Why the Hotel Spa is Becoming the New Fitness Center

Two decades ago, the trend toward fitness centers in hotels went from nice-to-have to must-have. Today, that trend is spa. What is fortunate for owners and operators who are currently sans spa, is to realize that the definition of spa is flexible with broad parameters, transcending the confines of bricks and mortar. This article delves into the trend and reasons behind the demand and the timing for it. It also addresses the philosophy of spa, and provides a selection of options for consideration in retrofitting a spa into an existing operation.

If you’ve been immersed in the hospitality industry for some time, you will recognize the push-pull dynamic that propels the industry forward. In some instances, progress results from guests following hospitality’s lead, adopting new services and amenities that become expected over time. In other instances, guest behaviors spark the trends.

In the late 1970s, when we helped launch Four Seasons Hotels beyond regional recognition in Canada, the notion of a concierge in a luxury hotel, while established in Europe, was new to North America. Four Seasons considered it important in attracting the discerning international traveler. At the direction of its visionary founder, Isadore Sharp, Four Seasons committed to a concierge in each hotel. It was the first luxury brand to do so on this side of the Atlantic. To introduce the concept and establish it as a brand tenet, we created a lighthearted “field guide” to the North American concierge, using it as a gentle educational tool that addressed everything from how to pronounce the word (kôNˈsyerZH) to cataloging the range of requests that a concierge might be asked to fulfill. Today, one would be hard pressed to find anyone needing this orientation. Moreover, guests now expect concierge services when staying in nice places.

In the decade of the ’80s, as business travel increased, the separation between one’s work and personal life blurred. Those with fitness regimens wanted to keep to them while on the road. Others without previous fitness routines began to adopt them out of necessity to balance the hours spent on planes and meals away from home.

Hotels began installing fitness equipment, then fitness rooms, then full-fledged fitness centers as this nice-to-have amenity evolved into a must-have in the hotel selection criteria of travelers. Today, hotels and resorts of all strata include fitness offerings, with few exceptions.

The Growth of Amenity Spas

In the early 1990’s, just as the International Spa Association (ISPA) was being formed, the concept of spa was hardly mainstream except in Europe where individuals would “take the waters” for reasons of general health or for medically prescribed cures. In the United States, destination spas fell into one of two main categories: “fat farms” where the overweight would go to jump-start healthy lifestyle changes; or pampering palaces for the wealthy. Certain specialty spas focused on behavioral cures such as smoking cessation.

In 1990, I attended the conference out of which ISPA formally organized. There I met John Korpi, general manager of PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. John was in the final stages of an expansion plan designed to transform the male-oriented operation — including five championship golf courses and a robust meetings business — to a more balanced business model. The goal was to appeal to women as well as men, providing new revenue streams. The solution: the addition of a full service, world class spa. We partnered with John and his team to promote this transformation through a robust public relations campaign. The quality of the spa matched that of the resort’s established components and the operation quickly took off.

PGA National Resort & Spa was an early example of how an existing hospitality entity added an amenity spa that enhanced the guest experience, elevating the entire operation. Smartly, John and his team matched spa services to clientele. So the salon offered, in addition to mani/pedi/hair services for women, a hot towel shave for men. The massage menu highlighted options geared to golf pre-game conditioning and post-game muscle rejuvenation. John and his team believed that if they could get men “over the threshold” of the spa door, they would become spa converts. They were right. In addition to attracting more women to what had been a male-dominated resort, they were pioneers in tipping the balance of spa goers from mostly women to a mix of both sexes.

Other amenity spas found creative ways to draw hotel guests in. To initiate spa newbies at The Spa at the Peaks at Telluride in Colorado, we developed a tongue-in-cheek guide entitled “How to Spa like a Pro”. The pamphlet included New Yorker-style illustrations and answers to FAQs (“Do I have to disrobe entirely for a spa treatment?”) to put novice spa goers at ease.

The proliferation of amenity spas in the 1990s steered travelers toward life in balance. In addition to keeping fit while on the road, guests now had a menu of healthy tools for alleviating stress and restoring equilibrium. Keep in mind that this was at the very beginning of public access to the Internet, before cell phones became the norm, and prior to the birth of all of today’s popular social media platforms (as well as many of their inventors).

Why the Trend?

Fast forward to today, and it is easy to understand why spa is the new fitness center. As travelers’ lives have become more complex, a craving for simplicity has summoned spas to fill the void. The long outdated stereotypes of “fat farm” and “pampering palace” have evolved into a current view of spas whose offerings are guided by a philosophy that is geared to supporting wellbeing.

The 2015 Trends Report by Spafinder 365 cited “Spa on Arrival” as one of 10 developments to watch: “Travelers are demanding wellness – in the form of treatments, exercise or just local, natural foods – as they arrive at their destination;

  • As leisure travel becomes shortened – frequent long weekends versus one long holiday – it’s important to expedite relaxation and spa treatments on arrival do just that;
  • Consumers want wellness anytime, anywhere and providers are starting to deliver it;
  • Delivering spa treatments on arrival is good for business – it puts people immediately into a positive state of mind by giving them something enjoyable to connect with.”

In 2016, the Trends Report by Spafinder 365 cited the number one trend as “Workplace Wellness”. As organizations make wellbeing a priority, hotels should prepare for increased demand for spa services.

Creating Spa Experiences

In contrast to the fitness movement which initially called for equipment to be housed in one physical location, a spa can exist almost anywhere. And there are no rules for spa-to-guestroom ratio. A good case in point is Mirbeau Inn & Spa in New York’s Finger Lakes region which has 34 guest accommodations and a 14,000-square-foot spa. In this case, the spa is central to a guest experience that focuses on restoring balance and connectivity for people living busy lives. Many properties of 150 rooms or more may retrofit a 4,000-square-foot space and that is fine as long as spa services mirror the quality of the rest of the operation.

Here are a few of the many options to consider:

  • Physical spa: a designated space within the hotel/resort or a separate adjacent building;
  • In-room services: in properties with small physical spas, or none at all, guests can avail themselves of select spa and salon services in the privacy of their guestroom or suite;
  • Creative locations: massage is offered in a poolside cabana or at beachfront;
  • Outsourced spa: Space within your operation that is outsourced to a spa specialist (provided, however, that the experience appears seamless to your guests);
  • Off-premise services: If on-site spa services are out of the question, consider creating a relationship with a nearby day spa, arranging for preferred times and/or rates for hotel guests.

In creating a spa, look for ways to: provide both outdoor and indoor spa experiences; incorporate indigenous elements to treatments; and/or offer services that are relevant to your community. Examples:

  • Outdoor yoga at sunrise is ideal in many settings ranging from desert to bucolic;
  • At the luxuriously rustic Whiteface Lodge in the Adirondacks, hints of pine, balsam, juniper and maple inform treatments;
  • At the SiSpa locations at Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa and Fort Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa, staff completed training last fall in spa treatments for guests with cancer. The two spas rolled out a “Comfort Care Classics” menu with a selection of services specifically designed for guests being treated for or recovering from cancer.
  • How a Spa EvolvesAs you dip your toe into spa waters, think of it as a journey rather than a destination. Determine how spa can best suit your guests’ needs and fit easily into your operation. Start small, if necessary, and add features as the business develops. A few ideas:
    • Consider replacing standard in-room amenities with products from your spa which will implicitly encourage guests to book a service;
    • Create a menu of spa break offerings for groups – mini chair massages, stress reducing biofeedback sessions, meditation moments;
    • Add spa cuisine offerings to restaurant, in-room dining and group banquet and break menus;
    • Offer an in-house spa expert as a speaker for meetings held in the hotel;
    • Put into your rotation of turndown amenities a card or bookmark with an inspirational saying or positive affirmation;
    • Create a travel kit or sampler of spa amenities so guests can continue their spa experience after leaving the hotel, at home or at their next destination;
    • Be sure to offer spa gift cards, promoting them heavily around holiday periods;
    • If you invest in a physical spa of substantial size, consider creating a membership program to attract local residents who will sustain the operation year-round, regardless of seasonality.

    A Next Gen Example

    One current example of spa evolution is Arizona’s Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain which has recently expanded the spa experience by transforming a private mountain home on property into Spa House, an enclave that offers groups of up to 16 a unique desert spa escape.

    Suitable for retreats, special occasion getaways and corporate gatherings, Spa House capitalizes on Sanctuary Spa’s established emphasis the whole mind and body focus. The 3,500-square-foot home features a special menu of only-for-Spa-House experiences and deliveries. The home features a treatment room for massages and a movement studio for private classes and personal training with yoga mats, Pilates reformers, indoor cycling, free weights, and other equipment. These complement an open-flow design which, in addition to guest accommodations, offers a full kitchen and dining bar, dining room, and living room that opens to a spacious wrap-around patio, an outdoor pool and expansive lawn.

    A Spa Concierge is available and a dedicated Sensei in Residence – an elite healer — is on-call to perform a selection of highly specialized treatments by Sensei therapists. Other unique programming is available.

    In-room, guests will also find a Sanctuary Superpower minibar of specialty snacks. By the bath, an assortment of aromatherapy bath salts afford a restorative soak, and at the bed, custom journals are offered to jot reflections. Turndown is customized for Spa House guests, including a personal card with a calming sentiment or balancing yoga pose suggestion, as examples.

    Is spa here to stay? Definitely. So enjoy creating or enhancing yours, putting your brand’s stamp on it and stewarding it with a guiding hand to meet the changing needs of travelers.


This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on July 25, 2016. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.