Global Wellness Institute CEO, Susie Ellis, talks about 2024, trends, and the growing wellness market.
Susie Ellis is the Chair & CEO of the Global Wellness Summit and the non-profit Global Wellness Institute and the former President of Spafinder, Inc. A widely respected leader in the multitrillion-dollar global wellness economy, Ms. Ellis is globally recognized as an advocate for wellness research, prevention and wellness for all.
She began her career teaching fitness classes at Southern California’s destination spa, Golden Door, in the 1970s. “It’s a bit unusual that my entire career has been in the spa and then wellness arena,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of people that started in the seventies because there really was no spa industry at that time.” But by the time she got her MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles, and later moved to New York City to take over the presidency of Spafinder, she says “the spa industry had started exploding,” thanks in large part to the number of day spas that were opening up in the early 1990s.
Ms. Ellis introduced the industry’s first Global Wellness Trends Report in 2004 and the first Global Wellness Economy Monitor in 2014, the first research that provided global market data for every sector of the wellness economy. She is known for identifying and defining new trends such as wellness tourism, wellness real estate and mental wellness–which have since become pillars of the wellness market. She is considered a pioneer, is frequently quoted in major news outlets around the world, is a popular speaker at global events, and sits on a number of academic and industry boards.
Who better to ask what trends and developments she’s looking forward to in 2024? We asked Susie Ellis about that topic (without spoiling the GWI’s coming Trends Report, of course, which drops late January every year), as well as about how she came to be doing what she is today.
Can you talk about how you and the GWS came to be doing what you are today?
In 2007 we held the first global spa industry event, the Global Spa Summit in New York at the Waldorf Astoria. We modeled the gathering after the World Economic Forum which I had attended, an invite-only conference with a vision to be more think-tank than trade show. We invited people from all over the world, and had about 170 people attend, and what we realized is that there was no research on the global spa industry; no figures or numbers.
So, we commissioned the first research study with SRI International (Stanford Research Institute), and it was a huge turning point for the industry. People finally grasped how much was happening in this space all over the world. The following year’s research project was on wellness (which was still a foreign concept to most), spanning everything from fitness to healthy food to a healthier version of travel. We could see that a more holistic version of total wellbeing was beginning to resonate with businesses, consumers, and even governments. So, we became the Global Spa and Wellness Summit, and eventually the Global Wellness Summit. We will hold our 18th annual summit in 2024 at St. Andrews in Scotland. In 2015 we launched the Global Wellness Institute, the nonprofit arm of the Global Wellness Summit, where we house all our research, industry initiatives, and other programs. Between the Summit and the Institute, there are about 18 of us working, many part time: It’s a small but mighty team.
How big is the growth of the global wellness economy?
Wellness is one of the great economic growth stories of the last few years. Our research shows that it has exploded from $3.7 trillion in 2015, to $4.9 trillion in 2019, to $5.6 trillion in 2022 – and we forecast it will hit $8.5 trillion in 2027. It has grown 12% annually since the pandemic year of 2020, as Covid is proving a crucial turning point, with wellness and prevention becoming far more important to consumers. Those are huge numbers, and the world is sitting up and paying attention. Our bubble chart also shows that wellness as an industry is always expanding: for instance, we added mental wellness as a distinct market a few years ago. We will be updating the numbers on the wellness market each year going forward.
You’re a “trends expert.” Why do you enjoy this topic?
Keeping your finger on the pulse of wellness trends is really keeping your finger on the pulse of major cultural and demographic shifts and it’s a uniquely clear window into what people need and want. We’ve been forecasting trends for a long time. When we introduced forest bathing back in 2015, or the surge in interest in mushrooms in 2018, people thought we were a little crazy. But both took off, and that’s what I find so exciting and interesting: we could see something beginning to bubble up. I enjoy that I get to contribute to the growth of these ideas by putting them out there and helping build momentum.
What are some of the trends you’re excited about for 2024?
Our top trend for 2023 was “Wellness Comes for the Loneliness Epidemic,” about the surge in wellness spaces, concepts and experiences that bring people together in real life; where social connection is the burning center of the concept. Pre-pandemic, wellness had gotten away from its DNA of sparking human connection, and led with two “lonely” models: a sea of hyper-consumerist “me time” products and “digital wellness” like meditation apps or online fitness. As a culture we have since grasped that loneliness kills and human connection is the lynchpin of physical and mental health. The “more social connection” in wellness and spa will only be a bigger trend in 2024. There is so much going on, from social wellness clubs expanding globally to new social apps that are actually social (creating dinner parties for strangers or bonding apartment dwellers) to more governments fighting loneliness with new social wellness policies. In the spa world, there has been movement ( like more recovery experiences people can do together and more social events), but I think we could do it even better and focus on more creative and curated connected experiences. This is a big opportunity for spas and I believe we will see more unique and successful models in the future.
Mental wellness has been a massive trend in our industry these last years, and one that’s become more important coming out of the pandemic and with all the stressors in the world. When I started in the industry decades ago, spa was really all about physical health, but mental wellness is now as, if not more, important. This is why we invited the superstar gymnast Simone Biles to our recent Summit in Miami. She was experiencing a mental issue called the “twisties,” a terrifying, dangerous experience where, when you’re twisting in the air, you lose track of where you are. So, she pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics and was widely criticized for it, because people didn’t understand that this was a mental health issue, not some fear about competing. Simone (like a few other star athletes) has become a powerful advocate for mental health and wellness, and with her global megaphone, she has helped lift the stigma, and helped people to really talk about this. We are seeing more mental wellness programming ahead.
Another trend that I don’t see people talking about much yet is new intersections between wellness, sports, and hospitality. This crossover is, in part, being fueled by technology, with more spas (which were just about massage and facials) and wellness centers offering treatments such as cryotherapy, ice baths, hyperbaric chambers, and IVs. A few years ago this was reserved for elite athletes. We will see more sports programming and more sports performance services and facilities move into hospitality wellness.
Sports tourism is also growing fast. This is a trend that is fairly new on the wellness industry’s radar, but it’s exciting because a lot of people are into sports either as athletes or spectators, and hospitality brands can create integrated experiences where they not only “watch” but “do.”
Finally, we will see only more interest in focusing on longevity, with an emphasis on healthspan rather than lifespan: Not just how many years you live, but how many vibrant and healthy years you live. It’s astounding how quickly the quest to extend healthspan and reverse aging has become the new pillar and obsession in the health and wellness space. The longevity clinic is the new business genre in wellness, and it’s fast dissolving the line between medicine and wellness.
Biotech startups are working at a mad pace on serious longevity interventions: unriddling the epigenome, reversing cellular senescence, DNA repair therapies, hormone and immune interventions, and how the microbiome and chronic inflammation impact aging. We’re seeing medical-grade hyperbaric oxygen therapy, caloric restriction, cryonic freezing, peptides and exosomes, and functional medicine. And, of course, a renewed interest in low-tech, ancient approaches to longevity, such as the Blue Zones, where natural exercise, healthy eating, a sense of purpose, and strong social bonds are the “magic pills.” With an aging demographic exploding globally, we will just see more momentum in the wellness world for longevity and healthspan.
Spa Executive is published by Book4Time, the leader in guest management, revenue and mobile solutions for the most exclusive spas, hotels, and resorts around the globe. Learn more at book4time.com.