By Susie Ellis, Chairman & CEO, Global Wellness Institute

Thought Starter: “Spa” vs. “Wellness”

I’ve got a megaphone firmly in my grasp and this is what I feel like shouting from the rooftops—or at least from this Brief: “spa” and “wellness” are two different words.

I am delighted to acknowledge that the word “wellness” is critical to the conversation and is clearly finding its way into our vernacular.  You can’t pick up a paper—or browse a website without seeing “wellness”.  After all, you’re currently reading the Global Wellness Brief! The term is definitely broadening the conversation and our reach.

Wellness centers, wellness of the planet, workplace wellness, wellness tourism, wellness living, wellness communities, and more. It’s a good thing.  A focus on wellness is part of an important evolution and no matter that it may be the result of a perfect storm of circumstances—rampant obesity and ill health, astronomical health care costs and a sedentary lifestyle, it’s also empowering people to take charge of their health, make proactive choices that improve their well-being, and in general, one hopes, lead happier and more productive lives. The term wellness has conveniently given prevention an important spotlight.

But I was “raised” in the spa industry, so I am sensitive to those who would use the words “wellness” and “spa” interchangeably.  They are not the same and it bears a closer look.  And I am concerned that some in the spa world are feeling that they should be tossing out the word spa and substituting the word wellness, thinking that perhaps it is garnering more favor.  Not so fast.

Consumers love spas.  This is a simple fact, but very important. While spas can be thought of as places where wellness pursuits happen, the term also makes people smile because it is associated with feeling good and being treated in a nurturing way.  The term wellness on the other hand can at times equate to activities that are not all lavender and fluffy robes.  Bottom line….when marketing to consumers, I like to use the word spa.  Would you prefer to go to the spa this afternoon or a wellness center?  Would your friend rather receive a wellness voucher or a spa voucher?  Would you prefer that your company give you a gym membership or a spa membership?  The word spa makes people smile and gets them saying yes.

But when speaking to governments or corporations, the word spa can become a stumbling block.  Why?  Because spa still has an elitist, luxury connotation to many and while a government or corporation can be seen promoting wellness, promoting spa – well, not so much.

We know that governments need to be a part of this conversation if we’re going to move the needle.  Without significant policy change and ongoing advocacy the world will keep spinning in place.  I listened well to one of my colleagues at our last Summit in Morocco, who put forth an idea about countries appointing a Minister of Wellness.  Sounds far-fetched perhaps, but it’s an idea whose time is coming, if it’s not already here.  Thierry Malleret, a renowned global economist, spoke at our Summit in India, and remarked that in years to come, some countries may make wellness mandatory.  That really got my attention.

And it’s not just governments that need to get on board, its corporations and companies too.  We’re seeing this more and more as businesses struggle with the cost of an unhealthy workforce.

As most of you know, I am a proponent of the term “wellness” because it has given the world an umbrella term under which so many different things can find a home.  Wellness is a way to broaden the conversation.  And we have been witnessing this evolution firsthand at the Global Wellness Institute (GWI).  In fact, in great part it’s why the Institute was born.

After years of successful Summits, we saw the world expanding, embracing wellness and preventive health in new ways.  And we knew that an annual event could not “contain” all that we wanted to do to help promote this change.  We needed an umbrella organization and it couldn’t be just about spas.  So GWI came to life and in the very short time it’s been up and running, we have seen a remarkable evolution in the conversation.  Business and thought leaders from architecture to brain science to technologists to journalists all want to join the discussion.  And they want to find substantive ways to make a difference to their constituents, and to the world.  And we’re committed to helping them achieve those results.

And if you’re in the spa industry, this is good news for you. This broadens your base, opens your doors to more industries and gives you a greatly expanded platform from which to build your business.  As the whole world embraces wellness, you sit at the epicenter, ready to provide not only the destination, but also services, practices, and products.  And decades of experience and expertise.  Whether to incorporate a spa into a residential community, or to offer spa services as part of a workplace wellness program, or to offer spa experiences as part of tourism, spa is an integral part of the wellness conversation.

Here’s a way to think about all of this, and give it some context.

Think of the emergence of the Wellness Industry like that of the Tourism Industry.

Tourism started out as separate sectors; hotels, airlines, railroads, cruises, etc.  But when all of these industries were put together under the umbrella term “tourism,” suddenly it was the largest industry in the world and the biggest provider of employment.  This didn’t happen until approximately 1991.  Concrete figures came a few years later when a collaboration with Wharton Forecast Associates produced a report that solidified tourism as the industry under which the fragmented hospitality and travel sectors could aggregate.  The result?  The tourism industry gained huge status and respect for its size and influence—something enjoyed to this day.

Wellness has a similar story to tell—but we are still in the middle of making sure this story sticks.  We have had separate sectors (fitness, beauty, workplace wellness, etc.) but not until all of these could be aggregated under one term—wellness—has the sum total been large enough to garner global attention and respect.  Helping focus that attention was the research conducted by GWI in partnership with SRI International that showed wellness to be an industry valued at over 3 trillion annually.  That’s three times the size of the pharmaceutical industry.  That got people’s attention.

Which brings me to the topic of why the Global Spa Summit (2007) became the Global Spa and Wellness Summit (2010) and is now the Global Wellness Summit (2015).

In 2007 when we launched the Global Spa Summit, the term ‘wellness’ had not yet made its way into our vocabulary.  At the time there were only regional spa gatherings and no true global conferences that attracted people from all over the world—and certainly not any that only invited top executives.  Therefore launching a Global Spa Summit made sense.

By 2011 the term “wellness” was being used more and more and the Global Spa Summit had commissioned several very important research studies that helped paint a picture of the future of the term “wellness” which turned out to be extremely enlightening. Thus when we decided to approach the Aspen Institute about collaborating with us to hold our 5th Summit on their campus, we knew that we would be received more positively if our organization had the term “wellness” in its title along with the word “spa”.   Thus we became the Global Spa and Wellness Summit—with great success and wider appeal.

Since that time the popularity and usage of the term “wellness” has exploded.  We expanded beyond our spa roots and began speaking more specifically with governments around the world (about wellness tourism) as well as with corporations around the world (about workplace wellness).  In both arenas, we discovered that the word “spa” was not looked at so favorably.  Governments and corporations did not see themselves as wanting to be a promoter of spa, but rather a promoter of wellness.

We realize that attracting industry executives from corporations, architectural firms, the real estate arena and governments around the world is important to our Summit conversations and is more easily done under the banner of a wellness summit.  Thus in 2015 our Mexico City event will be called the Global Wellness Summit!

So, let’s continue using, trumpeting and marketing the word “spa”.  People love day spas, resort spas, hotels with spas, residential communities with spas and airports with spas, they like reading about spas in magazines, seeing photos of spas, dreaming about spas, building spas, adding spa components to their homes.  And let’s use “wellness” to expand our influence.  Let’s embrace industries and sectors that are looking to associate with us; it gives us the size, credibility and respect that we need and deserve.

So as I relinquish my megaphone, please feel free to pick it up and find your own voice.  We need to hear from you, too.

5 thoughts on “Susie Ellis What’s on my mind? Spa Versus Wellness”

  1. Thanks for your thought !! Whole issue " Spa vs. Wellness " is even more confusing for many in Europe. As you most likely know, Europeans never liked name "spa" to be used for other types of personal services businesses but historical medical spas. For that reason, they came up with name " Wellness center " offering variety spa services as generally known. A new focus at wellness ( including new type of services ) touching everybody involved in the industry is sometimes hard to market as there is lack of understanding within general population. I do have first hand experience as I work and teach an Europe ans N.America.

  2. Excellent piece! Especially about differentiating between spa and wellness and its connotations with different audiences. I completely agree about government support to wellness v/s spa….India too has Ministry of Ayush, but is still struggling to find recognition for spa as an industry.
    Sandhya Chipalkatti

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