Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 5.3 | Creating an Experience

While spas are a service business by classic definition, consumers today want more than just services. Now, consumers are looking for an experience that is memorable and lasting.

In The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, the authors call upon the economics of coffee as an illustration of how customer demands have evolved. At first, consumers wanted to purchase the product of a coffee bean. They would go to a supermarket or grocery store and buy a can of coffee beans. This evolved to where they wanted to go into a donut shop or a local restaurant and be served a cup of coffee. Now they were purchasing not just the coffee bean itself, but the service of receiving the cup of coffee. Then came the wave of coffee shops that sold not just coffee or the service, but an entire experience in which the barista had artistic leeway and a particular mood was created in the shop.


Similar evolutions from goods to service to experiences are happening all over and are of particular importance for the spa world. 

A spa creates an experience that completely involves the guest. What distinguishes a service from an experience? When a person purchases a service, he or she buys a set of intangible activities carried out on his or her behalf. With an experience, the person is immersed in memorable events that engage the guest in a personal way.

Consider again the coffee bean. The people who harvest the beans and sell them to the market are providing a commodity and contribute a few pennies to a cup of coffee. The company that roasts, grinds, packages the beans, and sells them to a grocery store turns the commodity into a good. This increases the price anywhere from five to 20 cents per cup. Then a local diner or small-town coffee shop brews and serves the coffee, where it now costs a dollar or two. But when that same cup of coffee is surrounded by a five-star dining experience or served by a barista at a local coffee house, that cup of coffee may cost five dollars or more.

A massage should not be a commodity. A facial should not be a commodity. The very core of these spa services is the experience that they provide to guests. Guests want not only a service that produces a benefit, but an experience that they will remember and that can perhaps have a positive effect on their lifestyle.

The concept of creating an experience isn’t unique to spas. It’s an idea adopted by many service businesses that understand that their unique selling proposition comes from creating memorable experiences more than from providing a service alone.

Restaurants such as Hard Rock Café and the House of Blues are a perfect example of a business that capitalized on the experience it provided with its service. They decorate around a theme and create an environment and service styles that are about more than just consuming food.

In spas, the idea of an experience is often taken a step further. Many of the core spa-goers who are savvy about the experiences that they can receive at a spa, don’t just want an experience. They want a unique experience. They want an experience that they cannot get anywhere else. They want to be able to tell their friends and acquaintances a story about their experience that is different from what anyone else has experienced.

The pioneer and classic example of an “experience economy” is the Walt Disney Company. It delivers superior service consistently. It is the attention to each and every small detail that creates a memorable experience for its guests. It is built around Disney’s four basic service priorities: safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency.

However, the service that Disney provides—like the service that any business provides—disappears as soon as it is performed. What lasts is the guest’s memory of the experience. Families do not experience Disney World just for the event of being there for the day. They experience it because they are able to tell stories and share the experience with one another for as long the memories linger. Likewise, people who visit a spa hope that the spa experience will lift their spirit and that the uplifting will linger in their memories until their next visit.

The orchestration of the complete spa experience is as important for each individual spa as it is for the entire Disney conglomerate. An engaging environment must be created to alter guests’ sense of reality and move them from the mundane stresses of everyday life to something extraordinary. The spa assists guests on a journey to a place suffused with tranquility and harmony, aiding them in forming indelible impressions that are the point of distinction for the spa experience.

While all businesses, including spas, are measured by the revenue they generate and the payroll and cost controls that are in place to maximize profitability, a spa is not a place where a commodity or good is simply pulled from the shelf and sold to the customer. In a spa, the guest experience is the product. Each sale is personalized for the specific needs of the guest and guests will immerse themselves in the experience. ISPA defines the spa experience as “your time to relax, reflect, revitalize, and rejoice.” The key words in that definition are “your time”—meaning it is unique to each person.

A danger arises when the focus of a spa is only on the business of spa, increasing revenue by price increases and measuring success on retail sales per treatment or on reducing payroll and operating expenses. That spa is traveling down the road of commoditization of the spa experience, leaving the spa able to compete based only on price and eliminating those distinctions that create a loyal guest following.

While advertising is essential to creating awareness and sampling in the marketplace, it is also worth noting that one of the strongest brands today, Starbucks, spent only $10 million in advertising between 1987 and 1998. Howard Schultz recognized early on that great experiences are worth much more than an extensive marketing campaign. In his autobiography, Pour Your Heart Into It, he writes, “What we’ve done is we’ve said that the most important component in our brand is the employee. The people have created the magic. The people have created the experiences.”

If ever there was an industry that relies extensively on its employees, it would be the spa industry. Each and every treatment commits a minimum of one employee to every single customer, plus all of the support staff at the reception desk, locker attendants, and so on. Even in a small day spa and salon, each guest receives the full attention of a service provider working on his or her specific needs.


The Spa at the Montage Resort in Laguna, California, offers evidence of the importance of the spa staff. The Mobil Travel Guide began inspecting spas in 2004 as an addition to its long-standing rating of hotels and resorts. In 2005, the Montage was the first spa awarded the Mobil Five Star rating. While the property is blessed with an idyllic setting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it was the extraordinary service delivered by the therapists and staff that distinguished the spa as the best in America.


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