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Mind, body and the spa

Krip Rojanastien, CEO of Chiva-Som, rated one of Asia's best spas, talks about his family's two-decade-old association with the wellness business

The pool at Chiva-Som offers stunning views of the Gulf of Thailand. Courtesy Chiva-Som International Health Resort
The pool at Chiva-Som offers stunning views of the Gulf of Thailand. Courtesy Chiva-Som International Health Resort

Balance and innovation are key elements in Krip Rojanastien’s approach to the business of wellness. As chief executive officer, chairman and owner of the multiple award-winning Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand, it is his job to stay ahead in an industry which has exploded in the last decade or so and maintain the balance between Thai traditionalism and modernity, luxury and sustainability, medical science and holistic treatments. Started by his father Boonchu Rojanastien in 1995, when a spa itself was a novel concept, Chiva-Som has consistently held on to its ranking as Asia’s top spa over the last two decades. On a par with the thermal spa at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland and Ananda in the Himalayas, it is not surprising that Chiva-Som has a steady roster of celebrity clients from around the world, from Madonna to Serena Williams.

Overlooking the endless expanse of the Gulf of Thailand in the busy resort town of Hua Hin, Chiva-Som is a world unto itself, but it also works closely with the local government, offering sustainable solutions for the town’s preservation. According to Krip Rojanastien, there is no one-size-fits-all concept here—each Chiva-Som experience is different, tailor-made for the client’s individual disposition and health issues. These can range from a simple detox programme to post-operative wellness retreats. There is still only one Chiva-Som in the world. A second one is in the pipeline on the Indonesian island of Bintang, but there are no other specific development plans in the works. It’s a conscious decision to focus on quality and credibility more than scale. In Mumbai for meetings to discuss the potential for a brand like Chiva-Som in India, Rojanastien talked to Lounge about the wellness industry and its importance in today’s urbanized world. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the importance of the spa as a concept in the multibillion-dollar wellness industry, and its unprecedented growth in recent years.

Today the demand for wellness is huge and the worth of the world’s wellness industry is calculated at about $3.7 trillion (around Rs237 trillion) annually. This encompasses straightforward spas, anti-ageing clinics, gymnasiums, holistic medical centres, all types of traditional remedies and cures. It has been tracked between 2013 and 2015 that this particular industry has grown at 10%. And irrespective of what country you are in and whatever form wellness takes, the goals are the same—to be able to lead a balanced life and to be illness-free. The trend of rapid urbanization in the world today is one that goes hand in hand with a fast-paced and high-stress lifestyle. It is going to take a good measure of know-how to address the problems that emerge from that. The industry is going to grow exponentially because it is a solution for mankind.

What is the connection between wellness and the increase in the world’s ageing population?

I have heard forecasts say that by 2050, one out of five people will be 60 years or over, and if we are talking of a population of nine billion by then, then this will mean we are talking about two billion older people. Going forward, if these people are not well and require serious care, that will cripple economies, as the healthcare burden can be tremendous. The next logical step is that they will look for ways to maintain wellness and prevent illnesses. Alternatively if they are already sick, they have to address that in a more holistic way and not just medically.

Krip Rojanastien at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Traditional holistic treatments or modern science—what is Chiva-Som’s preferred wellness strategy?

At Chiva-Som, we source treatments from everywhere and integrate the best from across the world. We have long-standing Asian traditions ranging from traditional Chinese medicines to Ayurveda. The Europeans also have their own healing traditions like the hot springs. They also leverage their diagnostic skills and bring science into the wellness realm. They quantify and measure what it means to be well, basing it on parameters like blood pressure, sugar levels and heart rate. So I feel that wellness should be an integration of all these worlds.

Does a health spa actually contribute to post-treatment care in the case of diseases like cancer?

I think that in the case of serious ailments we have to be clear about our boundary. We don’t interfere with the medical process, especially with regard to cancer care, where there is chemotherapy and surgery involved. That’s what hospitals and medical doctors do. But lifestyle does have a role to play in cancer and heart disease and we help (our guests) to change their existing lifestyle for a better one.

If the person (who is in recovery from these diseases) wants to avoid going back to the hospital, we design wellness solutions to help them adjust to a new life. We also receive the medical reports of such guests in advance and our experts study them before designing a suitable programme. We offer tailor-made solutions depending on what stage they are at in their illness as well as their personal constitution. While taking care of such guests, we also have to be medically oriented and understand their vital signs and symptoms. We have a medical team that monitors these cases and is available 24x7 for any emergencies.

What is the relationship between food and wellness at Chiva-Som?

It is not possible to get into wellness without proper nutrition. The correlation between the gut and the brain is so key to our programme. Food for us is about a balance of good flavours, with all the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. We have innovated to create a wellness cuisine with Thai roots, which is on a par with fine-dining standards. It is a culinary experience, with a majority of the ingredients being seasonal and drawn from our organic gardens. We have had Michelin-star chefs come and cook with us and the food has wellness intent but is also equally delicious.

With a sudden explosion in the wellness industry, is there a body regulating the hundreds of different spas and resorts in Thailand?

There are ongoing attempts to legislate and define exactly what a spa is so that a resort can only call itself a spa if it meets certain criteria. Standards are being put in place and there is a licensing process and training required for each spa’s therapists at certain institutions accepted by our public health ministry and education ministry. Attempts at standardization are going on so that we have the integrity and professionalism to deliver.

Sustainability across these spas is something that the public sector is working on and their immediate challenge is dealing with waste management. There are also regulations behind where you can put up a spa in Thailand, as it has to be in certain areas and should also benefit the surrounding community. There is a Thai Spa Association which shares its resources and know-how and the government has also formed committees to look into the different issues.

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