After a busy week attending a conference in Los Angeles, I felt a little strange as I stood naked in a small room at Upgrade Labs' biohacking facility in Santa Monica, Calif. I pressed a button, and a massive, tanning bed-like machine in front of me hummed to life, instantly emitting a deep, red glow. I set a timer for 10 minutes and laid down.
Instead of giving me a tan, however, this infrared light bed, known as the REDcharger, was supposedly improving my blood circulation, rejuvenating my skin by stimulating collagen production and decreasing inflammation and swelling.
While I couldn't say for sure that I felt or saw any instant improvement in my collagen levels, any feelings of strangeness quickly dissipated, as the bed's warmth lulled my buzzing brain into a relaxed state.
Less relaxing, however, was my subsequent experience in Upgrade Labs' state-of-the-art full-body cryotherapy machine, which can cool to as low as minus-250 degrees and promises to boost metabolism, enhance exercise recovery, increase energy levels and improve mood, among other purported benefits. Clad in nothing but my underwear, socks, slippers and some mittens, I stepped into the machine's spaceship-like chamber, which instantly filled with frosty, nitrogen-cooled air. Fortunately, I had requested that Beyonce's music be played through the machine's speakers, so I was able to get through my two-minute treatment by jumping around to the upbeat tempo of "Crazy in Love." As I emerged, quickly wrapping myself in a plush robe, I had to admit that I indeed felt energized and, despite being someone who typically hates the cold, found myself in a pretty darn good mood.
Full-body cryotherapy at Upgrade Labs.
Both the infrared and cryotherapy treatments are among the most popular wellness offerings at Upgrade Labs, which is set to open its second biohacking outpost at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles this month. The company is the brainchild of entrepreneur Dave Asprey, who defines biohacking as the practice of "using science, biology and self-experimentation to take control of and upgrade your body, your mind and your life." Treatments target physical fitness, promising "results in a fraction of the time of normal workouts," as well as cognitive wellness and cellular recovery. Pricing starts at $50 per service, with annual memberships beginning at $5,500 a year. The average service runs 30 minutes or less.
Amanda McVey, Upgrade Labs' vice president of experience and programming, said, "Everything we do at Labs is what we call a 'hack.' We want to give you the maximum benefit in the minimum time required; we call that the minimum effective dose."
Upgrade Labs is one of the many innovative brands making a play within the travel and hospitality wellness space, which continues to grow at breakneck speed. No longer satisfied with a traditional Swedish massage or a simple facial, today's wellness traveler is constantly chasing the latest cutting-edge treatment or fitness fad, armed with information gleaned from a burgeoning empire of wellness-focused websites, blogs, social influencers and experts.
These travelers are often willing to pay top dollar. According to research released in October by the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute (GWI), the international wellness market grew 12.8% between 2015 and 2017, to $4.2 trillion from $3.7 trillion.
The GWI also reported that wellness-focused tourism is fast outpacing overall tourism growth, with the $639.4 billion wellness-travel market seeing an average annual growth rate of 6.5% over the same period. Globally, travelers took 830 million wellness trips in 2017, accounting for roughly 17% of total tourism expenditures.
"The wellness portion of the travel and tourism industry is the industry's most rapidly growing segment," said travel adviser Stacy Luks of Flourish Travel, a SmartFlyer affiliate with a focus on wellness. "Wellness travel feeds into people's desire to experiment a little bit, and it gives them a safe space to process a new experience."
In addition to growing rapidly, wellness-related travel has evolved in scope. Once relegated to a sense of physical well-being, the term wellness now often encompasses aspects of spiritual, emotional and interpersonal health, as well.
Eddie Stern, a yoga and spiritual guru and co-founder of the Brooklyn Yoga Club and Ashtanga Yoga New York, said, "When we talk about wellness, it's no longer just about changing your food or adding exercise. We're talking about changing habits in how we relate to ourselves and, through that, changing our relationship with the world."
Meanwhile, with modern lifestyles taking an increasingly fast-paced and technology-driven bent, Stern said he believes that the focus on whole-person wellness offers consumers some much-needed respite. Last year, he partnered with the Chatwal hotel in New York to offer guests an app that guides users through a simple, paced breathing exercise as well as 12 yoga lessons available on the hotel's in-room iPads.
"We all have our cellphones giving us alerts all day and have long to-do lists," Stern said. "We're hitting a point in time where people want to figure out ways to take a step back, gain some perspective and reconnect to themselves."
While travelers are looking to slow down, the hospitality sector finds it must move fast to keep up with today's wellness-focused guest. In early 2017, Hyatt made a major play in the wellness space with the $215 million purchase of resort and spa operator Miraval Group, followed shortly by the acquisition of the Exhale spa chain.
A sound and water therapy session at the Miraval Arizona.
Miraval offers well over 100 different wellness activities, classes and lectures at its Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas, resorts.
Indeed, luxury retreat-style resorts like Miraval constitute a large segment of Flourish Travel's wellness-focused business, Luks said. The clients she sends to these resorts, however, often already practice various forms of holistic wellness at home and use retreats to access more hard-to-find treatments.
"This type of consumer is already doing a lot of this kind of thing in their daily lives," Luks said. "They're holistic eaters, they meditate, they do yoga. They're seeing retreats as a way to extend their practice, and they'll pay huge amounts of money to have a long catalog of things they can go and explore in an intentional, sequential way."
At the Miraval Arizona, where stays start at $549 per person, per night, Luks has seen growing demand for sound- and water-based therapies such as the Himalayan Sound Bath ($150 for 45 minutes), in which participants listen to singing bowls while floating in a therapeutic pool. The property also offers a Vasudhara service ($285 for 50 minutes) in which guests float in body-temperature water and listen to sounds piped through underwater speakers while engaging in Thai massage-inspired stretches and movements.
At the ultraluxe Como Shambhala Estate in Bali, Como Hotels and Resorts' flagship wellness-retreat property, guests can enjoy a similarly elevated wellness experience. In addition to offering more than 20 Asian and Western treatments and various fitness sessions, the property launched several signature programs in April, including the Ayurvedic Program, Cleanse Program, Be Active Program and the customizable Bespoke Program.
Program components can range from consultations with naturopathic doctors or juice prescriptions to personal training sessions and even colon hydrotherapy. Room rates at the Como Shambhala Estate start at $550 a night, while wellness program rates start at $1,200 a night.
With luxury wellness moving into the mainstream, however, destination wellness resorts aren't the only hospitality venues promising immersive, next-level, holistic experiences. High-end hotels in urban markets are also getting in on the action, bringing in wellness experts to help enhance their more traditional spa programming.
In March 2018, the Four Seasons New York announced it had appointed a lineup of "resident healers" to provide an array of new wellness offerings to guests and locals alike. Among them is Deganit Nuur, a spiritual teacher, acupuncturist, writer and lecturer, whose sessions at the downtown hotel incorporate everything from acupuncture and clairvoyant readings to essential oils, smudging and cupping therapy.
Nuur, who earned a master's degree in acupuncture at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, said her modalities are firmly rooted in time-tested, ancient traditions.
"Acupuncture is a form of energy medicine," she said. "It's all based on energy and Daoism, and Daoism is the study of nature. I, myself, initially had a hard time understanding how something simple from nature could be so healing.
But Chinese medicine, acupuncture and herbs have been around for thousands of years and have worked for thousands of years. Just because they've been around since before other scientific developments doesn't reduce their efficacy."
A 90-minute clairvoyant acupuncture and cupping session at the Four Seasons costs around $550.
Nuur said she has noticed a shift in people being more willing to try acupuncture and other unconventional modalities, and she also regularly receives referrals from other medical practitioners, including therapists and dermatologists.
"More and more people are finding it more effective than Western medicine and are willing to try it sooner instead of as a last modality," Nuur said.
Guests at the Four Seasons New York can also opt to book sessions with resident healer Rashia Bell, an energy-focused interior designer and crystal healer. Bell, who has two Crystal Healing Certifications from the Crystal Academy of Advanced Healing Arts and is a level two Usui Shiki Ryoho reiki healer, is also co-founder of the Cristalline, a lifestyle company.
Bell offers two sessions at the hotel, including a one-hour crystal meditation, during which a guest lies on a massage bed while Bell places stones and crystals on seven chakra points on the body. The second session, a 100-minute crystal healing experience, is more interactive, with the guest talking with Bell and providing feedback throughout. Her treatments start at $195.
"Crystals hold energy based on how they are created by the Earth, and the energies of each stone can correspond with a different chakra," Bell said. "For example, clear, lighter stones like quartz are for your crown."
Just as with other Eastern modalities, Bell said the philosophies behind crystal healing date back to the earliest civilizations.
"Whether it's in ancient China with jade or in ancient Egypt or Morocco or throughout the Middle East, stones have been revered for their properties for ages," she said. "We like to think of things like crystals as a trend, but this is just a return to tradition."
Traditional wellness practices are even becoming a draw in Las Vegas, a market better known for less-than-wholesome pursuits. The Cosmopolitan's Sahra Spa & Hammam seeks to re-create a multistep Turkish bathhouse experience. The spa's 130-minute Moroccan Journey hammam experience, which includes a 50-minute massage, starts at $510.
Shannon Stringert, spa director at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, said, "We had our hammam here five years ago, and five years ago, people would still just tend to migrate toward the Swedish or deep-tissue massage, whereas now, the hammam is growing in popularity. People are curious about it and coming back to it multiple times."
While many of the wellness industry's recent fads have revolved around traditional or ancient practices, a few up-and-coming players are embracing concepts that are truly new to the scene, such as RevIV. The company specializes in vitamin and nutrient IV and injection therapy and has more than 30 locations globally. In recent years it has expanded its presence with outposts in several Las Vegas hotels, including the Venetian, the MGM Grand and, most recently, the Cosmopolitan.
RevIV offers a menu of IV infusions and intramuscular injections at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
At the Cosmopolitan, RevIV offers five IV infusions ($99 to $259 per treatment) and four intramuscular injections ($29 to $49 each) that claim to rapidly restore hydration and essential minerals or vitamins, boost the immune system and even cleanse vital organs.
Also gaining buzz within the spa sector is CBD, or cannabidiol. The nonpsychoactive cannabis compound is said to have a long list of medical benefits, and properties like the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island in Florida and the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa in California have been quick to add it to their wellness offerings. At the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, for example, guests can indulge in a 50-minute CBD Relief & Recovery massage for $235.
Meanwhile, the Calistoga Motor Lodge's Moonacre Spa has since August employed CBD in its massages and bath soaks.
Chris Hilburn, Calistoga's spa director, said that CBD "produces a wide array of therapeutic and healing responses, such as reducing pain signals, lowering the inflammatory response and recruiting cells to repair damaged tissues."
CBD, Hilburn said, "has also been linked to regulating body functions such as pleasure, appetite, memory and sleep."
A 25-minute CBD Soak at the Moonacre Spa is $75; a CBD massage starts at $145 for 50 minutes.
As with any hot trend, some backlash is inevitable. With the hospitality wellness landscape growing ever more crowded, it could become increasingly difficult for consumers to determine which treatments are worth the investment.
Dr. Elliot Frank, medical director for quality and outcomes at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J., is one of many medical professionals expressing skepticism about alternative wellness treatments, most notably IV infusions.
"The general feeling in the medical community is that there has been no evidence that this type of intervention has any particular benefit," Frank said. "People putting in IVs need to really have been instructed in sterile technique, and it may be hard to ferret out that information in a clinic that's not regulated. Plus, 90% or more of Americans have no vitamin or nutrient deficiency, so there's no real reason for IV infusions. These things are probably pointless at best and dangerous at worst."
Frank advises patients to always address health issues with their doctor, primarily to ensure that they aren't missing a major diagnosis. He also said that many primary care physicians are open to taking a more integrative approach these days and that visiting a doctor doesn't necessarily mean alternative treatments are off the table.
"There are things that may have real or placebo effects that can be integrated with conventional medicine that are perfectly reasonable, like massage therapy or acupuncture, and help a lot of people," he said. "That said, the placebo effect is very powerful. To the extent that an intervention is benign and offers a placebo effect, then there's really no harm, but if there's an extensive cost attached to it, there may definitely be cheaper ways to get that placebo effect."
California’s Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa incorporates cannabidiol in its massages and soaks. Photo Credit: Aubrie Pick
Eve Persak, a nutritional counselor and consultant who serves as the group nutrition adviser for Como Shambhala, also cautions against blindly hopping on every wellness bandwagon.
"I encourage people to really look at the credentials of the people they're working with or listening to," said Persak, who is both a certified nutrition support clinician and a board-certified sports nutritionist. "Do they have a six-month online program as certification? Or have they had actual clinical experience?"
Persak added: "When someone comes to me for any kind of help in a private-practice setting, they're trusting me, and that's a big responsibility. It's a responsibility and honor to have people trust you with their time, dollars and body."