26 May 2018 Spa Business Handbook
 

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Spa Business Handbook - Laurent Houel

Movers & Shakers

Laurent Houel


Key figures from the global spa industry and beyond give their thoughts on spa trends, opportunities and threats and tell us about their backgrounds

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
Laurent Houel Global Brand Director, EVIAN
The evianSpa concept was first unveiled in Tokyo, Japan, and will now be applied to one of the company’s flagship properties in France
Houel defines a great spa as a place that has the ‘whaooow’ factor, which is dictated by the look, feel, and quality of service offered to guests
Houel defines a great spa as a place that has the ‘whaooow’ factor, which is dictated by the look, feel, and quality of service offered to guests

Marketing and business development specialist Laurent Houel joined evian®, the iconic water company, in 2009 with the task of expanding the brand into new arenas. Spa was an obvious avenue and four years on an exciting new spa brand backed by a globally recognised group has arrived on the scene. The licenced evianSpa concept debuted at Palace Hotel Tokyo in 2012 as part of a US$1.2bn refurbishment and is now poised for a strategic global rollout.

What’s your background?
I’ve spent most of my career working in marketing and business development for FMCG and luxury companies. I started in Proctor & Gamble and then moved to fragrance and cosmetics company Coty – that owns Rimmel and operates licenced brands such as the Calvin Klein and Chloé scents. In the luxury sector, I was VP of marketing for YSL on the cosmetics side and prior to evian was at LVMH.

Evian, which belongs to Danone, has a fantastic history and coming from the luxury business, where the heritage dimension is key, this richness really struck a chord. It was first discovered to have health benefits in 1789 and this spurred on the growth of the spa and thermal water traditions that the French Alpine town of Évian-les-Bains has built a whole industry around. When you come from the luxury sector having a rich heritage like this is extremely important.

How much did you know about spas beforehand?
Some of the luxury brands I worked for had spas and I was interested in the wellbeing sector, but I’m not an industry expert which is why I decided to team up with Patrick Saussay. Patrick used to be a business consultant for global companies like BearingPoint, but also had the knowledge of the spa industry as he’d been the managing director at After the Rain: a Swiss skincare and spa company. He set up his own consultancy, Global Project and Spa Advisory, a year ago and we started our collaboration then.

What was your first impression of the spa industry?
Initially, I was surprised by its diversity. There are traditional segments like day, urban, destination, medical and hotel spas but the consumer experience can vary tremendously – even if it’s part of a chain – as there’s a diverse interpretation of wellbeing that’s shaped by the personality of the local spa owners.

There’s a fantastic richness, but at the same time, it can be very confusing for the guests to know what to expect. Many of them hesitate at having to spend a significant amount of money on something they don’t understand.

On the positive side, I’ve seen many passionate people in this industry, who feel they have a real mission in developing the wellbeing sector. This is very invigorating.

What could the spa industry learn from the luxury sector?
First, that there is a need for absolute consistency in the spa offer. Everything counts from the product to the retail environment and the communication – everything needs to sync perfectly to create the same brand experience overall.

Second, is innovation. You must surprise your customers because if you stick to a recipe you lose the edge. Innovation, however, should stem from the original creation with solid marketing behind it.

Is the pampering spa image a damaging one?
The spa industry is very fragmented but I think there’s room for the ‘me time’ approach as well as the harder health approach. But it’s important that the industry starts to clarify these different segments for consumers.

How do you see consumers’ needs changing?
There’s a shift in wealth globally. New affluent travellers from emerging markets are joining the ranks. They’re fond of brands and I think we’ll see more branded offers in the upscale spa market. Luckily, this is a real plus for the evianSpa proposal as evian is already positioned as a well-respected and well-known premium product in these markets.

What are the opportunities for growth?
In the more developed spa markets, such as in the US and Europe, there’s a gap for mid-market facilities targeting local consumers and focused on volume. A typical customer would be an office worker craving a break from the daily rush at lunch time for an affordable price, with a packaged experience in a branded chain. Or the mid-level executive longing for ‘me time’ at the weekend, who’s yet to find a brand they can trust. Such businesses do already exist but there’s room for more.

What are the biggest threats?
There’s a lack of classification in spas. While the hospitality industry’s star classification isn’t fully aligned worldwide at least it exists. Not having any kind of trusted and shared rating for spas can really discourage guests. It’s really difficult for newcomers to figure out where to go – how many times have you been asked by a relative for advice on what spa is best? Discipline and clarity is needed. There are efforts being made by companies like the Leading Hotels of the World and SpaFinder® Wellness – but when moving from the sheer luxury spa world it becomes quite a jungle.

What’s the difference between a good spa and a great spa?
A good spa will at least provide a good treatment which is at the core of what the guest wants. But leaving aside the other aspects of the consumer journey will make the spa fall short of entering the ‘great spa’ category.

A great spa will offer an excellent integrated consumer experience including outstanding service and execution from the first moment. It will have the famous ‘whaooow’ effect triggered by the look, feel, treatment, service and other elements. A great spa will make the guest remember vividly at least one thing they will be able to tell and spread among their relatives. Word of mouth is key in this industry.

What’s your goal for 2013?
To become a player in the field recognised for its distinctive offer and seriousness. We want to sign a handful of new licences for projects that will see the light by 2015. Asia is a key market for us, particularly China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan (beyond Tokyo). The Middle East and Russia are also interesting.

What are your longer-term ambitions?
To establish one spa flagship per key market targeted, in the right location and with the right partner. This can take some time as we really want something special. Clearly we’ve done this in Tokyo – how many opportunities do you have to go to a spa with a stunning view on the Imperial Palace gardens, a true contact with nature in the middle of a megacity?

Next will be in France where the priority is to implement our concept in the renovation of the Hôtel Royal – one of two properties we own in Évian-les-Bains, which is resort where evian spring water was first discovered.

Is your life on track?
Definitely yes. And I like the way you ask the question ‘do I have a direction, a way forward?’ It’s not about being just satisfied now, it’s about feeling a movement, that leads you to a personal accomplishment. I am lucky enough to feel that, thanks to a very stimulating professional career at Danone, and a really happy personal life.

How would you describe yourself?
My take on myself: passionate, curious, forward-looking, business-minded, focused, an art lover and a reasonable cook! I also think I have real sense of entrepreneurship, the will to build, change, organise, and lead with a focus on people and team development. My critics would say: impatient, too demanding, at first cold and distant, sometimes too ironic.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I’d be a chef, or if I couldn’t for lack of talent, I’d be the closest partner to a great chef.


Originally published in Spa Business Handbook 2013 issue 1

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