renovated and enlarged the lodge into a full-service operation, including a kitchen and spa. They turned the barn into a workout area. They built guest cabins, erected an obstacle course, designed a disc golf course, filled the pond with fish and carved out a mile-long walking path.

With the cabins and houses on the property, the facility can manage up to 50 guests at a time.

Fit Farm features include a yoga deck, pool, guest cabins with modern amenities, and a fitness barn. (Photo: Judy A. Maxwell/Long Live Lodging)

It’s a unique proposition, Intress said.

“There’s no one in our space that built a facility specifically for this purpose. Often, a fitness retreat is in a hotel, which is great because of the amenities, but sometimes it’s the space that you need, the vision that you need into what you are trying to create for your guests and clients to give them an immersive experience.”

Hoteliers who pack their services into a single building might view Fit Farm as a hybrid of hospitality and not something they could emulate. But Intress urges owners and operators to look at their businesses through a wellness lens. You already have the building with a pool, a fitness room and a patio or a backyard – why not use it to promote well-being for your guests?

WATCH: Kristen Intress, founder and CEO of Fit Farm in Tennessee, shares what the venture is all about as well as how hotels can integrate wellness into their programming and service culture.


Corporate Target

Expansion plans are on the books as demand grows for Fit Farm’s services. Intress said it’s hard to define Fit Farm’s guest demographic. Her target market is deep and wide.

One of Intress’s guest targets is the corporate striver. The Global Wellness Association reports wellness spend associated with business travel reach $550 billion in 2018.

Fit Farm often hosts groups seeking a respite, ways to reset and reconnect.

“Corporate is one of my biggest passions because I was that person sitting in a board meeting in a room without any windows and trying to be strategic and come up with forward-thinking thoughts and yet all I’m looking for is my next fix off my coffee or my soda,” Intress said.

“I think most wellness in organizations has to come from the top down. You have to believe your employees will benefit long term and the organization will benefit long term if everybody is in a better state of mind.”

Business groups that come to Fit Farm get outside time, including at least one hour of physical exercise, and healthy meals. The facility has meeting rooms and other areas where groups can work out and relax together, including watching a movie or playing games.

WATCH: Chief trainer at Fit Farm is AJ Kelly. Watch as he leads an early morning workout with Fit Farm guests and employees.

The Time is Right

Emlyn Brown is vice president of wellness of AccorHotels’ luxury and premium brands. He attended the Wellness Tourism Association’s annual conference in May at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona.

Brown joined Accor eight months ago to help define the company’s wellness mission and create related brand strategies.

The time is right. Wellness is having a moment, Brown said.

WATCH: AccorHotels’ video offers tips on how yoga and alleviate jet lag.

Well-being v Wellness

“The word ‘wellness’ is bandied about a lot these days,” Brown said. “It’s often paired with well-being.” Well-being deals with emotional and mental health while wellness has more to do with physical and physiological health.

No matter the definitions, they work hand in hand. In a May report on health and wellness Horwath HTL writes: “Mental health goes beyond the absence of mental disorders and disabilities, and represents a state of mental well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, is able to manage daily life stresses, be efficient and contribute to the community. It is a vital part of being and our collective and individual ability to think, emote, interact with one another, make a living, and enjoy life.”

For Brown, taking that view and crafting a wellness strategy for consumers of wellness travel and tourism is a broad task.

“Fundamentally, we’re about making people feel happy and comfortable, and that’s really what well-being is all about,” Brown said.

“We use the definition that comes from the World Health Organization in relation to wellness and well-being, which is proactively moving away from the damaging factors in your lifestyle toward the ones that are actually helping and aiding your lifestyle. Our responsibility is to provide the activities, the platforms, the advice, the education and the activities that allow you do that.”

Though Brown is focused on enhancing wellness offerings at AccorHotels’ high-tiered brands, hotels industrywide have many ways to demonstrate they have guests’ healthy interests at heart.

Travel is stressful and guests expect to relax when they reach the hotel.

Brown spends more than a third of his year on the road. He knows what threats travelers face to their health and well-being while on the road.

“I’m tackling this from the views and eyes of the consumer of travel of both midscale, premium and luxury,” Brown said.

Hotels can make such things intuitive, by providing basic amenities such as sleep programs, healthy breakfasts and a fitness room. These fundamentals are driven by guest demands and expectations.

Wellness travel is a business, and hotels can drive revenue if they look at their business through a wellness lens. Brown is helping AccorHotels build a business case for adopting wellness-focused programs and practices.

Guests in the luxury segment expect the hotel’s focus to be on health and wellness.

Across all segments, travel shoppers seek value. “People are looking at their experience and their reservations through the eyes of what they can achieve with through a health and well-being perspective and making buying decisions because of what’s available to them,” Brown said.

“The levels of education and understanding of what wellness is and wanting a highly personalized wellness approach is becoming endemic across our guest profiles. We’re seeing a real strong movement of well-being. Therefore, we’re responding to what guest demand is.”

Hotels that can offer wellness opportunities can leverage the services and command premium rate and premium occupancy, Brown said.

EVEN Hotels by InterContinental Hotels Group is an upper-midscale wellness-focused brand that features a workout area and equipment in guest rooms. (Photo: EVEN Hotels/IHG)

Personal Wellness Journey

While Accor and other hotel companies create wellness programs that fit their brand identities, Adam Glickman has a holistic view of the hospitality trend and how hotels can integrate wellness into their operations.

Glickman is founder of a consulting firm called Paralax Hospitality. He launched the company with Brian Herman after leading the launch of EVEN Hotels, a wellness brand by InterContinental Hotels Group.

Paralax works with hotel developers to help them design and build wellness concepts as the property is going up. Glickman calls Paralax the general contractor of wellness. He starts working with owners in the planning phase of the hotel. Paralax also connects suppliers of wellness goods and services to hotel owners.

Glickman said he has long had an interest in wellness tourism and was fortunate to lead the development of EVEN Hotels at IHG.

“I give IHG a significant amount of credit for really believing in a concept that was in the early stages for its time. It started all under the lens of a customer need, which was ‘I want to keep active, rest easy and well when I travel without having to pay a fortune.’”

Glickman said as he worked to build out the brand, he grew more interested in his own health and well-being. He worked out more and used physical activity to clear his mind.

“As I grew on my own personal wellness journey, it became very clear that it’s so much more than that. There is a spiritual element to wellness, a relaxation element, a connectivity to nature and being outdoors. All of these facets are a lot more than food and fitness,” Glickman said.

“I have personal passion for it, and I also see this huge market opportunity as more and more customers across price points begin really addressing and thinking about wellness in their everyday life.”

Glickman gives a nod to the trends outlined by the Wellness Tourism Association, but he also has a few observations of his own.

“As wellness evolves, wellness is no longer a side dish on the plate. Wellness is the plate. It is defining as we think about life and our experiences because it all comes back to living happy lives. We’re trying get to a place where were enjoying what we’re doing; we’re financially happy; we are spiritually happy; and in life we’re happy.

“And how does that come to life as physical trends in hotels? What I’m seeing quite a bit more of is a holistic offer that is addressing the many facets of wellness. Nature being one of them. Also the ability to sleep well and truly restore and relax, and improved aspects of fitness and food. So those things are at a high, high level and we are going to be seeing continued growth in over time.”

More unique trends Glickman foresees are hotels enabling guests to disconnect. Literally. Such as banning handheld devices in a bar or an outdoor courtyard. “We’re also seeing fitness move from a gym into more communal, active spaces where people want to be.”

And then there’s cannabis. Hotels in states where marijuana consumption is allowed are just now learning how to capitalize on the trend by creating services and programs that monetize the guest preference.

LISTEN: Lodging Leaders focused on the cannabis movement’s impact on hospitality in Episode 214, ‘The Weed Frontier: How hotels are capitalizing on cannabis.”

Food and drink are two items travelers are continually focused on, whether they’re leisure trippers or business road warriors. Hotels can gain customer’s trust and loyalty if they adequately address their desire for healthy, stress-free choices. Finding out what’s important to guests in search of wellness options is an evolving part of consumer science.

“What is wellness about when you’re traveling? It is giving people flexibility and letting them take charge of their stay. More than 90 percent of guests check out reviews before booking a hotel. If they’re a wellness focused traveler and wellness is part of their consideration set – whether it’s about how they sleep, exercise and can access food – decisions hotel owners have made around the choices guests have has become really critical.”

Fit Farm Fit Facts


Back to Top