Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

East meets West

Cover of Resort Magazine, with cover story East Meets West

Amangani Resort brings Eastern philosophies to Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Imagine a new medicine so powerful it could lower blood pressure, relieve headaches, enhance the immune system and strenghten the heart. Imagine it doing all these things with no side effects — except an enhanced sense of well-being and contentment that translates into better relationships and more satisfaction with everyday life.

Although no such pills exist, this is exactly what many of today’s new stress-reducing therapies aim to produce. Whether meditation, massage, hydrotherapy or any number of other modalities, the end result is stress reduction — and reduced stress makes for healthier people. According to author Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School, stress-reducing therapies elicit the “relaxation response” which is characterized by a number of healthful physiological changes in the body. Review the absentee records of large corporations who offer employee spa or health club memberships and you’ll see the evidence: Increased profits due to less absenteeism, good employee/management relations, and higher productivity.

Mix these new preventative therapies with an enormous number of baby boomers with discretionary income and a belief in combining alternative therapies and self-help with traditional western medicine, and the result is a boom in spas and health clubs. A large number of today’s resort guests arrive with an established exercise and spa “habit:” They are accustomed not only to exercise, but to massage, facials and body services that they expect to find while vacationing or working away from home.

“There has been a significant hike in the number of spas in hotels and resorts and even small boutique hotels in the last three to five years,” said Gary Henkin, president of WTS International, a consulting and management firm for spas and leisure facilities. “It’s fair to say it’s no longer a fad, but a trend that’s likely to be around for a long time.”

Until recently, spas were a branch of the resort industry — if you wanted to have a spa experience you chose a spa resort totally dedicated to rejuvenation and healing through a focused program of exercise, diet and treatments. Today, however, with the boom in resort spas (as opposed to spa resorts) people who want a spa vacation can choose a resort with a spa — where they can also enjoy all the other features of the resort. While travelers have long chosen resorts based on such amenities as golf courses, many are now basing their decisions on the spa facilities.

“Resorts are now looking to spas to improve occupancy, especially in the off-season and shoulder-season,” said Chris White, VP of design at WTS International. “They consider spas a magnet to attract more guests by broadening the range of services they offer.”

According to White, resort health clubs and work-out facilities used to be known as “loss-leaders” — something that management knew it would lose money on but had to have. Spas, however, are expected to be profitable, not only because of increased occupancy, but because many guests are spending an extra $100-$350 per day on services.

Resort spas are also very attractive to families in which one member may want a spa vacation while the other wants to play daily rounds of golf, enjoy gourmet meals or just veg out in opulence. Resort spas have also become very attractive to meeting and convention groups. And, while resorts have long been a popular wedding location, those with spas are now attracting more about-to-be-marrieds at a time when they are happy to splurge on themselves and their wedding party.

While some guests may consider spa treatments a splurge, a growing group believes them to be practical preventative medicine that enhances their immune system and ability to fight off disease.

“For a resort of our caliber, a spa is no longer an amenity, it’s a necessity,” said Dave Tomsky of The Grove Park Inn and Resort in Asheville, N.C., which is in the process of building a 40,000 sq. ft., $1.3 million spa.

“For many, the spa is no longer seen as an indulgence, but really important for well-being,” said Judy Singer, co-owner of Health Fitness Dynamic, a spa consulting/management firm in Pompano Beach, Fla., which conducted extensive Spa Goer Market Studies in 1992, and again in 1997. Thirty-six spas participated in the ’97 survey (28 resorts spas and 8 spa resorts) with a total of 2,767 individual respondents.

“In the 1992 study, lots of people were fanatical fitness nuts — exercise was big. In 1997, we saw more balance. People wanted exercise but they wanted to be taken care of — to rest and relax and reduce stress. We see people recognizing the mind-body connection as really important. They understand that mental and emotional health affects the body.”

With the growing sophistication of guests, many spas are offering a wide menu of services beyond the standard massage, facials and body treatments that are most popular.

In order for management to make the most of their spas — and to help guests plan their time — several industry experts emphasize the importance of promoting the spa, both internally with signage and written materials, and externally through marketing and public relations work.

“If you build it, they will come isn’t always true,” said White. “You have to lead clients to the waters. It has to be well-promoted to make it visible so that guests are aware of what you have.”

“We encourage our clients to have a spa sales person working with the resort sales and marketing department,” said Singer. “In a small spa, this person could be the spa director, but in any case, it’s very important to have someone who will hold hands with meeting planners to pre-sell the spa. With large groups — if they know the spa is available, they can plan better. Some are even bringing their spouses.”

Singer, who has been in business for 16 years, has “really seen the pendulum swing” from the days when resorts felt they needed a spa as a marketing tool, but didn’t expect it to be a money-maker.

“Now, we’re delighted to say that most owners and management understand the financial advantages of a spa. All of our clients are doing well,” said Singer.

Massage is the most popular service for spa-goers, and there are many different kinds, including Swedish, Shiatsu and Reiki. Facials are second in terms of popularity, and other body treatments come third. In all three categories, there is an extensive variety. And, many of today’s spa-goers are a sophisticated group who understand the health benefits of even the most esoteric-sounding cleansing and renewing therapies.

“When you finish a treatment, there’s a definite sense of well-being. In some cases, you’ve been calm and quiet for the first time in days or weeks or months. This is a real stress reducer,” said Singer.

While many resorts are building, or have built, what they hope will be the spa of the future, many of today’s newest rejuvenation therapies are not new at all, but a rediscovery of old, and even ancient, practices.

Mindy Terry, spa director for the new Aquae Sulis spa at The Resort at Summerlin just outside Las Vegas, has created an Aquae Sulis hydrotherapy ritual that will be included with all services. The central idea of the spa, which means Waters of the Sun, is the healing power of water. The signature “ritual,” consists of a series of hydrotherapy experiences that will stimulate the body prior to a treatment such as massage.

“When travelers came to worship the Goddess in the ancient Roman town of Bath circa 300 A.D., they would “take the waters” to have a physical cleansing to prepare them for the spiritual cleansing they were about to have,” said Terry.

The Aquae Sulis ritual, which includes more than a dozen different water experiences, including an ascending and descending water wave that increases lymphatic flow and drainage, is similar.

“Research has shown that relaxing the body with hydrotherapy prior to a massage or a wrap, allows you to get 10 times the benefit from the treatment,” said Terry.

Aquae Sulis is not alone in offering a very wide range of healing therapies. Although it is easy to imagine a Saturday Night Live take-off on such unusual-sounding services as Aquae Sulis cavitosonic chamber or Siddha Vaiday treatments, a substantial percentage of today’s spa-goers believe in their therapeutic value.

The cavitosonic chamber, traditionally used in Europe, purports to cleanse the lungs through the use of negative ions in the air. Siddha Vaidya treatments are a group of ancient (eastern) Indian therapies somewhat similar to the more well-known Ayurvedic healing therapies, most recently popularized by best-selling author, Deepak Chopra, MD.

At the Grand Wailea Resort and Spa, David Elrich, spa director, offers a full complement of the more unusual therapies at his 50,000 sq. ft. spa on Maui, as well as several therapies that are strictly Hawaiian.

“If you’re building a spa, definitely include something indigenous to the locale,” said Elrich. “Our smooth, heated lava stones are used as a massage technique. It’s called Deep Lomi-Lomi Wela Pohaku.”

The spa at the Grand Wailea has been open for nine years, and Elrich said that business improves every year. The majority of his clients are interested in the large menu of the more mainstream therapies, such as seaweed body wraps, mud masques, salt rubs, facials, and of course, massage. Among his guests there are also many who appreciate the more esoteric therapies, including Ayurvedic treatments and light therapy.

“Science has tested full spectrum lighting at NASA and found that it has an anti-fatigue affect,” said Elrich. “Full spectrum triggers the brain to release different health-enhancing enzymes in the body.”

Low calorie, highly nutritious food is an integral part of the spa experience, and many of the new resort spas are incorporating “spa cuisine” into their restaurants. In addition to the fruits, juices and herbal teas offered to guests who are relaxing between treatments in the spa itself, many resorts are offering spa cuisine choices in their restaurants. The Grand Wailea Resort and Spa offers first class vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices in all seven of their restaurants.

At Aquae Sulis, Executive Chef Will Elliott of Ceres Restaurant is offering a wide-range of health food meals, including macrobiotic and vegan dishes, both of which are meat and dairy-free. Elliott will also custom-design meals to support a guest’s needs based on the type of activities they will take part in on a particular day.

Many of the bigger and newer spas such as Aquae Sulis are emulating the atmosphere and raison d’etre of traditional spas resorts — such as The Oaks at Ojai in Ojai, Calif. In business for 22 years, The Oaks offers an integrated program of exercise, body treatments, meditation, yoga, and cuisine spa. Ninety percent of the guests are women.

“The main difference between a resort spa and a spa resort is that at a spa resort the entire focus is on health and wellness,” said Cathy Clugg, advertising and marketing director for The Oaks at Ojai. “Food is a major part of the program. We have 100% spa cuisine. Every meal has under 20% fat, and calories are controlled.”

At a resort spa, on the other hand, guests have the choice between spa cuisine and standard fare. This reflects the versatility of the resort spa — one of its biggest selling points.

Along with the proliferation of resort spas, many new day spas have opened across the US. in recent years. Day Spas are not affiliated with a resort — but are freestanding, often small spas for single day use.

Because management of resort spas understand the demand in communities for day spas, many resorts are opening their doors to locals. Twenty-four per cent of guests staying at the Grand Wailea use the spa facilities. In an effort to increase business, Elrich is introducing a spa membership program for residents of Maui.

When building or expanding existing spa facilities, it’s very important to remember that beautiful surroundings are an important aspect of imparting a luxurious, pampered experience to your guests. Small things are important.

White cautioned builders to ensure that individual treatment rooms have adequate air handling with their own temperature controls. He suggests using indirect lighting, so that guests aren’t bothered while lying on their backs, and that there be good sound and odor attenuation between treatment rooms.

“You must remember you’re selling an experience,” said White. “People having multiple services will be sitting for 30 minutes between treatments with an herb tea or juice — you must make a beautiful environment.”

Oasis of tranquillity — this is the environment many spa builders are striving to create. Let your guests move through luxurious surroundings that feed all the senses — sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste — to produce a deeply rejuvenating experience. Everything contributes: Beauty for the eye, essential oils and flowers to scent the air, a variety of textures for the skin, soft and soothing music for the ear, ambrosia for the taste buds.

“Our spa is very beautiful,” said Elrich. “It’s opulent — marble, indigenous flowers, rich tones. As you wait after therapy you go into a lanai overlooking a pool with dolphins and the ocean. There are gorgeous fruits, music, juices.

“If a guest can do a couple of days of treatments here, and some aerobic exercise, stress management, meditation, yoga, they can have a life-altering experience. You really feel the difference mind, body and spirit.”

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