The COVID pandemic is calling out the hospitality industry on its biggest bluff: wellness

Wellness amenities hotel
It's no longer enough for wellness amenities to be only skin deep.
  • Wellness has been a buzzword in the hospitality industry for years.
  • The pandemic has created a new focus on safety and cleanliness across the world, especially in hospitality.
  • The change shows that hospitality's focus on wellness was really just about the illusion of wellness.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

For years, wellness has been the biggest word in hospitality.

Eucalyptus towels upon check-in? That's a wellness amenity. A personal wellness concierge to lead you on a run in your temporary city? That's a wellness amenity. Aromatherapy bath salts and Vitamin C-infused shower water? You guessed it - wellness.

It's grown into more than a marketing hook - it's a massive industry. A report from the Global Wellness Institute put the value of the wellness economy, which includes but also extends beyond hospitality, at an estimated $4.5 trillion in 2017-2018.

But what the pandemic - and the attempts at recovery - has thrown into sharp relief is that the much-lauded wellness amenities of the pre-COVID era are just not going to cut it anymore. Now that the world is considering the prospect of traveling through a safety-specific lens, it's clear that what hotels previously got away with billing as wellness was really just about the illusion of wellness.

wellness amenities spa
All the candles in the world won't qualify as "wellness" in a post-pandemic world.

Out with the old ideas of wellness

Before COVID-19, wellness was a term with many implications.

As Ophelia Yeung and Katherine Johnston, senior research fellows at the Global Wellness Institute, wrote in a 2018 report, "... wellness has become a selling point for all kinds of products and services - from food and vitamins to real estate and vacation packages, and from gym memberships and health care plans to meditation apps and DNA testing kits."

Hotels and resorts leaned into the word's many meanings.

Marriott International's Westin launched a wellness campaign in 2017 that included healthy breakfasts, fitness-gear-lending programs, and paraben-free shower products. Hilton's wellness program increased the number of workout rooms in hotels, and Hyatt invested in things like blackout shades, warm-colored lighting, and better mattresses to improve its guests' wellbeing.

Meanwhile, wellness retreats, too, found a vast many ways to interpret the trend. That's a point Ingo Schweder, Founder of Horwath HTL Health & Wellness, touched on in a 2018 industry report.

Wellness retreats, Schweder wrote, were places you could go seeking the spiritual, or places you could go to indulge in healthy gourmet food. Alternatively, they were places to lose a couple pounds, or get cosmetic treatments.

In short, lots of things were classified as falling within the broad umbrella term, and travelers loved it. Global spend on wellness tourism - think $5,000 weekend wellness summits and resorts with on-site therapists - hit an estimated $639 billion in 2017.

A superficial wellness reckoning

Many countries are now looking to reopen their borders and jumpstart their tourism industries. Travelers are expressing interest in hitting the road again - but they're also displaying a shift in priorities.

When booking a hotel, the overall no. 2 priority for travelers is enhanced cleaning and hygiene practices, per an American Hotels and Lodging Association (AHLA) report from January. "Enhanced cleaning" ranked as a top-three factor when making a travel booking for 45% of respondents in an October 2020 survey conducted by vacation-rental platform Home to Go. And 54% of people surveyed in February by the crisis-response company Global Rescue indicated they are concerned about health - particularly as relates to the coronavirus - when traveling. Last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people who said they were concerned about health when traveling was only 35%.

In other words, what people are looking after is their safety. The wellness amenities - the saline pools, the in-room Peloton bikes - that hotels previously invested in to kept travelers feeling fit, relaxed, and taken care of are not the same ones that are going to keep them safe during a pandemic. And it spells a wellness reckoning for the hospitality industry.

To be sure, it's not only the hospitality sector that's up against this challenge. High-end real estate, too, has been known to bill amenities like tranquility gardens and outdoor yoga decks as wellness amenities; it, too, will have to answer to whether or not a rooftop sauna still constitutes a "wellness amenity" in the post-COVID era.

That's also not to say that maintaining an active lifestyle - like one that makes use of a hotel's gym or an apartment complex's tennis courts - isn't a part of staying healthy. It could even be argued that prior to a health crisis as extreme as the COVID pandemic, offering spaces in which travelers and residents could step away from their screens and focus on taking care of their bodies and minds was wellness-promoting enough.

But it's clear the COVID pandemic has permanently changed the ways people and businesses approach personal safety and health.

The hospitality sector's wellness reckoning stands to be particularly severe because of the hit it took during the pandemic. In the US alone, nearly four million jobs were lost in hospitality and leisure between February 2020 and March 2021. A January report from the AHLA predicts it'll take until 2024 for the travel industry to rebound to 2019 levels.

empty hotel pandemic hospitality
2020 was a devastating year for hotels.

Welcome to a new definition of wellness in hospitality

As evidenced by the new campaigns that started rolling out as early as April of last year, many leading hospitality chains are pivoting to deliver on the new wave of wellness requirements of the post-COVID world.

In April 2020, Marriott - the world's biggest hotel chain - launched its Global Cleanliness Council with a focus on examining cleanliness standards; more recently, it announced it would be providing COVID-19 tests to business travelers. In July, Hilton launched Hilton Clean Stay, a program focused specifically on hotel cleanliness and disinfection. And Intercontinental Hotels Group partnered with Cleveland Clinic to launch IHG Clean Promise with a focus on hygiene and safety practices.

Tellingly, these campaigns offer a far stricter, antiseptic interpretation of "wellness." What remains to be seen now is whether they are convincing enough to entice travelers back in, and whether or not they prove sufficient in actually keeping those travelers safe - and well.

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