by Maria Lenhart
Eager to learn more about the promising niche of medical and wellness travel, travel sellers gathered last week at the first-ever Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The event, which was co-sponsored by Travel Market Report, marked a milestone for the burgeoning medical tourism industry, bringing together all stakeholders, including travel agents, facilitators, suppliers and medical travelers, for the first time. About 400 people attended.
It was also a milestone for Well-Being Travel, which was founded five years ago to foster travel agent participation in a potentially lucrative market.
“We saw that the missing link in medical tourism was the travel side,” explained Anne Marie Moebes, executive vice president of Well-Being Travel, during a press conference at the event. “There was clearly a need for someone who represents the consumer. This had not been looked at as a separate niche before.”
Bringing the industry together
The conference, which featured a trade show and educational sessions, brought travel sellers together with leading players in the field, including medical travel facilitators, internationally accredited hospitals, corporate wellness programs, tourism ministries, destination spas, resorts and other travel suppliers.
The suppliers included The Biggest Loser Resorts, which recently formed a partnership with Well-Being Travel as a preferred supplier. The company has destination resorts in California, Utah and New York.
As a result of the partnership, Well-Being Travel will create commissionable wellness travel packages with The Biggest Lower Resorts, Moebes said.
$100 billion industry
The huge business potential of medical tourism was underscored by Moebes at the conference’s opening session.
“We’re talking about an industry that’s predicted to reach $100 billion this year,” she said. According to Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, 1.6 million Americans are expected to head overseas for healthcare in 2012, Moebes told delegates.
Those numbers are almost certain to keep on growing, David Boucher, COO of Companion Global Healthcare, said during the session.
“The escalating cost of (U.S.) medical care and the continued decline in quality is ensuring the future of medical travel,” said Boucher, whose firm is a medical travel facilitator and a partner with Well-Being Travel.
Boucher estimated that Americans can save between 75% and 95% on medical procedures by going abroad. But cost is not the only motivating factor, he said. Often Americans are attracted by the superior safety and service delivered by internationally accredited medical facilities located overseas.
‘Biggest Loser’ winner
Sione Fa, a winning contestant from NBC TV’s “The Biggest Loser” and now a fitness trainer at the Biggest Lower Resort in Utah, shared his inspiring 140-pound weight loss story with attendees during a lunch session, wowing the audience with a performance of a traditional dance from his native Tonga.
“As a Polynesian, I thought that eating all the time is just what we do,” he jokingly told the audience. “Now I know there is a better way.”
Medical patients share experiences
Other inspiring stories came from medical travelers who shared their unscripted experiences during Thursday morning’s general session.
“Not only did I save a lot of money, I was able to have a great vacation,” said Jeffrey Castle, an employee benefits salesman from Atlanta who traveled to Costa Rica for extensive dental work. While waiting for his permanent crowns, he and his wife stayed at a beachside resort and took excursions to the country’s national parks.
“I’ve had zero issues with the quality of care – it was a very positive experience,” Castle said.
New options for agents
For some travel sellers, the conference was a chance to explore new options for revenue.
Jackie Ceren, CTC, president of Travel Consultation and Mediation, who has 38 years of experience selling both corporate and leisure travel, said she now plans to make medical and wellness travel her only focus.
“Wellness and medical travel involves life changing experiences,” she told Travel Market Report. “So that makes it meaningful.”
Arranging a trip to Acapulco for a terminally ill client proved to be the most rewarding experience of her career, she said. “He was so grateful that I found it more satisfying than booking an expensive cruise for someone.”
Ceren, who was busy during the conference making contacts with medical travel facilitators and suppliers, said she will begin marketing efforts targeting potential clients when she returns home.
“I plan to start a website and place small newspaper ads about my new focus, plus using social media,” she said. “I also plan to get the word out to doctors that I know and others who may know people interested in medical tourism.”
Other agents said they attended the conference to see if medical and wellness travel were niches that made sense for them.
For Mike Gruendel, vice president of Travel Discoveries in Tampa, Fla., the “big question was liability.” After consulting with travel industry attorney Mark Pestronk, a presenter at the conference, Gruendel said his concerns were allayed.
“Yesterday I wouldn’t have wanted to sell (medical travel), and today I see opportunities in it,” Gruendel told Travel Market Report.
“I see cosmetic surgery as a big possibility, and dentistry,” Gruendel said. As for destinations, Gruendel said he was “intrigued” by Thailand. (The Tourism Authority of Thailand was a presenter in a session on destinations that specialize in global care.)
Michelle Duncan, president of Odyssey Travel, said that the conference “enabled me to learn more about this niche. It’s huge.”