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Serenity Now: The Change in Spas

Hit hard by the recession, the spa industry has regrouped, with a deeper emphasis on healthy living and preventative remedies.


Upon checking into the Peninsula Hong Kong after a 20-hour flight from her home base in Surrey, England, Susan Harmsworth, founder of Espa, a leading creator of spas, treatments and products, always follows the same routine. First, she visits the hotel’s pool or gym for a little exercise. Next, she takes a steam in the peppermint-vapored Crystal Steam Room. Then, she submits to a Jet Lag Eliminator Massage (an 80-minute rubdown she designed that’s performed with a choice of either an energizing or soothing oil blend) and hits the sack without eating. “After that, I sleep like a log,” she says.



Such is the power of spa. But for an industry devoted to beauty, well-being and relaxation, the last few years have been a time of upheaval. According to an International Spa Association, or ISPA, member survey conducted in June, the professional organization representing 3,200 health and wellness facilities in 83 countries found 48 percent reported a decrease in the amount spent per visit when compared with the same time last year.


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The recession has had an oddly schizophrenic impact on spas in general, and day and hotel spas in particular. On the one hand, clients have less disposable income and so are visiting less frequently. On the other hand, the economic climate has them experiencing greater stress, so the central premise of spas has never been more relevant.


What has also changed dramatically is the consumer attitude toward self-indulgence and pampering, particularly among Baby Boomers. Today, clients are looking for services that are more than just skin deep. The focus on stress relief still exists (which explains why massage is generally the number-one treatment offered), but has deepened to better reflect the original European spa concept of “wellness”—a mix of spa treatments, fitness, complementary medicine and nutritional advice that delivers an overall feeling of well-being.


As a result, many spas are expanding beyond the traditional parameters of the genre and are taking a holistic approach to their offerings, pairing targeted services with programs in areas such as fitness, diet, chiropractic medicine and the like. Among the goals of this approach is the prevention of future health problems.


“The spa has always been about pampering and that will still continue, but with more of a focus on prevention as growing science supports the spa experience,” says June Jacobs, founder and chief executive offi cer of June Jacobs Spa Collection, a creator of skin care lines for the spa market. “Prevention has become very important because science is now able to validate the health benefits of many spa offerings. Stress is the root of many health problems and, with growing evidence, the spa experience helps to prevent illness and promote total body wellness.”


“The new ‘hybrid’ spa combines fitness with medical services, as well as pure spa therapies,” agrees Noella Gabriel, director of product and treatment development at Elemis, a luxury British spa and skin care brand available at more than 1,200 spas and salons worldwide. “Prevention seems to be the buzzword, empowering clients through treatments, diet and exercise regimes that make them feel better and thus reduce the risk of disease and the prevention of stress-related illnesses.”


At Exhale, for example, a mind-body spa with locations in seven U.S. states, plus Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, clients can take advantage of traditional spa offerings (facials, massages, peels, etc.), core fusion fitness classes, yoga and a full menu of complementary modalities including acupuncture, nutrition counseling and cleansings meant to support and inspire major lifestyle changes. The 6 Week Core Evolution (launching April 1st), for example, includes unlimited core and yoga classes, six nutrition counseling sessions, a 25 percent discount on spa and healing services such as facials, massage and acupuncture and 10 percent off all products.


“The benefit of combining programs is to maximize results for the student,” says Fred DeVito, executive vice president of movement classes and training. “To get results from an exercise program, the nutrition component is key, and when you have a meeting weekly with a counselor, there is an accountability factor that makes the student try harder.”


Thanks to its location within the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, near Los Angeles, visitors to the hotel spa can also take advantage of offerings by the California Health & Longevity Institute, a facility that offers evidence-based medicine along with counseling and services in complementary fields like nutrition, fitness, life balance and spa services. “What we’ve created is a health care delivery system of evidence-based modalities in Eastern and Western medicine that are tailored to promote health and wellness,” says Jonathan R. Cole, the medical director.


Savvy spas are looking beyond the Boomers for growth, however. Experts say two relatively untapped and promising demographics are men and teens. The male market, for one, has become a priority for many. According to ISPA, men account for 31 percent of the current spa-going population—a number that has held steady since 2006—but a June survey found 82 percent of ISPA member spas now offer treatments specifically for men.


Among their tactics, says Lynne McNees, president of ISPA, are the introduction of products with male scents as opposed to floral fragrances, different-colored robes for the sexes and hiring a mix of male and female employees and therapists.


“First-time spa goers, especially males, come in for massage, since that’s their crossover into spa,” says Leonard Fluxman, ceo of Steiner Leisure Ltd. “The goal, then, is educating men that spa is more than massage, it’s maintenance. You need facials, you need to pay attention to your skin.”


That level of understanding is already spreading in London, Fluxman says, where the executive has noticed a rise in the number of men coming in for facial treatments.


As for luring the next generation of clients (those ages 15 to 30), Fluxman says they require little in the way of introduction to spa. “It’s already something they’re doing. It’s part of their lifestyle,” he says. “Their weekend routine includes going to the spa in groups for maintenance services like waxing, facials, manicures and pedicures. To them, it’s something that’s just absolutely essential,” he says.


“Spas need to be aware of the changing demographic of their consumer,” agrees Jacobs. “Many more teens, men and older people are now going to spas since there is an overall better understanding of how the spa experience can benefit one’s life. Spas and skin care brands need to figure out how they are going to address this different type of audience.”



To that end, Jacobs is set to launch two new skin care lines: one for men, the other for acne-prone individuals (which will, indirectly, target teens). She has also added to her antiaging collection and reformulated all of her offerings to include a patent-pending antioxidant blend of white, red and green tea extracts combined with goji berry, pomegranate and grapeseed extracts to help neutralize free radicals, protect skin from environmental toxins and combat the visible signs of premature aging.


Similarly, Bliss, the urban day spa founded in 1996 by Marcia Kilgore and recently acquired by Steiner Leisure Ltd. (the company also owns Elemis), is set to launch two new services created in direct response to the needs of two of its fastest-growing demographics: a postpartum massage aimed at new mothers and an acne treatment for its younger, blemish-prone clientele. The former will incorporate products from Mama Mio, a third-party body care collection; the latter will be complemented by a new line of skin care products, created under the Bliss label and featuring probiotic ingredients for the treatment of acne bacteria.


In order to attract a younger clientele, many spas are radically reconsidering the environment of their establishments. Gone are muted tones and hushed voices amid the musical strains of Enya. “Teens will want it to be upbeat and lively, with computers and iPod stations. That’s very different from the spa that caters to relaxation,” says ISPA’s McNees.


As important as reaching a varied demographic of spa goers is making sure the service menu is concise—and effective. Where once upon a time a spa might offer a dozen different body wraps—many of which were dreamed up by a team of marketing executives and based on fanciful names or ingredients (banana cream pie body wrap, anyone?)—now only those treatments that deliver real results are offered.


“Many spas around here have closed, but in the last year, our business has actually grown,” says Kate Somerville, creator and director of Kate Somerville Skin Health Experts, a medi-skin clinic in Los Angeles that marries clinical skin care with state-of-the-art technology, such as lasers and injectibles. “Clients are scaling back on major luxury items, but not on what makes them look good—and younger.”


While destination spas have always maintained a certain social aspect, day and hotel spas tended to be more solitary in nature—until now. “Five years ago, spa was a really individual experience—quiet and personal. Now, it’s a place to gather,” says Susie Ellis, president of SpaFinder. Multigenerational getaways (in which mothers, daughters and even granddaughters visit a spa together), bachelorette parties and couples massages are all ways clients are enjoying spas en masse instead of alone. As a result, says Ellis, treatment rooms are getting larger and newer spas are incorporating more common areas and lounges to accommodate groups. Even alcohol, traditionally on the “verboten” list, is now being offered. She points to the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa at The Plaza in New York City, which includes a glass of wine, served by an on-site sommelier in a vast lounge after each treatment, as an example.


The concept of spa-ing for a greater good presents another opportunity for growth. “Consumers no longer spend long, dreamy hours at the spa,” says Jane Wurwand, ceo of Dermalogica. “Even if they have the cash, they feel these are hours wasted when they could and should be doing something more interactive and active within their own family and the community.”


For this reason, Wurwand foresees events—sweetened with what she terms “embedded generosity”—as an emerging phenomenon. Essentially, this boils down to a fund-raiser, held at a spa or skin care center, in which the service comes with the price of a charitable donation. “It allows women to bond and connect, but the fund-raising aspect elevates the experience from shallow to relevant,” she says. “At the same time, it is still enjoyable, fun and—of course—beneficial to the individual.”


In mid-February, for example, Bruce Shoenberg, co-founder of Oasis Day Spas in New York City and Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., coordinated a Healing Arts for Haiti benefit with UNICEF at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan. The event featured more than 200 professionals from the spa and healing arts communities offering massages, manicures, pedicures, facials and more. An estimated 800 to 1,000 guests attended and approximately $20,000 was raised with 100 percent of proceeds going to benefit efforts to assist the Haitian community to rebuild after the recent earthquake.


Of course, all of this isn’t to say traditional spa services have lost their appeal, but the appeal is changing. Clients are coming in less often and booking fewer treatments. Thirty-minute services are in, while full days of pampering are out. (In the same ISPA member survey, 46 percent saw an increase in the number of shorter treatments booked.) “City center spas are busy in part because people had to forgo holiday travel and other expenses,” says Harmsworth. “We see ‘taster’ treatments coming back as clients are looking for quicker, more cost-conscious services.”


According to Harmsworth, clients at Espa at Acqualina in Miami, for example, are favoring shorter “Boutique” massages and facials ($55 for 20 minutes) over the typical $225 to $235 80-minute treatments. Similarly, at The Peninsula Spa by Espa in New York, more spa goers are booking shorter 30-minute “Express” treatments, such as the Neck, Shoulder and Back Massage or Relax Scalp Massage ($95 for 30 minutes), as opposed to the 60- to 120-minute services priced from $195. What’s more, Harmsworth notes: “City hotel spas that were once only open to hotel guests are now opening to outside clientele.” For example, on the weekends, The Peninsula Spa by Espa in Chicago traditionally only permitted hotel guests to use its facilities. Now, external guests are welcomed, as well.


As with hair salons, clients are stretching out the time between their appointments while demanding more in terms of results. “What we are witnessing now, for the first time, is that people are allowing a lot more time to elapse between services,” says Wurwand. “This challenges the professionals to really step up their game. The service provider better have absolutely impeccable and current skills when the client does book an appointment.”


Bliss, for example, has always focused on speedy services, catering to time-pressed people. But even a spa built on quick-fix services saw its business dipping in late 2008. Since then, maintenance treatments such as facials and waxings have increased. Where the latter is concerned, Bliss is investing heavily in its hair-removal services: creating waxing boot camps for its therapists, instituting new techniques to make the processes faster and less painful and incorporating a new, improved wax in its treatments.


“Clients are now more educated than ever when it comes to spending money on themselves,” says Elemis’ Gabriel. “There is a much higher expectation of the level of customer service as well as tangible results from their treatments, all in a shorter period of time.” In other words, as stress levels have increased, in the spa business, so have expectations.