As Thailandâ€™s luxury spa haven, Chiva-Som prepares to expand globally, ATN asks Paul Linder, general manager of the brandâ€™s original Hua Hin property why health retreats are increasingly a top pick for luxury travellers
ATN: How many Middle East guests do you attract and why do they choose Chiva-Som?
At least 10% of guests are from the Middle East; Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
Fitness and weight loss programmes are popular because of the way of living in the Middle East.
Arab nationals generally stay between 21 and 28 days and also come to give up smoking and to change their lifestyle.
The ex-pats come for detox and relaxation programmes and tend to stay for 10 nights on average.
Summer is usually quiet for us because itâ€™s the wet season, however, thatâ€™s when Arab nationals have visited in the past.
Having said that, we now have many visit in March, April and May or before or after Ramadan.
We get many late bookings, sometimes the day before.
That can be a problem during the busy Christmas and New Year period.
We have had quite a few personalities and members of the royal families from the Middle East.
Itâ€™s word of mouth and we have a good reputation in this region where we have done a lot of work to educate the consumer and the trade over the years.TN: How many reservations come through travel agents and why is Chiva-Som a lucrative booking for them?
About 60% of bookings are through agents, particularly from the Middle East because many people wonâ€™t give their credit card details over the phone.
However, once guests have been here and they know us, they feel much more relaxed about booking direct.
We offer agents 10% commission; thatâ€™s not just on accommodation only, but on the entire package, including meals and treatments At first this was dangerous because agents were selling the package to as many clients as possible, even if Chiva-Som was not right for them.ATN: How has Chiva-Som in Hua Hin evolved since it opened in 1995?
This year repeat guests have been 40% of business, compared to 18% four years ago.
Thatâ€™s because we have diversified our markets: 40% of guests are from Europe, about 38% from Asia, and the US and Middle East markets are growing.
We have been conducting roadshows in many places, particularly Europe and the US, in order to attract new markets.
When Chiva-Som opened the emphasis was on medical treatments and it was quite clinical.
Now we are more holistic and have added decoration. We have added more details.ATN: Can you give an outline of Chiva-Somâ€™s expansion plans?
We are opening another resort in 2008 based in Petchaboon in the Khao Kho province.
This region is known as â€˜the Switzerland of Thailandâ€™ because it is very mountainous and the property is being built on 254 acres of land, 1000 metres above sea level.
Chiva-Som Petchaboon will feature more outdoor facilities than Hua Hin, such as climbing, running and rowing.
What we didnâ€™t realise when we built Hua Hin was how the fitness craze would evolve worldwide.
When we opened, no one used the gym, now itâ€™s very popular, so there will be a bigger gym at Petchaboon.
Although children are not allowed at Chiva-Som, we will have a separate compound featuring presidential suites where families can stay.
They can bring their maid and nanny and staff will come to the room to give treatments should guests wish.
This will really appeal to the Middle East market.ATN: Any plans to expand outside Thailand?
We will set one up in the Middle East.
We had a lot of offers to do it in Dubai, but itâ€™s an over saturated market.
We have selected somewhere, the location of which will be revealed soon.
We will open four or five more Chiva-Som resorts around the world, probably in Australia, Europe and the US.
We will also open day spas in key international cities such as New York, London, Paris and Tokyo.
That will take quite a few years though. The first day spa weâ€™ll open will be in Thailand.
We have had 291 requests for Chiva-Som health retreats to be built in two years.ATN: What makes Chiva-Som a success?
Itâ€™s not about the hardware itâ€™s about the software.
Itâ€™s about the quality of service you offer.
A lot of hotels concentrate on the hardware; they can make a place look beautiful, but they donâ€™t have the service.
We make it personal.
We take a photo of every guest when they arrive and circulate it to our staff so they know who are guests are .
Many people walk through here once and think they know what Chiva-Som is all about.
You need to stay here to experience it and understand it.
We have been voted number two in the world by CondÃ© Nast Traveller UK (Chiva-Som was runner-up in the Best Overseas Destination Spa Retreat category), but itâ€™s because of the people that work here that we have achieved what we have achieved.
Chiva-Som is not a place for everyone.
Certain people should not be here.
You have to ask yourself, â€˜do I really want to go with this philosophy?â€™
Do you like to eat spa cuisine without all the grease?
At Chiva-Som you can be an egotist.
You do everything for yourself.
Itâ€™s nurturing and when you go home youâ€™ve achieved something.
Itâ€™s life changing for many people.