Wellness Travel Gets A High Tech Upgrade – Forbes

February 17, 2020




Virtual reality spa treatments, ultrasound therapy, and data-driven wellness retreats are trending in Hawaii. Other destinations will soon follow.

Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels.

Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat. Photo by Robb Gordon.

Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels

Is your circadian rhythm optimized? Has your facial collagen been refreshed lately? How’s the view from your Bod Pod? 

These and other personal health questions are now a standard part of guest experience programming in luxury hotels and resorts looking to gain a foothold in the wellness travel market. According to the Global Wellness Institute, this market is expected to reach $919 billion by 2022 with an annual growth rate of 7.5%, which is more than twice that of tourism overall.

From now on, you can expect wellness services to be far more than skin-deep. This trend is already driving bookings to the Hawaiian Islands, for example, where Four Seasons Hotels recently launched a slate of cutting-edge treatments that push the limits of what a “health spa” can do. Among these are virtual reality-based stress management, ultrasound and cryotherapy facials, thermal body mapping massages, and one-on-one consultations with pedigreed health practitioners who measure your biological data to best coach you through your “experience.”

The latter occurs at Hawaii’s hottest new opening, Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat, on the 90,000 acre private island of Lanai. Known as the “Pineapple Isle,” it was bought in 2012 by billionaire Larry Ellison, co founder and chief technology officer of Oracle, for a reported $300 million. Since then, he’s turned the island’s former Dole pineapple plantation into a tropical Zen paradise, fed from its own hydroponic farm and designed to deliver an optimal version of you. Open just a little over three months, this Hawaiian Ferngully already commands room rates starting at $4,574 a night, the top end of the luxury market.

Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat.

Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat. Photo by Robb Gordon.

Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels

Clearly Sensei, Ellison’s start-up tech company, is in its infancy, flexing its muscles to see what it can do. They’ve billed the brand “evidence-led” and “high-touch,” which essentially means that wellness staffers—most have masters degrees and almost none are Hawaiian—get a read on your data first, before they customize your workouts or treatments. For example, you can opt for a massage that targets tension in your body, captured visually by a thermal camera that measures internal heat. (When you see a particular part of your body light up like a Christmas tree, it’s time to give it some extra attention.) Your fitness regime is also planned only after you’ve answered your pre-arrival health questionnaire and stepped onto a body composition machine called SECA, which measures your fat mass, skeletal muscle mass, and current hydration level among other metrics.

“Today’s new technology provides access to important data we didn’t have before,” Sensei states in its opening release. Going forward, the company plans to offer smart mattress tech and sleep wearables, which can collect heart rate, respiration, and movement data to optimize your sleep routine. Of course, providing personal biometric data is entirely optional. The logic behind collecting it is simply this: What can be measured can be managed.

To this end, guests are given a “Guide to Growth” report upon departure, listing the aggregated data, and outlining breakthrough “aha” moments achieved between you and your assigned counselor during your stay. This includes every notable recommendation that came from discussions between you and your meditation guide, yoga instructor, hiking guide, or nutrition coach. Evidently, true transformation takes a village — a remote, coconut water guzzling, sunset hula-dancing village, reachable via Lanai Air’s glamorous Pilatus PC-12 “Come Fly With Me…” prop planes operating from a private terminal at Honolulu’s International Airport.

HEY, HOLLYWOOD!

Just a short ferry ride from Lanai across the Pacific, the 15-acre Four Seasons Maui resort, owned by another tech billionaire Michael Dell, takes an aesthetic approach to spa treatments in order to satisfy its steady stream of high-maintenance, LA-based weekend warriors looking for a tune up.

Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels

A cryotherapy facial at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea.

Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels

Here, the 24/7 fitness center stacked with Peloton bikes, full service beauty salon, and on-site doctor offering Botox and fillers is simply a standard menu of routine hygiene. For a more high-tech treatment, Spa Director Pat Makozak recommends adding their latest addition of ultrasound tech to any facial. This type of ultrasound penetrates tissue using sound waves to stimulate collagen-producing cells, reduce inflammation, and promote blood circulation. It remains unclear how ultrasound tech compares to more common cryotherapy facials, also on the resort’s spa menu, which use freezing temperatures to stimulate collagen and blood circulation in a very similar way.

“In the last few years, infrared light technology seems to be at the forefront of anti-aging and pain management treatments,” says Makozak, who also oversees Four Seasons spas in Bora Bora and Whistler, Canada. A top seller for her is a weight loss laser called i-Lipo, which is a non-surgical alternative to liposuction, priced at $450 for 45 minutes. “The light from the laser stimulates the fat cell to open its pores, and all of the liquid inside flows out into the bloodstream, just like it would if you were working out. After a 20 minute session with i-Lipo, it frees up 500 to 700 calories, and the only caveat is that you need to spend 30 minutes doing cardio so that this released energy is burned off.”

Whether or not i-Lipo actually works is another story. The glut of tech products entering the wellness market is so rapid and diverse that consumers must do their own research to navigate this trend, which is gaining steam elsewhere, such as at the Ojai Valley Inn in California, and the five star Gstaad Palace in Switzerland.

The Sensync ″Vessel″ at Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina.

The Sensync “Vessel” at Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina.

Courtesy Sensync

DEEP BRAIN MASSAGE

Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina officially unveiled the Sensync “Vessel” in November last year, adding “mixed reality” technology to their menu of spa treatments designed to help you relax.

Sensync, which stands for sensory synchronization, is an immersive wellness company founded by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Alex Theory, who has a PhD in psychology. They partnered to produce The Vessel with the goal of calming our media-saturated minds.

“We set out to use the power of technology in a positive way to create a state of calm to help people with anxiety and depression. It engages your senses, mimicking the experience of going into nature. When you stand by a cliff by the ocean side, or if you’re in the forest, you smell the environment, you feel the wind. You’re seeing the green in the trees. It takes you out of your hyper-cognitive state.” 

Whether something like this is needed in the super chilled-out Hawaiian islands is questionable. But Sensync is also considering airports and workplaces as host venues, where anxiety levels are markedly higher.

Asked how the experience compares to meditation, Theory says: “Most people don’t really know what meditation is, or what it means. Our goal is to facilitate the effect of meditation, without having to know what it is.” The Vessel programming currently offers a 20-minute “Relax” session, a 20-minute “Restore” session, or a 40-minute “Full Spectrum” experience, which is a combination of the two.

The Full Spectrum involves climbing into a sleek white Vessel that looks like it could be a set piece from Star Wars, and lying down onto its black leather bed that occasionally lifts, lowers, and vibrates, depending on your chosen content. Next, don the bulky VR headset that will sail you into a watery digital “Crystal Cave,” then transport you into a sky of “Floating Clouds,” where you smell the scent of airy clean cotton, before plunging into “Quantum Oneness,” which is a peaceful ride through neon particles morphing in and out of recognizable nature shapes: green palm trees, a bowl of fruit on a table. Finally, enter “Deep Space.” Taken together, the whole thing creates a kind of 90s-era black light lava lamp mood. You’re Zenned-out to the max.  

The glitches need work. Between each ‘world’ the screen cuts to black, which makes for a choppy ride. The headset itself is heavy and awkward— if it moves slightly in the wrong direction, your image goes blurry. That said, my heart and breath rate did lower significantly during the session. Data doesn’t lie. “This is the prototype; We are making improvements to the commercial version,” Dr. Theory said readily. 

Perhaps most interesting is the way this technology actively gets a read on us. It senses your heart rate, breath rate, and temperature, and is designed to respond by driving you to “ideal” metrics, signaling real relaxation. To do this, Sensync uses machine learning to adapt content over the course of your session. You’re feeding a proprietary algorithm. Think of it as “conscious content.”

In the future, as technology advances, we will no doubt be seeing wellness tech incorporated into more facets of the travel industry. You could be forgiven for dreading this, thinking technology has invaded your every waking moment. Isn’t travel supposed to be about escaping our computers? 

When you think about your very best travel experiences, they usually involve the personal connections you made, right? Lasting memories come from the people and the places you touch. To that end, wellness tech will be at its best, if and only if it is designed as a meaningful two-way exchange between the traveler and the health practitioner — your therapist, counselor, or meditation guru — instead of a one-sided cyber transaction.