Conversations with Gayle Brady

Thirty-five years ago, Gayle Brady launched Air Vita: a bold concept for a fitness center, spa and business center located right in the airport. Since then, Brady has led spas at Marriott, Golden Door, Canyon Ranch and Skin Authority, while also serving as an ISPA Board Member and Chairman.

While Air Vita may have been too far ahead of its time, the widespread growth of airport spas shows that Brady wasn’t far off the mark. This month, Pulse sat down with Brady to discuss her experience launching Air Vita and what she thinks of recent growth in the market.

Pulse: Air Vita was unlike anything else at the time. Where did the idea come from?

Gayle Brady: In the early 1980s, we were living in aspen at the time, and whenever we would fly through Denver we had enormous delays every time. So, we said, “gosh, there’s got to be something better to do in an airport than drink!” We thought “why not put in a workout facility with massages?” From that, we started to think about what it would look like. The timing was perfect; airlines had just deregulated and started building hubs, which increased layovers. airports were starting to compete to become hubs, and that competition led to a lot of the airport amenities we have today. We really wanted to be behind security—although security wasn’t as big of a deal back then—and that meant partnering with an airline. We met with the head of American Airlines, and they thought it was a great idea but they didn’t have the space. Space inside an airport costs top, top dollar.

P: What happened after American Airlines said no?

B: We continued searching, but we finally realized we’d have to be outside security. We started to identify which airports would really be key to make air Vita work. We also had to raise money, which we had no idea how we were going to do. We were only 27 years old at the time, but we ended up raising about a million dollars and had some nice pro bono legal help.

The costs of starting the business were huge, but we had really good help. Eventually, we opened up two: Dallas and Phoenix, and we sold a membership. We had a fitness center, a business center with a fax machine, and massages available. Members could keep workout clothes and shoes in a locker at our locations. We also had nap rooms! Believe it or not, the fax machine was the most lucrative part of our business. We charged $5 a page. Back then, airline lounges were truly just a bar with a TV. We also had people in our Phoenix location who would book their massage before they went to their hotel, because most hotels didn’t have a spa for travelers. We filled that niche, too.

We realized, though, that what we really needed was economy of scale. We had to be in more than two airports to make financial sense, and that took a lot of money, more than we had. We folded the business after four years, so we had a good run of it.

People came along and said that they wished we’d come along a few years later, that they would’ve loved to partner with us, but it was clear that it was a huge need. So it’s been interesting to watch spas in airports, like XpresSpa, pop up, because it really was a need. We were just a little bit early.

P: What’s changed since then to make express spas possible?

B: The growth of the spa industry as a whole. Back then, people thought we were going to put a jacuzzi in the airport. When we considered putting Air Vita in Los Angeles, we had to meet with the LAPD vice squad because they thought the wrong type of business was going to go on. Spa wasn’t publicly accepted. People who went to spas were in the minority.

But now, with the growth of day spas, the idea of having that type of treatment is mainstream. It’s not elite anymore; it’s a very mainstream part of our culture. So, I think a combination of things has made airport spas possible, but really the culture has evolved, because the spa industry has educated people on the benefits of massage, relaxation, wellness and eating well.

P: What’s changed with how airlines view spas?

B: I think for the airline industry, they didn’t understand the benefits at the time, and operating in an airport was too expensive to do it alone. But the airlines have the square footage to make it work, so for them to jump on the bandwagon is great, because they have the space to do it.

P: Do you expect to see wellness and fitness grow in airports and airport lounges, rather than just spa?

B: That’s the big question. The issue Air Vita faced was that people had to have enough time to get undressed, shower, get dressed again, wash their hair or do makeup. That requires a long layover, so I’m still on the fence as to whether a large fitness component makes sense. I think that some form of it makes sense, though, like having a stretching zone and treadmills for walking.

Another problem with in-airport fitness is the apparel and sneakers. They aren’t provided, and customers don’t have them in their carry-on bags. Air Vita catered to business travelers—and I really think it’s a business traveler market, because vacationers probably aren’t worried about working out in the airport—and they often travel light. It makes fitness a tough sell. Air Vita had locker rooms; members could store gym clothes and sneakers with us, and it was still difficult.

P: And I’m guessing that space is an issue, too?

B: Yes, the last big issue is space. Being profitable in an airport almost requires calculating the profit per square inch. Airport express spas do a lot in a very tiny space; they don’t have a lot of private space, or a lobby. In the end, I think long-haul international is the best market for integrating a fitness component.

P: If you were to launch Air Vita today, what would you do differently?

B: Fitness, definitely. I would’ve scaled back on fitness and provided more treatment space. The nap rooms, believe it or not, were very popular when we were open and I still think that’s something that people would pay for. We had a lobby area and a lounge…we’d never do that again. It’s just way too much square footage.

Manicures and pedicures are a really popular service, so I think we’d offer those. One doesn’t have to get undressed, it’s something that women and men do, and it’s relaxing. Incorporating a full foot massage can really benefit the entire body, too.

P: What do you think of the spate of recent partnerships between airlines and spas, such as Singapore Airline’s recent partnership with Canyon Ranch?

B: I think it’s great. It’s a huge plus to have healthy food in-flight, and I think the stretches are a fabulous idea. I think it’s a win-win for both of them. Singapore Airlines is one of the best airlines I’ve ever flown on, so I think it’s really great that Canyon Ranch went with them because they’re really dedicated to service. I think it provides a big brand boost to Singapore Airlines, although I don’t know if Canyon Ranch’s benefit is as big.

And I think this sort of collaboration could clearly go mainstream and go on shorter flights, like a four-hour flight where you get a meal. That’s still a fairly long time. I think a lot of people would participate in that.

P: What do partnerships like these mean for the spa industry?

B: It’s just one more step that the spa industry has taken into a totally mainstream part of the american culture.

Spa is a word that sometimes doesn’t have the most positive connotation, because it’s been overused. But the concepts of taking care of yourself, and wellness, nutrition, mind, body…those have all become a part of our culture. Many Asian cultures have known this for a long time—I think of people doing tai chi in a park—and we’re just now catching on.

I think eventually the word “spa” might even go away, just because so many people have different understandings of what “spa” means. You could have an amazing experience in the wilderness and have a massage by a river; you’re getting a spa experience, but you’re outdoors. It’s about the full wellness of the mind and body, in whatever shape that takes, whether that’s within four walls, outdoors or on a plane.

I think that’s really cool that we’re there now, because we weren’t twenty years ago. I don’t think airlines saw the value in it twenty years ago.