Hundreds of companies pop up in Germany every year as part of the growing wellness trend. But many are shoddy businesses seeking to make a quick euro. One national group is trying to set high standards for the industry.
Massage is one of most lucrative aspects of Germany's wellness biz
The idea that the body needs to be kept in good shape isn't a notion held exclusively by modern Olympic athletes -- it's a concept that was shared by sport heroes in ancient times, too.
For the past several years, stressed-out people in Germany have begun to better appreciate their bodies. "Wellness" is the word du jour here nowadays. But what's behind this new wave of contentedness? Is the wellness movement really something that helps improve people's lives or is it just a fashionable trend with little actual effect?
First created about a decade ago, the term wellness started in the United States as a way of combining the concepts of fitness and well-being.
Wellness leaps the Big Pond
The American pioneers of the wellness movement were seeking to sink the health care costs -- and not without reason. Our contemporary lifestyles have become the cause of a number of illnesses. Indeed, everyone has a personal responsibility to improve his or her health and well-being. Gradually, the wellness movement began to make its way over to Europe, becoming a more important part of people's leisure activities. But many pursued it as a hobby rather than for reasons of health.
That's something the German Wellness Association, founded in 1997, is seeking to change. A loose configuration of psychologists, sports medicine practitioners and nutritionists have joined forces to promote the concept that health and pleasure are not mutually exclusive concepts.
You don't have to cake yourself with mud to feel a sense of wellness, but it sure does feel good.
"We want to try to create an image of a Germany that has a population that is pleasurable and lives healthy -- and for that to be understood as wellness," said Jürgen Busch, the association's deputy chairman. "The idea is to stop the abuse of the term "wellness," which is being used to market everything from wellness socks to wellness sausages to wellness water to overpriced wellness hotels, and instead promote the idea that people can take responsibility for their own health and well-being and experience the pleasure that comes from it."
Busch knows what he's talking about. As the manager of a large company, he fell seriously ill several years back. The only thing that saved him was a complete change in just about every aspect of his life. He stopped smoking, he tries not to get overly stressed at work and he's become a vegetarian. At first, it seemed he was just foregoing a lot of things in his life, but slowly his lifestyle change transformed itself into something that brought him pleasure. Today, Busch is a wellness convert: to him, it's a personal transformation you make in your life. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to rule out the occasional visit to the massage parlor or vacation at a wellness hotel.
Sorting the wellness from the chafe
The real problem is that it's hard to find the right ones in Germany, at least if you believe the Wellness Association. Actually, the industry is booming and claims annual revenues of €43 billion ($53 billion). But with so many companies clamoring to attach the catch-all term "wellness" to their products and services, you never really know what you're going to get.
"There are approximately 1,000 wellness hotels in Germany or hotels that call themselves that," said Busch. "According to our research and our quality criteria, only one-fifth of these hotels even deserve to use the word 'wellness' to describe what they offer."
A few years back, his organization began a voluntary certification program that allows hotels to be certified if they are willing to undergo unscheduled spot checks. The program examines hotels based on over 1,000 criteria that are then analyzed in order to grade the quality of the hotel. If a hotel meets sufficient criteria, the association issues it a certificate of approval. If it doesn't pass the test, the hotel receives a report indicating where it needs improvement.
So how stringent are the association's criteria? So far, not a single hotel in the Cologne metropolitan region has been bestowed with one of its logos. In order to be able to place the respected decal in their window, a hotel needs more than just a name, Busch says, it needs a comprehensive wellness program.
But it doesn't have to be expensive or luxurious. For very little money, anyone can experience greater well-being. It just requires a more healthy attitude towards, well, health.
Manfred Keller is the owner of Samudra, a health-oriented wellness facility that offers massage and so-called "floatings," wellness treatments given in warm water. Keller is also an opponent of uncontrolled growth in the wellness business, which has attracted many new companies in a short amount of time.
Keller complains that a lot of companies aren't giving employees adequate training for the wellness treatments they offer. At his firm, workers receive traditional training that would be given to German spa employees who work with patients as medical bath attendants.
In doing so, he's hoping to improve the burgeoning industry's reputation.