NEW YORK -- The Wellness Travel Day started out with juice. But not just any old cup of O.J. -- this was "green detox" juice, a frothy blend of apple, celery, cucumber and leafy greens, served by a pleasant young man who was eager to talk the finer points of "juicing."
After the green juice and the tastier "antioxidant" fruit juice, nearly two dozen travel agents and reps from American Marketing Group's Well-Being Travel division gathered on yoga mats in a studio and looked expectantly at Pravassa Wellness Travel Founder Linden Schaffer, who stood in front of the room beside a portrait of Buddha.
"I'm going to give you a few buzzwords" about wellness, Schaffer began. "Wellness is multifaceted. Wellness is a lifestyle choice. Wellness is holistic. It's about balance. It's subjective. It means different things to everyone."
Then, almost before you could say "namaste," the group was swinging kettlebells with an instructor from Kettlebell Concepts, doing sun salutations with a yoga instructor, dabbling in a metta bhavana meditation and, strangely enough, dancing the tango.
Any travel consultant who is interested in selling wellness travel but doesn't know that namaste is a spiritual salutation used in yoga, that kettlebells are 18th century Russian exercise equipment that are all the rage in the fitness world today or that metta bhavana is a Sanskrit term meaning "cultivation of loving kindness," would have done well to attend Pravassa's Wellness Travel Day.
The half-day event was a sort of mini-retreat of yoga, exercise and meditation. But the potentially New Age aspects of the program were not off-putting, because the key enlightenment the event set out to provide was to teach travel consultants about wellness: how to define it and how to sell it.
Of course, to a travel seller, a concept that is subjective, multifaceted and means different things to different clients makes for an admittedly tricky sale.
But the potential in the wellness segment makes it a worthwhile niche to explore. Conversations about wellness travel over the past several months turned up nothing but positive vibes regarding a trend that seems on the verge of exploding.
"The wellness industry is being shaped right now, for sure," Schaffer said late last month.
A report on spa and wellness tourism conducted by SRI International for the Global Spa and Wellness Summit released earlier this month estimated the wellness tourism economy to be a nearly $440 billion market, a figure that includes all expenses made by tourists who seek to improve or maintain their well-being during or as a result of their trip. According to the report, wellness tourism (i.e., travelers who considered wellness to be a primary or secondary purpose of their trip) accounted for 6% of trips and 14% of all tourism expenditures.
Many travel and lifestyle themes coexist on the wellness platform. Think experiential, individualized travel tied to a heightened interest in organic foods and eating well. Potential clients could range from boomers interested in preserving their physical and mental well-being to younger travelers who have grown up alongside the growth of yoga, slow food and environmental awareness.
Voluntourism and experiential trips can also play a role in wellness travel. "Digital detox" vacations were mentioned as a form of wellness travel by SpaFinder in its 2013 forecast on spa and wellness trends: a forced break from, and opportunity to re-evaluate, the hustle and bustle of daily life in the era of the omnipresent Internet.
And, of course, the trend was also nurtured to some extent by the popularity of "Eat, Pray, Love," Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir and movie about her search for spirituality and balance.
But somewhat like the definitions of terms such as "luxury" or "adventure" travel, wellness can be intimidatingly broad.
Camille Hoheb, the founder of Wellness Tourism Worldwide, the editor of the Wellness Travel Journal and a speaker, writer and adviser in the wellness travel field, suggested that a "major shift" in understanding of wellness had recently taken place, moving the category from what had been widely viewed as primarily a diet-and-exercise focus to a multidimensional practice, including social, emotional, spiritual, environmental and community aspects.
She also posited that there had been confusion over the differences between wellness travel, medical travel and spa travel.
"Wellness isn't medical travel, and it's more than spa tourism," she said.
Hoheb's definition is "travel as a catalyst to improve one's well-being in mind, body or spirit, encompassing discovery, connectivity, growth and fulfillment by promoting positive engagement between people, cultures and nature."
Pravassa's five touchstones in defining the wellness vacation are physical fitness; mental health; spiritual connection; nutrition; and community and environment.
"We pull out those five points that we always talk about," Schaffer said. "Those are the big things, and they really help structure [the discussion]."
American Marketing Group (AMG), the parent of Travelsavers and the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel, is already tapping into the wellness trend. The company last year launched its Well-Being Travel division, a combination educational arm, consultancy and marketing group of which Pravassa is a member. (The mini-wellness vacation experience was a collaboration between Pravassa and Well-Being Travel.)
Anne Marie Moebes, the executive vice president of Well-Being Travel, said her team had been studying wellness travel for several years, initially as a complement to its medical travel division.
"The medical travel is growing, but it's very slow growth," Moebes said, while "wellness travel is really a growing segment. Both the affluent and the younger generation either want to resume their healthy lifestyle while on vacation or want to begin a healthy lifestyle at the beginning of their vacation."
The industry, Moebes said, is simply tapping into a larger social and cultural trend.
"The word 'wellness' is everywhere, whether at the drugstore or doctor's office or the gym or the spa," she said. "We're helping to jump-start the marketing of wellness as a vacation and working with suppliers and the agency community in being able to market it."
Earlier this year, Well-Being Travel developed a program with the Travel Institute for a health, well-being and medical travel specialist course that focuses on how to sell health and wellness vacations and medical travel. Well-Being Travel provides the guidance and learning objectives, and Travel Institute provides the course administration and certifies successful candidates as Well-Being Travel specialists.
Agents who complete the course receive complimentary membership in Well-Being Travel and 10 continuing education credits from the Travel Institute. About 100 agents have taken the course so far, according to AMG.
Moebes said Well-Being Travel also offers consulting services to suppliers, and she stressed that the wellness division is open to all agents, not just to members of AMG agencies.
Suppliers' increasing interest in the wellness trend is manifested in everything from hotels' in-room exercise options to multifaceted spas on ships with specific spa cabins and clean cuisine (for more on wellness and hospitality, see "InterContinental, MGM getting onboard with wellness trend").
In a 2012 blue paper on the importance of hotel spas, Hilton Worldwide touched on wellness as a top trend in the Americas.
"As this shift toward wellness and healthy living is increasingly important to all types of travelers, spas are beginning to shed their reputation as 'pamper palaces,'" the report stated.
Retailers cited the Miraval Spa, in Tucson, Ariz., or Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, as examples of wellness resorts. At Miraval, guests can start their morning with yoga, spinning, a hike or a dance class; there are sessions on molding clay and working with horses; seminars on sleep; a celebrity chef series. And that's before the spa treatments.
A Cologne, Germany-based group, Healing Hotels of the World (of which both Miraval and Rancho La Puerta are members), has assembled a collection of properties around the globe that it describes as "healing, caring and peaceful." On its website, would-be travelers can search properties by keywords such as "wellness," "detox," "healthy nutrition," "urban hotels" and even "burn-out."
As for what defines a healing hotel, Anne Biging, a founder and CEO of Healing Hotels, said it is a place that "breathes healing: the food, the people who work there, the methods used. We would never take a hotel where it has a nice spa and the rest of the hotel operates like normal."
She said retailer education was key to expanding the wellness discussion in the U.S. but was quick to add, "It's not easy, because you can explain a luxury hotel in five seconds to everyone. But you cannot [easily] explain a holistic health program."
Still, she said, "The trend is going to be huge in the States. It will be big."
Schaffer formerly worked in the luxury-goods industry at a job that required her to do a great deal of traveling. She decided to travel healthy, staying in quiet hotels, ferreting out local yoga classes, finding restaurants where she knew about the food and ingredients. Pretty soon, she said, colleagues were asking her for travel advice.
She launched Pravassa in 2009 with the idea that her tours would incorporate the five aspects of wellness she had identified. The tours themselves are small, not more than 20 people, and Schaffer does all the scouting work and accompanies the group as well.
Still, she recalled that she had hesitated to call it wellness travel at launch, "because I was worried it would be sort of self-selecting or I would scare people away." She said she finally came to peace with the term about two years ago.
Schaffer's choice of location for a more in-depth, follow-up discussion about the wellness market seemed perfectly suited to the task: Sanctuary T, a chic restaurant in New York's trendy SoHo neighborhood that specializes in teas but whose emphasis on relaxation and healthiness seemed subtle and nonthreatening. The menu organized tea choices in various ways so that guests could make their selections based on mood or ingredients -- or they could forgo the tea and order an alcoholic beverage from the bar. The menu, likewise, offered a mix of vegetarian and meat choices.
Schaffer had just come from a yoga class led by a teacher who also accompanies some of her group trips. On a Pravassa tour, however, she stressed that yoga would be only one of several aspects of a trip.
"If they just wanted to do a yoga retreat, they'd do it [through] a yoga studio," Schaffer said. "The yoga speaks to the physical fitness portion and the spiritual portion, but we also focus on nutrition, and we focus on culture and community." So, she said, when these teachers come to Schaffer to propose a trip, they know they can provide one or two aspects of the five-point philosophy, "and I can fill in the rest."
Schaffer admitted that she had not realized any bookings as a result of the Wellness Travel Day, but she remained unfazed.
"I think it's a long process," she said.
For now, a large part of her focus in dealing with the trade is on education.
"I spend a lot of time on the phone with the agents," she said. "The people who seek me out ... are people who are interested in what we're doing. And everybody comes to wellness in their own way."
Schaffer described the way an agent might determine whether a client was a fit for a Pravassa trip. Someone who wanted a favorite all-inclusive or to use loyalty points wouldn't work, for example, because "we work with local properties."
But, she said, if the client is in favor of an intimate setting, then the retailer really needs to understand the person's lifestyle and what they hope to get out of their vacation: "Are they hoping to start some kind of wellness practice? Are they hoping to learn more about culture and their food?
"They have to get to know their clients on a different level than they're used to, because this is a very personal kind of travel."
Schaffer's upcoming trip to Thailand encapsulates the Pravassa five-point philosophy: organic meals, yoga, intimate accommodations in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and a focus on Buddhism. The tour would be appropriate for people who have never done yoga but who are interested in Thailand and the Buddhist culture, Schaffer said. On the flip side, the tour might also attract inveterate travelers who love yoga.
A challenging sell
Donna Greenspan of Travel Quest in Plainview, N.Y., and one of the agents who attended Wellness Day, said that despite the appeal of the wellness vacation, she wasn't sure it would work with the majority of her clients, who were more likely to use their vacation time for a blockbuster trip or to indulge themselves and let the exercise program slide.
Greenspan posited an imaginary conversation with a client that would go something like this:
Agent: "You're very physically fit, you exercise."
Client: "Well, I don't know if I want to go on vacation and do that."
Agent: "Why not?"
Client: "Well, I'd rather spend my money to go to Europe. I take care of myself all the time. I can go away and not have to do that."
Earlier this summer, Greenspan took a three-day trip to Body Holiday, a resort on St. Lucia with a major wellness component, and she came back raving about the experience. "After a couple of days with no stress, not having a TV, not listening to the news, it just encourages you to have some quiet time with your own brain," she said.
Greenspan remains positive that the wellness category will catch on -- "I think it's a great idea, and it will take off, and [Schaffer] will do well if we can educate the consumer a little more" -- but she remained unconvinced that "wellness" would motivate her clients who were looking for "bragging rights."
Angela Turen, a principal of Churchill and Turen in Naperville, Ill., also was upbeat about wellness as a category. A widely recognized expert on spa getaways, she described her niche as "spa holiday vacations/wellness."
"Does wellness scare people? Absolutely," she said. "We're so busy today with our life -- our corporate life, business, children -- no one ever takes the opportunity to sit quietly. So when someone mentions the word meditation, people think it's a medical procedure or ... who wants to listen to the little voice inside?"
On the other hand, due to her expertise in spa and wellness, travelers seek out Turen. And, like many stakeholders in the wellness sector, her voice grew passionate when talking about the junction of travel and wellness, as well as about the multifaceted programs at some top resorts: yoga; a fitness coach to help clients develop a program for the vacation and beyond; music therapy; water therapy; ayurvedic (traditional Indian medical) practices; nutrition; tai chi; physical exercise; meditation; and reflexology (an alternative medicine involving applying pressure to the feet, hands or ears).
Her approach is to qualify her clients slowly. And to listen.
"I learn a lot by listening to people and why they want to go," Turen said. And for those new to wellness, "I don't get into it right away. ... I just keep it light, and then I'll say, 'By the way, they have a lot of great therapies, so when we go through the brochure, you'll have a lot of questions.'"
Follow Rebecca Tobin on Twitter @twrtobin.