…or, is it time for a spa star classification system?

I am staying at this beautiful 5* luxury hotel. A Grand Hotel. Rich history. Royals have stayed here before. In a historic European Spa Town, a jewel of local spa culture. Targeted at the High Society.  

It has everything you can wish for. Almost.

It does have a lovely modern furnished room with all the amenities you expect. 

The huge and comfy king bed with luxurious linen, changed daily if you wish.

Free high speed wifi, TV, desk, lovely sitting area, modern and spacious bathroom with fluffy bathrobes and plenty of towels. A large balcony facing the park, with views to die for, afternoon sunshine. And the sunsets…

The breakfast room is breathtaking, food is excellent in all of the outlets. Think about local specialities and international classics. While I am writing this, I am sitting in the hotel bar, where the bartender spoils me with nuts and chips and chocolates complementing my glass of wine.

The people working at the hotel are lovely, well trained and educated, everyone speaks several languages effortlessly, uniforms are immaculate, service is great. 

I feel very comfortable.

Until I visit the Spa.

This is a real experience

What I am writing about today is actually happening. It is an authentic – and reoccurring – experience of mine. Not a fantasy story, and no exception either. 

I am not exposing the name of the hotel, and it does not really matter when and where it happens, as this experience stands for many I have had before. And I fear many to come.

This is not unique or uncommon, this is what happens in many luxurious hotels around the world. 

So, I can assure you, dear hotelier, you are in peers’ company.

The Spa

Before visiting a hotel or spa, I always look up the business website. 

Not the customer reviews, as I do not want to be influenced beforehand. 

But I certainly want to understand what the business, the hotel or spa, is promising me.

I read:

‘The luxury […] Spa is perhaps the most famous Spa in the area.

…an oasis of tranquility…

…luxurious and quality services…

…signature treatment features well known luxury cosmetic brands…

… the spa is fully equipped to helping you on your way to complete relaxation…

Now think about these promises and their impact to my expectations.

spa star classification Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

What I find

I enter the Spa area. Nobody is at the wellness reception. I pick up a towel (nonchalant-ly sitting in anything-but-neat piles on the reception counter) and take myself around. There is an indoor pool downstairs, a locker/changing area, and a sauna area. A rather dark and little inviting staircase takes me upstairs to a fancy spa reception, again unmanned. As is nose around, a young and very polite member of staff (I assume massage therapist) asks if he can assist me. He shows me a small fitness area and hands me a spa menu. 

spa star classification Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

Afterwards I want to settle in the pool area, on one of the many loungers that sit around the pool. It is a winter Sunday late afternoon and the spa may have been busy, which I use as explanation why all the loungers have used frottee covers. Every single bed is wrinkled, most covers look wet. A tray with empty cups and glasses sits on one of them. Used towels and one-way plastic water drink cups everywhere.

spa star classification Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

And no spa attendant in sight. Finally, after about 2 hours (and 30 minutes before the spa closes), a spa attendant appears to ‘clean up’. Which means straightening up the used covers on the loungers. I realise that these covers will dry over night, and still be there tomorrow. 

This is no longer about choosing the most inviting lounger, it is about choosing the least disgusting…

What else?

  • the little trays in the showers, where you put your shampoo and stuff, are not only rusty but were loose and almost fell off the wall
  • the well advertised hamam was out of order all together, with the ceiling literally falling down
  • water is available from an unattractive plastic container, of course in those flimsy disposable cheap plastic cups (which then end up flying around everywhere)
  • the relaxation room is a tiny narrow space with 4 loungers (covered with the above described not-so-inviting used covers)
  • the Jacuzzi, supposed to sit eight people, is functioning only on one third. Meaning only two people can enjoy the bubbles at any given time. Dear hotelier, you would never allow chef to send out half a steak only. Why do you allow half services at your spa?
  • the treadmill in the (already very limited) fitness section had a well seasoned sign “treadmill out of order” 
spa star classification Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

I wonder.

Where is the lemon (or cucumber or whatever) infused water? 
The teas?
Reusable glasses?
Where are the refreshments like nuts and fruit in the relax areas? (ok, lets be fair, there was a bucket with apples in the sauna area…)
And where are the candles lighting the steps to the first floor?
Why is there no spa attendant roaming all facilities regularly?
How come you call a small Finnish sauna and a small steam room the No1 Top Spa in town?
Where is a proper relaxation room with refreshments and reading material? 
How about sauna access to a fresh air area?
Where is the salt peeling for the steam room, complementing the area’s rich history?
Where is the person that takes pride in their workplace?

I stayed for 4 nights. Nothing changed for the better at the spa during my stay.

“Every hotel needs a Spa. Really?”

I have recently written an article titled “Every hotel needs a Spa. Really?”. What I am basically saying in that article is, that if you decide to open a spa in your hotel, do it right. Or don’t do it at all.

There is nothing wrong with a small area for heat experiences. Or no treatments at all. But those services you offer should be just as immaculate as any other service in your hotel. 

I love to compare spas to F&B. No hotelier ever would allow a semi accomplished dish to reach a guest. 

spa star classification Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

Dear hotelier, why do you think your spa guests will accept incomplete, irrelevant, or not-up-to-standard spa services and facilities?

It is time for a spa star classification system 

I think it is time for a spa star classification system like we find them for hotels.


Well, hotel stars have a high degree of recognition and provide the hotel guest with transparency, which results in security for the customer. I believe that particularly in the hospitality industry, we need standards that are well known internationally. These standards will also assist a business in promoting and monitoring their quality management.

Hotel star classification system may vary slightly worldwide (based upon national laws or historic developments), however most hotel associations act under unions, using collective and harmonised systems.

An example is the Hotelstars Union (www.hotrec.org).
Their definition of hotel stars for example is as follows:

3-Star Hotel (elevated expectations)
In particular, furnishing and equipment are consistent in form and colour. The general impression is that of elevated comfort.

4-Star Hotel (high expectations)
In particular, furnishing and equipment are high quality and offer first-class comfort. The overall appearance is consistent in form, colour and materials.

5-Star Hotel (highest expectations)
In particular, furnishing and equipment are luxurious and offer highest comfort. The overall appearance is consistent in form, colour and materials.

A very extensive catalogue defines criteria further. (Unfortunately there are only three criteria in the section ‘sport’, and four criteria for ‘spa’. Totally insufficient indeed. When doing my spa mystery checks, my catalogue has hundreds of questions for spa & wellness.)

Examples for further criteria:

  • elevator/barrier free is expected for 4* and 5*
  • luggage service on demand for 3* and 4*, full luggage service for 5*
  • daily newspapers for 4* and 5*
  • flexible vanity mirror 4* and 5*
spa star classification system Anja Eva Keller Petruccelli TalkWellness

Spa Stars

My experience has shown me, that I cannot rely on a hotel spa having the same standard as the hotel itself. I have found too many 3* or 4* spas in 5* star hotels. And actually found 5* spas in 4* hotels for vice versa.

I think spa guests can greatly benefit from an internationally renowned spa star classification system separate from a hotel star system. With a spa star classification system, the guest will be assured to find a certain level of quality and service, equipment and infrastructure.

Many services can objectively be measured (like the size of an area, the number of offers, the varieties of products etc). A Spa Star classification system guarantees the level of services. So far, merely commercial brands have been able to provide a certain guarantee to standards. I believe that an independent classification system can provide a binding and transparent reference to standards and comfort.

Let me give you a few example on how I would define between 3*, 4* and 5* spa services:

a refreshment counter with water (or water fountain) only vs. refreshment counter with a variety of drink options such as tea, infused water and small bites such as fruit and nuts.

Food /drink containers:
Disposable vs reusable

Towel Service:
fresh towels available from the spa reception only vs. towels available throughout the entire spa and wellness area with drop off stations

Lounge Chairs / Seats:
limited number of loungers in the spa and wellness area vs. one lounger per hotel guest

My example show how easily measurable some criteria can be.

The guest is the Spa Expert

You may say, well Anja, you are a Spa Expert, your expectations are too high. True, my expectations are high, but beware, expectations of our spa guests are catching up! 

Besides, my expectations usually depend on the promises made by the business in their customer directed communication. 

Consumers are more informed and more knowledgable nowadays. Spa guests are no longer fooled by whale song music and plaster Bhudda deco. 

They can compare, and compare they do. 

They are well able to understand what authentic Ayurveda is. Or what to expect from a signature treatment. Or if false promises were made prior to the experience by the service provider.
I would love to see spa stars that would provide me as a customer with recognition and transparency.
In our industry, we need standards that are known internationally.

Anja Eva Keller Spa & Wellness Consulting