An interview with Mr. John Reed,
Chief Operating Officer, SANGHA Retreat by OCTAVE Institute
SANGHA Retreat by OCTAVE Institute, is the only retreat that offers personal awakening through ancient Chinese
practices and the discovery of quantum science, with a focus on raising consciousness. It was created to meet the needs of our time by visionary Fred Tsao, fourth-generation steward of a family business that started on the Shanghai Bund more than a century ago.
More than a school of life, OCTAVE Insti- tute is a platform to help people find clarity, harmony and a new level of consciousness and freedom. It consists of SANGHA Retreat, a comprehensive wellbeing resort in Suzhou, and THE LIVING ROOM, an urban support center in Shanghai. Within Sangha is The VILLAGE, a live-work-learn community for personal and communal learning, executive retreats, conferences, summits and festivals including the AT ONE International Festival, an annual festival that brings together thought leaders and holistic practitioners to address current issues. Also under the OCTAVE Institute is, AITIA, which powers the brand’s communal programs at OCTAVE Institute. Together they create the foundation for growth towards a purposeful life, mindfully lived.
Located to the west of Shanghai on the out- skirts of Suzhou, SANGHA Retreat combines Eastern philosophies backed by Western science to help people awaken to a life of greater purpose and personal wellbeing. The 47-acre retreat, designed by Tsao & McKown, includes AT ONE guest suites; the AT ONE Clinic, offering comprehensive wellness assessments and wellbeing programs; AT ONE Healing Spa with extensive spa treatment menu and hydrotherapy circuit; THOUGHT FOR FOOD restaurant; the Meditation Dome; and a seasonal schedule of fitness activities and mindfulness classes designed around the body’s circadian rhythm.
Mr. John Reed, the COO whom joined last October, brings more than 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry in the U.S., Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bali and Bhutan. He has worked at the helm of renowned hospitality organizations and has deep knowledge and understanding of the markets in South Asia and Indochina, especially Bhutan where he spent a significant part of his career building the AMAN brand. Born in the U.S., Reed graduated from Cornell University in 1990 with a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management. SpaChina interviewed Mr. Reed.
What kind of guests are visiting SANGHA Retreat now? What kind of experiences do they want to have during their stay?
Right now, we are probably 99% Chinese national guests. We get a few expats who come across typically doing longer programs. By the nature of Chinese clients, it is shorter stays averaging typically about two nights right now. And what do they want? Our guests want to start a journey of wellness and wellbeing, not knowing how quite to begin, and they have taken notice of Sangha as we get ourselves out into the market. Our “A Taste of Sangha” is an entry point into Sangha to explore the possibilities of what is on offer, allowing for wellness immersion while starting a journey to wellbeing when guests’ visit.
We guide guests though different non-invasive body scans which are then reviewed with one of our doctors, with guidance on what an individual may want to address and how we can support this through our offerings. There is definitely a strong interest here.
And one of the messages that we try to strive to get across is to look beyond what is ailing you. As example, you have an aching back, what is the root cause of the ache. The ache could be kidney related or something to do with our gut management or is it truly nerve, muscle related. What we try to do, without being forceful, is to coax the guests along, inspiring interest to become a better self. We start with what are the six living habits – eating, breathing, movement, sleep, thinking and awareness, allowing guests to explore these habits through our Living Habits Calendar, a series of complimentary classes and talks exploring each habit. Lots of people don’t want to be force-fed, and we gently encourage guests, leading them through what is available and what they can do.
What are these guests’ personal profile?
We see a broad spectrum of guests, from young couples, young families, multi-generational families, older couples and single travelers. We do like to engage guests of all ages, introducing them to a higher state of wellness and wellbeing, and guiding them along the way. We do like to engage families to allow the entire family to start a journey of wellbeing, being aware and growing together. But it goes back to the people truly wanting to commit or seeking to start a journey.
The concept of Sangha is probably five years ahead of the whole China retreat tourism experience and compares with places like SHA, Chiva-som or Kamalaya, where there is wellness culture. But Chinese are used to family-oriented travel, especially in the sum- mer vacation period. How do you see the potential of the family market in China?
The family market has tremendous potential in the wellness area. We have one building that is yet to be completed that we are working on that, that is our art & music building. We are looking at a unique gym concept for children from ages 3 up to 16, with a lot of fun stuff, but also some cool little classes where they can start to get on their own wellness journey. And then we want to add some other areas such as painting, pottery-making involving sensory and visual type of skills and creativity. In the meantime, we have some programs and family coaches who are introducing different types of arts and craft engagement. The goal is to be able to entertain and keep the children busy, which allows the parents to come across to use the gym, spa and clinic. We can keep everybody balanced at the same time. And ideally, at the end of the day, the children are exhausted and the mum and dad can have some peace.
What we want to do in AT ONE is to keep it more peaceful and quiet, child-free. That’s why we look to accommodate families in the service apartments and villas, and why we will build out even more, and become more robust on the side for family engagement. We are also adding of bicycles for adults and children as there is a beautiful bike route around Yangchen Lake. The government has developed lovely landscaped open areas for biking, kite flying and sports. All these things we can use to engage with children as well.
In China, parents’ spending power is number one focused on the children. What opportunities do you see for Sangha in children’s health, such as lazy eye because of a lack of connection with nature, spinal problems caused by too much homework?
We want to do as much as possible to encourage wellbeing learning from very early on, and also address some of the lifestyle issues, including nutrition. We are offering cooking classes for children, to teach healthy cooking using, as example sugar fee, all natural ingredients. We can offer spinal body alignment programs for children. Further we plan to introduce a dental program, as true wellness starts with great dental hygiene, complimenting overall wellbeing.
What is the Sangha experience aiming to achieve?
You mentioned we were 5 years ahead of our time. Some people say 20 years ahead of our time. But I think we are right for our time. What it truly comes down to is the right pres- entation, the right messaging that goes out. There are some people who have a broad understanding and appreciation of wellbeing issues, and there are many who do not understand the dangers of our modern lifestyles and related chronic illnesses. We need to help to guide and educate the market. It’s not just about serving our immediate guests, its Sangha’s vision to go well beyond that. We want to impact our guests who in turn impact their families, neighbors and colleagues. And when your children leave here, they talk about it to other children, and the children talk to their parents as well. Its starting the journey with the intention to reach the wider population. It’s a drop in the lake that sends that ripple to achieve an overall higher level of conscious wellbeing.
It’s all about positively affecting more people. While the bottom line and profitability are important, we want to positively impact the world through what we do. We can’t have the whole world come to Sangha, but if we can set the intention to positively impact, and create that ripple, even if it is tiny, then we have succeeded.
Do you think the pandemic change people’s lifestyle?
I would say for the majority of the world, no. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of hype, we participate in so many webinars and forums, and I see a lot of papers saying it’s changed this, it’s changed that, but now the belief is, no. The sentiment at the moment is that once we have a vaccine, life will bounce back to normal quickly for most. Even though this has gone on for several months, with lots of deaths, sadly, I think the world will move on too quickly from this and not take home as much of a mes- sage as what the virus is trying to give us.
What do you think of the health needs and the preferences of Chinese guests?
Lifestyle choices are leading to chronic illness issues such as diabetes, cancer and dementia, most of which can be prevented through correct nutrition, movement sleep and breathing, all addressed within our Living Habits Calendar. One of the most popular classes is that on nutrition, and we have a hard time getting guests away at the end of the class. But there is a gap in terms of what people know and what truly they should know for their own wellbeing. Starting with just a good balance, clean diet and ensuring they’re getting enough nutrients and minerals and everything else in their diet. There’s an opportunity and there’s a need. But I think that’s generally a lack of awareness of the importance of dental hygiene, and more important the negative impact that poor dental care has on your body. It’s related to heart health, to your overall health. There are so many other issues that come with that.
And related to detox, we all know we don’t live in the healthiest of air, and we all know that has a tremendous impact, a long-term impact on us. We look at our children as they grow, and there is the necessity to detox and cleanse our bodies, and we can heal our bodies. We know we can heal it through lots of different modalities including diet, to quote Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.”
Smoking is another issue for many persons and while we do have some designated outdoor areas, we otherwise keep the resort smoke free with no smoking in the guest suites and all public areas.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I smoked myself and it’s not a good feeling. We all know it’s not good for us, however we are naturally programmed to abuse ourselves, whether it’s alcohol, tobacco or too much fat in our diet, or drugs or whatever it is, we do it.
What it goes back to is there are a lot of lifestyle issues that need to be addressed, starting with that fact that we don’t move enough. Our children don’t move enough. They are not nearly as active as they should be in moving around and playing sports, and this is leading to weight related lifestyle issues in turn potentially leading to chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. All coming full circle back to nutrition and movement. This is where we would just love to send out a good message.