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Mon, Mar 18, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Thailand spasfind their niche

CHILLIN' Executives from around the Asian region are getting a new lease on life at lush facilities being built and staffed by those who understand `service'

AFP , BANGKOK

A spa employee arranges towels at a luxury hotel in Bangkok yesterday. Thailand is becoming the pampering capital of Asia, with dozens of new spas luring stressed-out executives from around the world for a regimen of traditional therapies and massage.

PHOTO: AFP

Thailand is establishing itself as the pampering capital of Asia, with dozens of plush new spas luring stressed-out executives from around the world for a regimen of traditional therapies and massage.

Top hotels are rushing to open their own in-house havens, anxious not to miss out on the lucrative opportunity to cater to the global craze in yoga, meditation and herbal beauty therapy.

"Bali might have started the spa trend, but I think Thailand has surpassed it as the main spa destination," said Patrick Cusack, editor of the soon-to-be launched Spa Odyssey, Asia's first consumer magazine on the topic.

Thailand's spa drawcards include its centuries-long heritage of natural healing and traditional massage therapy, as well as its scenic beaches, tropical jungle, and famously service-minded people.

"The service here in Thailand is excellent, compared to a lot of other places," said Wipawadee Srimongkolkasem, managing director of the Dusit Thani hotel's Devarana Spa, which opened last October.

"People are service-oriented. They tend to smile, to be friendly."

Cusack said Thailand's history helped establish it as a leader in the field. "It's relatively easy to take ancient Thai massage and slot it into the spa environment," he said.

The Oriental Hotel, one of Asia's oldest and grandest hotels, was the trailblazer in Thailand, opening its elegant Day Spa in 1993.

"It was difficult to convince the shareholders that we should spend the money," said the Oriental's managing director Kurt Wachtveitl of the decision to build the Day Spa, a 130 million baht (US$3 million) teak house across the Chao Praya river from the hotel.

They needn't have worried. "We hit on an absolute goldmine. We made our money back in a year," he said, adding that 4 percent to 5 percent of the Oriental's hotel occupancy is now attributed to the spa.

By the late 1990s, other hotels attempted to emulate the earlier successes as they searched for ways to diversify after the 1997 financial crisis which plunged Asia into recession and made business travellers scarce.

Excess rooms were converted into sanctuaries for body and soul, while having a spa made a hotel more attractive to the international travel market, Cusack said.

"They thought it would help fill rooms, and it did," he said.

Central Hotels and Resorts, one of the country's largest hotel chains, launched its Centara brand of spas in June last year. The decision was purely profit-driven, said spa operations manager Tim Bray.

"The spas are now the group's third-biggest earner in terms of revenue," he said. "They're very, very profitable."

Despite the number of players getting in on the act, there is still plenty of room for growth, industry players say.

"I think within a maximum of five years, we'll reach saturation point, or maybe three years, depending on how quickly people act," said Naphalai Areesorn, president of the newly formed Thai Spa Association.

Regional competition is also strong, particularly from Singapore, Malaysia and China.

"Everyone is waking up to the fact that spas are good business," Naphalai said. "So we have to make sure that what we're offering is of good quality."

That means establishing formal standards and practices, she says. In the absence of government regulation, the industry is stepping in to regulate itself, through the 30-member Thai Spa Association.

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