Hotel Insider chats with Jesper Hougaard, managing director of one of the oldest spa brands in Asia, Serena Spa. Among other things, we talk about how the concept of wellness is evolving and what spa brands and operators can do about that, how the Maldives can best capitalise on the current wellness boom, and the possibility of Maldives as a wellness destination.

Hotel Insider: I’ve interviewed you previously, for a similar magazine, and one of the things we talked about was how back in 2000 when you founded Serena Spa, not many Maldivian resorts had spas. Things have obviously changed now, so what do you make of that?

Jesper Hougaard: Well, back then, Banyan Tree had the only place I would call a real spa. There was also a Filipina at Bandos, her massages were quite painful but they were massages nevertheless. But that was basically it at the time. Things have definitely developed a lot since then. In the first couple of years of running Serena Spa, as I still remember, a lot of people have never had a massage before and it was something very, very new to them. But now, a lot of people who come to the Maldives have already had many spa experiences. And this means the need for quality is much higher today than it was in those days.

Hotel Insider: Speaking of the need for quality, wellness tourism is considered one of the most lucrative and fastest growing travel segments with an annual growth rate of around 12 per cent. With all this growth, would you say there’s a bit of stagnation, with customers receiving more or less the same treatments etc. no matter where they go?

Jesper Hougaard: You are absolutely right. That’s one of the biggest problems today; the spa concept to some extent has stagnated.

Hotel Insider: So, what can spa brands and operators do to counter this?

Jesper Hougaard: First of all, there are still some misconceptions about wellness. Wellness is not just about the spa; it’s not about going to a resort and getting a week of wellness, going to an Ayurveda clinic for 21 days, or getting an oil change for your car.

It’s more of a lifestyle and there are several elements that have to be a part of it. Maldivian resorts actually have a great opportunity here to become wellness centres that can inspire people to adopt a wellness lifestyle, not just for a week or two, but also rather for the rest of their lives. There are so many ways in which we can do this; there are a lot of ways in which you could connect with your guest beyond that week that they stay in the Maldives. Of course, you can inspire them here but you’ll need to follow through, establish a wellness connection with your guests. And luckily today we have a lot of gadgets that can help us do that. For example, most smart phones today have some sort of a wellness app; we can use such apps to maintain that wellness connection. I think a wellness concept based on inspiration can create a much stronger bond with the guests. You need to engage with people today and these days, people are very well educated; and they are demanding in the sense of wanting to engage.

Hotel Insider: Since you’ve mentioned this opportunity that Maldivian resorts have, what do you think of Maldives as a wellness destination? Countries like Thailand seem to have a successfully established wellness concept while we seem to be more geared towards honeymooners and divers.

Jesper Hougaard: I honestly think Maldives is already a wellness destination. We just haven’t been able to define it as such. Wellness is not about cosmetic surgery like they do in the Philippines, it’s not about going to spas and being pampered like in Bali. It’s about the environment, it’s about your emotional balance, it’s about the physical part of it, the activities, the closeness to nature, the cleanliness of the food that you eat and the way it’s prepared. And also, wellness has to go beyond the guests. It has to do with how you construct the resort, using as much local and natural materials as possible. It’s also about how you treat your staff and I think Maldives is at the forefront of that. I think the respect for every member of the hotel team is much higher here than any other Asian country.

Take one little thing like plastic bottles for example, we now see resorts in the Maldives using glass bottles and producing their own water instead of transporting them from Dubai or Singapore and then just throwing them in the sea. Take for example sustainable fisheries, which is unique to the Maldives; that needs to be promoted as part of wellness. Wellness is also about being in balance with yourself; understanding yourself. And one of the wonderful things about the Maldives is you have nothing but time to get to know yourself. All these elements are already here in the Maldives and it’s just a matter of getting it together and portraying ourselves differently than how we do today; it’s a matter of defining it and marketing it and also refining it at the individual resorts.

Hotel Insider: We see more and more resorts in the Maldives incorporate wellness deep into their brands. For example, there’s COMO Shambala Retreat on Cocoa Island and The Spa & Ayurvedic Retreat at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru. However, we’ve yet to see a property that’s solely focused on wellness. What are your thoughts on this? Would you say the time is ripe for such a property?

Jesper Hougaard: I think so and to some extent we do have such resorts in the Maldives. I think Soneva Fushi is one of the pioneers in wellness. It’s an overall holistic resort that has very much to do with wellness.

Hotel Insider: As you’ve said before, wellness extends beyond the spa and that’s what tourists expect as well. With this, do you think it’s enough nowadays for a spa operator to simply run a spa on a property, which has traditionally been the case?

Jesper Hougaard: I think things have changed a lot over the years. Before, it would be something like this: ‘you are the spa operator, I am the hotel operator, we will settle the accounts at the end of the month but otherwise you run your business and I run my business.’ Today we have to be more integrated. For example, when you build the spa or when you upgrade the spa you have to help each other out with the menu and work together to improve the wellness concept as a whole. We also have to market it together. I think today we have to work more as partners that are specialised in our own areas.

Hotel Insider: We haven’t yet talked about Serena Spa, so we are going to conclude the interview on that. As we understand, Serena Spa began in Maldives, although now you’ve expanded to include four more countries. You are also among the oldest spa brands in Asia. With all this experience and possible advantages, what can we expect from Serena Spa in say the next couple of years?

Jesper Hougaard: In the future, I see us as being guides more than operators. We will still be doing spas but I think we will be going further instead of just operating them. We will be wellness counsellors and we will be there trying to define the wellness ethos and we will also be there trying to put experts in various areas of the wellness concept. As I’ve said before, wellness consists of different elements, and we will oversee these elements so that the resorts can achieve a higher level of wellness.