Spa resorts are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic

Spa resorts are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic

The round swimming pool of the future modernized Nancy Thermal aquatic complex, in Nancy, on December 15, 2022.

It’s the event of the year in the small world of hydrotherapy: in April, Nancy Thermal will open its doors. Already, the pools are beginning to fill under the wooden dome designed by the architect Anne Démians, in a grandiose decor all in colonnades which echoes the ancient baths. In total, 26,000 square meters of swimming pools, slides, baths at various temperatures, a shop, a hotel, and several pools dedicated to spa guests. The manager of the Lorraine site, ValVital, plans to welcome 15,000 per year.

This February morning, Bernard Riac, the president of ValVital, who has been leading this project for ten years, is inspecting the finished works in this completely renovated neoclassical building, which housed a municipal swimming pool before closing to the public. We feel relieved. It must be said that he almost lost everything along the way. In July 2021, when the site was well advanced, he received a phone call in his car… “And there, I was totally collapsed”, remembers the boss of this family business, which operates fifteen stations in France. The administrative court of Nancy had just confirmed the termination of the thirty-year concession contract that it had obtained two years earlier from the metropolis. For him, who had just experienced a 65% drop in turnover in 2020, due to the pandemic, it was the final blow.

A collective of elected officials and citizens, supported by a very sustained petition, had indeed challenged the awarding of the contract in court, mainly because the starting grant from the metropolis of Nancy (25 million euros) was accompanied by counterparties insufficient for the community. In fact, the profitability of this equipment would essentially benefit the investment fund led by ValVital, which had put its balls into this mega project at 100 million euros. Eventually, mediation led to a compromise: the metropolis bought the fund’s shares, a semi-public company was created, and ValVital was able to remain the operator of the premises. The case rocked Nancy for several months.

A “French specificity”

Will the opening of the largest aquatic and thermal complex in France make it possible to forget the three dark years that this sector has just experienced? While the number of spa guests had collapsed in 2020 and 2021, due to the pandemic, the year 2022 did not allow a return to normal in thermal establishments. The number of customers who came to experience their swimming pools, mud baths and high-pressure showers was still down 25% (437,000) compared to 2019, according to the National Council of Spa Establishments. Fear of Covid-19 contamination among these often elderly people (the average is 64 years old), stronger hesitation to book a stay several months in advance… “There is a whole generation of spa guests who came every year, and who, since the crisis, have never returned”observes Eléonore Guérard, president of the Thermal Chain of the Sun, one of the biggest players in the sector.

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