By his own admission, Dale Hipsh concedes that spas contribute only a tiny amount to the bottom line of the 28 hotels he oversees for the iconic music-related leisure brand Hard Rock International. In fact the vast majority of income for its Native American owners, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, comes from gaming revenue (see p52).
Yet this has done nothing to quell his love for spa and wellness. “It’s [a] very small [part of operations], but it’s my passion. It’s the jewel inside the lotus,” Hipsh says, referencing a Buddhist mantra. With his senior vice president hat on, he also lays down the business case for the group’s 21 spa facilities. “A luxury spa is expected when you’re in the proper side of gaming. If unique and individualised enough, the experience can drive return visits and they’ve been integral to the expansion of our brand in the luxury market.
“Another reason they’re super-important, besides the fact that I like the spa environment, is because they drive incremental gaming revenue,” he says, explaining that an extra massage or sauna session could be all it takes for someone to extend their stay and ultimately spend more on gaming.
But how has Hard Rock brought its distinct music background alive in its Rock Spas® and what adaptations will it make as it moves into wellness? And what will this mean as it switches from just owning to managing hotels and expands into gateway cities?
Learning from a spa maestro
It’s difficult not to be captivated as Hipsh, an animated storyteller, recounts his 30-plus years in hospitality. Originally from Pensacola, Florida, his family were ‘saloon keeps’ who ran a series of restaurants so a career in hotels was a natural step. His roles have been many and varied – from butler and assistant housekeeper, to front office manager and specialising in projects and development. “I really built my career opening hotels and giving away big chunks of my life to passion projects and another dollar more and another promotion,” he says.
Prior to starting at Hard Rock in 2002 he worked for Hyatt across the US and gained international experience with Ritz-Carlton in countries like Seoul, Singapore and Bali. It was while opening the Grand Wailea, once a Hyatt property, in Hawaii that his paths crossed with renown industry designer and consultant Sylvia Sepielli and his love affair with spas began. “Immediately I was in love with spas, a devotee,” he says. “I’m so grateful to have fallen into her orbit. She’s the spa maestro and I’ve just learned a tremendous amount from her.” Unsurprisingly, she was Hipsh’s first choice when he turned his attention to Hard Rock’s wellbeing offer in 2010.
The group’s Rock Spas already had a distinctive style with treatments such as the energy boosting Rhythm Sticks massage performed with bamboo rods and the meditative Retune Yourself experience combining lomi lomi massage and a gong bath. But Hipsh wanted to further elevate the brand. “It’s a great name,” he says. “But what does it mean, what does it smell, sound and taste like? What is the experience and where are the SOPs to back that up? We started to flesh out the brand and explore what a Rock Spa should and could be.”
More Zeppelin than Zen
At the core of Hipsh and Sepielli’s efforts are the signature Rhythm & Motion treatments which make up what Hard Rock refers to as “the world’s first fully immersive, music-centric spa menu”. The 50- or 80-minute Synchronicity massage, Face the Music facial, Smooth Operator dry brush experience and Wrap Remix envelopment are available at 12 select Rock Spas and cost US$150 (€132, 113) or US$210 (€185, £158), respectively.
Each treatment utilises Hard Rock’s differentiator – music – and connects it with the artistry of spa modalities. Therapists, for example, synchronise movements with an expertly curated playlist. Hipsh says “getting the music right was the hardest part” as he goes into great depth about mixing Louis Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side with tracks from Bobby McFerrin and even the Beverly Hillbillies to tell the story of strolling through an Aspen forest in autumn. The team is now working on ‘train journey’ and ‘beach walk’ soundtracks to add variety.
“We really worked on elevating that sound experience,” says Hipsh. “I’d gotten past drippy ‘ding dong bong’ spa music and in this data driven, always-on approach to life we felt today’s spa should leave you wanting to hit the dance floor – not relaxed.”
He adds: “Our strapline is more Zeppelin than Zen.” To this end, energising touches include pops of colour in the interiors, verbena rather than tuberose scent and bold marketing images of men with tattoos. “It’s meant to be cool and sexy,” says Hipsh. “I know this has always been taboo in the spa industry, but grow up – this is not what we’re going to do.”
Perhaps the most obvious example of thinking outside the box, however, is its vibration-inducing massage beds and overhanging sound domes which send pulses through the body to amplify the music spa experience. “I told Sylvia I wanted our massage rooms to be like a sound recording studio and she said ‘oh my god, that’s an amazing idea’,” recalls Hipsh. At first conversations led down an expensive path with costs exceeding US$15,000 a bed. Undeterred, they looked to the attractions industry for affordable solutions. The sub-woofers embedded in the LEC-customised beds are the same devices Universal uses in its rides to replicate the roar of a jet engine, while the sound domes are used for audio experiences in museums.
It’s been four years since Hard Rock revealed its Rhythm & Motion treatments and the reinvented Rock Spa, so how ‘successful’ are they? “Anytime you do something really different in an industry, you need to brace yourself for harsh criticism – but we didn’t have that,” explains Hipsh. “Treatments have been very warmly received and we’ve had wonderful reviews from both journalists and customers.”
At launch only one specialist Rhythm & Motion room was introduced to facilities, but hotels are now adding more as the demand for the treatments grow.
Yet as much as Hipsh appreciates the value a spa can add to a property, he says there’s not always a market for it – “it breaks my heart!”. For every new locale, he relies on spa consultant Lynn Curry to judge the setting. “She does everything for us,” he says. “She tells me what the competition is in a new market, what the benchmark is. And then we’ll start working on the design – do we need two treatment rooms or 20, what budget is there for the design and moving forwards she’ll help with the SOPs and revalidating whether emerginC is still the best product partner for us.”
Some of its newest openings include hotels and spas in the US and Switzerland. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hard Rock acquired the Trump Taj Mahal and gave it a US$500m (€440.4m, £377.7m) facelift “the spa was an integral part of getting that property stood back on its feet and differentiating it,” says Hipsh.
In Davos, the offer sits at the higher end of the Hard Rock portfolio. “I’ve never seen anything like Swiss quality,” he says, adding that the group collaborated with Raison d’Etre on spa design. “We’ve got a jewel of a hotel with 110 rooms, but then a spa [with hydrothermal facilities] what would support a 300/400 bed property so it’s got a lot of horsepower.”
Outside the spa, Hard Rock has introduced wellness into guestrooms with its Rock Om® yoga experience.
Rolled out in January 2018, the programme gives Hard Rock guests access to three yoga videos in their rooms on-demand, or via its website. The sessions are for those who want to ‘play hard and purify harder’ and feature original tracks mixed by DJ Drez – who’s collaborated with artists such as Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas – and his yogi wife Marti Nikko. It’s also partnered with leading yoga brand Manduka for mats.
“We have to find touch points that always relate back to our DNA of music and yoga was something that really resonated,” explains Hipsh, hinting that this isn’t the end of Hard Rock’s take on wellness. “Right now we have two [wellness] things we’re doing really well, but we are working on another idea. There will be three legs to the stool.”
The third offering he reveals will expand on Hard Rock’s existing city guides, where local artists talk about their favourite things to do – but with a wellness angle. “We’re just talking about how we bring that from paper to a real life experience.”
Owning and managing
Looking to the future, Hipsh announces that the biggest change on the horizon is to manage as well as acquire hotels – the group only operates one out of the 28 properties it owns. “And if we’re managing a hotel, we’re managing the spa,” he says.
Another clear goal is to be more strategic when it comes to expansion. Hipsh explains: “Up until three, four years ago the hotel division evolved opportunistically – ‘Maui? Sure, sounds like a good place; Singapore? Why not?’ – Now we’re focusing on big gateway cities.”
Imminent new openings are scheduled in London and the Maldives. While hotels in Madrid and Budapest are due to open later this year and sites in Amsterdam and Dublin are on the cards in 2020.
Although not every hotel will have a spa, Hipsh feels it’s still a vital element to the Hard Rock offering. “A few years ago the spa industry went through a bit of a wane. But I knew spa and wellness was always going to be part of anything we were involved with and it has to be something pretty special if you’re innovating in a down cycle. And now it’s coming back, I think it’s definitely trending the other way.”