One of the most respected wellness destinations in the world, Chiva-Som has spent the past 25 years perfecting its original Hua Hin location as a go-to place for true wellness. Recently, however, chair and CEO Khun Krip Rojanastien has also been busy with a string of changes designed to keep pace with global wellness lifestyle trends and expand the reach of the Thai spa into new markets. And of course, for most of this year, he and the rest of the Chiva-Som staff have been doing what almost everyone else has been doing – learning how to pivot in the face of a pandemic, and along the way, expanding the brand’s reach through online efforts.
Transformation and balance
Rojanastien’s late father, Boonchu Rojanastien, a banker and politician, founded Chiva-Som in 1995 as a comprehensive wellness resort focused on optimal wellbeing. It’s nestled in seven acres of tranquil beachfront grounds, a setting that’s key to its aim of helping guests revitalise their mind, body and spirit. Western practices and eastern philosophies are brought together in the treatments and programming, and guests are encouraged to develop healthy habits and lifestyle transformations.
After his father opened the resort, Rojanastien underwent such a lifestyle transformation himself, losing 20kg and becoming a marathon runner. In 2007, following his father’s death, he took the helm at Chiva-Som. “My father and I created something called ‘The Ten Pillars of Chiva-Som’, which are basically guiding principles,” says Rojanastien.
“Balance and innovation are key elements in my approach to the business of wellness. We must seek change and innovation, and at the same time, I try to maintain the balance between Thai traditionalism and evidence-based innovation, luxury and sustainability, medical science and holistic treatments.”
Part of that change and innovation has meant that Chiva-Som recently completed a four-phase overhaul at a cost of TBH800m (US$24.4m, €21m, £18.8m) in response to guest feedback and evolving expectations.
“I’ve worked extensively over five years on upgrading the experience for our guests,” says Rojanastien. “It was a major commitment, especially as we closed the resort for several months [each year] to ensure that our promise of tranquility was not compromised.” That tranquil environment is key to the Chiva-Som ethos. It’s seen as essential in order to focus on wellness. The renovation retains the core themes of the resort, increasing the size of many areas – particularly the guest rooms – and bringing a ‘lightness’ into the interior design.
The Bathing Pavilion, with its salt-water pool, relaxation areas and additional hydrothermal facilities, has been refreshed, as have the wellness consultation rooms, spa treatment rooms, the hydrotherapy suite, floatation chamber and watsu pools.
“Attention was given to creating a calming environment through the use of refined bamboo and silk, supplemented in some areas with granite and mirrors to enhance the light,” says Rojanastien. “The Niranlada Medi-Spa has been transformed to a more serene space with a discrete body and facial analysis area and a dedicated sterile room.”
A range of modalities have been introduced, from three colonic hydrotherapy treatments, to a folate assessment for detox and metabolic health and an LPG Cellu M6 Alliance cellulite treatment. More fitness options have also been added in response to the resort’s – and the wellness sector’s – widening client base. “Our guests are getting both younger and older, so with such a broad base, there are different demands,” Rojanastien says. A highlight of the expanded gym is a Refunctional Room for older guests or those who’ve been through surgeries or traumas. “If they want to recover or get well, they need a different regime to, say, people in their 20s and 30s who want to maximise their performance,” Rojanastien explains. New equipment will help with rehabilitation, leg mobility and balance, as well as preparing the body for more strenuous exercise.
Part of Rojanastien’s strategy during the pandemic has been to quickly pivot to bring Chiva-Som’s naturopaths, physiotherapists and exercise professionals to people all over the world, via Zoom, in an attempt to help combat the widespread anxiety and social isolation caused by the lockdown.
“The Online Wellness Services were in fact in our 2020 master plan, and some preparatory actions had started already in 2019,” he says. “The intent is they would support our guests to stay connected with us via a digital platform and help them maintain their wellness lifestyle at home and in their daily life.” When travel restrictions and social distancing became the new normal, Chiva-Som decided to launch the service in April 2020, which was earlier than planned.
The online programming begins with a initial complimentary 50-minute consultation, which includes personalised feedback regarding lifestyle and nutrition as well as suggestions suitable for other online programmes and subsequent sessions. These additional services include everything from neurodynamic exercise (THB3,500, US$112, €95) to yoga and meditation (THB2,500, US$80, €68) and even natural fertility consultation (THB3,500, US$112, €95). In late September, they then added an Online Intensive Wellness Series which includes successive interactive sessions to gradually enhance knowledge of certain areas, such as a six-week pilates course (THB9,500, US$304, €257).
“The feedback has been impressive,” says Rojanastien. “It’s more than we expected. It is our great pleasure to see how much we support those in need.”
That support – be it online or in person – is something Rojanastien sees as vital in a post-pandemic world. “People have experienced trauma in varying degrees, which causes both shock and reflection about what is important in our lives – from friends, family and love, to the environment and sustainability,” he explains. “We think that a natural holistic approach is required.”
With Thai borders closed, resort offerings have been tuned to meet the domestic demand of Thais and expats, who tend to travel on weekends or make long-stay arrangements. New retreats highlighting immunity boosting programmes, wellness rebalancing and stress relief are offered with more flexibility in terms of minimum nights of stay, pricing, programming and arrival and departure times. And because domestic travellers are looking for active sessions on-site, new activities have been added into the daily schedule.
Chiva-Som has also launched a food delivery service in the local area of Hua Hin, which includes meal plans and fresh organic fruit and vegetables. “All are geared to help our guests maintain their wellness lifestyle at home,” says Rojanastien. At the same time, Chiva-Som has retained all its staff – something that he says is important to guests. “They see we’re working hard to ensure our staff and their families stay secure.”
Expanding into Qatar
Perhaps the most exciting thing on the horizon for Chiva-Som is the upcoming Zulal Wellness Resort in Khasooma, Qatar, which is set to open in Q2 2021 – a year later than originally expected, but still very much going ahead nonetheless.
Industry consultants Simple Lotus, Spa Strategy and Trilogy Spa Holdings collaborated on the early development of the concept, while GOCO says it also contributed to market research and feasibility and additional services.
Qatar-based Msheireb Properties is developing the property and appointed Chiva-Som to operate the resort, drawing on its many years of expertise in catering to an exacting global clientele. This marks the first time Chiva-Som has embarked on a management contract. “This enables us to partner with an investor who brings additional capabilities and resources to the table,” explains Rojanastien. “In a country where we start with limited local knowledge, this is a valuable foundation.”
Zulal claims to be the largest wellness destination in the country, and also the first centre for Traditional Arabic Islamic Medicine (TAIM), which explores the healing remedies and traditions of the Middle East. Derived from the Canon of Medicine written by physician-philosopher Avicenna in 1025, TAIM is one of the cornerstones of the history of medicine, though it is less well-known than the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) that Chiva-Som guests are familiar with in Hua Hin. “The Middle East has a rich wellness history that’s been documented by medics of the past,” says Rojanastien. “TAIM includes diagnostic techniques as well as herbal and lifestyle remedies that we will be introducing into the consultation and treatment menu in the resort. This is the first time TAIM has been brought into a contemporary setting, and we believe it will be of interest to guests of all nationalities. It distils over a millennium of evidence-based wellness practices into a range of treatments and programmes aimed at restoring health in the 21st century. Products and nutrition are rooted in the natural bounty of Qatar, and are delivered using the freshest local ingredients, healing herbs, minerals and marine flora.”
The resort is also unique in that it includes two parts: the Zulal Serenity adults’ resort, and the 120-bedroom Zulal Discovery resort for families. “We strongly believe that a wellness lifestyle starts from a very young age and is determined by the interactions and bonds of every member of the family,” says Rojanastien. “We also understand that parents are increasingly aware of the environment that their children are growing up in, and are looking for positive, fun, healthy environments that support what they are trying to achieve at home.”
Msheireb Properties also worked on the resort’s design, which features architecture inspired by Qatari heritage and culture. The name Zulal refers to “purified water” and is inspired by the people’s historic journey across land to the sea in search of water, the seed of life. Landscaping will feature ponds and water features arranged around serene shaded walled gardens; a narrative inspired by memories of sea-bound travellers finding welcoming shelter in local villages. Guests are expected to be local Qataris as well as wellness travellers from around the world; Rojanastien points out that Doha – about an hour’s drive away – is a convenient hub within a six to seven hour flight of most European cities.
“For family groups, there are literally hundreds of treatments and activities that can be done individually or together in spaces designed to respond to the needs of each age-range and interest,” says Rojanastien. “This includes things such as cooking activities for youngsters to age-appropriate play, dance and creative expression, to breathing meditation and mental health exercises.”
At the adults-only Zulal Serenity, which will have 60 suites and villas, guests can enjoy a wide range of spa treatments, mind-energy work, fitness tracks and aesthetic beauty, as well as detox, cleansing, fasting and meditation. Each guest will have their own wellness advisor, who will develop programmes in accordance with their needs, goals and preferences.
Even after the surprises that 2020 has thrown at us all, Rojanastien remains optimistic about the future. As he explains: “COVID-19 has made people more keenly aware of having a strong immune system and the need for a wellness lifestyle to support that.”
And while digital service platforms will continue even after international travel resumes, Rojanastien says it’s the direct human contact and interaction that people long for. “Therefore,” he concludes, “those in the wellness industry who can achieve excellence on both fronts will be the most successful.”