Michael Newcombe has just taken on one of the biggest jobs in the industry, overseeing some 120 luxury spas as vice president spa and wellness for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, the hotel giant that just won Spa Group of the Year at the World Spa & Wellness Awards 2022. It’s a huge remit but one Newcombe has grown into over the past several years by gradually expanding the wellness side of his role while also running Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.
Now, in addition to many other luxury hotel spas, Newcombe will oversee diverse wellness projects such as private residences, yachts and even virtual reality-based experiences.
While he comes to the role from a hotel rather than spa background, Newcombe has always had a passion for wellness. “As a kid, I had asthma and it certainly affected my early years and inhibited my ability to perform all activities consistently. I developed a love of sport and wellness and it seemed to calm the symptoms incredibly, so I saw the power of change and transformation through activity and being consumed by a purpose,” he says.
Having joined Four Seasons back in the 1990s, he recognised the potential of spa early on. “Back then, 25 years ago, we were focused on our core strengths of the traditional model of rooms and food and beverage experiences, as an emerging global luxury hotel group. So, when the business model was skewed to those two traditional pillars then strategic decisions would be driven by this,” he says.
“Spa always was important but perhaps was regarded as an amenity to support the larger focus and hotel identity. When I started working with the spa teams in the early 2000s in various openings, I appreciated their commitment to their craft, and the opportunity to work with them was a privilege and a learning experience.”
‘HIGH TECH, LOW TOUCH’
benefit of virtual spa reduces the
NEED FOR SPA TECHNICIANS
in markets where technicians are not as
When Newcombe was later made general manager of Four Seasons Hampshire in 2002, he opened it with one of the largest spas in the UK. Fast forward 20 years and he has notched up experience in multiple GM roles in the US, including LA – which has an entire wellness floor, Dallas, and also Westlake, California, which has its own medi-spa division, the California Health and Longevity Institute.
This breadth of experience has set Newcombe up well for expansion into medical wellness, an area he says is set to drive growth at Four Seasons and within the spa industry as a whole. “There’s a convergence between medicine and spa at the moment and I think it’s a great space to be in,” he says.
“One of the evolving models we see globally in many markets at the moment is a sociable medical spa where you have an open-plan IV lounge and a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. You don’t necessarily know everybody who is in there with you but the social barriers are more open. So, from what has traditionally been a difficult point of entry, to enjoy certain medi-spa experiences, we’re seeing it fall very mainstream and available to everybody.
It’s not uncommon to see luxury malls offer these services now and this market will continue to grow exponentially.”
While this kind of model wouldn’t be right for every location, Newcombe says Four Seasons is likely to offer various elements of medi-spa via partnerships, depending on location. “In any quickly expanding market and industry with huge growth and evolving technology it makes sense to partner with established third-party brands that are deeply connected to those industry trends. It’s early days but I would imagine this would be a direction for our consideration,” he adds.
While medi-spa is a growing area for many groups, Newcombe is well aware that a major player like Four Seasons needs to be one step ahead, and as such is constantly challenging the parameters and perceptions of spa. For example, he is working with a specialist disruption consultancy that questions every part of the journey.
“Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for many years has pioneered many aspects of the luxury hotel experience and the ambitions around wellness would be similar in aspiration,” says Newcombe. “Our vision for wellness would be to integrate it fully into our operational offerings and services, built on the principles of purpose, mind, body, nutrition and sleep and harmonising moments for discovery and self-care.”
One area in which Four Seasons is leading the charge is virtual reality. Often spoken about as pivotal in the future of experience-led services, there are few examples of immersive VR within the spa and beauty sector. At Four Seasons, Newcombe and his team are piloting an experience whereby users can be temporarily transported to a different location via a system that comprises a high-quality Imax-style video screen, coupled with scents and movement infused through the floors.
“Virtual Spa is a phenomenon driven by technology’s rapid evolution, where experiences can be streamed to large screens in studios and body sensors can amplify the feelings of reality to a point that it can immerse you in deep relaxation moments fully,” he says. “The second trend driving this is the ‘high tech, low touch’ benefit of virtual spa that reduces the need for spa technicians in markets where technicians are not as readily available.”
Again, he is quick to point out this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, as all Four Seasons spas will retain their own identity, but suggests that the potential is huge in urban settings with colder weather, where the user could be virtually transported to a beach in Bali, for example.
Air and sea
The hotel supergroup is also branching out in the scope and variety of its physical locations. Already operating a spa on a private jet; Four Seasons recently announced two luxury yachts, as well as standalone residential luxury housing.
Unlike the initial residences model, connected to a hotel, this newer model is independent but still offers wellness.
Of course, each of these new formats presents its own unique challenges when it comes to integrating spa and predicting usage and flow. “Spa has been built on a static model for a while, where traditional thinking has been around the creation of a sanctuary for treatments,” he says. “As our guests’ time becomes such a high commodity then so the spa needs to be more available to synergise time more efficiently. Spa Bars offering express treatments is a huge change from the ‘24-hour cancellation’ rigidity that was a foundation of the industry. Mini treatments, night spa, sunrise spa and poolside rituals are all excellent initiatives focused on broadening the availability of our treatments.”
For yacht spas in particular, Newcome says the challenge may fall in creating a fresh and innovative experience on a platform that takes years in the planning.
“Hotels take three to four years to plan and build but ships can be five years or more, so unless you’re innovative in pre planning, the day you launch you’re already potentially a few years behind the market’s status quo,” he explains.
“Being able to see the invisible in terms of future trends is an art form. A study of current market utilisation and a keen eye for market wellness pivots is so important in spa and wellness development.”
He continues, “The other particular challenges for spa in the air and at sea remain the logistics of cross-border employment and limited accommodation space or seats to support the front-of-house guest experiences. Hybrid roles and curated services can be the key to maximizing potential in this segment.”
The right people
While Four Seasons may be leading the way with many of its spa projects, even a luxury hotel group is not immune to the recruitment issues facing the sector as a whole. But Newcombe has a positive approach to the challenge.
“The ability of hotels and spas to provide consistent service is built on a core team of employees with tenure and stability to create those ‘wow’ service moments,” he says. “After a couple of years inactive though Covid, opportunities for change and employment choices are everywhere, but things are settling down and eventually we will move into a more stable market where people crave job certainty and growth, I believe.”
Having joined Four Seasons in the 1990s, Newcombe lands his first GM role, opening Four Seasons Hampshire
Moves to the US to run Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas
Takes up the GM role at Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, California, a frontrunner in medical wellness
Moves to be GM at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, where he launches wellness rooms
Becomes chair of Four Seasons’ Global Spa and Wellness Strategy & Initiatives Committee
Formalises the spa focus with the new global role of vice president spa and wellness