Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 3.2 | Transitions


In the United States, many spas followed the classical European tradition of taking the waters. Such historic spas as the Greenbrier, Saratoga Springs, The Homestead, Glenwood Hot Springs, and French Lick and West Baden Springs were all centered around mineral springs. As traditional medicine developed more treatments, drugs began to replace traditional water cures, leading to the waning of spas in America.

The renaissance and renewal of wider public interest in spas, especially in the United States and Canada, can be directly linked to the emergence and development of the health movement and fitness boom of the 1960s and 1970s. As the fitness fascination took hold, some spa professionals began to notice that there were “fit” people who were not “well.” This shifted the paradigm from merely being physical toward a focus on wellness and emotional well-being, which in turn, opened and broadened the way from fitness clubs to the contemporary spa.

One of the central figures in this shift from fitness to spa was Sheila Cluff, a professional figure skater and high school physical education teacher. Cluff introduced “cardiovascular dance” to the world in the 1950s. Later her methods were refined by fitness practitioners, including Dr. Kenneth Cooper and Jacki Sorensen, and would come to be called aerobics. Cluff went on to found The Oaks at Ojai in 1977. This American fitness movement would lead many people to see and think about spas in a new and wider light than the classical European model with its primary focus on the waters.

Integrating Spa Cultures and Concepts

The concept of wellness in the holistic sense brought together a number of popular concepts, all of which had self-improvement at their core. It was commonplace to go to a salon to become more beautiful, a vacation resort to relax, and a gym to work out.

In Europe, the governments were reducing and canceling subsidies for spas as locations where traditional healing practices were sanctioned. These spa towns and their spa properties were turning to a greater degree than before toward tourism to attract visitors. They offered a rich history of water treatments and spa traditions that were gradually noticed and incorporated into the first contemporary destination spas.

As spas in the United States borrowed from European traditions, European spas were learning from the American tourism industry. A new image of spa was developing on each continent that clearly had the potential to transform the way people thought about relaxation and personal growth. This period saw the emergence of three of the major modern categories of spa that exist today: destination spas, day spas, and resort spas.

From Fitness to Wellness

During the 1970s as the baby boomers started to reach their 20s and 30s, they began to flex their muscles. The “fitness craze” of the 1970s had a profound effect on the social psyche, but a relatively small effect on the hospitality industry. Resorts and hotels added gyms and workout rooms to accommodate guest demand, but they amounted to non-revenue generating amenities comparable to the hotel swimming pool, both of which were generally poorly equipped and unsupervised. Fitness facilities were a must-have component, but they did not add much to the bottom line.

Some of today’s spa pioneers recognized that the fitness movement was focused too exclusively on physical fitness, encouraging a superficial narcissism that ignored the deeper needs of the mind and spirit. They realized as Ruth Stricker, founder of The Marsh: A Center for Balance and Fitness, would say, “We’ll all have tight abs and pecs, but vacant hearts and minds.” This inspired some to begin the search for something deeper.

The “something deeper” was the desire for a fit mind and spirit to match a fit body. Fitness was important, but only insofar as it was one part of a greater goal. As people like Jane Fonda turned Kenneth Cooper’s aerobics into a household word with fitness videos, Cooper himself was incorporating spiritual welfare into his spas and fitness centers.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that something revolutionary began happening with spas in America. People caught on to the earlier concept pioneered at the original destination spas like Rancho La Puerta, The Oaks, and the Golden Door. The answer could be found in wellness. These spas drew upon traditions ancient and modern to develop holistic philosophies that healed the entire person.

“Wellness has evolved substantially in the past 20 to 30 years,” explained Jeremy McCarthy, director of spa operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. “What we thought about as wellness in the 1980s was aerobics. If you were talking about wellness, you were thinking about leg warmers and leotards and step aerobics. That has evolved somewhat to go from being more of a physical experience to much more mind-body-spirit. It’s hard to say how much spas were an output of that evolution or whether spas were a driving force in this evolution, but one way or another, it’s evolved to be much more mind-body-spirit.”

The wellness vacation took hold as an alternative means of getting away. A guest could come home looking fitter and feeling better, and having learned something about wellness in the bargain. The idea of somehow tempering and balancing the vacation experience to some degree with wellness and relaxation has influenced the travel and hospitality industry ever since. Fitness was fine, but wellness was wonderful—and clearly, as fitness became wellness, there was much to explore.

Spas have become places where people can go to find spiritual renewal and mindful exercise.

Destination Spas

Early destination spas often didn’t call themselves spas at all. With the word “spa” yet to be rekindled, most establishments were referred to as ranches or health farms, places where the lifestyle was a healthy departure from everyday life. They focused on helping people find ways to live healthier lifestyles.

The origins of the contemporary spa movement sprang from a small health camp that slowly evolved over several decades into what is known as a world class spa: Rancho La Puerta. Here, just south of the U.S.–Mexico border near Tecate in Baja California on June 6, 1940, Professor Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, a Hungarian scholar, agriculturalist, and natural philosopher and Deborah, his bride of six months, established their first spa in a one-room adobe hut (still standing) in the middle of a now much enlarged vineyard. Along with health lectures, deep breathing classes, seawater, herbal and mud baths, and long walks in the mountains, the principal policy was that of “absolute simplicity.”

Rancho La Puerta is considered the first destination spa, and it launched a movement that continues to grow and evolve today. Rancho La Puerta combined a philosophy of natural foods, exercise, fitness, and spiritual practice that later became the foundation of the contemporary spa experience.

In those days, a guest could experience the first modern spa experience for “$17.50 per week; bring your own tent; no running water; no electricity; neither gym nor swimming pool; but a great mountain (Mount Kuchumaa or Tecate Peak) for climbing, plus a river for swimming; goats for milk and cheese; an organic vegetable garden—the West Coast’s first, yielding a generous harvest.”

Deborah Szekely also opened The Golden Door in 1958, following the model of Rancho La Puerta. It offered a week-long experience that combined personal health and fitness training and Japanese-inspired hospitality. Guests learned and practiced healthy lifestyle habits and many testified to the life-changing experiences they had at the spa. The Golden Door became an iconic symbol of spa as a combination of luxury, personal growth, education, and fitness.

Pioneers of contemporary spa, like the Szekelys, enveloped the fitness concept into a more holistic approach to well-being. Emphasis was placed on a rigorous fitness regimen, accompanied by a natural, spartan culinary program. Much emphasis was given to weight loss and lifestyle change.

Early destination spas guided and nurtured not only their spa guests, but the entire notion of spa as an entity unto itself. Viewed by many in the 1980s as a fad, destination spas held firm in their belief that spa was much more, that it would continue to define and redefine what it meant to be proactively healthy. Spa, the movement, the way of thinking about health and wellness as practiced in daily life, was the seedling that was watered and grown by the destination spas from the post-war period through the 1980s.

As spas gained popularity in the 1980s, resorts and many destination spas began to reward the demands of the spa regimen with relaxing treatments like massages, facials, and alternative healing and personal growth modalities.

Day Spas

Day spas source their roots to Florence Nightingale Graham, better known as Elizabeth Arden, who brought the concept of makeup, spa, and beauty treatments to the United States in 1910. Her business was called The Red Door. In 1922, she opened a salon in France. In 1934, Arden turned her Maine summer home into a spa called Maine Chance Beauty Spa, a franchise that would expand internationally. By the 1960s, it was a fully realized day spa brand (before the phrase “day spa” was coined) with more than 50 locations worldwide.

However, at this point it was still the salon that was the industry, not day spa. The Red Door began as large salons with skin care because skin care was the specialty of Elizabeth Arden and her company.

The term ‘day spa’ would not flourish as a business until Noel de Caprio opened her day spa in 1972, offering European-style massages, body wraps, water therapy treatments, and facials. These were services that she added to her beauty salon, a concept that would prove to be popular and copied by many around the country. She served as a model for the day spas that were to come and she is credited with being the founder of the day spa industry.

In the late 1970s, Gillette did an intensive study of destination group spas and the beauty industry. One of the conclusions was that the general population was “time poor.” Americans had a difficult time slowing down and wanted to, as one airport outlet offering spa services advertised, “Relax in a hurry!”

It was out of this time poverty that day spas arose to fill a niche. They took the best elements of the destination spa market and made it more accessible to people who couldn’t spend a week or more away from home. They offered spa services that could be received in a single day. The presence of day spas has increased both the number of people who can have spa experiences and the frequency of their visits.

Day spas offered many of the same treatments as destination and resort spas—facials, massages, and water treatments, but did so without providing overnight facilities. Guests would come for one or two treatments rather than an entire regimen of treatments. Day spas often followed the working model established by salons and were operated in similar fashion.

By 2006, there were nearly 11,000 day spas, making up 79 percent of the total industry.

Resort Spas

Resort spas trace their beginnings to La Costa Resort and Spa, which opened in 1965 in Carlsbad, California. It was the first U.S. resort of the modern era to offer a full-service spa, thus launching the resort spa concept, which has become a guiding force in resort development throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.

In the early 1980s, a few resorts added luxury spa treatments and facilities. The resort spa was first positioned as a hotel amenity that could be enjoyed by women while the men were golfing. They were built from the platform of other recently added, must-have amenities like fitness facilities and pools. This would provide the development impetus for making spas accessible to a much wider market: the general resort-going public. Many people who had never had a massage or tried a spa, did so at a mainstream resorts in the 1980s. The contemporary spa had arrived.

In 1986, the Claremont Resort & Spa opened as one of the first urban resort spas to offer full spa programming with the focus on lifestyle and wellness. The spa partnered with Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Ken Dychtwald, authors of Age Wave, to provide a true lifestyle program. Claremont wanted the public to get away from the perception of spa as an indulgence and began a campaign to educate consumers. Their message was that going to the spa was the same as a tune-up for a car.

Historically, health resorts, spas, and the travel industry have shared a mutually supportive relationship. In 1989, this relationship was reinforced with the publication of Bernard Burt’s list of health resorts in the first edition of Fodor’s Health and Fitness Vacations.4 Taking a vacation for health reasons was not a new concept, nor was it new to have a list of resorts and spas telling travelers where they could find the needed health resources. What was new and important about Burt’s guide was its listing of health resort and spa resources, not only by region, but also by the types of fitness programs and health spa treatments. He listed 12 categories of programs including: luxury pampering, life enhancement, weight management, nutrition and diet, stress control, holistic health, spiritual awareness, preventive medicine, taking the waters, sports conditioning, youth camps for weight loss, and non-program resort facilities. This list was useful for health-seekers looking for wellness and fitness.

By 2006, there were 1,345 U.S. resort/hotel spa properties.

Medical Spas

The fastest-growing category of spas in recent years in terms of locations is the medical spa, which has grown at an average rate of 19 percent annually between 2004 to 2006, according to the 2007 Spa Industry Study commissioned by ISPA. A medical spa is defined as a facility that operates under the full-time, on-site supervision of a licensed health care professional whose primary purpose is to provide comprehensive medical and wellness care in an environment that integrates spa services, as well as traditional, complementary and/or alternative therapies and treatments. The facility operates within the scope of practice of its staff, which can include both esthetic/cosmetic and prevention/wellness procedures and services.

There are two typical scenarios for medical spas. The most common is for spa services to be an expansion of a health professional’s practice, such as a dermatologist’s office or plastic surgeon’s practice where services such as Botox, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, photofacials, and soft tissue fillers including collagen, Restylane, and Perlane. With plastic surgical procedures, physicians know that including manual lymphatic drainage massage will speed the patient’s recovery process and reduce swelling and bruising, thus many have added this spa service to their pre- and post-surgical protocols. Others will conduct a series of facials, for example, to treat specific skin conditions such as acne. There are dental “spas” that will perform teeth whitening and may use a spa therapist to help the guest relieve anxiety during dental procedures, or the chiropractic spa where massage therapists are included in the program to help the patient relieve pain. In all of these cases, the business is really the medical practice, and while the licensed health care professional may hire a spa manager to supervise the spa therapist staff, the spa treatment revenue is a component of the health practice business itself.

The second typical scenario would be where a medical practice has leased space from the spa, or there is a clinic built adjacent to the spa facility itself and the medical practice is completely independent from the spa. While there may be a revenue-sharing agreement, the medical service’s space is a tenant of the spa business and the spa revenue derived would be rental income. Some spas do hire doctors and other medical professionals as part of the spa staff, where complete medical evaluations are conducted as part of a spa program, but they are generally limited to significant destination spas such as Canyon Ranch, the Cooper Center in Texas, The Marsh, and some others. In the European spas, it is much more common to have a health professional on staff with whom the spa’s guests meet upon arrival for a brief health evaluation. The doctor would then ‘prescribe’ a treatment schedule and what ‘taking of the waters’ program the spa guest should follow.

The Contemporary Spa Movement Gathers Steam

By the mid-1980s, the spa industry, a relatively fragmented group of day spa/salons, weight-loss retreats, and health and wellness resorts, was poised for the dynamic growth period that would continue through the early part of the twenty-first century. This growth was characterized by the convergence of a number of trends that would transform the way people regard themselves and their potential for growth and self-realization.

The founders and leaders of the first ground-breaking contemporary spa organizations were driven by their personal visions for wellness and growth. Many who experienced their vision were inspired to continue as spa goers and to advance those concepts into new businesses. The subsequent growth of the industry was essentially an outgrowth and application of these original concepts to other industries and communities.

Yoga studios sprang up in many communities. Salons began adding treatment rooms and converting slowly to what are now known as day spa operations. Health food stores were selling natural foods and “new age” lifestyle accessories. Eating healthy food was no longer considered fringe behavior. Maintaining a healthy image and a healthy body was becoming part of mainstream thinking.

In the early 1990s, there were plenty of mechanisms in place to measure hospitality growth, but there were none to measure the growth of the brand new spa industry. Spa industry leaders recognized the need to measure and catalog this movement, but they had no means to do so. Of primary concern was their struggle to categorize and define what it was they were doing. The spa industry needed an identity.

The word spa was being used in the early 1990s primarily to describe whirlpool tubs, as well as any kind of business that involved massage treatments, personal growth, and water treatments. As hotels added spas by converting sleeping rooms or old workout facilities, the term was rather loosely defined. The early years of the International Spa and Fitness Association (later known as ISPA) were spent focusing on the challenge of defining a very fragmented, diverse, and free-thinking group of individuals and businesses. The work of the organization in defining spa was aided by the palpable desire of the general public to learn more about themselves and the opportunities they had for self-care. This public thirst for knowledge about personal health and wellness fueled the business community’s ability to grow the industry at a very rapid rate. Today the concept of spa, as defined by ISPA, is:

“Spas are places devoted to enhancing overall well-being through a variety of professional services that encourage the renewal of mind, body, and spirit.”

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