THEY’RE STILL OPULENT. BUT SPAS TODAY ARE AS MUCH ABOUT HEALTH OF MIND AND BODY AS ABOUT INDULGENCE.
Byline: Claire Wilson / Jackie Cooperman
With more consumers placing high value on a great escape, U.S. spas are stretching beyond the conventional treatments.
Pampering and pummeling, facials and fasting. In a hectic, stressed-out world, taking time at a spa is the ultimate luxury. And with clientele pounding on the massage room door, the U.S. spa business is exploding.
True attendance figures don’t exist, but the International Spa Association says membership in the 38 countries it counts has jumped to 1,200, from the original 91-member roster nine years ago.
Those numbers include all types of spas, from day spas to full-service resorts to places billing themselves as health-and-wellness centers. Further supporting the trend is the proliferation of day spas like Bliss, New York, where attendance is estimated to have swelled to about 1,600 this year from only 100 in 1990.
In the U.S., spa accommodations seem to be booked as soon as they open, and resort hotels routinely include spa facilities.
“There is no decent resort today that doesn’t offer a significant spa component,” notes Jerry Cohen, president of Canyon Ranch and a member of the board of directors of the ISA.
It’s not just a “she” thing. Male spa-going has risen dramatically. Last year at Miraval, a resort spa in Catalina, Ariz., men accounted for 40 percent of spa guests. Industry-wide, men are said to be 30 percent of the market, according to Merrill Lee Williams, spokeswoman for the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.
“They are getting more comfortable,” she explains. “They no longer feel like an oddity in the spa or that their presence gets the staff all shaken up.”
It’s a far cry from what used to be known as the fat-farm business. The traditional amenities, like thick robes, tasty low-calorie food and luxurious beauty treatments remain, as does the dizzying price tag. But consumers, particularly Americans, often show up with goals that go beyond shedding a few pounds and getting a leg wax. There’s the wellness concept that addresses spirituality, dealing with stress and mental health. U.S. spas often take inspiration from Asian or Native American rituals.
“Gone is the image of a spa being for rich older ladies in furs with French poodles,” says Erica Zack, assistant director at the Golden Door. “We have a younger clientele and the image is more likely her running on the beach with a Labrador.”
The Golden Door, founded in 1958, has 377 acres of garden that include quiet courtyards, waterfalls, a 300-year-old temple bell and a pond stocked with ornamental carp known as koi. The landscaping is inspired by Japan’s 1,000-year-old tradition of “honjin inns,” where travelers stopped to rest and renew.
The Ojai Valley Inn encourages guests to navigate its labyrinth, an herb-scented garden path. Walking the labyrinth slowly is said to help calm stressed-out minds and encourage decision making. The spa also offers art and journal-writing classes.
“For us, the spa is just one activity and you can choose to be pampered and get some personal attention or not. You can eat spa cuisine or have a glass of wine and some red meat,” says Ojai’s Merrill Williams. “We think it should be a balanced experience.”
At the Greenhouse, one of the most popular services is the ultimate Ayurvedic treatment, which includes massage and ministrations drawn from the ancient Indian approach to mind and body.
Goal-oriented spa-goers are also demanding mental stimulation. Canyon Ranch’s guests can avail themselves of classes on menopause or living with arthritis or diabetes.
“We focus on health and well-being and how to better live your life,” explains Canyon Ranch’s Cohen. “People come here for many reasons, whether it’s learning disease prevention, how to reverse some of the damage they’ve done living a certain lifestyle, how to deal with the stresses of everyday life or just to relax and see if they can’t get more out of their lives.”
While it prides itself on having no set boot-camp-style schedules, Miraval is known for some of its self-discovery courses. In between a hot stone massage and a hydra-quench body mask, guests can try climbing to the top of a 25-foot pole or learn group dynamics in a challenge course that tests the ability to trust.
The resort’s most popular — and unusual — activity is the “Equine Experience.” Without ever getting on a horse, participants learn power and self-awareness by grooming the inn’s specially trained horses.
Many a stressed executive has been reduced to tears by an uncooperative filly at Miraval, and while most would confess they never imagined they’d find relaxation picking mud from a horse’s hoof, marketing director Katie Martin says the Equine Experience is not to be missed at Miraval. She’s seen the results over and over again.
“The transformation is incredible,” she says. “It happens all the time: They arrive grumbling because the cell phone doesn’t work, and by the time they leave, they are taking pictures, waving goodbye and hugging the staff.”
Let It Flow
Once considered medicinal, Italy’s springs now bubble at the center of a gleaming industry devoted to the indulgence of peace and quiet.
From the shimmering third-century mosaics of the Villa Casale in Sicily that depict bikini-clad women bathing and exercising, to the rarefied northern lake towns where the well-heeled leisure class took the waters in the 19th century, Italy has long celebrated the salubrious powers of its natural thermal springs.
In fact, the baths are considered so fundamental to basic well-being that the national health system frequently subsidizes thermal-based treatments for everything from liver problems and bronchitis to chronic dry skin and rheumatism.
But in this current age of luxe, the waters are going glam, moving from staid centers of socialized medicine to gleaming five-star resorts celebrating pampering, massage and the cult of the body.
Spa directors say that in addition to being significantly more profitable, the luxury angle represents a return to original Roman roots.
“We’ve moved away from the thermal spa as a concept for therapy and toward a concept of the Romans and Etruscans — the bath as a place to rediscover psycho-physical balance,” says Glauco San Giovanni, the general manager of the Terme di Saturnia luxury hotel in Tuscany.
The thermal springs at Saturnia, which San Giovanni estimated to be approximately 3,000 years old, flow at a rate of 800 liters per second. Meanwhile, the lire flow at the five-star luxury hotel, which features a pool in the crater of a formerly active volcano. Indulgent treatments use the mineral waters and mud found on the premises.
“As far as luxury, it’s such a fashionable concept right now, with the tycoons like Patrizio Bertelli and Bernard Arnault. The idea of Saturnia is that the true luxury is having time for yourself, and for being at the center of attention,” says San Giovanni. “The thing we sell the most is the philosophy of pampering, beyond the mud and the cream treatments. That’s the true concept. It’s the idea of getting back to nature, the fact that things disturb the equilibrium between you and nature.”
To set things right again, each guest at Saturnia meets with a tutor, who builds them a program based on five components: hydrotherapy, fitness, diet, beauty treatments and stress management.Since it shifted away from its historical role as a medicinal spa and reinvented itself as a luxury resort, the Terme di Saturnia has remained popular domestically. Nearly 85 percent of the guests are Italians, says San Giovanni. But increasingly, foreign tourists are arriving. The Terme di Saturnia is adding 50 more bedrooms by the end of 2000.
It is not alone. High-end spas throughout Italy are enjoying an increase in visitors — both Italian and foreign.
“The tradition in Italy has extremely profound roots, from the time of the Roman Empire. As a tourist phenomenon, it has really grown in the second half of the 20th century,” says Marco Girolami, head of research for Touring Club Italiano, a nonprofit association studying Italian tourism. Girolami estimates that there are approximately 200 spas in Italy.
In 1998, the most recent year for which Touring Club has statistics, 2.6 million tourists spent approximately $215 million in visits to spas dotting the Italian peninsula. Foreign visitors accounted for 37 percent of spa guests, Girolami says, and the average stay was 5.2 days.
“This kind of tourism is growing, and it’s helped by the fact that in Italy, we can combine sport-fitness vacations with cultural ones,” Girolami says.
Indeed, in the Tuscan town of Montecatini, where the first Art Deco bath structure dates from 1773, third-generation hotelier Simone Galligani is promoting what he calls the luxury of “intelligent well-being.”
“The luxury we’re talking about is less about spoiling the guests and more toward intelligent luxury. Up to five or six years ago, the baths here were exclusively for medical treatments, but now we’ve added the luxury of being comfortable, and of Italian culture,” says Galligani, president of the Galligani Hotels group, which owns four hotels in Montecatini.
“It’s a far cry from the original three baths built for Grand Duke Peter Leopold between 1773 and 1779, when the most luxurious cures consisted of two weeks of drinking the thermal waters, which were said to purify the liver and intestines. Montecatini now has 235 hotels, ranging from pared down and simple to highly luxurious, with fitness classes, anti-cellulite treatments and golf courses. The investment in high-end amenities is paying off for the town, which has 20,000 inhabitants and nearly as many hotel beds.
“In 1999, for the first time, we had more foreign clients than Italians,” says Alberto Bianchi, development director for Montecatini’s thermal spas. About 600,000 visitors used the spas at Montecatini in 1999, Bianchi says, with 90 percent of visitors coming for medicinal cures and the remaining 10 percent seeking beauty treatments and relaxation.
While they pride themselves on espousing the traditional Italian ease of life, spas are also turning to New Age rhetoric and newfangled techniques: Some have opted for Japanese chefs to whip up low-calorie meals, others offer aromatherapy and stone therapy, a massage technique using hot and cold stones.
On the southern island of Ischia, the spa at the five-star Regina Isabella Hotel and Royal Sporting Club prides itself on not using machines and applying all beauty treatments by hand.
“We also saw that the mud had a really miraculous result on the skin, the face and the body. So we started developing the relationship between the hands-on application and the aesthetic results,” says Costanza Popolano, the American-born spa director.
Like Montecatini and Saturnia, Ischia also markets itself with a product line, called Ischia Thermae, founded two generations ago by the Morgera family, who live on the island.
The Regina Isabella hotel, a favorite of Italian showbiz stars, has a private beach and tennis and squash courts. About 10,000 guests come each year, Popolano says. “Today, everyone’s running and has stress, but the salts in our water really are balanced, and the minerals help restore the perfect psycho-physical equilibrium.”
But while some spas attract an active jet set, others pride themselves on providing what is perhaps the most elusive luxury in modern life: peace and quiet.
In Positano, on the Amalfi coast, the spa in the Romantik Hotel Poseidon does not have its own thermal waters, but it does focus on individual attention, offering reflexology, shiatsu and the treatment “Positano Four Hand Massage,” in which guests are massaged by two masseuses simultaneously.