Spa Design

Spas in their eyes

Three of the world’s top resort and spa designers share insights into the creative processes that lead to the realisation of their visionary destinations

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Splashed across glossy magazines, five-star resorts have become the familiar face of the superlative travel experience – and their spas are the crowning glory.

From contemporary luxe to sheer opulence, the quality of a world-class spa resort is communicated through materials, decor and landscaping. The experience, however, is communicated through the story that’s told. So where do design studios find inspiration for their stories and how do they translate their ideas into operational spaces?

Bill Bensley

Bensley Design Studios

Pictured:Bill Bensley

Bensley Design Studios is synonymous with the sensuous nature of Asia’s top resorts. US-born founder and CEO Bill Bensley, who left his native country over 30 years ago, is a cultural enthusiast immersed in the Southeast Asian culture that defines his work. His multidisciplinary practice is based in Bangkok, yet it was his love of the Indonesian island of Bali that first drew him to Asia in 1984.

“I’d read everything written about Bali, studied the arts and the architecture and I visited monthly – as I still do today. I also learned enough of the language to make people laugh,” Bensley says.

He was commissioned to design his first spa in 1998, the Royal Kirana Spa and Wellness in Ubud. To create a modern-day Balinese retreat rooted in indigenous culture, he drew inspiration from the island’s 17th-century Karangasem kingdom.

“Resort design presents the opportunity to tell a story about a place, and your success in doing so can make or break a project,” Bensley says. “But, there are endless ways to design ‘place-oriented’ hotels.”

Today, he mines destinations for inspiration in much the same way. He illustrates how rich in stories a location can be by giving the example of five hospitality projects in varying stages of development in Phuket, Thailand.

At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley Design Studios conveyed the site’s previous incarnation as a tin mine and the island’s mining heritage. The redevelopment of the former Evason into InterContinental Phuket Rawai Beach references the resort’s original opening in the 1960s through a fresh take on a Thai mod vibe. At the new Indigo Patong, the neighbourhood’s famously distinctive character is expressed – not least by the cabaret ladyboys at the front desk.

A forthcoming Kempinksi resort will capture the botanical essence of Phuket’s quintessential tropical garden landscape.

And lastly, in Koh Racha, a small island off the coast of Phuket, Bensley is bringing a sense of place to a land without any tangible human history.

“Very tongue in cheek, I have rewritten the 2,000-year-plus history of Phuket to include Koh Racha as a centre of economy at the turn of the last century,” he says. “Our new hotel there will have a village, office quarters, army barracks and the like, all of which were real period features in bigger centres such as Phuket Town and the Malaysian states of Penang and Malacca.”

Stories are conveyed through the facilities, materials, fabrics, fixtures and fittings throughout Bensley resorts, but visitors will still notice a change of pace as they transition from their rooms to the spa.

“For us, the spa should never simply be an extension of a hotel,” Bensley says. “It should always feel more special … enticing enough to coax guests out of their comfortable rooms into nirvana.”

Holistic approach
To realise these often extravagant and luscious resorts and spas, Bensley adopts a holistic approach from the beginning. The project is imagined in its entirety and presented to the clients early on.

“I never show our clients a little at a time. I like to overwhelm, impress and gain their confidence right from day one.”

Bensley Design Studios is known for the elaborate nature of its client presentations, featuring painterly renderings, often 20-metres long, while a 3D printer capable of making models of everything from a whole site to bespoke salt and pepper shakers, is the studio’s latest addition.

“I like to mock-up rooms. I like to build sample rooms of all major public spaces so, for example, I’ll recreate a restaurant with table settings and assess how these should change in their presentation for each meal.”

It could be Bensley’s devotion to the smallest details that drives the studio’s holism, which gives it control of everything from the overarching story to the colour of the napkins. The studio team increasingly orchestrates everything from architecture, interiors and landscaping to staff uniforms, stationery and music, becoming a full-service atelier capable of designing hospitality projects down to the finest point.

In terms of operations, hospitality clients rely on the studio to understand the commercial potential of spaces and the needs of different departments. Bensley has the final say on the allocation of venues for operating teams, whether F&B or spa for instance, even if a hotel management company isn’t confirmed until after the design process has begun.

“We never design spaces to be flexible so they can be easily reconfigured,” he says. “There’s always debate over who gets what part of the hotel – that’s normal – but our clients rely on our knowledge to make it all work for years to come. The guest journey is paramount and the functionality, if we’re good, will fall into place.”

Bensley’s first spa was the Royal Kirana in Ubud, Indonesia
Bensley’s first spa was the Royal Kirana in Ubud, Indonesia
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
At the Indigo Pearl Phuket, Bensley used the site’s mining history as his design inspiration
Bensley created a fictional story about the island of Koh Racha to inspire his design for a resort
Bensley created a fictional story about the island of Koh Racha to inspire his design for a resort

Jean-Michel Gathy


Pictured:Jean-Michel Gathy

Founder of Denniston – the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based practice behind some of the most luxurious spa resorts to have opened in the past 25 years – Jean-Michel Gathy believes good design comes down to a combination of experience and coherent architecture.

For him, there should be a seamlessness to resort design, meaning the spa should not stand apart in its aesthetic language.
“We were one of the first firms to understand that you must marry architecture, design and landscaping for a resort to be at its best,” Gathy says. “Therefore, a spa should not be the subject of an architectural review. Above all, it has to be a smooth and subdued part of the resort, offering neither confrontation nor big contrast. If a guest says the spa was beautiful, but he or she wasn’t sure about the experience, this means there has been a confrontation between the environment and the service. The spa’s focus should be the treatment provided; my job’s to make sure this takes place in comfort.”
Whether designing for Amanresorts, Banyan Tree, Cheval Blanc, GHM or One&Only, Gathy’s building blocks are consistent. Fundamentals he identifies from the start of a commission include the hotel brand’s personality, site location, functionality, facilities required and budget.

“Before you can even begin to articulate the design, there has to be a business plan, brief and site working in harmony,” Gathy says. “Of course, you must design with some element of glamour, intimacy or daring. All operators want a story to materialise through the design because it helps them to carve out an identity in a fiercely competitive market.”

Luxury resorts that have differentiated themselves successfully can show high average occupancy in combination with a healthy room rate; after all, a hotel selling its rooms at heavily discounted rates will have little trouble in showing high occupancy. For Gathy, though, the real barometer of success is the percentage of return business. At One&Only Reethi Rah, a Gathy-designed resort in the Maldives, the average percentage of return guests in high season is between 75 and 80 per cent – and that’s at a time when overnight rates start from just under US$1,500.

Taking his cues from site visits, Gathy always finds a new trigger for inspiration in locations and cultures. Ten years ago, the showmanship of Miami resulted in a design innovation that has since been imitated by boutique hotels the world over.

“The Setai in Miami Beach was the first contemporary hotel in which we placed a bath in the middle of the room. Nobody dared to do this at the time in the luxury arena, but it perfectly suited Miami’s mood.”

More recently, Denniston’s work on its latest Amanresorts property, the Amanoi in Vietnam’s Vinh Hy Bay, is informed by an aesthetic vocabulary based on destination-specific architecture.
“Buddhist villages in this region usually have at least one temple positioned at the highest point of the community, reached by stairs that break off in different directions to keep the spirits away,” Gathy says.

“Taking this philosophy, but simplifying it and translating it in a contemporary way, we have organised the resort so that it leads to a retreat-like private lounge/library that’s 10 metres higher than the site’s lowest point. The spa is conceived as a secondary place of calm, contemplation and mysticism, akin to a secondary temple in a village. The formal spa reception looks down to a lake on which a yoga pavilion seems to float. To the left and right of this central pavilion, treatment rooms are dispersed into the forest, scattered as though they are village homes.”

Smooth flow
Denniston boasts a regular roster of clients that tend to seek out the firm for its experience. They know Gathy’s firm takes the commercialism of spaces into consideration from the outset.
“We know that a fine-dining destination will need to be located in a space suited to low occupancy but premium rates,” the architect says. “Similarly we understand that a casual bar/restaurant will need optimum positioning suited to quick turnaround and high occupancy.

“The requirements of hotel brands also feed into these calculations. A Hyatt won’t have the same operational guidelines as a Mandarin Oriental. After 30 years in the field, you tend to avoid making mistakes when it comes to space allocation. Granted there’s usually some fine-tuning as resorts open, but clients tend to listen to our advice.”

Just as crucial to the operational success of a resort is how spaces connect from front- to back-of-house. At Denniston, back-of-house is considered in the context of guest comfort first and foremost. This means optimising the position of mechanical and electrical systems; organising laundry routes so it can be efficiently processed from all parts of a hotel; and ensuring front-of-house facilities such as restaurants are supported by adequately sized and equipped kitchens with convenient access points.

“Ensuring that spaces flow smoothly from one to the other is vital,” Gathy says. “If guests in the spa order refreshments and they are taking too long to arrive, then this is usually because back-of-house design has not been well thought out.”

The Gathy-designed One&Only Reethi Rah resort in the Maldives attracts 80 per cent return guests
The Gathy-designed One&Only Reethi Rah resort in the Maldives attracts 80 per cent return guests
The spa at the Amanoi in Vinh Hy Bay, Vietnam, has a view of the lake and floating yoga pavilion
The spa at the Amanoi in Vinh Hy Bay, Vietnam, has a view of the lake and floating yoga pavilion
The spa at the Amanoi in Vinh Hy Bay, Vietnam, has a view of the lake and floating yoga pavilion
The spa at the Amanoi in Vinh Hy Bay, Vietnam, has a view of the lake and floating yoga pavilion
The Amanoi’s spa has a formal reception, while inside the design is contemplative and mystical
The Amanoi’s spa has a formal reception, while inside the design is contemplative and mystical

Shawn Sullivan

Rockwell Group

Pictured:Shawn Sullivan

For international design studios, time spent on location researching a new commission must be a highlight. This is certainly true for Rockwell Group, but in taking an inventive, eclectic and cross-disciplinary approach, this 140-strong team likes to venture beyond the ordinary.

For the work the firm carried out on Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, partner and studio leader Shawn Sullivan spent his time in Hawaii exploring some odd spaces.

“We do spend as much time as we feel is required on location during research periods, but as a rule we won’t look in the obvious places. For this project, we visited a pineapple plantation and a rock quarry,” Sullivan says. “Cultural research is just as vital, and we learned everything we could about Polynesian culture and customs.”

Evidence of this research permeates the hotel. Seating in the Ka’ana Kitchen and Morimoto Maui restaurants recalls the rough texture of piña, a fibre made from the leaves of a pineapple plant. The influence of natural fibres can also be seen in oversized lighting fixtures in the villas and the textured fabrics used in the bathrooms. Local lava stone, realised in different finishes, is predominant throughout the property, such as in the lobby bar which replicates the exposed edges of a quarry.

Drawn from a desire to reference Hawaiian beauty rituals, in particular how they incorporate indigenous ingredients afforded by Maui’s landscape, the hotel’s ?wili Spa and Salon has been conceived as a distinctive apothecary experience.

An omakase menu encourages visitors to customise their treatments. The consultants blend locally grown herbs, plants and fruits into handcrafted creams, oils and products.

“The interior is based on the concept of a traditional apothecary – a neighbourhood shop that prepares customised beauty and medicinal remedies from a mix of local plants, flowers and foods,” Sullivan says. “Guests begin in a casual way, sitting at the communal table or blending bar where they discuss their ritual with their consultant, surrounded by walnut and bronze millwork that stores the collections of ingredients.”

Brainstorming sessions
This may sound like a tricky proposition to sell to a client, but Sullivan points out that Rockwell Group works with operators from the outset. Indeed, the blending bar concept came out of a brainstorming session with Hyatt’s spa team.

“Some designers may feel constrained by what they perceive as regular interference of operational teams, but we find it exciting to throw around ideas with them – it’s such an interesting part of the puzzle,” Sullivan says. “We immerse ourselves in individual brands and experience different types of operating system. In every project, the design team needs to walk in the shoes of the operator.”

Rockwell Group doesn’t have a particular set of tools that it works with to present to clients – this will vary according to project type. After a design team has been pulled together and background research carried out on the hotel brand and location, the firm then hosts brainstorming sessions with the client to discuss ideas, messages and design concepts. Rockwell Group does not tend to produce renderings at this stage, instead its teams create story, inspiration and materials boards to convey ideas visually.

When working on a spa facility, the firm focuses first on communicating what the experience will be like and how staff and guests will come together. Operational details then come into play as the designers work through functional scenarios with the client in intensive workshops.

“No operation is complete when you hand over the keys. There’s always a period of at least six months after opening for fine-tuning adjustments, but by collaborating closely with clients our projects always launch with fewer surprises.”

With clients increasingly receptive towards the idea of transformation, the practice draws on its experience in live theatre – set designs on Broadway shows, for example – to apply transformational stage techniques to its architectural work.

“Designing flexible public spaces, such as lobbies, restaurants, meeting rooms and spas, which can transform according to guests’ needs, allows operators to offer more amenities and services while keeping spaces fresh and interesting.”

Operational considerations versus the desire to communicate a strong story are two primary forces that will always require some wrestling in resort design. In the end, though, both must serve one common goal.

Sullivan says: “When you begin by identifying what’s unique or memorable about the guest experience, this will lead naturally to a design story. Ultimately, it’s the experience that matters most.”

Rockwell Group designed an apothecary experience for the spa at the Andaz Maui in Hawaii
Rockwell Group designed an apothecary experience for the spa at the Andaz Maui in Hawaii
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Company profile: Fabio Alemanno Design Ltd
Based on ancient knowledge – and confirmed by scientific research – warmth is one of the most important sources of healing and preventative therapy available.
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