When it comes to new openings, few have been so eagerly anticipated or as significant as the Buxton Crescent hotel in the UK. The striking Georgian building has been extensively refurbished following a £70m (US$90.8m. €77.6m), 15-year project and at the very heart of it is a spa which taps into the famous local mineral waters.
It’s a milestone development for operator Ensana, Europe’s biggest health spa chain, marking its inaugural venture in the UK and enabling it to create something from the ground up for the first time in two decades. It’s also equally important to Buxton, one of only a handful of historic English spa towns which serves as a gateway to the beautiful Peak District National Park, as it looks to revive its wellness traditions and become a key tourist destination once more.
Behind this there’s also the intriguing success story of Ensana, by far the largest operator of thermal/mineral hotel spas in Europe. It manages 26 properties across the continent which combine natural healing resources, medical expertise and integrative health. Spa Business caught up with Ensana chair Mark Hennebry, just five days after the Buxton opening to hear more.
The majority of Ensana’s hotels are located in traditional spa towns in central and eastern Europe such as Budapest in Hungary, Marienbad in the Czech Republic and Piest’any in Slovakia. Yet despite this heritage, Ensana, the name of which derives from the Latin words for energy and health, only launched in September 2019.
The brand came to fruition after Danubius Hotels Group, the original operator, split up its portfolio to create two distinct divisions: 15 city hotels which still bear the Danubius name and the 26 health-focused Ensana properties. Both are owned by CP Holdings, a multinational investment company based in the UK with interests in a diverse range of sectors, from IT and flexible office space to machinery.
“With 41 hotels across multiple locations doing all sorts of different things, we felt we were losing that brand essence and it became abundantly clear that we needed to refine our messaging to differentiate ourselves in the market,” explains Hennebry who’s director of hotels for CP Holdings, chair of Ensana and vice-chair of Danubius.
Starting out as an accountant, before gaining decades of hospitality experience, he likes to say he’s ‘in the business of spas’ rather than ‘in the spa business’. “Spas are the fundamental reason for Ensana as we aspire to help guests live a healthier life,” he says. “Our facilities in Europe are very significant and span thousands of metres. Guests enjoy over 3 million treatments a year, generating approximately 25 per cent of annual turnover.”
Genuine spa hotel
The 81-bed Buxton Crescent hotel officially opened on 1 October following a major overhaul of one of England’s most significant Georgian architectural buildings. It’s one of only two genuine spa hotels in the country (the other being Gainsborough Bath Spa) and represents Ensana’s first property in the UK. Hennebry sees it as “a tremendous opportunity” to bring the group’s knowledge of health spas to a new market. “Taking to the waters and the therapeutic treatments related to it has been long lost in the UK for decades,” he says.
In fact, the 230-year-old property once housed two hotels and lodgings for that very purpose. Stylish spa seekers came from all over the nation for weeks at a time to bathe in its naturally warm (27˚C), magnesium-rich mineral spring. Today, the water is also bottled and sold across the UK by Buxton Mineral Water to the tune of more than £100m (US$129.6m. €110.9m) a year.
A spa is the centrepiece of the new hotel and the water feeds into two of its three pools. There’s a relaxation pool with an atmospheric dark ceiling pierced with shafts of light and an indoor-outdoor rooftop pool which uses regular water. But Hennebry says the refurbished Victorian pool, complete with a stained glass canopy and chemically untreated, thermal water, is the most exciting.
“This is what will stand out and what people will want to enjoy and lounge around. That combined with the authentic mud treatments we’ve brought over from Hungary is something special,” he says, referring to the signature 50-minute Thermal Mud Pack treatment (costing £75, US$97, €83) which uses mineral mud from Heviz.
Other therapies offered in one of eight rooms include a CO2 Infusion Mineral Bath to help with circulation and blood pressure, priced at £35 (US$45, €39) for 20 minutes, numerous hydro massage options and body treatments by Comfort Zone. There’s also a salt cave – a 50-minute session costs £35 – bio-sauna, steamroom, infrared sauna and Finnish sauna.
“On a personal level, seeing everything come back to life for me is just wonderful,” says Hennebry. “It’s the culmination of years of work, of multiple parties coming together to deliver a truly significant project.” Plans for the restoration were first submitted in the early noughties and have seen landowners High Peak Borough Council and Derbyshire County Council, developer The Trevor Osborne Property Group (TOPG) and CP Holdings unite to make it a reality.
CP Holdings, Hennebry explains, holds a 200-year lease in a 50/50 venture with TOPG and has appointed Ensana as the managing company. “There were many moments when we wondered if we’d get there,” he says. “The early years were tangled up with sorting out stakeholder agreements, then you had the financial crisis in 08/09, followed by the true challenge and cost of renovating an old building coming to light. Every time the stakeholders would sit at the table and ask if we wanted to do this together and it was always a very affirmative, positive ‘yes’.”
The opening of the hotel and spa was pencilled in for Q2 2020… and then COVID-19 struck. “I don’t think anyone would choose to open a hotel in the middle of a recession and pandemic crisis, but we felt we’d worked so hard and so long to get to this stage that to delay the launch even further was not the right thing to do,” says Hennebry.
“Supply lines were probably the most tricky, waiting for the last bits of furniture to arrive. And we had to put back all the people who were literally about to start work, but the team on the ground stayed in close contact with new employees and brought them back in as soon as we could see restrictions were lifting.”
Since launching, the spa has only been open to guests staying at the hotel rather than day visitors and as of 5 November, the property will close for a month-long nationwide lockdown to curb an encroaching second coronavirus wave in the country. “The UK Spa Association was great at lobbying government to get spas, saunas and steamrooms opened [after the first lockdown] and I think if we continue to show that people can operate facilitates in a safe manner and not be seen as risks that we’ll get to the stage of opening to the public.”
So has the hotel and spa’s strategy changed because of the pandemic? Actually, no, says Hennebry. “Our strategy is to show our guests what natural resources in a spa actually mean for boosting immunity and the domestic market was always going to be a big driver of demand. I think that’s even more the case now with restrictions on foreign travel.”
There’s a lot of curiosity regionally, he explains, as the spa is such a feature of the town – many local residents learned to swim in the original pool. And overall the aim is to give the town a tourism boost.
“I don’t want to say ‘put the town back on the map’ because it already has a thriving cultural scene – it’s known for its opera house and summer festival – and incredible architecture,” he explains. “But by now offering quality accommodation and a beautiful spa in the middle of the Peak District, it will become more of a tour destination.”
Buxton aside, it’s been a busy five years for Danubius and Ensana behind the scenes. CP Holdings, which already had an 85 per cent stake in Danubius, bought the remaining stock of the Hungarian-based company in August 2015. In a matter of months it had taken it off the Budapest stock exchange. “It had been a public company for over 20 years, but we’d never used it to raise capital with investors or markets, so we decided to take it private and continue its development,” says Hennebry.
“That was the first success. The second has been the creation of the Ensana brand. Bringing all the spa hotels together – we’re talking about branding, training, operational standards – was a big step forward. Now I’m presenting to various teams, it’s fascinating to see how much they’re connecting with the brand values and can see what management is talking about. It’s been very positive to see their response.”
Over the last decade, the focus has been on modernising the group’s spa traditions to broaden its appeal. This has resulted in a shift in business, from guests being sponsored by state insurance companies and coming purely for medical reasons, to self-payers, people who chose to come for medical and health reasons as well as leisure. “It used to be 80:20 in favour of state insurance companies, but we’ve made huge strides and now it’s the other way around,” Hennebry says.
Moving forward, the strategy is to continue to modernise and innovate. Hennebry adds: “The lines between holistic wellness tourism and pure medical tourism are blurring and Ensana is in a strong position because we have that medical background.”
Overall, the aim is inclusivity. “In our brand values we talk about being caring, making guests feel welcome and taking care of their health no matter what their budget is. It’s about the democratisation of health – it’s the right of everybody, not just the few,” he says. “Yes we have five-star hotels like Buxton, but we have plenty of hotels that are mid-market. You get the same quality care in the spa, but perhaps with more modest, yet affordable, accommodation. In Slovakia, you might pay €150-€180 (US$176-US$211, £135-£162) a night, including spa treatments, in our better hotels, but you could also pay €60-€70 (US$70-US$82, £54-£63).”
As coronavirus spread across Europe, Ensana closed all 26 of its properties and 20 have now reopened. “We’ve had a good run through the summer months – given the situation – with occupancy levels varying from 40-80 per cent depending on location,” says Hennebry. “We saw a huge pent up demand for people to get away and travel and relax and go to the spa. But that dropped off in September and October when people returned to work and schools reopened.
“We saw a demand for wellness services and less so medical services and, as a result, the length of stay was down to three to four days rather than 12. Both lower occupancy and short stays led to a lower number of overall treatments.”
The group saw its typical market of guests, from countries such as Germany, Russia and the Middle East, quickly dry up as travel restrictions came into force. Traditionally, international business accounts for 70-80 per cent of custom, but that’s flipped on its head. Domestic travellers currently make up 70 per cent of customers and visitors from neighbouring countries make up the remainder. This change also saw Ensana nimbly adapting its offering/models in various countries. In Slovakia, for example, it turned one of its hotels into an all-inclusive family property to successfully cater to the domestic market. “It wasn’t our traditional spa market, but we recognised the signals and responded accordingly,” says Hennebry.
“I’ve worked through terrorist attacks, recessions, financial crises and other global events, but I’ve never had to close 41 hotels before. And that sheer devastation, particularly when you’re a large employer in a small community, has been a big challenge,” he concludes.
“A positive element for the global spa industry is that people’s interest in their general wellbeing has heightened. But I do think the sector is going to have a difficult time given the close contact nature of the services. There are thousands of services out there, and I think the key lesson comes back to doing whatever you do authentically and with heart. That will help you survive through tough times because that’s what will resonate with guests.”