Event Saunas Come to America
Q&A with Don Genders, Founder & CEO, Design for Leisure, on new “Art of Aufguss” at Las Vegas’ Awana Spa & Wellness at Resorts World
What sparked the creation of an event sauna in the US?
In European countries like Finland, where saunas were born over 2,000 years ago, but also Italy, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, etc., sauna rituals and facilities are creative, deeply social and often, frankly, fabulous. I’ve long wanted to reshape both the way Americans “think” of sauna and how they experience it. So rather than a mundane, uninspired and typically hushed sauna experience, we wanted to introduce something more experiential and entertaining, hence the “Art of Aufguss” at Awana Spa & Wellness at Resorts World. (What better place than Vegas to bring this concept alive!?)
In Europe, people simply know how to sauna – both to get the most benefits and to have the most fun. They push the boundaries of the sweat experience and have an innate cultural awareness of the many benefits of contrast bathing therapy (taking a cold plunge or roll in the snow after a period in a sauna, and repeating), which includes getting the blood pumping and a huge release of endorphins.
What is Aufguss?
“Sauna Aufguss” is a practice deeply rooted in the past when “sauna masters” would stand at the ready, circulating heat, humidity and aroma infusions through the waving of towels. Today, this ritual has evolved into something more performative (perfect for the Las Vegas strip!) and sauna masters have developed towel rituals have evolved into full-blown dance routines; with costumes; singing; chanting and even laser and smoke shows. Not only that, in Europe, there are sauna amphitheaters where 50-300 people sweat communally. Although I’d experienced aufguss as far back as the early 90’s, this far more creative, social and fun experience came to life for me at the 2016 Global Wellness Summit in Austria. There, Lasse Eriksen, a close colleague and professional sauna master at Scandinavia’s Farrisbad resort, exposed the audience to the artistry of Sauna Aufguss. The Americans in attendance were taken by this unique, moving and social way of experiencing sauna.
This experience renewed my enthusiasm and I made a commitment to bring aufguss culture to America. Five years later, that vision has become a reality. Design for Leisure joined with spa consultancy BLU Spas to design and build the first-ever Event Sauna in North America. We anticipate many more to come.
Can you tell us a little about the Sauna Aufguss performance?
A Sauna Master’s swirling towels accelerate airflow, pushing warm air, enhanced with essential oils, around the room and towards audience members. All properly designed saunas are well-ventilated and, in the case of aufguss, the Sauna Master’s movements ensure that all guests benefit from this freshly circulated air. Because the performances circulate a sauna’s heat in an intense manner, the temperature is lowered from its standard 195°F to around 180°F.
Sauna Masters dance, craft stories, perform to music and mesmerize guests with their towel twirling techniques – all of which serves to take the mind off the heat. In fact, that’s one of the biggest draws of sauna aufguss…you are completely enthralled for 15+ minutes while benefiting from the deep wellness aspects of sitting in a sauna that can be heated as high as 195°F in the USA and often even much higher in other regions around the world. After an aufguss performance (or any sauna session for that matter), it’s strongly recommended that guests cool their bodies back down (this is traditional contrast therapy). So, after each sauna performance, guests are asked to shower off, and then to immediately use a cold plunge pool, cold foot bath, snow or ice room.
The performances typically take place on the hour and event saunas can be used as a regular sauna between performances.
What special designs and materials are required when building an event sauna?
An event sauna must be designed as such from the outset as there are significant considerations to be made for the theatrical aspect of aufguss. The focal point is always the sauna heater, which can be creatively clad and illuminated for maximum visual impact. There needs to be adequate room for the Sauna Masters to perform, so good space between the heater and the first bench is required. The sauna heater itself must also be designed specifically for aufguss, so that it is able to quickly reheat the rocks after each, often dramatic, infusion of water and/or aromatic ice balls by a Sauna Master.
Benches in an event sauna must have at least two levels, the lower level being deeper to allow guests to sit comfortably in front of the legs of the guests on higher levels. High-quality audio/visual equipment must be used, speakers are ‘club quality’ and capable of high volumes and powerful sub-woofers are hidden under benches. The theatre-style lighting required by aufguss cannot take the intense heat of the sauna, and so are rigged on trusses above the sauna and project through double-glazed glass panels in the ceiling. An adjacent control room, with a viewing window into the sauna, is essential for accommodating the racks that house the computers that run the audio/visual equipment.
*What is your favorite aspect of the Awana Event Sauna from a design perspective?
I think the biggest challenge of any event sauna is unobtrusively accommodating all the additional technology and equipment required without having it dominate the simplictic design of a traditional sauna. For this reason, we clad this sauna simply in strips of Canadian hemlock that follows the contour curved walls (a key feature of Awana’s sacred geometric design). We installed a two-stage celling with a flat section at a high level to enable the towels to swirl freely; the ceiling then falls gently to the tops of the walls, with tapered strips flaring out around a huge curved back wall. These curves and slopes also allow for the free and unhindered movement of air throughout the sauna, maximizing the flow of the rapidly moving air.