Jeremy McCarthy of Mandarin Oriental on technology, psychology and what it means to be a visionary

Spa Executive Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy is the Group Director of Spa & Wellness for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, and a renowned and respected trailblazer of innovative concepts in spa and wellness.

In his role, Mr. McCarthy is responsible for leading Mandarin Oriental Group’s acclaimed luxury spa division and guest and colleague wellness programs. He has more than 25 years of experience operating luxury spas in resort and hotel properties, and holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the book The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.

One of Mr. McCarthy’s primary interests is the impact on wellbeing of our constant connection to technology. In 2016, he launched Mandarin Oriental’s Digital Wellness initiative, a program to help guests manage their relationship with those technologies. He is also the chair of the Digital Wellness Initiative for the Global Wellness Institute.

Earlier this year it was announced that the International SPA Association (ISPA) will present Jeremy McCarthy with the 2019 ISPA Visionary Award at the ISPA Conference & Expo taking place in September.

For this month’s spotlight we spoke to Jeremy McCarthy about the psychological impact of spas, our relationship with technology, and what it means to be a “visionary.”

You have talked about visiting a spa as having a potentially profound psychological impact. Can you talk a bit about the spa as a psychological experience?

My academic background is in psychology and I wrote my thesis (which I later published as a book) on The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. My theory is that the greatest impact of the spa experience doesn’t come from the specific techniques and products that are used in a treatment. It comes from the more psychological aspects of the experience, such as being separated from technology, having time for your mind to settle in silence, and experiencing the nurturing touch of another human being. These are the true luxuries of the modern age.

Does the industry pay enough attention to this aspect?

It is a bit of a paradox because on the one hand, the spa industry defines itself around offering experiences that enhance wellbeing across mind, body, and spirit. But on the other hand, when you read about spas you mostly see descriptions of the physical aspects of the experience: the facilities, the ingredients in the products, the treatment techniques, etc. So in one sense, a strength of the spa industry is that we are more holistic than other healing industries, but even in the spa industry, we could focus more on these aspects.

How can the spa and wellness sector do better?

When I went back to school to study applied positive psychology, a lot of people assumed that meant I was leaving the spa industry. But I think the study and application of psychology (and especially positive psychology) can make a huge impact on how we think about the spa experience. Viewing the spa business through this lens helps us to create experiences that go beyond pampering to elevate mood, instill mindfulness, and even create a deeper sense of meaning.

One of your major interests is the impact of technology on wellbeing, and the role the spa plays in this. (And the spa-going public agrees with you that spas should be a tech-free space according to the latest ISPA report.) Can you share some thoughts on this relationship?

Technology will have the largest impact on human wellbeing, positive and negative, for the foreseeable future. Anyone who is working on wellbeing should be thinking about the role of technology. I co-authored a whitepaper on Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone, which is available on the Global Wellness Institute website that outlines the impact of technology on wellness.

The problem with technology is not that it is bad, it’s that it’s too good. It is so good that we end up making sacrifices in other areas of our life. Our paper outlined some of those sacrifices on things like sleep, social relationships, physical movement, safety, productivity and mental wellbeing.

You recently received the ISPA Visionary award. What does that mean to you?

This means so much to me. From a professional standpoint, I feel like I have literally grown up within the ISPA community as it is an organization that has been by my side for the past two decades or more. To receive this recognition from a community that has been such a deep part of my life for so many years really touches and inspires me.

What does it take to be a “visionary” in this industry?

There was a time, very early in my career, when I first met Peter Greenberg, who at the time was the Travel Correspondent for Good Morning America. I asked him how I could get my spa on television. “Getting your spa on TV is simple,” he said. “All you have to do is do something no one else is doing or do something better than everyone else is doing.”

He made it sound so easy, but I quickly realized that even though I was working at a very nice luxury spa, we were really doing all the same stuff that everyone else was doing. For the rest of my career, I have always taken that advice to heart and tried to do things better or differently than everyone else.

What is the biggest challenge facing spa and wellness right now? (Besides staffing)

The biggest challenge is monetizing wellness. We often blame the health care industry for being too focused on sickness care and not enough on wellness or prevention. But sickness care is much easier to sell. It is human nature to be driven more by the urgency of what is going wrong than to think proactively about the future benefits of a wellness lifestyle.

What is a solution to that problem, if you have one?

There are no easy solutions, but I think the key is to not necessarily think of wellness as something that has to appeal to a mass market. Not everyone will invest in their own wellness and those who do will do so in a very personal and individualized way. So for me the wellness industry is about catering to small, selective niches, rather than trying to drive broad appeal. There are still a lot of markets that the wellness industry has ignored. Greater business success will come from greater diversification and specialization across the industry.

Do you have any great ideas for solving the spa staffing problem?

It’s true this is a big challenge now. But massage therapist is often listed at the top of lists of jobs that cannot be replaced by AI. As technology takes away more and more jobs from other sectors, the spa staffing problem will solve itself.

What are you most excited about in spa and wellness right now?

I am most excited about the wellness knowledge that is getting to kids today. My kids, at seven and nine years old, know more about things like yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and wellness than I knew when I was in my 20s. This next generation will have a huge head start on us in terms of understanding human wellbeing.

What are you excited about at Mandarin Oriental?

This year, Mandarin Oriental celebrates the 10-year anniversary of some of our signature spa products and treatments inspired by aromatherapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ten years ago, we were one of the only urban hotel brands to really put spa and wellness at the core of everything that we do. Today, it is hard to think of any major hotel brand who wouldn’t say that wellness is a core part of their offering.

This raises the bar for the industry and challenges us to continue reimagining our own wellness offerings. This past year, we launched Mindful Meetings bringing wellness into the meetings space and creating meetings offerings that are energizing rather than draining. We’ve seen the impact on productivity, even in our own internal meetings, and are very excited about the intersection between work and wellness.