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Masters of Modern Luxury: Sue Harmsworth

Arguably the world’sleading spa expert, the British-born Sue Harmsworth is the mastermind behind Espa, the global wellness and beauty brand she founded 20 years ago. Today her company manages more than 350 spas at hotels and resorts—from brands including Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, One&Only, and Bulgari—in 55 countries worldwide. In recognition of her service to the spa and beauty industry, Harmsworth was honored in 2010 as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

Simple Pleasures

I think the word luxury is quite dated, especially in the hotel and spa industry. It’s no longer aspirational; it’s an overused word. I prefer lifestyle and experience. True luxury is about simplicity and service and experience. The star rating system is becoming less relevant. People are looking for individuality and high-level service; they want beautiful things, but they don’t have to be extravagant.

We’re becoming less materialistic in a way, but it depends on which market you’re in. In emerging markets, like Eastern Europe and Russia, bling is really important—glamour, bling—it’s more over the top. The wealth is enormous, and the disparity of wealth and poverty is huge. There, the only way to show wealth is with brands. We’re doing amazing spas in that part of the world, and they need to be expensive and look that way.

There are so many different types of consumers: the quiet wealth, the noisy wealth, the aspirational wealth. I think that with luxury people want authenticity—they want to know its provenance, they want to trust the brand. Trust is a big thing now. My clients love the fact that Espa is a family business, that they know who I am, and that my sons work with me.

Easy Does It

People want comfort now. They don’t want posey things, that is, things that look great but don’t work (some of the Italian stuff is really uncomfortable). They don’t want to dress up, but they want to be elegant. I was at a five-star hotel last week with my family and nobody wanted to put a jacket on. People want ease, to be laid-back.

They also want locations that are easy but remote—a tall order. I don’t want to travel far anymore because I travel all the time. I’m on a plane two to three times a week. I like small, remote places where I can escape from technology. In England, I have a couple of hideaways. I throw my things in a car and drive. The ease of getting somewhere, an easy life, that’s luxury, too.

Well and Good

The future of luxury resorts will pull more on the wellness side. They’ll have small spas just for massage, and you’ll see full-blown resorts that will become lifestyle resorts. You won’t be a hotel with a spa, you’ll be a lifestyle resort. Everything from the bedroom to the food to the spa itself and the treatments will all be integrated. I have some under construction now, and it’s fascinating.

Treatments will also become more personalized, and the male market will continue to grow. A lot of our spas are 50/50. I’m seeing more socializing in spas—multiple generations, families. The teenage market is a huge issue, and we have to decide what to do with it. In resorts, we’re dealing with it and lowering the [spa-going] age from 16 to 14.

In urban hotel spas, the industry has overcomplicated the message they’re sending out, which makes you return to trusted brands. I’m seeing more spas in cities being built as amenity spas now, quite small with brief treatment menus. I still think people want elements of surprise—and again we come back to location and tranquility. But if you can’t do things well, don’t do them. You’ve got to make clear what you’re doing and do it.

I do a big cure in Austria every summer at a real old-fashioned clinic. I’m 68 now, and I feel fitter than ever. But because of the way I live—like a 35-year-old—I need that annual 12-day visit. I sleep, read, and completely detox, and I swim in the cleanest lake in Europe for miles every day. It’s not luxury at all—it’s basic as hell. I wouldn’t recommend it, because not many people could take it.

I very rarely take spa treatments, but I have someone come to my house. A two-and-a-half-hour treatment once a month and a personal trainer who comes twice a week—that’s my luxury.

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