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2 Jul, 2001

First Thai Spa Association Faces Standards Test

Thailand’s first spa association is due to be set up this month but faces the critical challenge of ensuring the upkeep of standards amongst its members and staff.

Indeed, while the association is being set up primarily to ensure that business flows to those facilities which claim to be genuinely professional, in a country and an industry with a poor regulatory enforcement record, making sure that standards are maintained to everyone’s benefit will take some doing.

While the country has seen pioneering efforts like Chiva Som, spas are mushrooming all over in a typically unregulated atmosphere.

In that sense, the spa association will be unique. Most Thai travel industry associations are marketing or product groupings for whom upgrading professionalism is secondary to the primary function of filling seats and beds.

A spa is only as good as its reputation and word spreads quickly among the mainly elitist and up-market patrons, the kind of high-spending visitors the Tourism Authority of Thailand is bending over backwards to attract in its marketing campaigns.

According to Mrs. Naphalai Areesorn, former managing director of the Chiva Som spa and resort who is coordinating plans to set up the association, if members do not strictly self-regulate and uphold standards, everyone will suffer, Thailand included.

She admits being concerned about the “rush for wanting to get in. Hotels feel they have to have a spa. The feeling now is if they do not have a spa they are not really five-star.”

The planned association is to act as ‘voice’ for the Thai spa business, dedicated to growth, education and support. So far, Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan have spa associations and a number of other countries are following suit.

About 70 people attended the meeting on June 15 to hear how a Thai association could be structured, regulated and managed. A preliminary budget of about 500,000 baht is envisaged but as membership grows, the group hopes to have enough cash to employ a full-time manager.

According to preliminary plans, the association will have membership categories based on specific classifications like destination spa, medical spas, day spas, etc. Some are dedicated spa resorts, while others are just a part of the many services at a hotel.

Of the 11-member board, six will be the heads of the specialist committees to be set up to oversee education, standards, marketing, nominations, programmes and membership. A Constitution has been drafted and will be presented at a meeting in the third week of July.

Mrs. Naphalai said the association will both work with authorities to raise standards and awareness, and educate the public about the value of a spa experience.

Setting and enforcing the standards will be the difficult part for all — the spas themselves, suppliers of products and services as well as for therapists. At the June 15 meeting, this is what “all felt was lacking at the moment and it is the concern of everybody,” she said.

At a recent regional conference in Singapore, the lack of adequate training was identified as the major threat facing the future of the spa industry. Said Sarah Noble, chairwoman of the British Complementary Medical Association, “We must set industry standards and benchmarks, manage our reputation and consciously communicate with our competitiors so they become our colleagues.”

Right from the outset, applicants for membership who don’t meet the criteria simply will not be accepted. However, the board will face the daunting task of standing its ground against the well-known pressures that will come from ‘influential people’ who will want to know why.

To ensure that standards are continuously met, each of the association membership categories will have one member on the standards committee. If standards are suspected to have fallen, the time to raise it would be when annual dues come up for payment, Mrs. Naphalai said.

At the same time, she recognises that therapists will also need intensive training, in their craft as well as language skills. “It’s not like F&B (food & beverage) where, if the taste is a bit off, it’s not such a big issue, but in something that affects people’s health, it is.” The improper handling of some of the twisting and back-cracking massages could even people maim people for life.

She said the association also will look into complaints, another sensitive area. Spa resorts receive their fair share of complaints from the top-dollar paying clients, some of which are legitimate but others are from free-loaders looking for an excuse to get some kind of refund, a well-known ruse in the travel industry.

Thai insurance companies have no policies to protect spas against consumer complaints and legal action – another issue for an association to take up.

Relations with the Food & Drug Administration is also an issue, mainly to get it to show some ‘flexibility’ over rigid rules and regulations that stress clinical definitions of health and are not too accommodating of alternative, preventive and traditional therapies, products and treatments. Some educational work and perhaps lobbying will be required.

Both TAT and the Department of Export Promotion sent representatives to the June 15. No funding is being sought from them at the moment but they would be welcome to sign up as associate members, Mrs. Naphalai said.

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