Early bird
tickets
available now!
Family matters
The Waltons

As Ireland’s only indigenous therapy, seaweed baths have a 300-year history that has waned in recent decades. We talk to a family which has revived the tradition and created a range of organic products and treatments that are selling worldwide

By Julie Cramer | Published in Spa Business 2012 issue 3


It’s a cold, blustery spring day in Strandhill, County Sligo, and rain is lashing the headquarters of Voya, the Irish seaweed company that’s rapidly gaining a reputation for its products and treatments in leading spas around the world.

While managing director Mark Walton and his wife Kira, fresh from an Algarve business trip, catch up on administration, Mark’s father Mick is braving the elements off the nearby coast, working alongside the company’s trusted team of seaweed harvesters.

Seaweed is in the Walton family’s blood, with a business dating back to the early 1900s. And while today’s leading spa product companies may covet and strive for certified organic status – this is something that comes entirely naturally to the Walton clan.

Mark says: “My father grew up with a simple view on life and always considered the impact on others. Even when chemical fertilisers were being used to great effect during the 60s and 70s, my father saw no reason to change traditions. He was one of the founders of the organic movement in Ireland, and you’ll still find him out hand-harvesting seaweed, even though he’s now in his 60s.”

In the early 1900s there were several hundred seaweed bathhouses scattered around Ireland’s coast, with a particular concentration in Sligo in the north-west. Hurricane Debbie destroyed the county’s last traditional facility in the 60s, but in 2000 the Waltons opened a modern, 14-room treatment facility in the bustling seaside town of Strandhill. Freshly picked seaweed is combined with heated seawater to provide therapeutic baths for visitors from all over the world.

“The baths can be used to treat a variety of complaints, such as psoriasis, eczema and rheumatic pains,” says Mark. “Around 60 per cent of visitors come with genuine skin complaints, while the other 40 per cent are attracted by the beauty benefits.”

Sligo has been revived as a seaweed bath mecca, with the local population of 2,000 swelling to 40,000 each year with the influx of health tourists. From this popularity base, Mark and Kira have taken the family business in a fresh new direction, masterminding a large range of spa treatments and retail products that are now being snapped up by leading international companies such as The Four Seasons, St Regis, Ritz-Carlton, Canyon Ranch and Waldorf-Astoria. They’ve even made their way into The Chateau – a castle in the Malaysian rainforest (see p36).

Health tourists
Mark says: “Around 40 per of our customers in Sligo are international, and they were saying to us ‘we can’t come back every year, so how can we take the experience with us?’ So we started looking at what seaweed products were around – there were some, but their efficacy was poor and they weren’t organic.”

The couple’s first product to market in 2001 was a wild seaweed (fucus serratus) bath product – called Lazy Days – which Kira describes as a dried block half the size of a shoebox that comes wrapped in a net. When immersed in warm water it expands to five times its original size to create a rich seaweed bath. Further squeezing the seaweed releases a nutritious oily gel.

“The product is dried out naturally on the beach, so it’s still live and active when it reaches the customer,” says Kira. “You can also keep the seaweed in its net and use it as a loofah. And when you’re finished, it makes an organic fertiliser for the garden,” she says.

A decade later, Voya now has over 100 products, with sales of around 40 per cent in direct retail and 60 per cent in the professional spa market. One of the best sellers is My Little Hero, an oil-based seaweed anti-ageing serum sold for €55 (us$67, £43).

Developing treatments is a core part of Voya’s business. In its professional range of around 30 treatments, a key offer is a seaweed leaf wrap, which involves enveloping the body in giant leaves of kelp – “rather like a giant Havana cigar,” says Mark. “Visitors to high-end spas now expect a raw, natural experience. This treatment uses 10-15 lbs of pure organic seaweed. Of course, it delivers great theatre, but our treatments are also highly results driven.”

Highly nutritious
The beneficial properties of seaweed – of which there are around 800 varieties – are well researched and recognised. It’s widely eaten in Asia for its taste and health benefits, while combining it into beauty products also appears to pack a punch.

“Its nutrient content means it’s fabulous for hair and nails, and it’s good for Europeans who tend to have a lot of mineral deficiencies,” says Kira. “There’s no other plant like it – it has an 85 per cent mineral content. If you compare that to something like pomegranate, the health properties of which have also been championed – that only has a 1-2 per cent nutrient content with the rest being made up of water and sugars.”

The couple clearly have a passion for treatment and product development, and Mark is involved with research into seaweed at two universities – but it’s far removed from his previous career. He originally studied law and then went into investment banking – something which failed to satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit. “I never really saw the potential of seaweed when I was young and just wanted to get away. It’s only when you’re older that you realise how wonderful this place really is,” he says.

Mark, who has since studied cosmetic science, is now responsible for the day to day running of business operations, while Kira uses her previous experience as a graphic designer to put her stamp on Voya’s polished branding and marketing. There are currently seven family members involved in different areas of the business, including his mother, father, and brothers Neil and Michael.

For Voya, seaweed harvesting is a year-round business – involving a daily team of at least four hand-harvesters. Output is higher in the summer because of the longer daylight hours and the absence of giant waves which frequently pound the Atlantic coastline in winter. The seaweed’s nutrient values can also differ from winter to summer, with a higher vitamin content in the summer and higher mineral content in the winter.
Sustainable harvest

Mark says Sligo, where the north Atlantic drift meets Ireland’s north-west coast, lies in an area that’s highly favourable for seaweed stocks: “With around 30 millions tonnes of biomass, supplies will never run out.”

That said, in line with its high ecological values, Voya has been instrumental in pioneering a sustainable harvesting method that has now passed into European law. “Seaweed has no roots – if you cut the plant you kill it – but there’s a very fine line. If you take 60 per cent of the plant it takes two years to grow back, whereas if you take 40 per cent it re-grows in six to eight months. We’ve pioneered this way of harvesting,” he says.

But he stresses that Voya will never be developed into a big brand. “Seaweed is difficult and expensive to harvest and there are scale issues. We’re never going to be the next mass consumer brand – nor would we want to be.”

The couple are focused on developing ties with leading spas around the world – and spend a lot of time travelling to current and prospective clients. Mark says: “We’ve doubled our turnover in four years, although we’ve not been aggressively attacking the market – we’ve mostly grown by reputation.”

Kira adds: “A lot of companies more aware of eco issues and the importance for their company to embrace them. They like the fact that the product is harvested by hand and that we’re a family business. I got an email enquiry the other day with someone saying ‘I really like your story’ – but the thing is, it’s not a story, it’s a genuine environment and family culture – not a marketing ploy!”

A by-product of their frequent travels is that the pair find inspiration for the development of new Voya treatments. Kira says: “On a recent trip to Istanbul we were inspired by a hammam experience and wanted to created something similar. Where they used different soaps and large cotton bags, we’ve used a large fronded seaweed like a mophead and an organic seaweed body wash.”

Organic growth
So what does the future hold for Voya? In spite of wanting to grow ‘organically’, international business seems to be continuing at a roaring pace. And Voya’s success has recently been recognised by the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Programme, with the couple being nominated along with eight other leading Irish enterprises for the prestigious ‘emerging business’ title.

Mark says: “We’re growing rapidly in the Far East, which already has an association with seaweed and bathing traditions. North America is going to be increasingly important for us – it’s light years ahead in terms of the level of some of the spa and beauty facilities.

“In terms of spa retailing, North America and the Middle East are good at selling products, whereas in Ireland, the UK and Europe, we have to work harder at that. In some spas, for example, we may have 60 per cent retail to trade value, while others may only have a 20 per cent retail to trade value.”

The pair have also just signed a number of distribution agreements in the Middle East and North America, and “have some wonderful new partners coming on board” to help establish its presence even further on the global scene.

Voya’s eco-culture

All Voya products are certified organic by the Soil Association and the USDA. Products must contain a minimum of 70 per cent organic ingredients – excluding water which is non-organic – and exclude parabens, animal derivatives and GM ingredients. Products are a blend of wild seaweed and other natural ingredients such as shea butter, bees wax, Dead Sea salt, aloe vera and essential oils.

The method of harvest must also comply to strict standards, to preserve the delicate eco-systems and corals where the seaweed grows.

Voya packaging is biodegradable and recyclable wherever possible, and the manufacturing process uses sustainable wind energy in Strandhill.

Mark Walton’s father was a founding member of The Organic Trust in Ireland, and Mark is continuing the family’s eco-traditions. He is responsible for drafting the EU organic standards, and sits on the expert panel on organic standards for the European Commission and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (an umbrella organisation for different organic bodies).

Voya is also a member of ECOPACT, which aims to support the sustainable development of seaweed products.

 



USDA
 


VOYA products
 
There are around 30 Voya treatments offered in high-end spas such as St Regis and Four Seasons
There’s no other plant like seaweed, it has an 85 per cent mineral content making it very efficacious
 


CONTACT US

Leisure Media
Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385

©Cybertrek 2024

ABOUT LEISURE MEDIA
LEISURE MEDIA MAGAZINES
LEISURE MEDIA HANDBOOKS
LEISURE MEDIA WEBSITES
LEISURE MEDIA PRODUCT SEARCH
PRINT SUBSCRIPTIONS
FREE DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS
 
13 Jul 2024 Leisure Management: daily news and jobs
 
 
HOME
JOBS
NEWS
FEATURES
PRODUCTS
FREE DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION
PRINT SUBSCRIPTION
ADVERTISE
CONTACT US
Sign up for FREE ezine

Features List



SELECTED ISSUE
Spa Business
2012 issue 3

View issue contents

Leisure Management - The Waltons

Family matters

The Waltons


As Ireland’s only indigenous therapy, seaweed baths have a 300-year history that has waned in recent decades. We talk to a family which has revived the tradition and created a range of organic products and treatments that are selling worldwide

Julie Cramer
Mark is responsible for the day to day running of the business, while Kira focuses on branding and marketing
There are around 30 Voya treatments offered in high-end spas such as St Regis and Four Seasons
There’s no other plant like seaweed, it has an 85 per cent mineral content making it very efficacious

It’s a cold, blustery spring day in Strandhill, County Sligo, and rain is lashing the headquarters of Voya, the Irish seaweed company that’s rapidly gaining a reputation for its products and treatments in leading spas around the world.

While managing director Mark Walton and his wife Kira, fresh from an Algarve business trip, catch up on administration, Mark’s father Mick is braving the elements off the nearby coast, working alongside the company’s trusted team of seaweed harvesters.

Seaweed is in the Walton family’s blood, with a business dating back to the early 1900s. And while today’s leading spa product companies may covet and strive for certified organic status – this is something that comes entirely naturally to the Walton clan.

Mark says: “My father grew up with a simple view on life and always considered the impact on others. Even when chemical fertilisers were being used to great effect during the 60s and 70s, my father saw no reason to change traditions. He was one of the founders of the organic movement in Ireland, and you’ll still find him out hand-harvesting seaweed, even though he’s now in his 60s.”

In the early 1900s there were several hundred seaweed bathhouses scattered around Ireland’s coast, with a particular concentration in Sligo in the north-west. Hurricane Debbie destroyed the county’s last traditional facility in the 60s, but in 2000 the Waltons opened a modern, 14-room treatment facility in the bustling seaside town of Strandhill. Freshly picked seaweed is combined with heated seawater to provide therapeutic baths for visitors from all over the world.

“The baths can be used to treat a variety of complaints, such as psoriasis, eczema and rheumatic pains,” says Mark. “Around 60 per cent of visitors come with genuine skin complaints, while the other 40 per cent are attracted by the beauty benefits.”

Sligo has been revived as a seaweed bath mecca, with the local population of 2,000 swelling to 40,000 each year with the influx of health tourists. From this popularity base, Mark and Kira have taken the family business in a fresh new direction, masterminding a large range of spa treatments and retail products that are now being snapped up by leading international companies such as The Four Seasons, St Regis, Ritz-Carlton, Canyon Ranch and Waldorf-Astoria. They’ve even made their way into The Chateau – a castle in the Malaysian rainforest (see p36).

Health tourists
Mark says: “Around 40 per of our customers in Sligo are international, and they were saying to us ‘we can’t come back every year, so how can we take the experience with us?’ So we started looking at what seaweed products were around – there were some, but their efficacy was poor and they weren’t organic.”

The couple’s first product to market in 2001 was a wild seaweed (fucus serratus) bath product – called Lazy Days – which Kira describes as a dried block half the size of a shoebox that comes wrapped in a net. When immersed in warm water it expands to five times its original size to create a rich seaweed bath. Further squeezing the seaweed releases a nutritious oily gel.

“The product is dried out naturally on the beach, so it’s still live and active when it reaches the customer,” says Kira. “You can also keep the seaweed in its net and use it as a loofah. And when you’re finished, it makes an organic fertiliser for the garden,” she says.

A decade later, Voya now has over 100 products, with sales of around 40 per cent in direct retail and 60 per cent in the professional spa market. One of the best sellers is My Little Hero, an oil-based seaweed anti-ageing serum sold for €55 (us$67, £43).

Developing treatments is a core part of Voya’s business. In its professional range of around 30 treatments, a key offer is a seaweed leaf wrap, which involves enveloping the body in giant leaves of kelp – “rather like a giant Havana cigar,” says Mark. “Visitors to high-end spas now expect a raw, natural experience. This treatment uses 10-15 lbs of pure organic seaweed. Of course, it delivers great theatre, but our treatments are also highly results driven.”

Highly nutritious
The beneficial properties of seaweed – of which there are around 800 varieties – are well researched and recognised. It’s widely eaten in Asia for its taste and health benefits, while combining it into beauty products also appears to pack a punch.

“Its nutrient content means it’s fabulous for hair and nails, and it’s good for Europeans who tend to have a lot of mineral deficiencies,” says Kira. “There’s no other plant like it – it has an 85 per cent mineral content. If you compare that to something like pomegranate, the health properties of which have also been championed – that only has a 1-2 per cent nutrient content with the rest being made up of water and sugars.”

The couple clearly have a passion for treatment and product development, and Mark is involved with research into seaweed at two universities – but it’s far removed from his previous career. He originally studied law and then went into investment banking – something which failed to satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit. “I never really saw the potential of seaweed when I was young and just wanted to get away. It’s only when you’re older that you realise how wonderful this place really is,” he says.

Mark, who has since studied cosmetic science, is now responsible for the day to day running of business operations, while Kira uses her previous experience as a graphic designer to put her stamp on Voya’s polished branding and marketing. There are currently seven family members involved in different areas of the business, including his mother, father, and brothers Neil and Michael.

For Voya, seaweed harvesting is a year-round business – involving a daily team of at least four hand-harvesters. Output is higher in the summer because of the longer daylight hours and the absence of giant waves which frequently pound the Atlantic coastline in winter. The seaweed’s nutrient values can also differ from winter to summer, with a higher vitamin content in the summer and higher mineral content in the winter.
Sustainable harvest

Mark says Sligo, where the north Atlantic drift meets Ireland’s north-west coast, lies in an area that’s highly favourable for seaweed stocks: “With around 30 millions tonnes of biomass, supplies will never run out.”

That said, in line with its high ecological values, Voya has been instrumental in pioneering a sustainable harvesting method that has now passed into European law. “Seaweed has no roots – if you cut the plant you kill it – but there’s a very fine line. If you take 60 per cent of the plant it takes two years to grow back, whereas if you take 40 per cent it re-grows in six to eight months. We’ve pioneered this way of harvesting,” he says.

But he stresses that Voya will never be developed into a big brand. “Seaweed is difficult and expensive to harvest and there are scale issues. We’re never going to be the next mass consumer brand – nor would we want to be.”

The couple are focused on developing ties with leading spas around the world – and spend a lot of time travelling to current and prospective clients. Mark says: “We’ve doubled our turnover in four years, although we’ve not been aggressively attacking the market – we’ve mostly grown by reputation.”

Kira adds: “A lot of companies more aware of eco issues and the importance for their company to embrace them. They like the fact that the product is harvested by hand and that we’re a family business. I got an email enquiry the other day with someone saying ‘I really like your story’ – but the thing is, it’s not a story, it’s a genuine environment and family culture – not a marketing ploy!”

A by-product of their frequent travels is that the pair find inspiration for the development of new Voya treatments. Kira says: “On a recent trip to Istanbul we were inspired by a hammam experience and wanted to created something similar. Where they used different soaps and large cotton bags, we’ve used a large fronded seaweed like a mophead and an organic seaweed body wash.”

Organic growth
So what does the future hold for Voya? In spite of wanting to grow ‘organically’, international business seems to be continuing at a roaring pace. And Voya’s success has recently been recognised by the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Programme, with the couple being nominated along with eight other leading Irish enterprises for the prestigious ‘emerging business’ title.

Mark says: “We’re growing rapidly in the Far East, which already has an association with seaweed and bathing traditions. North America is going to be increasingly important for us – it’s light years ahead in terms of the level of some of the spa and beauty facilities.

“In terms of spa retailing, North America and the Middle East are good at selling products, whereas in Ireland, the UK and Europe, we have to work harder at that. In some spas, for example, we may have 60 per cent retail to trade value, while others may only have a 20 per cent retail to trade value.”

The pair have also just signed a number of distribution agreements in the Middle East and North America, and “have some wonderful new partners coming on board” to help establish its presence even further on the global scene.

Voya’s eco-culture

All Voya products are certified organic by the Soil Association and the USDA. Products must contain a minimum of 70 per cent organic ingredients – excluding water which is non-organic – and exclude parabens, animal derivatives and GM ingredients. Products are a blend of wild seaweed and other natural ingredients such as shea butter, bees wax, Dead Sea salt, aloe vera and essential oils.

The method of harvest must also comply to strict standards, to preserve the delicate eco-systems and corals where the seaweed grows.

Voya packaging is biodegradable and recyclable wherever possible, and the manufacturing process uses sustainable wind energy in Strandhill.

Mark Walton’s father was a founding member of The Organic Trust in Ireland, and Mark is continuing the family’s eco-traditions. He is responsible for drafting the EU organic standards, and sits on the expert panel on organic standards for the European Commission and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (an umbrella organisation for different organic bodies).

Voya is also a member of ECOPACT, which aims to support the sustainable development of seaweed products.

 



USDA
 


VOYA products
 

Originally published in Spa Business 2012 issue 3

Published by Leisure Media Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd