What are wellness hotels, and why are they becoming so popular?

As I set foot in Sanctuary NYC during a recent trip — after schlepping my luggage on a crowded, muggy subway — I was more than a little disoriented. The Lower East Side hotel had warm hardwood floors, muted earth tones and Indian folk art on the walls, and a nature documentary playing the lobby. I could take yoga classes and sound bath workshops in the studio downstairs. What had I walked into, exactly? Sure, it was a hotel, but it didn't have the same staid vibe as, say, an Embassy Suites or Marriott. Sanctuary and other spots like it are marketed as "wellness hotels," but this one felt a little like an ashram, or even a commune.

Our stay at Sanctuary NYC was serendipitous; my partner stumbled on it while searching for affordable hotels in the area. After some digging, I learned it was one of a growing number of “wellness hotels.” These differ from destination spas and wellness retreats, which have existed for years and consist of intensive programming geared toward specific health goals, according to LODGING, the official publication of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Also — let's be real — most wellness retreats reflect the elitism of the wellness industry overall; they're generally expensive and not very inclusive, for primarily that reason.

Wellness hotels, however, are a more recent phenomenon. They feel, to me at least, more chill and mainstream, offering a broad range of wellness-focused amenities — think fitness options that transcend your typical, cramped hotel gym, a plethora of healthy food choices, and even cooling linens and silent AC units to promote sleep. And they're often more financially manageable — not cheap, but really which nice hotels are? A night at Sanctuary, for us, was $192, which is a deal in New York.

At a time when seemingly every sector wants to cash in on the lucrative wellness industry, the rise of wellness hotels comes as no surprise. Wellness travel alone is a $639 billion market whose 6.5% annual growth rate from 2015 to 2017 is more than double that of tourism overall, per a recent Global Wellness Institute report. Wellness hotels also reflect the trend of personalization in travel, according to U.S. News and World Report, along the lines of the bespoke experiences Airbnb and other brands offer. Hotel guests expect more than spa treatments and other standard wellness services; they want wellness and fitness to be integrated into their whole experience, and they want the freedom to curate it themselves.

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

More broadly, the rise in wellness hotels reflects consumers’ growing prioritization of personal wellness in their overall quality of life, Raul Ortiz, vice president of Global Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites & EVEN Hotels, tells Mic. Historically, though, hotels haven’t catered specifically to the wellness-minded business traveler. “Our guests are traveling more for work and need a hotel offering that allows them to maintain their wellness routine, whatever that means to them, while on the road,” Ortiz says. He has a point; Given the often hectic, fast-paced nature of business travel, wellness probably does make the most sense for business travelers.

To create this seamless transition between guests’ work and home routines, EVEN Hotels aims to ground every aspect of the guest experience in wellness, providing them with options they can choose from depending on their personal definitions of wellness, Ortiz explains. Although EVEN Hotels have gyms, each room also comes with a few pieces of fitness equipment and on-demand fitness videos, and guests can get free laundry service for their gear.

A restaurant offers more health-conscious food options, while cooling sheets, headboards outfitted with LED mood lighting, and a nightly herbal tea service aim to help guests wind down for the night. “We want wellness to be easy for our guests,” Ortiz says.

Sanctuary NYC, where I stayed, also allows guests to maintain their wellness routines on the road, with its time-staggered yoga classes that allow guests to clock in some physical activity. It also offered healthy (and complimentary, hello) breakfast options. Most mornings, I ate toast, yogurt, fruit, and freshly-squeezed juice, a slightly fancier version of the breakfast I’d eat at home, one that didn’t leave me stuffed and sluggish.

The bathroom in my suite was stocked with eco-friendly products like the ones in my bathroom at home, and while I normally struggle to sleep when traveling, I slept soundly in my suite’s bed. I couldn't tell you if it was the strategically curated bedding or the placebo effect, but who cares as long as I get my eight hours?

These hotels reflect a pushback against the notion that travel has to be stressful, or that it leaves you no choice but to abandon your fitness routine.

For those seeking a high-end wellness hotel experience, luxury fitness brand Equinox opened the doors to its first hotel, Equinox Hotel, in Hudson Yard, New York this July, with rooms starting at $700 a night, per the New York Times. (Equinox Hotels are also planned for Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara, California.) Rather than going EVEN Hotel’s in-room fitness route, it keeps fitness facilities and guest rooms separate. “We believe that fitness happens in the club and the room is for regeneration,” Christopher Norton, chief executive of Equinox Hotels, told the Times.

Guests can exercise in the 60,000-square-foot fitness club, which includes a saltwater lap pool, and immerse themselves in an infrared sauna or cryotherapy chamber at the spa next door. Come bedtime, selecting a “dark, quiet, cool” feature on an iPad cocoons their room in blackout shades and lowers the temperature to 66 degrees Fahrenheit, Architectural Digest reports. (Guests can also meet with a behavioral sleep coach, according to the Times.) A mini-bar in each guest room includes plenty of healthy food choices, supplements, face masks, and condoms.

These hotels reflect a pushback against the notion that travel has to be stressful, or that it leaves you no choice but to abandon your fitness routine. Are these properties hitching a ride on the bougie wellness trend that retreats have been profiting off of for decades or are they a sensible alternative to the any old Marriott? Only time will tell, but Sanctuary NYC gave me the much-needed quiet, contemplative hideaway we needed after weaving through the city all day. I’d definitely book another stay.