is a full-time wellness hotel tester and co-founder of the renowned German hotel testing platform Wellness Heaven. With her husband Dr. Tassilo Keilmann she travels the world in order to discover, enjoy and rate the most exclusive wellness hotels out there. Since 2017 Andrea Labonte is also blogging about wellness travel with children on her personal blog Wellness Mama. Today she is talking to us about her life and travel experiences as a wellness hotel tester.
Thank you so much for talking to us today!
So first and foremost – how did you become a wellness hotel tester? I bet this is a job everyone would love to have!
Originally I did an apprenticeship before I started studying business administration. I was working in marketing for a large luxury goods company when I realized I needed a little vacation. And my husband and I just thought… hey, let’s book a wellness vacation. At that time there weren’t many websites providing information about wellness trips. Unfortunately the wellness trip we had booked was rather mediocre. We were a little disappointed and wished we’d had more information beforehand. And that’s when we came up with the idea of setting up an online platform for wellness trips. My husband did his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute at that time and had some free time on his hands. So he set up Wellness Heaven back in 2006. At the time, we didn’t think it would develop such momentum. At the beginning we had only few hotels, but then the platform’s popularity increased which now allows us to focus on it full-time. And we enjoy it very much!
When did you realize that you wanted to turn your passion for travel into a job?
I quit my previous job in 2012, but it had been six years until I eventually took the leap of faith. I am not exactly the bravest person in this regard and I had a great job, which I really enjoyed. I was Marketing Manager for Vacheron Constantin, the oldest Swiss watch brand and I was responsible for Europe. Obviously you don’t give up a job like that lightly. My husband completed his doctorate and worked as an academic advisor at the University of Munich. So for a while we adopted a two-pronged approach but at some point we realized that we couldn’t do Wellness Heaven on the weekends. My boss also started wondering why I traveled to the Maldives so often and how I could afford it. I hadn’t spread around what I was doing. When I quit, I explained that we would continue with Wellness Heaven and that we decided to be self-employed full-time.
It is certainly not easy to choose such an unusual career.
That’s right. My husband comes from an academic family background and his family was not enthusiastic about it at first. It was a little different for me – my father was an entrepreneur, my mother worked for Lufthansa. I always had a penchant for traveling. But we both always loved to discover the world. Today we laugh about it, remembering how skeptical everyone was at the beginning. But in a way we really had to prove to ourselves and to others that this job, which we have virtually created ourselves, really pays the rent.
So when you are on a trip for Wellness Heaven what are your criteria for rating a hotel?
We rate a hotel in five different categories: wellness, cuisine, rooms, location and service. We have an evaluation matrix that includes 500 different criteria. We then go through these criteria during our stay on site. Usually we stay for 3 days. My husband programmed an algorithm that then uses these 500 criteria to calculate the final score for each individual category and an overall grade. In addition, we write a detailed test report for each hotel, which describes the facilities and really makes you want to visit the hotel.
So one could say that you have developed a scientific approach towards wellness hotel testing?
Exactly! Everything is evaluated from the quality of the freshly squeezed orange juice to the view from the whirlpool. It’s a lot, but we have already established some routines to make the rating process easier. I also tend to notice quite quickly whether I feel comfortable in a hotel. This starts with the reception – how will I be greeted? Is there someone there to help me with my luggage? Does the staff know my name? Is there a cool refreshing towel in warmer destinations or a welcome drink? These are the “soft skills” that we look out for, but of course we also evaluate the “hardware” such as outdoor pools, sports pools, seawater pools. Since we have two children, whom we often also take with us, we naturally also pay attention to what is offered for children in family hotels.
Do you have a favorite hotel? Or is it too hard to decide for you?
There are so many really great hotels! But of course we also have favorites. Our hotel ranking clearly reflects this. Those with particularly good reviews are, of course, also our personal favorites, since they are truly outstanding and offer a fantastic experience.
You worked as a marketing manager in the luxury goods sector and you are mainly testing hotels from the luxury segment. What does luxury mean to you, especially with regard to travel?
Here I would like to give an example of a trip to the Maldives: We were accommodated on an island and our villa consisted of three different tent-like bungalows. You got this outdoor feeling and throughout our entire stay we didn’t encounter any other tourists. It was just my husband and I and our butler. He went snorkeling with us, we dined on the beach in the evening and nobody else could be seen. The feeling of luxury set in right when we arrived: we had a contact person who only took care of our needs. We could take a shower right upon arrival and were offered a cool refreshing drink. There were no queues at check-in. We then flew on to our island by seaplane and the VIP program continued there as well. We really felt like celebrities because it was such an exclusive travel experience.
However, luxury also means attention to small details. Once I was provided with a cooler for my cosmetics, for example. On arrival we received a questionnaire asking if we forgot anything while packing so that we could be provided with the appropriate products. This gives you the feeling of not being an “ordinary” guest. Once we were asked what we expected from the trip before the trip had even started. At a hotel in Tyrol, for example, we were asked to specify exactly whether we wanted to relax, whether we were interested in sports or whether special experiences with the family were important to us. Then the activities were tailored to our preferences. Once we were asked about our favorite literature and music. In our water villa on the Maldives they played our favorite songs on our arrival. These are the details that really manage to surprise you and provide these wow! – moments. That’s what luxury travel is all about for me – experiencing something you wouldn’t otherwise experience and that you maybe couldn’t even buy for money. Like a sunset boat trip that’ll allow you to watch dolphins, completely undisturbed and without other tourists. It’s about creating moments to remember. After all, life is all about memories and memorable moments. Also, if you travel on a smaller budget, this is something you can certainly create yourself to a certain extent.
What should not be missing in your luggage for the perfect wellness trip? What are your packing tips?
I’m actually pretty bad at packing. Since we always travel with our children, I usually take far too much with me. My main focus is mostly on the first-aid kit. I always make sure it’s well-equipped. I always consult with our doctor before long-distance trips to find out which must haves should go into our luggage for the children and for us. Then of course it always depends on the destination. On a private trip, I usually don’t take a lot of clothes with me, while for hotel tests a somewhat more extensive wardrobe is required.
What do you enjoy doing during a flight in order to arrive at your destination as relaxed and comfortable as possible?
In the past, my flights were always very relaxed. I always had my noise cancelling headphones with me, which very well suppressed ambient noise. I usually carry a sleeping mask with me, as well as a good hand cream. Of course it’s not as relaxed anymore with the children. I’m afraid I can’t put on headphones and a sleep mask and block out everything. First and foremost, it is important that the children are well entertained and can sleep a little, which unfortunately I do not always succeed in achieving. Otherwise, and my friends often laugh at me because of that, I always practice autogenic training according to Dr. Schleimer, who is an autogenic training guru. I always listen to him on flights and it relaxes me very much.
You naturally travel a lot for your job as a hotel tester. How do you travel as a private person and how do these trips differ from the business trips? What is important to you?
Yes, these trips are definitely different. We are currently staying in Sardinia for two weeks and this is a completely different experience. We have a holiday home right by the sea. We don’t do much here either – the holiday wardrobe is shorts and T-shirts. Everything is super relaxed, we read, we sleep, we cook our own meals and it is not particularly luxurious at all. The house is incredibly beautiful in terms of location and it definitely has a lot of “patina”. We rented it from friends in Rome. It is pretty old and has its own very special charm to it. It’s completely different from the luxury hotels we usually stay in. After every hotel stay I really look forward to coming home, I look forward to just eating oatmeal and watching the cows graze outside. For a fulfilled life you don’t necessarily need luxury – a simple life can be a good life as well. We are privileged to have both, but I also appreciate the simple things.
Now last but not least: What’s the craziest story that happened to you during a hotel test?
There are a few actually. A couple of years ago we stayed at a huge hotel in Sardinia, which had its own wildlife park. There were wild boars, pheasants, deer and many more. As we were walking around the park one of the boars actually attacked me. Luckily I managed to take shelter behind a low wall – but that was definitely an incident that will be remembered! Once I was in Bali with another hotel tester. At an old temple complex free running monkeys attached themselves to my travel companion and she could not shake them off anymore – there was really no way to get rid of them. These were definitely the most noteworthy animal encounters.
Once I had a massage with a masseur who first took off his shirt and then started panting with a lot of pathos and fervor before he started massaging me – I was a bit weirded out. During a Lomi Lomi massage, the masseuse jumped around me dancing to whale songs – stories like these obviously stuck in my memory.
Thank you so much for talking to us today and for sharing your insights as a wellness hotel tester! We wish you a good time in Sardinia and pleasant travels in the future!