WHEN the going gets tough, the tough get a massage - at least that's what spa operators expect. And the industry's previous experiences in the 1997 crisis, Sept 11 bombings and Sars bear out such optimism.
As businesses batten down their hatches and brace themselves for a slowdown, the spa industry could well buck the trend.
Nancy Lim, president of Spa Association Singapore (SAS), recalls how there was a 50 per cent growth in the number of spas from 1994 to 1997.
'Spas were getting popular as early as 1994, but during the 1997 recession, we saw an increase in spa outlets. People have more time to visit spas and also they are more cautious about their health and appearance during the recession period,' she asserts.
The association has seen a year-on-year 20 per cent increase in the number of spas since.
Wee Wei Ling, chief operating officer of St Gregory's Spa, also expects business to be good, if not better. 'It might be tough times, but it might also mean an opportunity for St Gregory as we're seen as a market leader with strong financial backing,' she says.
St Gregory incidentally was set up in 1997, and from its first outlet at Parkroyal Beach Road, it now has 11 spas in the Asia-Pacific region, including six in Japan.
She reckons that patrons will come for wellness and de-stressing reasons, rather than for pampering. 'Plus, I think the industry has weathered all the tough economic conditions in the past, like the Asian crisis and Sars,' she notes.
Spa companies might go through a period of consolidation however, with small outfits finding it harder to survive in a highly competitive environment, says Manoj M Murjani, founder of The Wellness Group (TWG) which encompasses luxury tea, spa and spa product businesses.
'It's difficult for day spas to survive. There is a move towards resort/hotel spas where there's a captive audience,' he feels.
TWG itself has positioned itself for growth in the past eight years, with its core strengths in the spa product distribution business and also spa training, spa set-up and management.
As he puts it: 'This is now Wellness 2.0. The business world is changing. People were excited about the spa business in the last five to seven years, but now they also realise that it's a hard business to find a sound financial business model for, especially with high rents and overhead costs. Which is why there'll be newer ways to run the wellness business.'
Being on the board of directors in the US spa industry, he notes that while the numbers of spas there decreased, the number of people going to spas have increased. 'More people have adopted this lifestyle,' he says, adding that it's a question of coming up with the right financial model.
The spa industry is certainly not recession-proof, and a shake-up is to be expected, says Samantha Foster, who heads the spa businesses in TWG, and is also the chairman of the Asia Pacific Spa and Wellness Council.
'Businesses that survive will have to make themselves relevant to their customers, and cut excesses, and that's to be expected of spas as well,' she says, adding that spas that will ride out the storm would be those which reposition themselves in stress management and relaxation, and not indulgence or pampering.
In fact, as the Spa Association Singapore survey in 2007 shows, Asian spa patrons already rate therapeutic treatments higher than relaxation. 'The most popular treatment listed was body massage (Swedish and deep tissue) and clients cited that they went to spas for instant results such as muscle relief if it's massage or instant radiance if it's facials,' says Ms Lim.
The majority of clients are female, working executives ranging from 28 to 60 years old, even though there's been an increase of 30 per cent in male spa goers in the past two to three years.
Singapore spas - or for that matter, spas in Asia - are expected to weather the economic storm, that's the general mood of the speakers and participants at a Wellness Summit that's going on in Kuala Lumpur this week, say participants like Ms Foster and Ms Wee.
The way to stay ahead of the game, says SAS's Ms Lim, is for spas to keep upgrading and updating their services.
And as for spa businesses looking to expand overseas, Ms Lim notes that Singapore has a good reputation where spas are concerned; thanks to regulations that specify that at least half of the therapists at a spa are certified and licensed.
Also, with the Integrated Resorts coming up, Ms Lim expects there to be a spurt in luxury spas to cater to high-end users; with high-end hotels also managing their own spas and using them to attract hotel guests.
But at the end of the day, a regular spa-goer is one who patronises different kinds of spas, points out Ms Foster. 'She might want to go to a five-star spa while on holiday, while going to a regular day spa when at home, and also just a centre offering traditional foot reflexology or back massage when she's feeling stressed.'
But one thing's for sure, spas will be around for a long time to come because people want to look and feel good, especially with the kind of lifestyles we lead today, says Ms Foster.
'Spas have an important role to play, it's then a question of who runs it efficiently,' she concludes.
Like any business, the good and tough ones will survive.
This article was first published in The Business Times on Oct 17, 2008.