Sea soak


A family business based on sustainability, ethics and organics – before those were fashionable – is enjoying a surge in popularity as people look to the healing properties of seaweed, and the Voya experience, writes ROSEMARY Mac CABE

WHEN NEIL WALTON first applied to the banks for funding to set up Voya Seaweed Baths (then Celtic Seaweed Baths) in Strandhill, Co Sligo, the bank manager was sceptical. “He asked him, ‘why don’t you open up a shoe shop instead?’ ” says Mark Walton, Neil’s brother and one of the Strandhill Waltons – the regenerators, not founders, of the town’s seaweed baths.

“The baths have been here since 1912,” says Mark. “They were first on the shore, and were destroyed by a hurricane in the 1960s. The family reopened the baths in the mid-1990s, so whenever we talk about Voya, in a sense we’re just the current incarnation, as such, carrying on a tradition that’s been here for 100 years.”

The idea of tradition is a strong one for the Waltons, and one that has served as the foundation for their business philosophy and for the company’s growth and development.

“Seaweed baths used to be known as the sailor’s cure, and people would come from all over to ‘take the waters’,” says Mark. “In a way, it’s no different now – we have customers who used the original baths, 50, 60 years ago.”

It was a timely resurgence for the family to grow a business based on sustainability, ethics and organics. But it wasn’t always so, and while a changing landscape has offered scope for business development, it was, as Neil found with the bank manager, a tough sell.

“Our father set up the Organic Trust in the 1970s, so we grew up with the concept,” says Mark. “It doesn’t seem unusual to us – but of course, 20 years ago, people thought we were howling at the moon, running through the woods naked. Then all of a sudden Gwyneth Paltrow says it’s cool. . .” He smiles. “It’s been great for business.”

Today, Mark, his brother Neil, his sister Aoife Langan and Mark’s wife Kira, are all involved with the company. There is no multi-million dollar Voya emporium; there are no shareholders; there are no plans for world domination.

“We were never in this to be the next L’Oréal . . . We were in this because we believed in what we were doing. If people want to buy the product, that’s great – we can make a living from it.”

The idea of reopening the seaweed baths was Neil’s, Mark tells me. “He was a professional triathlete at the time, and found that the seaweed bath was great for his body, it was a great remedy, so he decided to reopen the baths.”

For Neil’s part, it seemed to be a move based on logic, and not a flight of fancy. “This is unique to Ireland, it’s Ireland’s spa treatment – so why not exploit and develop it? I’m amazed there aren’t seaweed baths all around Ireland.”

The idea of expansion, opening venues countrywide, had occurred to the Waltons, but they faced opposition and competition from the most predictable of sources. “We tried to set up in various locations along the coast, but we need to be on the shore, right next to the sea, and in a populated area, and we were always competing against these big developers who wanted to put up 50 apartments on the spot,” says Mark. “We were saying, ‘but this is an amenity, it will be good for the community’. Even though people call them spas, for us this is more about the therapy – people of all ages and backgrounds come to experience them.”

For Voya, the seaweed bath is a remedy, a treatment, a preventative measure. “It’s like a poultice,” says Mark. “It draws out toxins and replaces them with essential vitamins and minerals that the seaweed has taken from the sea.” The spa atmosphere – low lighting, ambient music and, above all, heat and steam – came secondary.

“ Stuart Townsend came to the baths a few years ago, and he was standing at the counter next to one of our regular customers, a retired farmer, and the two of them were there looking at one another,” he says, laughing. “The farmer, who comes to the baths to ease his arthritis, is there looking at Stuart Townsend thinking, ‘what’s this young guy doing at the seaweed baths?’ and Stuart Townsend’s looking at this farmer thinking, ‘what’s this old guy doing at the spa?’ “The thing is, we always wanted it to be something that everybody could experience – we never wanted to alienate people who had been coming to the seaweed baths in Strandhill for their whole lives.”

As such, prices are low (€25 for a seaweed bath), and staff are welcoming. There are few of the ubiquitous spa-style posters (“lose inches with our body-heating wrap”) and the ever expanding range of Voya body care products are grouped together, unassumingly, on a side wall.

“While the seaweed baths have been very popular” – and increasingly so, from 5,000 customers a year at the beginning to 40,000 now, Mark says – “customers started to ask, ‘can I take this home with me?’ and we started looking at developing Voya products.”

Organic seaweed products are few and far between, especially of the homegrown, home-owned variety, and ensuring both the efficacy of their products and that they were fully organic was important to the Waltons.

“We looked at the market. In the late 1990s there were a few organic products, and a few seaweed products but they weren’t organic, so we had what we refer to as our State of the Nation meeting, where the whole family came in, and we said, ‘okay, let’s do up our own’.”

Voya’s products are created, packaged and distributed in Ireland; it was a decision, says Mark, made at the beginning of the process, that ensures Voya maintains a low carbon footprint – “every year we try to get to a zero carbon footprint, but every year something catches us out.”

“We wanted to grow this as an Irish company,” says Mark. “We’re not waving a flag, but we wanted to create the technology and expertise within the country. We could have gone abroad, but we wanted to have it here.”

But the past year has seen Ireland battered by more than just the Atlantic; how has the company fared in the economic storm?

“Business has been affected,” says Neil. “But not by a huge amount. We haven’t cut any staff, although we have reduced hours a bit. Business is probably down about 15 per cent, but we’re still doing well. With the bad weather, a lot of people came in with colds and flu to get a boost from the vitamins and minerals in the seawater.”

What next? “We keep getting told about products we should launch,” says Mark. “The hot one at the moment is the glycolic peel, but we have no intention of introducing an acid to peel off a layer of your skin. It goes against everything we believe in. That’s the advantage of being a family-run business. We don’t have pressure from shareholders. We don’t have to take over the world. We don’t have to make compromises.”

It’s an ethic that, one suspects, will take them far – although probably not too far away from the Strandhill shore, where the seaweed is harvested, the products are made and packaged, and the afternoon surf is enjoyed, come hail, rain or shine.

Harbour view option

The simple seaweed soak is an idea that’s catching on. Further south, in Co Galway, and overlooking Killary Harbour, weary travellers can look forward to a seaweed bath from Easter, when Connemara Seaweed Baths will open at the Leenane Hotel. Priced at €20 per bath, the experience will include steam room and sauna.