24 Jan 2019 Leisure Handbook

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Leisure Handbook - Botanique

Top teams


We talk to the top team at Botanique Hotel & Spa – Brazil’s hottest new opening that proudly showcases the best the country has to offer and has been developed by a group of internationally renown pioneers

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
Backers of the project include AOL co-founder David Cole and The Body Shop’s Gordon Roddick
The contemporary design is a change from the Swiss chalet-style hotels that dominate the local area

When Botanique Hotel & Spa opened in Brazil in Novem- ber 2012, it first caught the industry’s attention with its powerhouse investors and part- ners – namely AOL co-founder David Cole; Body Shop co-founder Gordon Roddick; and South American entrepreneur Ricardo Semler, CEO of the systems engineering and management conglomerate Semco. But there’s more to its story than that.

The vision of Semler and his wife, Fernanda, Botanique has been developed over five years with the intention of setting a new benchmark in luxury hospitality that’s entirely home-grown and unique in a location that’s dominated by Swiss chalet-style hotels. The boutique resort is situated on a hillside amid 700 acres (283 hectares) of lush forest in the fash- ionable Campos do Jordão area – halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – that’s often called the Hamptons of Brazil. It’s been built by regional architects and designers using local chocolate slate, stone and 120-year-old wooden timbers, serves farm-to-fork contemporary cuisine and wines and even has a library of 400 titles by Brazilian authors.

Nowhere is the local influence more evident than in the 10,000sq ft (930sq m) spa, which is referred to as the “first 100 per cent Brazilian spa” thanks to its fully home-made offering of everything from the floatation pool and CO2 bath to the essen- tial oils and indigenous-inspired treatment menu. Not wanting anything remotely sim- ilar to what’s already available, the Sem- lers avoided working with spa consultants or industry professionals. Instead, they insisted on learning the ropes themselves with the back up of up and coming local architects, university professors specialising in aromatherapy, geology and physics and practitioners/shamans – all of whom had little to no spa experience. Here, some of the top team members share their views on this unusual project.


Designed by São Paulo architectur- al firm Candida Tabet Arquitetura, Botanique Hotel & Spa is made up of six suites connected to a main building and 11 villas dotted about the property. The main building has a lounge, a 40-seat cinema, library, a fine dining restaurant and the Botanique Spa. The interiors, a homage to contem- porary Brazilian design, have been creat- ed by some of the country’s top interior experts, including curator and writer Adélia Borges, furniture designer Aristeu Pires and eco-craftsman Pedro Petry.

Rooms start at BRL2,500 (US$1,224, E921, £766) and include meals, drinks and service but not treatments.

To create the spa, the Semlers turned to the young, fresh-thinking Coletivo de Arquite- tos practice from São Paulo which focused on subtle Brazilian flavours while bringing the outside in with expansive windows.

The two-storey spa has eight treatment rooms – four for wet treatments – and in- cludes a floatation pool, CO2 bath, a Rain Forest Sauna. The spa also offers a bath with fresh milk and ground Brazil nuts, three relaxation areas, an isotonic pool with water jets and minerals and a dry sauna. When it comes to treatments, all massages are 90 minutes long and prices start at BRL305, (US$150, E113, £94).
Perched on the edge of the site, overlooking a forested valley, there’s a heated pool and a swimmable lake, plus a building with a sports doctor’s office and a fully-equipped gym with an outdoor pavilion for Brazilian martial arts such as capoeira. Elsewhere is a stable of Olympic-standard horses enabling guests to explore the beautiful surroundings and mountains.


The spa was designed by Coletivo de Arquitetos

The Entrepreneurs behind the projects
Each of the four entrepreneurs investing in Botanique Hotel & Spa have brought their own expertise to the develop- ment to create a modern, luxurious, yet socially responsible retreat that embraces Brazil’s indigenous nature.

Ricardo Semler is one of Brazil’s best known businessmen and a pioneer in ‘industrial democracy’, which involves workers making decisions and sharing authority in the workplace. He is the CEO of Semco – a multi-billion dollar company that offers a broad range of products from air-conditioning compo- nents to inventory management and environmental planning – the latter of which he’s put to work at Botanique. Meanwhile his wife Fernanda Semler has also been the driving force in bring- ing the Botanique concept to market and brings a touch of class and luxury to the development from her years in the marketing and fashion sectors.

David Cole is most well known as the co-founder of internet company AOL (America Online), but he’s also rec- ognised for investment management, philanthropy, organic farming, renewa- ble energy and sustainability initia- tives. He has expert knowledge of the environment/great outdoors and luxury hospitality, as the owner of Twin Farms, a five-star resort in Vermont, USA.

Gordon Roddick, with his late wife Dame Anita Roddick, co-founded The Body Shop, a cosmetics company producing and retailing ethical beauty products and most famous for support- ing disadvantaged groups worldwide

David Cole Partner and co-owner Botanique Hotel & Spa

How did your partnership with the Semlers come about?
In 2006, Ricardo [Semler] and I worked on a large renewable fuels project in Brazil that ran head-on into the 2008 recession, putting thousands of employees and a huge investment at risk. Through it all, we focused on the tasks at hand and worked as best we could through the challenges. I found a good friend and business partner in the wreckage. A most welcome bonus!

How involved have you been in Botanique’s development?
My role is as a friend, part- ner and critic. My resort work has been ex- clusively at the high-end, from a 20-bed bou- tique resort in Vermont to landscape-scale projects in Hawaii. This has enabled me to highlight key spa performance indicators such as the importance of repeat bookings (ideally before guests leave) and to suggest we pre-plan for obstacles in recruiting, teaching, motivating and retaining staff by fostering an environment of trust, sharing and continuous learning.

Another insight at the planning stage was to relocate the spa [previously located separately on-site] into the main building, providing the opportunity for multi-treat- ments, intensive water therapies and smarter energy and water use.

Why was Brazil, and this location, chosen?
First, Brazil is where Ricardo and Fernan- da live. Second, as the economic and cultural flywheel for Latin America, Brazil is defining the premium end of the hospitality market for the continent.
Third, in Brazil, Campos do Jordão is a mere two hours from São Paulo, a city where a growing number of residents have the means and inclination to discover and savour new experiences. From my first visit, I was intrigued by the inherent beauty of the place and kindness of the people. Like many, I’d been to the beaches near São Paulo, but I had no idea that a mountain oasis existed so close by too. I immediately joined the Botanique team.

How important is the spa to the business?
Our guests spend much of their lives sub- jected to the rigours of urban living. Our pur- pose is to reinvigorate – and, for a select few, help them to imagine Botanique as an ongoing (and necessary) part of their lives. A well-executed spa experience awakens your senses to the other dimensions of the resort: the flora, fauna, food, people and culture to enhance the total journey.

What’s been the biggest challenge?
Our project was mid-stream when the recession hit and we had too many [16] partners to effectively navigate our future course. I sug- gested we buy out most shareholders so we could streamline decision making. Ricardo, Fernanda and I made the offer, most of them sold, and we re-booted.


Cole says the spa is important as it heightens the whole sensory experience of the resort

Fernanda Semler Partner and co-owner Botanique Hotel & Spa


Fernanda Semler

What is the Botanique concept?
It’s something my husband and I have nurtured for five years and one that puts a post-luxury spin on hospitality, where brand names are left behind and replaced with real luxury values that enrich the guest experience. Whatever is expensive is that way because the product was deeply researched, is rare and costs a lot at origin. Our bathrobes, for example, were redone eight times and the material cost alone was US$700 (compared to US$200 ones from China), so the US$1,100 price still means we make a relatively small profit.

What’s your role?
I’m the guardian of the vision and there were very few aspects of development I wasn’t involved with. I also assist the general manager and staff in creating a rarified atmosphere for guests.

Why did you move the spa into the main building?
Initially, we planned for the spa to perch on the highest part of the property 200m away, but it was only a small building. So we moved it to the main building as there was 700sq m (7,535sq ft) more space. It now features my favourite part of Botanique’s design – an isotonic pool with incredible views of the valley. The pool has minerals which replicate those found in the human body and is the same temperature as the body. The effect is a complete balance with the body and water around it to enhance relaxation. We also built a compressed air system which makes bubbles to stimulate the speed and movement of the heartbeat.

The original spa building now houses the gym and a physiologist/sports doctor’s office where we can prescribe exercise based on DNA. Next to it is an outdoor heated pool and a swimmable lake.

Who did you work with to develop and build the spa?
I’m an avid spa-goer, having been to Christina Ong’s COMO Shambhala in the Maldives and dozens of La Prairie spas, so I knew early on that I didn’t want to work with spa consultants for fear of repeating what’s already out there. We had conversations with many of the leading ones, but concluded that we needed to strike out on our own and tread new ground – especially as there are no Brazilian-themed spas anyway.

Instead, we turned to local experts. A geologist from a nearby university advised on a water menu consisting of 15 sparkling and still waters from around the country while another professor specialising in aromatherapy helped to create the 28 essential oils from ingredients in the surrounding mountains. In total, we worked with 19 professors and scientists who have collated 2,200 pages of research to prove the effects of our treatments.

In addition, Coletivo de Arquitetos, the spa architects, didn’t specialise in wellness so brought a fresh look. We have fixtures that no cost-concerned designer would include. But the winner is the guest.

What makes your spa stand out?
As we did everything from scratch, we have sen- sorially stimulating experiences no one else offers. For example, our wet Rain Forest Sauna, has a perforated plate in the ceiling through which warm mineral ‘rain water’ is released every two minutes to eliminate the sense of claustrophobia or extreme heat typical of saunas. To add more depth, the scent of the surrounding woods comes from one of our essential oils.

Elsewhere, a large room has a floatation tank filled with Epsom salts. It features a cinema projection system showing nature films on the ceiling, as well as underwater music, so people who are floating have visual and aural cues for further relaxa- tion. This is a standalone treatment, but we sometimes use it as a pre-massage tool to unlock muscle tension.

What’s been the biggest challenge?
To make an experience that was totally local and avoiding the comfort zone of Asian, Indian or European treatments and tech- niques. We consulted with native Brazilian practitioners, local shamem of sorts, and carried out extensive work with universi- ties to develop authentic treatments.

Afro-Brazilian massage techniques are strong and vibrant, so some of our massages include more pressure to bring oxygen to the muscle tissue. Meanwhile, native Indian movements are inspired by animals, so our treatments include grip- ping techniques that emulate puma paws or bird claws – this is much smoother than it sounds and helps to dissipate muscle tension in specific spots.

What drives you?
The feedback from guests having a unique experience; and the feeling we’ve created something completely new that’s good for Brazilian self-esteem.


Coletivo de Arquitetos adapted a local sand crafting technique, silicogravura, to create feature walls with subtle Brazilian flair

Guile Amadeu Partner and co-owner Coletivo de Arquitetos


Guile Amadeu

How did you become involved in Botanique?
I set up our studio with Rodri- go Lacerda, who I went to university with, in 2009. Ricardo [Semler] was looking for a relatively new architecture company and became interested in us after we won the 10 ? Young Architect Award by the Brazilian Institute of Architects in 2011.

I had previously worked on preliminary studies for the San Pelegrino spa project in Italy while at EMBT architects in Barce- lona, but the learning curve for Botanique was steep. We extensively researched the technical aspects of spas and visited spas in Brazil and abroad and set up meetings with their spa managers to get a deeper understanding of operational dynamics.

What Brazilian references are included in the design?
From the start, it was made clear that the spa had to have Brazilian influences, but we wanted to avoid the obvious and go for something more refined. After thoroughly investigating Brazilian social, culture and artistic ele- ments we chose to focus on ‘silicogravura’ – hand-crafted glass bottles produced along the north-east coast which contain coloured sand designs replicating the land- scape. We emulated this by blasting sand into the walls of the spa and protecting the coloured strips with glass panels.

What considerations did you give to functionality?
Understanding the opera- tional needs was a priority. In our design we included a laundry/goods service elevator, for example, that connects to the hotel’s main back of house area, so used towels and robes can be quickly cleaned away without guests seeing them. We also closely analysed building materials for practicality. We chose a non-slip, easy-clean polyurethane resin floor that has an elastic quality to allow for a seamless application. This eliminated the need for joints and rounded footers that accumulate dust and dirt, making the spa easier to clean.

What challenges did you face?
When the spa moved into the main building, it took the space originally intended for a res- taurant, so the existing footprint dictated the design. We had to carefully plan the internal layout, paying particular attention to guest and operational flow. Spread over two storeys, with a mezzanine level, we kept the reception, changing rooms and dry treatment rooms on one floor separate from the water-based facilities.
As only one side of the spa had views over the landscape, we created more intimate, discrete areas – two massage rooms and the changing rooms – on the side that had no natural light. However, we made sure we exploited the outside views in every other area possible.

What part of the design are you most proud of?
Botanique is situated in an un- touched area of natural beauty and being able to exploit the spectacular views in every area we possibly could has given the spa a majestic feel. Special double glass, capable of withstanding the huge amount of pressure from the pool and the varying indoor/outdoor temperatures of the sauna, was installed for this purpose. And we intentionally used neutral, timeless col- ours to emphasise bringing the outdoors indoors. Wherever you go in the spa, the landscape is always there, helping people to chill out, relax and enjoy themselves.


The architects used neutral, timeless colours to emphasise bringing the outdoors indoors

From Spa Business – Issue 4 2012, p60

Originally published in Leisure Handbook 2014 issue 1

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