“This spa is not a place for millionaires”: Therme Group CEO Robert Hanea on his controversial plans for Ontario Place
The man behind the proposed spa at Ontario Place explains what his company actually does, how much tickets will cost and why he believes most of the public backlash is due to misinformation
What is Therme, and how did a Vienna-based conglomerate find itself in such a heated debate over Toronto land?
Our company started in Europe 20 years ago, when new heating and cooling technology allowed us to bring the thermal-bath experience to the masses. About eight years ago, the Wynne government put out a request for proposals to revitalize Ontario Place. We had already been talking about a North American flagship, and we liked Toronto for its diversity and vibe. In terms of opposition, the land use was decided by the province. I realize that a lot of people have sentimental attachments to Ontario Place, but 50 per cent of Torontonians were not born in Canada. They need a new history, a new place to connect with the water.
And what better place to do that than a bougie mega-spa.
Much of what has been reported on our project is inaccurate. The word spa comes from the Latin phrase “salus per aquam,” which literally means “health from water”—an accurate description of Therme. But a lot of people hear spa and think of some kind of massage parlour. This is not what we do. Therme combines water, nature and technology for wellness. We have thermal baths and steam rooms and wave pools. We are not an elitist institution.
What do you say to critics, including Mayor Olivia Chow, who want to keep Ontario Place public?
We’ve been allotted only 11 per cent of Ontario Place’s total land. Over 70 per cent of the West Island will be accessible public space. It’s also being financed privately—most parks are subsidized by the government or funded through philanthropy. Similar to Budweiser Stage or Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Therme will be a publicly accessible, ticketed facility.
How much will tickets cost?
As low as $30 and as high as $70, depending on what you want. We will have special prices for families and seniors, and kids under six years old will be allowed in for free. This is not a place for millionaires. In Europe, our guests are taxi drivers, health care workers and families.
How do you account for the 2,000-car parking garage that the province is funding to accommodate your visitors?
The parking lot is a provincial project, so not technically our jurisdiction. But I can say that it is being built to hold the 10 per cent of visitors who will arrive by car. The other 90 per cent will be taking transit, cycling or walking.
The mayor recently offered up the Better Living Centre, an underused facility on CNE grounds, as an alternative location. Is that something you would consider?
I don’t want to comment on the suitability of alternative locations. This project began as a way to redevelop Ontario Place. The process was overseen by KPMG and Colliers, and we have made changes to our plan based on 18 months of public consultation. We also spent several years surveying Ontarians within a three-hour drive of our site, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. So, yes, there is opposition, but we have a lot of support and enthusiasm about the project as well.
In light of the Greenbelt scandal, are you worried that the premier is going to change his mind?
No. And I would say that, in terms of appropriateness and public consultation, our process is the exact opposite of what happened with the Greenbelt.
Spa culture isn’t as prevalent in Canada as it is in Europe. Are you sure Torontonians will be quick to embrace it?
Historically, you will find the tradition of warm mineral baths in every society, including Canada. Four years ago, we had one of our first engagements with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation—the historic keepers of the waters—to discuss the project. We talked about how the connection to the lake had been lost over the past few decades. Members of the nation have travelled to Europe to see our facilities. In Toronto, they helped design the spa’s public space: a new path honouring the Credit River as well as areas for traditional ceremonies on the shoreline.
In Europe, thermal baths are often clothing optional. Will that be the case at Therme Toronto?
No, and I would not say that nude baths are the norm in Europe either. Germany does have a long tradition of this, but even there, it is only a portion of most facilities.
Where do you stay when you’re in Toronto?
I like to spend time in different neighbourhoods to get a cultural understanding of the city—often close to Ontario Place—but I have stayed elsewhere. When I’m here, what I tend to do most is walk: 10 or 12 kilometres every couple of days. My wife and I were recently walking on the waterfront.
How much time do you spend in thermal waters in a typical week?
Well, it’s a cruel joke that the people who work at these places don’t get the chance to spend a lot of time in the water. I try to go every other month with my daughter. I like to arrive incognito, just to have a sense of the customer experience.
I wouldn’t normally ask an interview subject their age, but I feel like you may secretly be 120 years old.
Ha—right, because of the thermal waters. I’m 44.
What about concerns regarding renderings versus reality? We see it all the time in Toronto where the preview of a new condo looks like Shangri-La, then the final product ends up looking like another “sh” word.
We pride ourselves on building facilities that are better than the renderings. If I can share an anecdote, a few years ago, I faced the same question when we were designing our facility in New York. We took a rendering from our Bucharest facility and layered it over a photo of the real thing, and they matched up perfectly.
What about the 95-year lease. Why is it so long?
I know people have been shocked by this, but it is quite a typical length for such a project. It ensures a serious enough investment to withstand time. With a shorter lease, the financing wouldn’t be possible.
I guess neither of us will be around in 90 years if it all falls apart.
Well, maybe we will—if we spend more time in the thermal waters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.