Technogym
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Interview

Alexandre Cantin

Groupe Nordik already runs two successful nature spas in Canada and aims to have 10 sites in North America by 2027. Katie Barnes talks to the VP of growth and strategy to find out more


The facts speak for themselves. Groupe Nordik owns and manages two Nordic-themed nature spas in Canada which attract 415,000 visitors a year and employ over 460 staff. It’s invested more than CA$60m (US$45.3m, €41.1m, £35.3m) in these so far.

In 2017, the company revealed its innovative purpose-built headquarters – think high-tech, user-friendly and open plan spaces – in Ottawa for more than 80 staff across all its divisions, as well as a customer call centre. Most recently, it announced an ambitious rollout plan – to have eight more spas across North America in the next seven years. And it’s also exploring different management and partnership models.

Yet for all of its successes and for being in the spa business for nearly 15 years, Groupe Nordik is relatively unknown on the spa industry scene. Alexandre Cantin, who’s overseeing the company’s growth and development, shares some insight into how the business has got to this point and why he thinks we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

Affordable and appealing
The philosophy behind Groupe Nordik is an altruistic one. Its mission is to ‘transform people’s lives one visit at a time’ by providing a wellness break away from it all with its Nordic-inspired spas surrounded by nature which focus on bathing and thermal cycles. It places an emphasis on ‘thermotherapy’ and alternating between hot and cold experiences to really feel the benefits. Spa treatments, some using Comfort Zone products, are offered too of course.

“We provide something that people need,” says Cantin as way of explaining the company’s 415,000 visitors a year. “Yes the thermal cycle generates adrenalin, endorphins and numerous physical benefits, but the main reason people say they visit is to evade stress. Today, we live fast-pace, high-stress lives and one of the best ways to relax is to visit for a day, to really leave their troubles behind, re-focus themselves and lower stress levels.”

Groupe Nordik’s first property, Nordik Spa-Nature, opened in the picturesque village of Chelsea, Québec in 2005 and today it claims to be the largest thermal spa in North America, covering 210,000 sq ft. Ten years later came Thermëa, a smaller sister site near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The appeal of the sites can also be attributed to their affordability and scope of facilities (see p40). At Nordik Spa-Nature, for example, access to its 10 pools and nine distinct heat experiences costs CA$71 (US$54, €49, £42) and the space is so expansive that it’s split into three distinct areas – the Kaskad (silent zone), the Borëa (whisper zone) and the Panorama (social zone). Visitors then pay extra for treatments – a classic, 60-minute Swedish massage is priced at CA$110 (US$83, €75, £65) – or sessions in specialist facilities such as CA$65 (US$49, €45, £38) to relax in the källa floatation pool or for a banya session. “We’re affordable for any type of client,” says Cantin, “even students who don’t have much money or older folk who just want to relax.

“This also means that our audience is really broad. Most normal companies have two to three marketing personas to target, whereas we have about seven or eight. Women are our major clients and they account for 70 per cent of business, but when you break it down further into ages it’s an even split between 18 to 55-year-olds.”

It’s an interesting business model, says Cantin. While everyone goes for the thermal cycle option, additional revenue is generated by F&B, massage, källa and facial/aesthetic treatment add ons, respectively. He’s reluctant to give away percentages of popularity as competition in the area is tight and rivals are watching the Groupe Nordik model closely.

Innovation and inspiration
Scandinavian-themed spas, in particular, are very popular in Québec and the surrounding regions. They’re traditionally set in nature, but some, such as SkySpa, are now making their way into the urban sprawl. Nordik Spa-Nature and Thermëa are top of the chain and pride themselves on ‘pushing the industry to new heights by offering innovative and leading edge rejuvenation’.

“Our philosophy as leaders in the industry is to look ahead and not at the competition because if you do that, you’re not moving forward,” says Cantin, adding that profits are reinvested back into the company to develop new features. Nordik Spa-Nature, for example, started on an initial investment of CA$5m (US$3.8m, €3.4m, £2.9m) but this has increased to CA$45m (US$34m, €30.8m, £26.5m) over the years.

“Martin [Paquette, co-founder] gets ideas from his travels around the world, different experiences such as the Russian banya or German aufguss and from customer feedback, but also just from his mind – he’s really a reader and sees things others don’t,” Cantin explains. “He has so many patents on exciting designs such as heated hammocks, where you can lie outside in winter with only your face exposed, and we have lots of other ideas like that for saunas, bedrocks and other things.

“The next thing that’s coming is our hammam and we’re on our fourth concept of it now because we want it to be perfect. There’s been an empty space for it at Nordik Spa-Nature for a few years and we’re now looking to implement it next year.”

Cantin says the källa saltwater floatation pool is another prime example of innovation. The 1,200 cubic feet pool, big enough for 40 people, has been carved into the rock, filled with 12 tonnes of Epsom salts and is one of the only one of its kind in the world. “Engineers told him ‘it’s never going to work’, but Martin kept going until he found the guy who could make it happen,” he says.

To make its offer stand out further, Groupe Nordik has a strong internal design team – this is a company that even makes its own furniture in its Nordik Workshop to create the perfect atmosphere. “Keeping that corporate memory is very valuable to us,” Cantin says. “Whatever we do, we make it our own and we make it world class.”

10 sites by 2027
What Groupe Nordik has created so far is testament to the founders Martin Paquette and Daniel Gingras who were driven by a love of wellness and helping people, and who risked everything to get to this point (see p38). Now, having paid back initial investments and with a shiny, new HQ in place, the company is on the brink of an exciting rollout.
The goal is to have 10 nature spas by 2027. Cantin, who has a background in business development and marketing, was brought in as corporate development director three years ago to support this rapid expansion. “It’s the greatest opportunity I’ve ever been given to work for these two guys,” he says of Paquette and Gingras. “They’re tremendous leaders. Their level of performance is so high that everyone else naturally raises their game.

“I’ve always been development and growth oriented, so it was a natural fit for me. In my role, I cover anything from strategy and the expansion of existing spas to acquisition and construction.

“One of the fastest growing parts of the company is business intelligence where we extract client data for better forecasting. We look at the personas of existing clients and see where we can replicate them in new markets to help us forecast our function rate and make sure we have the right place. Being focused on growth also means I travel a lot searching for sites.”

While Groupe Nordik spas boast thermal waters, these do not come from natural sources, so finding future sites isn’t restricted by this.

Construction is already well underway for a third development in Whitby, Ontario – about 45km from downtown Toronto – which is scheduled to open in December 2020. Meanwhile, on the west side of Canada, a site has been picked in Edmonton and another in Calgary will be announced imminently. The remaining five spas are likely to be in the north part of the US, says Cantin, explaining that the remit is to look for locales surrounded by nature but which have easy access to a city – about a 30 minute drive from major cities with over a million people.

Blueprint for success
Located in Cullen Central Park, the newest CA$50m (US$37.7m, €34.3m, £29.4m) development in Whitby covers just under 9 acres and is being created by Montréal-based architecture and design firm LemayMichaud along with Groupe Nordik’s own internal projects and design team. It will be able to accommodate up to 1,100 visitors and day and promises to be ‘an avant-garde, innovative and multisensory rejuvenation experience’. Highlights include a floatation pool (included because of its popularity at Nordik Spa-Nature) and at the heart of the site will be a Groupe Nordik first – a sauna event space, big enough for 120 people, which is equipped with visual and multisensory tools to support a wide range of aufguss rituals. In addition, virtual reception posts will allow guests to reserve a treatment or ritual and plan their spa visit themselves – an impressive option considering Groupe Nordik has built its own software system from the ground up.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the site will serve as a blueprint for the rollout. Cantin says: “Nordik Spa-Nature started small and grew organically and if we were to redo it, we would build it differently and that’s what the Whitby spa is. We’re addressing all the little details and operational inefficiencies and it’s designed to be phased out. For example, water is our main component and instead of having three or four mechanical rooms with multiple staff to handle this, we’ll have one big plant which will be able to support the site as it expands and the pipes will already be in place for when we add new pools. We’re overbuilding at the beginning but we’re confident that it’s going to be worth the investment.”

New models and partnerships
As the company grows, part of Cantin’s remit is to also examine other business models and possibilities for brand extension. One avenue he’s looking into is the op-co, prop-co relationships high-end hotel chains such as Marriott and Accor have, where they just manage operations rather than own the buildings.

Another area he’s researching is the potential for partnerships. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve built up our expertise in designing and running spas and we think there’s potential to share that as well as offer support from our IT, marketing and head office teams,” says Cantin. “I don’t mean pure consultation. This would be partnering with a company to develop an urban model, something that fits with our DNA, and we’d either put our name to it or gain some kind of equity.”

That said, his main priority at the moment remains the growth of nature spas and the business in a sustainable and viable way because ‘now’ is the prime time for Groupe Nordik to do this. “Martin and Daniel are both ambitious leaders,” concludes Cantin. “It [the rollout] comes down to the fact that the company is healthy and able to sustain growth. The reason we’re aiming to grow so fast is because we have the vision and the capacity to do it and the potential is there. When you go to the US, there’s nothing like our offering. It’s a land of opportunity.”

Risking it all
Groupe Nordik co-founders Martin Paquette (left) and Daniel Gingras (right)

Today, Groupe Nordik is a flourishing business on the brink of an exciting rollout. But getting to this point has been a labour of love for founders Martin Paquette and Daniel Gingras who risked everything to pursue their passion for wellness.

While training for the Ottawa marathon Paquette experienced the benefits of thermotherapy at a spa in the mountains near Montréal. The visit sparked a dream of developing a company on his deepest held belief of helping people and healthy living. “When you live a life-changing experience – an experience which makes you feel so great, you want to share it with the people you love. Then came the idea of opening a spa to share it with an even greater amount of people,” declares Paquette.

When you live a life-changing experience, you want to share it with the people you love

He had already worked as an educator at a young offenders facility, a police officer and dabbled in real-estate, but at the age of 30 he found himself starting over again. He sold his house and real-estate assets and moved into his parents’ basement to get the project off the ground.

Paquette first met and shared his idea with Gingras, a fellow entrepreneur, while working with at-risk youth. Their friendship grew and they quickly became partners and associates. They personally felled the first trees on the land in Chelsea and stuck together over five years of believing in an idea, moving forward, stepping back, falling, getting back up again, facing financial hurdles, dealing with reluctant and skittish investors, taking risks and working hard to make their dream a reality.

GROUPE NORDIK: AT A GLANCE

Nordik Spa-Nature Chelsea, Québec
Opened: 2005
Investment: CA$5m initially, but up to CA$45m over the years
Employees: 300
Visitors: 300,000 annually
Facilities: 10 outdoor pools; nine saunas; 25 indoor treatment rooms and eight outdoor massage pavilions; a panoramic pool; a källa floatation pool for up to 40 people; and four restaurants

Thermëa Winnipeg, Manitoba
Opened: 2015
Investment: CA$11m
Employees: 100
Visitors: 115,000 annually
Facilities: Three outdoor pools; four saunas; 13 treatment rooms; and a restaurant

Whitby Ontario
Due to open: December 2020
Investment: CA$50m
Expected employees: 300
Visitors: Can accommodate up to 1,100 a day
Facilities: five outdoor pools; five saunas, including one event sauna for 120 people; 25 treatment rooms; a floatation pool; and three restaurants

Parkland County Edmonton
Construction to begin: 2021
Investment: CA$50m
Expected employees: More than 450

"One of the fastest growing parts of the company is business intelligence where we extract client data for better forecasting"
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