‘We want to be trendsetters’

Andrew Gibson, MD, Six Senses Spas, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about what it takes to stay on top
Gibson receiving an award on behalf of Six Senses Spas

Andrew Gibson, who joined Six Senses as managing director of the spa division in May 2003, has not only advanced the group’s core properties but he has also contributed to projects all over the world, particularly in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

He has spearheaded the development of Six Senses Spas with a variety of international hotel groups and private owners.
Gibson spoke to TTN about how the Bangkok-based company has emerged as a cutting-edge leader in its field and carved a unique reputation for holistic pampering and treatments, its plans for the future and more. Excerpts from the interview.

How has it been working with Six Senses Spas?
Very exciting.

Having been with the hospitality business and designed luxury spas like The Retreat at Aphrodite Hills, what prompted you to join Six Senses Spa?
A combination of things really. One was what Six Senses stood for. They are very environmentally friendly, very concerned and supportive of the local community, and very unique in terms of their concept in that they retain the individuality of every project that they undertake. And secondly, they have a very open and exciting expansion programme to take the brand worldwide.

Does it help it matters that you know the hotel business…
Yes, it helped that I worked in hotels and know the hotel business very well. Also, I’ve worked with the fitness industry and the spa industry and even designed spas, so things just came together.

So what kind of spas have you designed?
The first time I ever designed, project managed and built a spa was in Oman and that was a ‘ladies only’ spa. It was quite a revolutionary work and attracted a very large local community to it. But then, the more recent one I did was in Cyprus, a massive £300-million project which has got golf and residential villas and the spa there is a standalone unit.

So how did the spa in Oman come about?
That spa opened in 1992-93. It all happened when I was working as a business development manager for a specialised construction company that built spa facilities, health facilities, bowling alleys, etc in Oman and some architects and the owner came to us and said we have got this idea with this piece of land, so what do we do with it. We conceptualised it as a place where husbands would feel free dropping their wives and fathers could feel free dropping their daughters off because it was completely run by women, looked after by women and for women only. So it was a novel concept.

So you saw the market potential for spas in the Middle East pretty early?
Yes, the spa in Oman had about 600 members in the very first month and we realised there was a huge demand for spas. Sadly, today, I believe the spa is closed. I don’t know the reason but at the time it opened there was a massive interest in it.

More recently, how did it feel opening Six Senses Spas at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai?
It confirmed that there’s a great interest in spas and also that the market is still evolving. What the market is getting into now is medical spas – hospitals are becoming more like spas as well. All in all, there is a big change in the industry.

Do you have something specifically tailormade for the Middle East market?
In Dubai, we’ve got the crystal healing and the colour therapy rooms at the Madinat Jumeirah, which is very unique. We also have a treatment line being developed out of Dubai by an English botanist and an Emarati doctor called shifa.

How is the spa in Qatar, which is reported to be the region’s largest spa facilities, shaping up?
We’ve got a site in Qatar, which is being constructed for Qatar National Hotels Company (QNH) on the shores of Doha Bay. It will be opening next year at the planned Al Sharq Village Resort and Spa. The architecture will not be modern and linear but rather like a true Middle Eastern village that has grown organically over time, with winding village streets rather than corridors, and with 23 treatment suites resembling typical village houses. It will have a lot of space and privacy.

What about the other spas in the pipeline in the Middle East?
In Jordan we have a spa coming up in the hot springs of Maem, so it will have a very natural feel about it. We are also negotiating in Lebanon. So the Middle East is a very important venue to us.

How do you view the growth of spa industry over the last few years?
Personally, I am excited to be in the industry. I feel the competition will make it healthier. I see the different ways that the spa industry is spreading and it’s going to benefit everyone particularly in the area of medical because if we can work on prevention rather than cure. Clearly, it’s a lot better to seek natural remedies than have to resort to the knife. 

Where do you think the industry is headed?
In the last five to ten years, we’ve had an extremely sharp rise in the knowledge of the spa industry. I don’t expect the same growth over the next five years but, overall, I still see it going upwards. I mean there are many parts of the world that haven’t even heard of the spa yet and, for Six Senses, that’s exciting.

What changes do you foresee in the industry over the next few years?
There’s a lot more interest in the spirituality of spas and health being – it’s not just a question of treating sickness but being healthy. Spas are evolving much more in the holistic sense and we, at Six Senses, are trying to make it the most exciting thing. We’ve got people that just research and look for the latest development for the latest thing that are happening out there. We have a standard now and in every single spa we have decided to introduce at least two holistic practitioners.

What, would you say, is the secret of Six Senses spas?
Probably one of the most important secret of our success is having absolutely two fantastic, dynamic owners – Sona and Eva. They are outstanding in their ability to come up with ideas and let people run with them. They just keep the door open and give us the freedom to do that. Without their vision, thoughts and creativity, I think the company would have had a hard time. The owners genuinely get involved in every project and want to see the project and understand them. And secondly, we have a lot of fun doing what we are doing – we are not a stuffy shirt-and-tie company.

Are you thinking of developing the Evason and Soneva brands in the Middle East?
Not at the moment although keeping your eyes open because we are talking to somebody in one country though I can’t mention much else.

Finally, what does it take to sell an experience?
One is certainly, vision. Being clearly able to communicate the vision and the expectation and then it’s the same as the hospitality industry – we have to meet the customers’ expectations and, if possible, go beyond those expectations and try and think of everything they would want.

What kind of research goes into staying ahead of the game?
We have a research and development manager whose job is to look at products, look at treatments and explore little things. For example, we’ve just opened a spa in Mauritius and not too far away from us is a salt mine. It is sea salt and we are now experimenting with that to see if we can give a scrub and that’s the kind of things we get involved in. The different kinds of treatments that we can do, what people are looking for.
What’s more, we are also introducing a Spa Council. In sum, we want to be trendsetters rather than trend-followers.