Wellness Warriors is Lifestyle Asia’s dedicated monthly series spotlighting the talented and varied specialists of Hong Kong’s health and wellness scene. Whether spa director or yoga guru, fitness instructor or environmental advocate (or all of the above), these experts tell us about their role in the rapidly growing wellness sphere and the road that took them there.

This month, we speak to Dervla Louli, founder of Compare Retreats, a luxury wellness retreat booking portal and online publication boasting some of the most swoon-worthy healing getaways in far-flung and urban locations alike. Having moved to the SAR in 2011 with a background in business, law and finance, Louli followed her passion to become a lifestyle journalist in Hong Kong, gaining a wealth of experience in digital media and luxury publishing before launching her brainchild project early this year. She’s moderated events at The British Chamber of Commerce, University of Hong Kong and Swire Hotels, and is also a certified yoga teacher, multi-marathon runner, CrossFit buff and pineapple lover. We sat down with Louli to talk about what made her interested in the wellness tourism industry, her most memorable retreat experiences so far, and why good health and happiness is the key to achieving success.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

Tell us a little about Compare Retreats, how did it all start?

Going on a retreat requires a significant investment in time and money. What I wanted to do was create a trustworthy and high quality website about the best wellness retreats in the world, all vetted by certified health and fitness professionals. So many times I booked an annual retreat and I was really looking forward to it — I had paid quite a lot of money and went for the best one I could find — but I’d find that I was sitting on the wrong retreat program. For instance, I should have been on the fitness program, not the detox one according to the goals that I wanted, and this was after doing a lot of in-depth research!

You had a lingering problem that you wanted to be solved. Had Compare Retreats been in the works for a while? When did the idea first pop into your head?

This time two years ago, I was on a run on Bowen road, heavily caffeinated (which is where I get all my ideas, when I run and when I’ve had coffee), and I thought, nothing like this exists. I don’t really want a traditional travel agency, I just want a website where I can go and know that it’s going to be trustworthy, and I figured that if I have this problem maybe other people do too.

The following week I was sitting in San Francisco, with my boss at the time at a Financial Times Luxury Conference and a marketing research executive from KPMG was doing a presentation, saying that wellness and travel were going to be the biggest marketing spends for 2017 and beyond. So a little bit about the wellness tourism space now: It’s grown from US$563 billion in 2015 to US$639 billion in 2017. So this 6.5% annual growth is more than double the growth of tourism overall, which is currently at 3.2%. It’s kind of insane. I then texted my husband who is in the comparison tech space. I told him that and he said, “I think you need to run with this.”

It was tough, because I was in a job I always wanted in publishing in Hong Kong. But the problem with opportunities in the market is if you don’t go now, you won’t be ahead of the curve. The wellness tourism space has increased by around 15.7% since. The biggest wellness conference of the year is coming to Hong Kong next year, and Asia is the fastest growing market.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

I decided to commission a certified health and fitness professional to write about 100 of the best wellness retreats in the world she had ever been on. So Compare Retreats actually started as a review-based website called Healthy Holiday Heroes. I scrapped the name, changed it to Compare Retreats and we had so much traffic! We had no marketing, nothing. And then, people started contacting me with, “Hi, how do I book it?” So, we started a booking portal, and it rolled from there.

Has wellness and travel always been a part of your life?

I’m half-Irish and half-Egyptian. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. I went to school in Ireland and then I moved to Hong Kong — we have been travelling our whole life. My friends are from everywhere in the world. In my eyes, the world just gets smaller and smaller the more flights you take, and that can only be a good thing as we see each other’s cultures and learn more about them. As for the wellness part, my mother had us enrolled in every activity. From the age of four and five we were doing soccer, swimming, gymnastics, athletics. We were brought up in a way that if you were in a bad mood, you could go for a walk and it would cure it, I suppose. I kept that up in school — I did basketball, athletics and running.

What made you decide to immerse yourself in the wellness world once you arrived in Hong Kong?

When I was 27 — about two years after coming to Hong Kong — I was literally working until 1am every day; I wasn’t moving and I wanted a reason to be able to get up away from my desk. I was tired of going out weekends and eating out at restaurants all the time, so I bought a CrossFit gym membership and started going to classes regularly. I didn’t let myself go buy new gym clothes until I’d stuck with it for a month. I felt that if I had that financial commitment there I would go, and it worked. But I used to be a very extreme person: I would do the 7am bootcamp and the 7pm CrossFit, five times a week. I would go a bit crazy! Now my approach to wellness is much more moderate.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

Then you went on to running marathons and training to be a yoga teacher. How did you first get into these activities?

With CrossFit, I saw my physique changing, bulking up I suppose a little bit too much around the neck area. So I then stopped CrossFit completely, and got on a treadmill and ran like a crazy person. I felt it was getting a bit boring. I went with a friend of mine on a trail run one day, and she told me to sign up for Moontrekker, which is a little bit more than a marathon, and Trailwalker, which is a 100km race. So I signed up for both. Afterwards I got into road running, into marathons — I did Tokyo, Dublin, New York — then my knees started to get a little bit sore so I went into yoga. I couldn’t quite find a teacher I could click with, because I’m not naturally flexible so I need specific cues for alignment, to get my body to open up. I walked into Patrick Creelman’s class — he’s the founding teacher of Pure Yoga — and something clicked.

What were the biggest takeaways from running marathons and from yoga?

If you can accept the fact that the first 20 minutes of every single run might suck, then it’s okay. I believe that the more you struggle during something, the more rewarding it is afterwards. That also comes from our teachings during our yoga teacher training. The path of suffering now, brings reward later. The discipline that you get doing something physical also immediately translates into the discipline that you have doing work. For example, we’re more productive over 20-minute periods, so if you have a big task to accomplish, just break it down into 20 minutes, get up, take a break, then come back and sit down. At the end of the day it’s all discipline, and I definitely think it translates back and forth.

People in Hong Kong are notorious for being busy non-stop. How would you suggest for people to declutter their time after work?

I would tell people that it is okay and not feel guilty about doing nothing. I think it’s okay to set 30 minutes aside for you, and to remove the guilt from that.

And yourself? How do you juggle a busy schedule? What’s one tip you can offer?

It’s about having a healthy relationship with your phone — I sometimes leave my phone at home during the day when I have a heavy workload, it’s probably my best tip for productivity.

What is a misconception people have about wellness?

There is a misconception that becoming healthy involves a lot of activity and action. And I think that point of view makes it very inaccessible for people. The first step of wellness for everyone should be getting eight hours of sleep — huge benefits for the body. Then the next is nutrition, and then meditation and mental wellness. Healthy body, healthy mind, because you’re never going to get on the treadmill if you’re not in a state to do it. You need a positive mindset.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

To you, why is the intersection of wellness and travel so important and prevalent these days? Is there a way to rightly (or wrongly) go on a retreat?

The whole point of wellness travel and the wellness tourism market is to travel in a way that makes you feel better, whether that’s mentally, spiritually, or physically. It’s a wonderful way to experiment with wellness: When you’re outside of your regular routine, it’s actually amazing how many changes you can make. It’s for people to slowly build healthy habits. I always say to everyone I know when you go on a wellness retreat, you don’t need to come back and be doing the green juices and the meditation and the yoga and the fitness and going to bed at 9pm. Just take one thing at a time — that’s how I got into meditation and yoga. I went on a retreat and I was doing yoga and meditation once a day and then brought it back.

What are some of the most memorable and/or fabulous wellness experiences you have tried recently? Anything you’re obsessed with?

So I’m just back from Morocco, Royal Mansour’s signature hammam experience. Royal Mansour (below) was created over three years, commissioned by the King. A total of 1,500 artisans worked on it. They use marocMaroc products and the hammam is out of this world. It’s the only spa where I was really upset leaving because I don’t think I’m going to have that good of an experience for a long time!

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

Nihi Sumba, on Sumba Island near Bali was voted the best hotel in the world two years in a row 2016–2017. It’s more like a wild wellness experience. For something closer to home, the digital detox at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong is really good. The hot stone massage and the full moon ceremonies at Four Seasons Hong Kong with spa director Shoshana Weinberg are amazing. There’s a few beauty things in Hong Kong as well. The best hair colour, for balayage, is by David at BruneBlonde. Haircuts by Fatima at Mandarin Oriental — amazing. The Shanghai pedicure by Samuel So at Mandarin Oriental too.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

If people wanted bucket list items, you have Aroha in New Zealand. Canyon Ranch in the USA. Any of the Como properties, especially with Como Shambhala Estate, the ayurveda retreat. In Bali, you have Fivelements, which is opening up a Sacred Arts Centre here in Hong Kong. If you’re into sustainability, Six Senses in Douro Valley was voted the most sustainable hotel by Virtuoso. We also work with city escapes such as the Four Seasons in Paris and their spa. It’s different regions for different things: I find North America amazing for fitness. Medical retreats, Europe is amazing. Asia, very good for detoxing and for yoga.

What’s one offering you wish every hotel or resort had?

No plastic water bottles. And we don’t need straws. The only thing you might need it for is a coconut and then you can use a stainless steel straw.

“People just want to be happy, and they want to feel physically fit and mentally fit, which eventually leads to a feeling of lightness and wellness.”
Dervla Louli
How do you feel Hong Kong has grown in the past five years or so in terms of becoming more health-friendly? What wellness trends have you noticed coming up now?

I do a trip to New York, London and L.A. about once a year because when I was in publishing, I found that everything was happening in New York before it came here. Five years ago we were all juicing. We were doing HIIT training or interval training. It was very go, go, go. There was the CrossFit box explosion. I feel like that was the introduction to wellness. Now, it’s all gone holistic. So tea ceremonies, numerology, reiki, TCM, meditation, gong baths, we’ve seen it a little bit already, but this is what’s going to grow mainstream. Then you have the next layer, the spiritual ceremonies, shamanic ceremonies, silence and fasting… but we’re not ready for silence yet. You’re bombarded with so many different things now, so the biggest luxury is not to make any decisions. It’s about less. People just want to be happy, and they want to feel physically fit and mentally fit, which eventually leads to a feeling of lightness and wellness.

Dervla Louili - Wellness Warriors

As a frequent traveller yourself, how do you stay healthy on the go?

The easiest thing is to drink a lot of water when you’re on the plane. Try to sleep as much as you can. Don’t drink alcohol on the plane. Bose noise canceling headphones, a pashmina scarf and really, really comfy clothes. The raw vegan meal option on Cathay Pacific is my go-to if I’m not fasting during a flight.

What I usually do at the hotels is tell them to clear out all the sugar in the minibar. If you’re going to get hungry, you’re going to want snacks and it’s best to have healthy snacks. Things that are going to make you feel good, because if you’re having a bunch of sugar, that’s going to make your jet lag worse. Always ask for a room with a view and then the night that you land, try to get eight hours of sleep, and try to go for a 30-minute walk in the morning. Drink a lot of water. And if you find the time, Google Map the nearest studio, find something and sign up for a class.

Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.