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Our Experts

At Essential Escapes, we live and breathe luxury spas. Beyond the experts in our own team, we are also in touch with a network of experts in their fields, specialising in various aspects of health, beauty and wellness. This keeps us up to date on the latest and best that the world of spas has to offer. Put our expertise to the test!

The Mother of all Spas

An Interview with Susan Harmsworth, founder of Espa. Interview by Adriaane Pielou.

If you’ve ever been to a spa where the air is delicately scented, the dim passageways lined with tea-lights and where your treatment starts in a candle-lit reception area with the softly-spoken offer of herbal tea and a staff member taking your shoes and proffering soft cotton slippers before you are led off to the changing room, you have come under the influence of Susan Harmsworth. She’s the founder of Espa - one of the most successful spa companies in the world.

Q We might have expected spas to be suffering in the economic downtown, and while some are clearly having a hard time, some appear to be thriving. What’s behind that?

A I think a lot of people around the world are really fed up with all the doom and gloom, and going to a spa is a means of escape. At Espa, we’re seeing lots of ‘gift visits’ – friends taking friends, women taking their mothers, birthday and special occasion visits. In many city spas, even where the hotel occupancy is half what it was a year ago, the spa is still hitting budget because about 50% of the business is from non-resident guests, which we’re driving very hard by offering great packages and special deals. Some far-flung resorts are suffering – although I was at Reethi Rah in the Maldives recently and that was packed, heaving. And there are some really fabulous new spas doing well: One & Only Cape Town, a great value new spa in Riga, the Peninsula in New York, the Gran Bahia del Ducque in Tenerife. That is really fantastic, Tenerife is amazing value, too. I love that island - sun year-round and you don’t get burnt.

Q Are you seeing people economise once they’re at a spa ?

A In some cases, yes, definitely. People have got used to going to a spa and they don’t want to stop. If anything, it’s even more important to get a treatment now, with so much stress around. But we are seeing a move to shorter bookings - a 90-minute treatment, say, rather than a three-hour ritual.

Q What spa trends do you see on the horizon?

A Socialising and networking in spas is becoming huge. Four friends, say, regularly getting together at a spa. They are so busy they don’t have time to see each other so they say, let’s go to a spa every six weeks. We’re seeing women taking women business clients to a spa. Instead of having a lunch or tea they’ll all go to the spa. It’s relaxing, bonding, levelling and it costs no more. That’s not happening yet with men. But for women, it’s becoming like men taking men to the golf-course. They’re often using the couples’ treatment rooms, which in some cases are big enough for four people to have a treatment at a time. Couples treatments aren’t doing as well as people expected, partly, I think, because, for women, it isn’t ‘ me-time ‘ any more. He is snoring on the next bed: it can drive women nuts! Longer-term, wellness is becoming more a focus of interest. That’s going to be hard to deliver but everyone is in the industry is talking about it. And I think medi -spas are going to be huge , especially with the baby-boomers. I’m in my 60s now but I would never do surgery and I think plenty of women feel the same way, but things like age spots we do want to get rid of.

Q Men are much more visible around spas these days. Why’s that, do you think?

A In some of our spas – such as Hong Kong - men make up 46% of visitors to the spa. At Gleneagles, in Scotland, before we did their new spa, they had a very low male take-up. Now about 40% of the spa visits are by men. All ages, all types. From what I understand, the all-male spas introduced a few years ago are not doing as well as expected. I think it’s because no one quite knows what to expect there: all gay men don’t want heterosexual men around and vice versa, But in a hotel environment, especially with wives or girlfriends around, men are very comfortable with the idea of spa.

Q Is the popularity of certain treatments changing?

A Massage makes up at least 50% of treatments in any spa, and I can’t see that changing, it’s so beneficial – de-stressing, detoxifying. But at Espa we’re seeing facials become important again. That’s why we recently launched our Super Active range of products and facials. With the rise of surgery and procedures like dermabrasion we have seen a huge increase in the number of women coming into our spas with rosacea, sensitised skin, thinner skin, scarring, The problem with dermabrasion and so on is that anyone can administer them with maybe just a weekend of training behind them and basically anyone who asks gets the treatment, regardless of whether it might be unsuitable for their type of skin. So good facials are very important now. Our aestheticians’ training to use Super Active is very, very demanding – it’s so intense that only 15% pass the course, and that means in some countries we can’t yet offer the treatment at all, but where we do the response has been phenomenal.

Q How did you get involved in spas?

A In the 60s, after doing a business degree, I started off as a journalist on Vogue and Nova. My then husband was Vidal Sassoon’s right hand man and when he got sent to New York I went, and from there to Toronto. I had to do something so I started a day spa, the first in the city and so ahead of its time. When I got divorced my two boys and I came back to England and I ran what was then called a health farm, Grayshott, from 1980 to 84. I did the spa at Turnberry, about the first major five-star hotel to have a spa, in 1990, 91. And by the time I came to launch Espa, in 1993 – in a recession! - I had already launched several product lines, starting in Toronto, and knew exactly what I wanted to do. A very pure, holistic line that could be used in spas and at home. And the rest, as they say, is history, and these days I spend 70% of the year travelling.

Q Do you still feel enthusiastic when you walk around a plot of bare land with a developer who’s planning a spa?

A Very much so, and partly because the developers themselves are getting more knowledgeable about spas and health issues. One of the spas I am working on at the moment that I am most excited about is an incredible project in Marrakesh. It’s backed by an amazing Russian doctor and will link regular and complementary doctors, offer a very broad range of treatments. I think it will be the shape of the future.

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