Why #sauna is a thing at #slush17

Slush and sauna; sauna and slush. Which one is yin and which one is yang? One is cold, dark, wet and dirty; the other offers warmth, light, cleanliness and comfort. And yet, these opposites complete each other.

Such is certainly the case at Slush! Helsinki 2017 on Thursday, November 30th and Friday, December 1st. After several years of sauna abstinence, the organisers of Slush decided to re-introduce sauna bathing to the 20-thousand strong tech startup audience gathering in the Finnish capital from around the world. Including that direct charter flight with VCs from San Francisco, a.k.a. the Nerd Bird.

Outside, north of the venue, using the exit behind the media area, Slush-goers are welcomed to the Sauna Village. With six different sauna models, an outdoor tub, food and drink, swimwear, towels and woollen hats available, people should be able to get a good taste of the real thing. Harvia will be present with two saunas. One is a hybrid model, equipped with an electric as well as an infrared heater. The other sauna is heated traditionally, with wood.

“The Sauna Village is built on a wooden terrace on top of a stretch of asphalt, and surrounded by Finnish moss called kuntta,” Slush’ President, Nicolas Dolenc, explains. “The moss and other decoration material create walkways between the saunas, tub, showers, toilets and dressing rooms that are not straight.”

Dolenc remembers earlier versions of the event where saunas were involved. “At the Cable Factory in 2013 we had saunas in the backyard between the venue and the sea. Foreign guests found it really funny, people jumping into the sea at this time of year. It made us different, a curiosity.”

Third time’s the charm

This is the third year that Slush is held at Helsinki’s Messukeskus Expo and Convention Centre. “The last time we had saunas at the event, in 2014, we didn’t feel that the service was top-notch,” says Dolenc. “We didn’t have the resources to elevate it to the standard that people have come to expect.”

“Having the Sauna Village this year means to me that we have been able to execute everything else above standard,” he adds. “When you have a million other things to care about, sauna is a nice-to-have, a bonus, not a priority. However, the third time is the charm. We’ve been able to learn from all the challenges, to understand the complexity, to become familiar with the space.”

“When I became executive producer two years ago,” Dolenc continues, “the only thing I wanted to see was fire on stage. Well, that dream came true last year. This year I feel that excellence is not exemplified in one particular thing, but it’s the sum of many details. For example, you can see the status of toilet queues at the different toilet clusters live in our mobile app.”

You can book your sauna turn or reserve a business meeting in a sauna lobby through Slush’s mobile app, as well.

Not scary at all

To furnish and host the Sauna Village, the Slush organisation invited Sauna from Finland, an association of more than 200 businesses promoting sauna and counselling hotels and spas around the world, as an event partner. The business network also happens to be lobbying for a national sauna flag day.

“According to our research, 85 percent of foreigners travelling to Finland want to experience a Finnish sauna,” says Carita Harju, the association’s Founder and Executive Manager, and author of ‘Sauna – The Way of Finnish Life‘. “This is an excellent opportunity to give them that. We want to create the best Finnish sauna experience in the world; something people will remember fondly. We would like them to feel that it’s healthy and relaxed, not scary at all.”

Scary? What is there to be afraid of?

Harju cites a study according to which non-Finns, unfamiliar with sauna, tend to fear two things: the heat and the nudity. So, in case you were wondering, sauna bathers at Slush’ Sauna Village will be handed swimwear and towels so that no-one needs to go naked – although you can if you reserve a sauna slot as a team. And the temperature inside will be kept well below the boil.

Startup Sauna

But the connection between sauna and the Finnish startup scene goes deeper. Slush is part of Startup Sauna, which is a building, a coworking space, an event organiser and a not-for-profit, early-stage accelerator all-in-one.

The Startup Sauna building, a former hand sanitizer storage at Aalto University, has its own sauna facilities. And as if that’s not enough, one meeting room is built like a sauna, looks and feels like a sauna but has a whiteboard instead of a heater.

Last summer, 20 Startup Sauna coaches took turns in touring 12 Finnish college cities to meet with local startup entrepreneurs, to share their insights on networking and pitching to investors, and to discuss their business ideas. Their means of transportation? A Land Rover trailing a sauna on wheels, for the perfect conclusion of each meeting.

“Twice a year for two months, the accelerator’s coaches travel to many countries, particularly in the Nordic and Baltic regions, Eastern Europe and Asia, to take the pulse of the global startup ecosystem,” Jan Bubienczyk, Chief Marketing Officer of Startup Sauna, explains. They then select the next batch of 15 teams, out of an average of 1500 applications, to sweat in Startup Sauna’s 5-week accelerator programme.”

“Not only is sauna reflected in our programme because it’s the most intense of its kind,” says Bubienczyk. “But the participating teams also tend to really enjoy sauna bathing. It kinda becomes part of the workflow.”