Three in four travel agents report growth for spa travel in 2013

NEW YORK — Spafinder Wellness 365 has released key findings of its 2013 ‘State of Spa Travel’ report, designed to provide annual insight into the health of, and emerging consumer trends in, the North American spa travel market.

According to the study, a significant majority (73%) of travel agents reported growth in bookings to hotel, resort and destination spas in 2013. The survey also shed light on the evolving spa traveller demographic, revealing that “women travelling with other women” represents the #1 way people now journey to spas, and that Gen X is slowing overtaking Baby Boomers as the age group most likely to book spa travel.

The findings are based on a survey of over 300 North American travel agents completed in Q4 2013.

“This new data provides fresh evidence that what we’ve been hearing about the growth of the wider wellness tourism category is undeniably true. And it also proves that spa travel is on the rise in North America, which is the now the world’s largest wellness travel market, generating over 40% of the total dollars spent in that global segment,” said Mia Kyricos, Spafinder Wellness, Inc.’s Chief Brand Officer.

Last year’s survey revealed that 2012 was a rebound year for spa travel after the long recession: 68% of travel agents reported growth, up from 37% in 2011. But in 2013 agents report even more momentum: 73% of U.S. and Canadian agents experienced growth in spa property bookings last year, while another 23% say they remained about the same as in 2012.

Despite economic and travel market recovery, a strong ‘deal culture’ seems to be a permanent fixture of the hotel/resort spa market – continued great news for consumers. Thirty-two percent of agents report that global resort/destination spas were actually more aggressive with special pricing/packages in 2013 over 2012, with 53% claiming that the spa deals continue just as strong as in 2012. (Only 15% report declines).

Wellness-obsessed Baby Boomers (now aged 49-68) fueled the wider spa revolution and have for years represented the main spa travelling demographic. For 2013 agents reported that the #1 age group most likely to book spa travel is 46-55 (the very youngest Boomers), followed very closely by those aged 36-45 (Gen-Xers). Also significant: the very young, 26-35-year-old group now trumps those over 65 (which includes the eldest Boomers) for spa bookings. As demographic groups age, the story of who is in their peak earning/spending years is also naturally re-written.

For the first time the survey asked agents how spa-goers most typically travel, and they reported that women travelling together ranked #1 by solid margins. This was followed by 2) a woman travelling with a man; 3) women travelling solo; 4) families/intergenerational groups; 5) men travelling solo; and 6) men travelling together. Clearly, spa resorts’ marketing and property offerings need to speak to women looking to do a little ‘spa bonding,’ as well as paying close attention to the lone female spa traveller. And it’s notable that family groups outpaced men either travelling solo/together, given that just a few years ago the spa was quite the opposite of a ‘family affair.’

Agents reported on what spa programming now matters most to clients, and ‘traditional pampering’ retained its #1 spot for the seventh straight year (important to 96%). But in 2013 there was notably more parity in traveller demand for other key spa elements: agents reported that health/wellness offerings like exercise and weight loss are now important to 84%, mind-body-spirit programming is important to 68%, and nature/adventure experiences like hiking, water sports, etc. are sought by 67%. So, for the first time, agents claimed that all four, key spa components were important to at least two-thirds of their clients: further evidence that the spa traveller increasingly seeks comprehensive, integrative wellness options at destinations, mixed with ‘pure pampering.’

Agents reported on which U.S. regions now attract the most North American spa travellers, and the West Coast reclaimed the top spot from Hawaii in 2013. The rankings: West Coast, Hawaii, Southwest, Southeast, Northeast and Midwest.

Agents also weighed in on which international spa destinations are growing fastest with North American travellers in comparison with 2012. The top 5: the Caribbean, Mexico, Asia, Europe and Central/South America.

Given the luxury travel market’s resurgence, travel agents were queried on how this wider category is evolving. The top two luxury travel trends identified were: 1) Travellers seeking more exotic, off-the-beaten-path destinations (62% reporting); and 2) Travellers seeking immersion in more unique, indigenous cultural experiences vs ‘generic luxury’ at destinations (57% reporting).

Given that the top luxury travel trend identified was demand for more exotic locations, agents were also asked to submit countries they felt were getting ‘significantly hotter’ with the North American spa traveller. While dozens of nations from the Dominican Republic to South Africa received numerous votes, the clear standout was Costa Rica. Other top Central American up-and-comers: Belize and Nicaragua.

In South America the standouts were Argentina and Chile. In Europe, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Turkey garnered the most responses, with Italy, Ireland and Slovakia also making a strong showing. For Asia, Cambodia, India, the Maldives, Myanmar and Vietnam made the most agents’ ‘getting hotter’ list – and in Africa, South Africa and the Seychelles ranked highest.

Wellness tourism can be defined as all travel associated with the pursuit of enhancing/maintaining personal wellbeing. And while recent research from SRI International shows that spa tourism constitutes a hefty 41% of the total $439 global wellness tourism market, the category also spans adventure/nature travel, all breeds of fitness-focused travel, yoga and lifestyle retreats and eco-tourism. The survey found that an overwhelming majority (75%) of North American agents see wellness tourism as a distinctly rising travel trend, with 22% indicating it continues just as strong as in the past.

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