As a spa and wellness industry veteran of more than 15 years, Michael Tompkins – chair of the International Spa Association (ISPA) – might not have seen it all, but he’s certainly seen a lot. So it speaks volumes that PALM, a concierge medical practice/wellness centre set to open this December in Missouri, has not just managed to surprise him. It has, in his own words, blown him away.
Standing for Personalised Advanced Lifestyle Medicine, PALM is the brainchild of cardiologist Dr Lauren Munsch Dal Farra and is, says Tompkins, “a true integrative wellness practice” combining general medical services and cutting-edge medical technologies with alternative therapies, lifestyle programming, nutrition, fitness and spa services all under one roof. In fact, so impressed is Tompkins with the concept that, after just a year as CEO of South Carolina-based weight loss retreat Hilton Head Health (HHH), he’s joining the company as co-CEO along with owner and founder Munsch Dal Farra.
Tompkins first came across PALM while serving as CEO of Tucson-based destination spa Miraval, where he spent seven years before joining Hilton Head Health (HHH) in July 2014.
Alongside his role at Miraval, Tompkins was (and still is) a partner of Huffman Hospitality Concepts and has juggled his day job with consulting work for spa and wellness projects over the past few years.
PALM was one such client, and may have remained just that, had Tompkins not taken the decision earlier this year to return home to St Louis to be closer to family. The distance from HHH to his home made it impossible to remain as CEO, while the first PALM centre is located in Ladue, just six miles from downtown St Louis. The move came at the perfect time and despite the unexpectedness of it Tompkins could not be more excited.
Essentially a concierge medical practice with a completely integrated spa, PALM already has a number of physicians on board, including a cardiologist, neurologist, headache specialist, psychiatrist, functional medical practitioner and two general practitioners. A dermatologist is due to join shortly after opening. As well as a number of dual-use rooms, which will be used by both doctors and massage therapists, the centre will have a DEXA scanner, two hyperbaric chambers, a cryotherapy chamber, infra-red saunas and a salt room, as well as a full range of spa and fitness facilities.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a product like this anywhere,” says Tompkins. “And I so hope it works as we plan, because it’s going to be the next thing in true healthcare.”
It’s fair to say that Tompkins’ understanding of what constitutes “true healthcare” has evolved over the course of his career. A registered nurse for 15 years, he became disillusioned with patient care in American hospitals and left to become a landscape gardener. But after a few months, the role of nursing director at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires caught his eye. He got the job, loved it and over the course of seven years worked his way up to the role of associate managing director at the Lenox property (gaining his licence in massage therapy along the way).
After Canyon Ranch, he confesses that he “chased the money”, overseeing the build and operations of Turning Stone Resort and Casino in New York state. Shortly afterwards, Miraval came calling and in 2007 he became vice president and general manager of the Tucson-based destination spa and later CEO.
During his seven years at Miraval he guided the business through a number of milestones, including the creation of the Andrew Weil, MD Integrated Wellness Center; The Villas at Miraval, one of the fastest-selling luxury lifestyle real estate developments in the country; and, in May 2012, the new Life in Balance Spa with strategic partner Clarins (see SB12/4 p60). But when KSL Capital announced it was buying a controlling stake in the company from Revolution in 2014 (see SB15/1 p30), Tompkins decided it was time to move on and resigned from his post in June just before the deal was announced.
A month later, John Schmitz, the owner of HHH invited him to look around. “I went there for a week, lost 9lbs, and fell in love with the programming,” says Tompkins. He was smitten, he says, because, “number one, it works, and number two, there was an incredible sense of community that I had not experienced at any other resort.”
Opened in 1976 HHH started life as “a fat farm where people came and they walked a lot,” says Tompkins. “It transitioned when it was sold to the current owner about 18 years ago. He started to build programming models that included exercise and nutrition as well as a behavioural component.”
Over the past year HHH has undergone another period of transition under Tompkins’ stewardship. A renovated restaurant – complete with demonstration kitchen – was added, as well as the new, standalone 3,000sq ft (279sq m) Indigo spa, with six treatment rooms and a salon. Existing fitness facilities were upgraded and a 30-room inn is in the pipeline.
In addition, Tompkins repackaged the programmes to attract new market segments without alienating the old. Guests can now choose from two programmes: Lose Well and Live Well.
Lose Well is the resort’s core weight loss offering, requiring a minimum 30-day stay and a commitment to sticking with the programme or risk being asked to leave and instead move to the Live Well programme (according to Tompkins, this happens maybe every other month). While the programme involves a fairly scientific approach to weight management – everything is monitored, from blood work to fitness levels to caloric intake, and measured (pounds and inches) – it also places an emphasis on emotional support, not only from staff but also from the guests themselves, who are placed in small groups for the duration of their stay.
The Live Well programme, meanwhile, is more akin to a typical destination spa offering. Guests can stay for one night or several and can take their pick of services. It’s the more popular option and accounts for 70 per cent of business.
These changes, combined with a new website and marketing strategy, have already had an impact on the business. According to Tompkins, the resort saw double-digit growth last year, with the same projected for this year.
But when reflecting on his tenure at HHH, it’s the resort’s human impact of which he sounds most proud. It’s clear the HHH programme works: women on a 30-night stay typically lose 10-20lbs, while men lose 15-30lbs, and Tompkins himself lost an impressive 43lbs during his year as CEO. However, it’s HHH’s success in facilitating real lifestyle change that really gives it an edge.
An independent study which was published by the University of South Carolina in April showed that 62 per cent of Lose Well guests maintain a wellness-based lifestyle after they leave. “[That makes HHH] completely different from any of the other weight loss programmes out there,” says Tompkins.
Although sorry to leave HHH so soon, Tompkins is nonetheless excited about the future – not only about his role at PALM, but also about a number of other wellness projects he has underway, including two with US film director and cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg.
The first of these is Moving Art, an immersive room concept which uses time-lapse cinematography of natural images projected onto floor-to-ceiling screens to create moods suited to the space, such as waterfall imagery in a water-based treatment room (see SB14/1 p102).
Because Schwartzberg shoots using 4K digital film, the images are clearer than the human eye can see, says Tompkins – so clear that they actually look real.
A second collaboration Tompkins is working on with Schwartzberg – along with a third partner, an LA-based “think-tank product design company” called Boombang – is a concept called Aura. An immersive pod, the product is designed to engage four of the five senses by combining Schwartzberg’s visuals with their corresponding sound, smell and touch. For example, images of the sea might be accompanied by the smell of salt, the sound of waves and a gentle breeze. The technology also incorporates sound vibration techniques. The result, says Tompkins, is a truly relaxing and meditative experience.
At present, the partners are seeking financing for the concept, but Tompkins has confidence in its potential – not only as an authentic addition to any wellness offering, but also as a business investment. “Louis has the largest collection of film shot in 4K anywhere in the world, because he’s been shooting for more than 35 years, so there’s endless content that can be put in the pod,” he says. “So there’s a revenue source for the sale of the pod itself, which has a competitive retail price, including a certain number of downloads. And then [there’s a revenue source] for subscriptions [so customers] can download new experiences.”
And, of course, he continues to serve the industry as ISPA chair – a role he’s held since 2014 after two years as vice chair.
“I’ll continue to serve as long as ISPA’s board and its members will allow that,” he says. “And I have to say I’m extremely excited at the opportunity to align with global partners to bridge the international piece. This year, I’ve tried to go to every single event out there and not just within the States… I spoke at the Professional Spa and Wellness Convention in London and I’ve done everything from Live Love Spa to Green Spa Network events. Every one I attend inspires [and convinces] me more that I’ve chosen the right field to be in.”