Cover Photo: Pan Pacific Hotels Group

The St Gregory Spa founder gets candid about challenging the authorities, the importance of failure and why there are no shortcuts to success—whatever success means, anyway

In a city known to favour the familiar, new ideas and concepts can be met with resistance. Wee Wei Ling discovered this in 1997 when she opened St Gregory Marine Spa—the first spa opened under a Singapore‑listed company—during a time when local spas had a reputation for operating as a front for unsavoury business.

“Back then, the authorities and anti‑vice department classified spas under massage parlours, which had their own negative connotations,” Wee explains, joking that she was viewed “as a mama‑san”.

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But rather than resent the resistance from the authorities at the time, Wee worked tirelessly to prove that spas were a legitimate business and deserved a place in Singapore’s growing hospitality industry.

The eldest child of Singapore tycoon Wee Cho Yaw, Wee was running the family’s Pan Pacific Hotels Group, and believed it was important for its hotels to offer guests “more than just a place to eat and sleep”. She explains: “I saw it as an amenity for the hotel.”

Inspired by spas she had visited on her travels to Europe, the young entrepreneur wanted to bring the concept of a wellness destination to Singapore. “We had salons and beauty centres, but not spas,” she recalls.

St Gregory Marine Spa, later simplified to St Gregory Spa, was ahead of its time in more ways than one. It was the first to introduce alternative practices such as hydrotherapy, and investing in luxury amenities such as the Vichy shower. “We also incorporated traditional Chinese medicine with treatments such as tui na.

At the time, people went to local practitioners on the side of the road for this, but we wanted to make it a luxurious experience,” says Wee. It remains one of St Gregory Spa’s most popular treatments to date. By 2005, St Gregory Spa had established itself as a holistic wellness destination that offers everything from aesthetic treatments to active ageing programmes—areas of wellness that are booming today, but which fell on deaf ears back then.

At the time, it was a big investment and an out‑there idea that Singapore “just wasn’t ready for”, according to Wee.

“It took about 10 years for people to become comfortable and familiar with the concept. It was not easy,” she says. “It took a lot of heartache. A lot of learning and adjusting. But that’s the journey. It built my confidence and my identity as a businesswoman. In life and in business, there are no shortcuts.”

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But oh, how things have changed since. Now, according to a report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the global wellness industry is worth US$1.5 trillion, and Asia is at the heart of it—particularly when it comes to wellness retreats and hotel spas.

“Today, people expect hotels to have three things: a fitness centre, a swimming pool and a spa. In fact, it’s a major selling point for hotels now,” says Wee, who embraces the growing competition.

“To me, the more competitors, the better. When I first opened St Gregory, I was quite lonely. I had to convince the police, I had to convince anti‑vice, I had to convince the public … So now I think, “It’s great, you have your clients and I have mine.’ I’m not afraid of competition. It makes me more alert, more driven; it keeps me on my toes.”

Today, St Gregory Spa has eight outposts in the region (four local and the rest in China, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam), with two more on the way—one in the eco‑chic Parkroyal Collection Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is set to open next month, and the other in the hotel group’s upcoming zero‑waste hotel, Pan Pacific Orchard, slated to open in the first quarter of 2023.

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“Some people ask if I wish I had opened more than eight spas in 25 years, but my focus has always been on quality over quantity,” says Wee. “More is not always more. If I can’t deliver the service and experience I strive to deliver, I’d rather have fewer [spas].”

Wee moves and speaks with a quiet confidence; a charming sense of humility born from decades of trying and failing, and trying again. “Make mistakes and fail,” she says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

On the advice she would give to someone who finds themselves in the same situation she was in back in 1997, she says: “I believe in consultation. Talk to people. Release your ego. If you don’t know, ask. Don’t be shy. So what if you’re a boss? Learn from your staff. Gain a deeper understanding of your industry, your business and the people who are working for you.”

She stresses one final point: “Be happy; do what you want to do and do your best. Don’t compare yourself to others. We need people who believe in something different.”

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