About fifty years ago, hoteliers began to sense that the market for hosting meetings and conferences was blossoming, and there were profits to be made from the growing demands of this relatively new growth segment of the hospitality industry. From only a few big-city hotels, the meetings market grew until today it now accounts for 35% of all hotel revenues in the United States. Some hotels are generating more than 70% of their income from meeting services, and it is difficult to find a full-service hotel that doesn’t seek some slice of this profitable business.
Does medical tourism now hold such similar long-term promise as a new market segment for international hotels and resorts? Even the more modest growth estimates project a tenfold increase in travelers leaving the United States for medical treatment in the next eight years.
Ironically, while American Express projects a drop in business spending of 20% in 2009, and the same economic turbulence is also currently lowering estimates on leisure travel, the need for medical cost savings may further fuel the growth of medical tourism. For hotels which have thought through how to meet the needs of the medical traveler, this market segment may provide some blessed relief if both business and leisure travel numbers flatten or decrease.
Such hotel strategy may take several forms, depending upon the type of medical treatment most commonly being sought in a particular region. The one which is currently most familiar to most hoteliers is that of luxury spa offerings, including a wide range of traditional or alternative therapies such as Ayurveda, herbalism, acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation, yoga, cleansing, and other holistic or diet-based therapies.
These may be incorporated with “lifestyle treatments”, such as education, relaxation techniques, and corrective behavior therapies. Such services have enabled the spa industry to double in size since 1999, and have become staples at many luxury hotel and resort properties.
However when the traveler is seeking more serious medical attention, the most common emerging model is that of a hotel as a facility serving the medical tourist briefly before medical treatment, and longer during the convalescence process prior to returning home. In essence, the hotel is an “aftercare” facility, as the guest moves from medical facilities while his or her strength returns, healing occurs, and family members supplement the medical travel experience with tourism and relaxation.
This recovery period may range from a few days for minor and cosmetic surgery to a couple weeks or more in the case of major surgery. Serving such patient/guests is relatively new ground for many properties, and it raises several new considerations.
Foremost is that of preparing staff members to respond to the needs of the medical traveler. Training staff for the task may incorporate at least three components:
- Sensitizing staff to the guest’s unique needs through interpersonal communication training;
- Reviewing and educating staff on legal, medical and personal safety do’s and don’ts in serving or aiding the guest (including coordinated medical response for emergencies); and
- Preparing staff to provide modifications or additions to the service they provide to improve the guest’s stay.
Each property will need to assess the types of services required of their guests based in part on the type of medical procedures most often provided in the area. For some procedures, the guest needs may not vary greatly from that of the leisure traveler. For example, for those recovering from cosmetic surgery, there may be a higher premium placed on privacy and seclusion, and a need for shaded outdoor areas as exposure to the sun may cause permanent darkening of the healing tissue.
For those guests who have undergone more major surgery, their needs may be much greater and different than those of the leisure guest. For such post-surgery travelers, it is likely they may be spending more time in their rooms than the average traveler, may be keeping unusual waking and sleeping hours, and may require different and greater levels of support services.
It is in providing such support that properties can distinguish themselves as being “medical traveler friendly”. This support may come in way of both staff services and facilities modification. Trends and suggestions in facilities modification will be explored in a future article; here we will review what service modifications are currently being done, and what might be future trends.
In terms of services, some service modifications that have proven helpful at some hotels include: scheduling specific housekeeping times to service the room, offering personal shopping services, providing transportation (that perhaps can accommodate wheelchairs) to and from clinics, extending room service availability to 24 hours a day, and employing masseuses trained to complement recovery processes, cosmetologists skilled in “cosmetic camouflage”, and medical-technology trained personal butlers able to respond to needs.
The expertise of a dietician has also proven helpful in helping restaurants and room service to support prescribed dietary restrictions for recovering patients, and to develop detailed menus addressing recommended healthy eating through all food outlets. Some properties have also added nursing support to their staffs, while others have made such support available to their medical travelers through contracted third party providers.
Additionally, hotels have demonstrated support through simple considerations. These include reserving for the medical traveler more secluded guest rooms, or ushering guests directly to their rooms at which the check-in process is conducted so they may forego the crowds and physical demands of checking in at the front desk.
Often, it is advisable to select rooms that may be reached without the use of stairs. Some properties have created alternative, private entrances that the medical traveler may elect to use for both convenience and privacy.
Some of these service changes involve staffing considerations, others are simply modifications to usual procedures. But in all cases, a key point is that medical guests may be substantially different from leisure or business guests in their ability to participate, or “co-create” the necessary service. After surgery, the guest is likely to be in a physically weakened condition, so routine processes such as waiting in a short front-desk queue, can be a daunting.
Additionally, both the guest and his or her family members may be emotionally taxed, increasing the importance that the hotel staff has thought through their needs and coordinated such services so they don’t need to.
This raises the important concept of service coordination, and it might be helpful to look to a couple other hotel activities for operational lessons learned. When a hotel is hosting a meeting, it is now standard to have one property contact through which details with all departments are arranged. Likewise, when a hotel serves a VIP, it is common to have a “host” assure all aspects are synchronized.
Both practices recognize the value of coordination and the likelihood that something in some department may be overlooked if such effort is not made. This likelihood increases if coordination efforts are left to patients or their families who have many other matters on their minds.
This coordination may extend to outside the property, as well. Medical travelers, especially during recovery, must rely on the professionalism and skills of a variety of services, such as transportation providers, nurses, therapists, translators, courier services, prescription delivery, as well as traditional concierge support of a person knowledgeable of the area. Locating and validating such quality service providers in a strange city can be an exhausting undertaking to any traveler, much less one under the physical and emotional strains of a recent surgery.
Such concierge support, whether done by interacting only with the guest, or in collaboration with personnel at the hospital, or as the local contact in conjunction with a medical facilitator in the traveler’s home country, could do much to aid the traveler and ease stress. At minimum, such a person serves to standardize communication between hotel departments and becomes a powerful marketing tool for the hotel.
Such efforts also may provide an additional revenue stream for the property, much like a business center supports, and profits from, the business traveler. This contact person develops an expertise in the medical traveler needs, cultivates the unique contacts necessary to best serve the guest, and assures that services are coordinated for the benefit of both the guest and the various departments of the hotel.
Such services could be wrapped in and marketed with an all-inclusive hotel pricing for medical guests, making this a win-win for both the traveler and the facility.
Almost by definition, medical travelers from the United States venturing outside of their country for surgery are doing so at least in part due to price sensitivity. Additionally, a commonly voiced complaint of United States health care is the uncertainty of the final cost, as physicians, anesthesiologists, hospital facilities, medications, and other services each are billed separately, and may vary wildly from initial estimates.
Many overseas hospitals have responded by providing a comprehensive price for their services, including that of their physicians. Hotels may want to avoid the perception of shifting the frustration of price uncertainty from the hospital to the hotel aftercare process.
By following the lead of international hospitals, hotels may not only find an all-inclusive price appealing to prospective medical guests, but also advantageous for the same reasons such pricing is often used in marketing resort destinations. From the property’s perspective, this allows the hotel to capture revenue on three meals daily for the medical traveler and all of his or her family members.
It also provides an income for a variety of support services the guest may or may not use. For example, these may include medical concierge support, a designated number of spa visits, ground transportation, possibly a specified number of nursing visits daily for the pre-determined duration of the stay, and even one or two light touring activities.
For the medical traveler, such price bundling removes apprehension over the final bill, and assures that if services are desired, they may be accessed.
There is another potential benefit of all-inclusive pricing. If medical insurance companies move toward covering travel expenses for such guests, it is conceivable that in the future hotels may be receiving direct payments from insurance providers. All-inclusive pricing contracts could clarify such coverage, assuring to both the hotel and the guest that prior approval has been issued for the total cost of the visit, and minimizing issues arising from questions of the guest’s prerogative to utilize specific services.
By limiting after-the-fact controversies of whether a nurse was essential, for example, or whether a medical traveler did or did not exceed an insurance-imposed meal allowance in ala carte ordering, the guest, the hotel is protected from extended post-trip haggling that so frequently drags out current insurance payments, and the insurance company is provided a pre-trip clarity of charges.
Eventually, all-inclusive price coverage, once clearly defined, may also afford those insurance companies a “value-added” measure of appeal if they wish to suggest medical travel as a cost-savings option to their clients.
Hotels who only occasionally host a medical traveler may find the above suggestions to surpass the investment in staff and market development they are willing to make to medical tourism. Conversely, other facilities may wish to extend their efforts into facility modifications, introductions of “medi-spas”, transportation/lodging packages, or cooperative arrangements with area medical facilities. As some new hospital facilities include hotel facilities within their complex for families and recovering patients, the potential of managing such facilities may appeal to some hotel corporations.
Some lodging companies in key medical tourism destinations may see an appeal to the medical traveler as a way to even out the seasonal ebb and flow of hotel occupancy, or as a sort of tourism that has more resistance to stagnation and decline than typical leisure destinations. Others may be cautious about how well medical guests can be comingled with leisure and business travelers. Still others may pursue the strategy of Bodyline Resorts of Thailand, which accommodate exclusively medical tourists and their families.
Whatever the decision, it is likely that those who take seriously the unique needs of the medical traveler will be the leaders in this new and growing segment of the lodging market.
Dan Cormany is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, focusing his studies in the Hotel College on medical tourism. His emphasis is on hospitality’s potential roles in serving the medical tourist. Prior to starting these studies, he worked for 17 years as Dean of Students at universities in Ohio, Florida and Hawai’i, before embarking on a career change to hospitality. His hotel work includes management positions for Loews Hotels, Hyatt Regency, and Wynn Las Vegas. He holds a Master of Arts in College Administration and a Master of Science in Hotel Management.