At the start of 2020, the outlook for airport wellness brand XpresSpa Group was downright rosy. The company was in the midst of a renaissance as it introduced newly renovated airport spa locations and enhanced products such as sleep and meditation offerings, the latter in partnership with Calm.com. The sky was the limit. Then, the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
“Starting in March 2019 we had 10 straight months of positive sales into the new year. We raised sales, we cut costs, and we were about to turn and be profitable in 2020—and then COVID came in,” recalls XpresSpa Group CEO Doug Satzman. He had been brought onboard in February 2019 to help turn around the world’s largest airport health and wellness operator after the business had experienced 18 months of earnings losses.
But as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world, “airport traffic fell ... and by [the] end of March 2020, we closed all of our units globally because we were deemed nonessential use—appropriately so,” says Satzman.
Any frequent traveler in the United States is likely familiar with the XpresSpa brand, whether or not they’ve actually popped in for a massage. Pre-COVID, the company had grown to encompass 50 locations in 25 airports globally that offered pampering-on-the-go services such as massages, manicures, pedicures, haircuts, styling, facials, and waxing.
But when its locations were all forced to close and revenue dropped essentially to zero, XpresSpa Group had to furlough 95 percent of its company—a tale that is all too familiar to travel and hospitality businesses during the pandemic. Left with just a skeleton staff to “keep the lights on,” Satzman recalls a light-bulb moment: a way to reinvent the company as one that’s not just relevant for travelers, but essential.
“Our board chairman Bruce Bernstein came up with the idea. [He said], ‘Hey, since we have this real estate in airports, which is hard to come by, could we convert some of them into COVID testing centers?’ That then began a new project. We went from idea to concept to pilot in 75 days and got our first XpresCheck COVID testing center up and operating in JFK Terminal 4 by the end of June,” says Satzman.
In April, the company hired Dr. Lewis Lipsey, MD, to serve as the company’s chief medical director, charged with working with health care officials to help design safe and compliant testing protocols.
In June 2020, XpresSpa formally launched its new brand, XpresCheck, with the unveiling of a COVID-19 testing center at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in the Terminal 4 arrivals hall, presecurity, so that that anyone can access it, whether they are flying into or out of Terminal 4 or not.
“Testing is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a very important piece”
COVID-19 testing has increasingly become a tool for safely reopening destinations and for reassuring travelers, especially fliers, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Testing is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a very important piece. It doesn’t provide guarantees that someone isn’t a carrier getting on a flight . . . but it reduces risk dramatically and I know it helps restore confidence in people traveling,” says Satzman.
For instance, as of November 4, New York no longer requires travelers from high-risk states to quarantine for 14 days. Instead, travelers from out of state—and returning New Yorkers who left for more than 24 hours—will need to show two separate negative COVID tests. Additionally, states such as Hawaii and Alaska have COVID-19 testing requirements, as do a growing number of international destinations that are working to safely reopen to travelers.
While the world eagerly awaits additional progress toward a coronavirus vaccine, testing appears to be an intermediary solution to reigniting travel that governments, airlines, and airports are increasingly embracing. This is where XpresCheck comes in.
The initial idea was to convert existing (and temporarily closed) XpresSpa storefronts into XpresCheck locations, but JFKIAT, which operates JFK’s Terminal 4, wanted a location that was more accessible to a greater number of travelers—presecurity (XpresSpa’s Terminal 4 location is postsecurity). So, XpresCheck developed a modular unit that could be installed in any available space inside airports to carry out COVID-19 testing.
As it partners with additional airports, it will essentially offer three options: convert an existing XpresSpa space into an XpresCheck unit; install a modular unit like the one at JFK; or lease another airport storefront that’s vacant.
Since June, an XpresCheck unit has opened at Newark International Airport in New Jersey and at Boston Logan International Airport, and another is on its way to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Satzman says there are “many more in the pipeline” as well as airlines interested in partnering with XpresCheck to make the services available to their customers, including airlines looking into baking COVID-19 testing into the cost of an airfare. XpresSpa Group wants to get as many of these units and options up and running within the next few months.
You can get a flu shot at the spa, too
The XpresCheck facilities offer several COVID-19 testing options:
- polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests (also known as nasal swab tests), which cost $75
- rapid molecular tests that can produce results within 15 minutes, which cost $200
- antibody tests for $75
You can also get a PCR and antibody test at a cost of $90 together. The company plans to offer the latest testing options as they become available.
XpresCheck will attempt to bill health insurance first for any testing and will then send a bill to customers for the remaining balance, if there is one. Satzman acknowledged that how and whether insurance covers COVID-19 testing for travel remains unclear as this is new territory for providers as well as patients.
XpresCheck doesn’t just offer COVID testing. The facilities also offer rapid flu, strep throat, and mono tests (for $25 each) and a flu shot (for $50). Travelers should note that results for the PCR tests could take up to two to three days to receive. Satzman says he sees a future for XpresChek continuing to offer a menu of travel health offerings that can include any number of vaccines (including possibly a coronavirus vaccine) and tests that travelers need or want for their journeys. Advance online reservations are recommended at XpresCheck sites, but walk-ins are accepted.
“You could say, ‘Why is the spa business doing medical testing?’” says Satzman.“But in the airport there are not a lot of health and wellness operators. We were uniquely qualified [to do this].”