Spas get the treatment

THEY soothed our senses, purified our pores and massaged the nine-to-five from our system.

For a fat fee, they allowed us to forsake the stresses of work, commuting and parenthood for a galaxy of exotic treatments and thermal suites. They rejuvenated mind, body and spirit.

They were also some of the most bling-tastic symbols of Celtic Tiger Ireland. In 2006 alone, 30 new spas popped up like mushrooms around the country, funded by fast credit, often charging triple figures for treatments, and lathering their clientele in milk, mud and seaweed.

It couldn’t last. Fast forward to 2011, where NAMA’s list of properties subject to enforcement action has featured several hotels with spas, including Fota Island Resort, Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, Johnstown Hotel & Spa in Enfield and the Marriott in Ashbourne.

This May, a court judgment of €5.78 million was made against the owners of the Temple Spa & Retreat in Co Westmeath. The five-star Heritage Resort & Spa in Killenard, which went into receivership last year, is bundling B&B and a spa experience from €79pp. Go figure.

“Let’s be honest, the days of standing there and saying, ‘Give us €150 for a massage’, are not really there anymore,” says Séamus Leahy, marketing director at Fota Island Hotel & Spa. “That being said, we are still human beings and we still like the odd treat.”

Fota’s response to recession has been to offer public membership and broaden its health and fitness offering, adding a range of exercise classes, boot camps and beauty treatments. It is also building its sports business (Aironi Rugby recently used its pitches and hydrotherapy facilities).

Of course, you’ll still find purple prose in the five-star’s treatment brochure, which promises “both the restoration of personal energy and vitality or holistic relaxation and pampering”. But these days, you’ll also find affordable prices, better value and a diverse product mix.

A pampering treatment from Fota’s “Autumn Indulgence” package, along with complimentary access to the hotel’s thermal and hydrotherapy suites, is available from €60.

“Honestly, the spa has never been trading better,” Mr Leahy says.

Five years ago, an offer of equivalent value would have been unthinkable. Back then, Celtic Cubs were working and playing hard, they were well-travelled, lapping up self-help and anti-aging solutions, and prepared to spend big bucks to zap the slightest hints of stress.

Indulgence was seen not so much as a treat, but as a right. Because we were worth it.

“In the noughties, spas became the in-vogue thing,” says Liam Griffin of the Griffin Group, whose properties include Monart Spa in Co Wexford. “Hotels felt they needed one to survive. The gym wasn’t good enough anymore. Clientele had moved on... it was like leisure centres in the 1990s.”

Now, he says, quality is suffering. “As an industry you would have to say the feedback around is that standards are on the slip. Ireland is suffering from too many bedrooms in general. We have an oversupply within the industry and that spills over into all sectors, not just spas.”

Monart opened in 2005 at a cost of over €30 million. The five-star resort was very much built around the spa — one reason Mr Griffin believes it is trading well in tough times.

“When a new spa opened in the noughties, everyone would go along to try it out. Now people go back to where they believe they’ll get the right service and quality,” he says.

Even Monart, however — which readers of Condé Nast Traveller magazine rate among their top overseas spa resorts — has dropped its prices by 20% over the past three years.

Adapting prices doesn’t preclude a bit of extravagance, of course.

Just as the Ritz Carlton in Powerscourt prides itself on its Swarovski Crystal-lit pool, and the Cloisters Spa at Muckross Park in Killarney charges €200 for a 60-minute Arabic mud bath for two, so two Shaolin masters from China will be teaching Tai-Chi, Qi-gong, Kung-Fu and more at Monart until December.

Do offerings like these seem OTT, or even distasteful, in the current economic climate?

“Yes and no,” says Tracey Coughlan of Fáilte Ireland. “People more than ever need a treat, and there is a big increase in voucher business. When people get a voucher for their birthday or Christmas they really value it, because the discretion of buying yourself is gone to a great extent.”

Ms Coughlan is spearheading Fáilte Ireland’s efforts to reposition ‘Health & Wellness’ in the downturn. Prices have dropped 30% since the peak, she says, and margins are down. But there has been relatively little fall-off in the total numbers of approved spas in Ireland (roughly 80-plus).

“They have had to work very, very hard to reposition in a market that was decreasing. They have had to be very creative... but it’s paying off. Numbers are increasing.”

Unlike Hungary, for example, Ireland doesn’t have much of a spa tradition — something which makes it harder to market overseas. That’s one reason Fáilte Ireland is basing its new brand strategy on “naturally-inspired wellness” — an attempt to tap into Irish people, heritage and landscape.

Having already categorised spas, the tourism body is investing €100,000 a year in direct marketing, Ms Coughlan says, and supports the trade with training, packaging and standards advice.

Despite the assistance, however, spas remain expensive to run. Not only that, but the borrowings taken out to build them must wildly exceed their actual value today.

“The cost — which could run into millions — must be extremely painful for those still attempting to repay those easily-acquired loans,” says leading food and hospitality writer, Georgina Campbell.

“Some highly-regarded establishments have been brought down by the burden,” she continues. Others have closed their spas, or are offering limited services — despite the fact that, when managed and packaged smartly, a good spa can drive business to a hotel rather than drain from it.

“When hotels are in receivership and every decision is made by bean counters, spas are likely to be among the services they are not allowed to operate at all,” Ms Campbell adds. “It’s often a vicious circle as they then lose business as a result.”

One example of a hotel using its facility to drive business is the Park Hotel in Kenmare. In 2003, it invested €5 million in the Samás Spa, which remains the only residential spa in Europe.

“Honestly, we wouldn’t be answering the phone here if we hadn’t opened the spa,” says John Brennan, who runs the hotel with his brother, Francis. “It isn’t generating profit in its own right, but that’s not what it was built for. It was built to generate accommodation business.”

After the development boom of the noughties, Mr Brennan says, Ireland is left with “a clatter of very fine leisure facilities with spa elements”. When it comes to spas in the true essence of the word, however, he believes there are no more than a dozen to choose from.

Treatments at Samás, which cost €145 a pop, are for guests only. “If you asked me has the investment been a success, I would say ‘yes’. If you asked me how business is in the spa today, I would say ‘very difficult’,” Mr Brennan says. Spas “are not an essential item”.

Nonetheless, clever planning appears to have paid off for Samás. It has only six treatment rooms, for example, where some Irish hotels have over 20. Labour is the killer cost in spas — therapists are highly specialised and, unlike barmen or chefs, can only cater for one client per hour.

“Where are you going to get the 20 therapists to come in for an hour every evening? It just doesn’t happen... that is the rock a lot of them are perishing on today, because they are carrying a massive cost with a very low treatment price that is barely covering the labour.”

Products are smarter, in other words. Prices are better. But thanks to the fundamental craziness of the noughties, Irish spas remain every bit as stressed as the customers they serve.

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