San Francisco Chronicle

The State of the Spa
Is it simply a matter of supply and demand, or have Americans worked themselves into a frenzy that requires spa treatments?
Lisa Alcalay Klug
Sunday, October 23, 2005

In my family, the pinnacle of leisure time was soaking in hot mineral water. My father would close his furniture store and pack us four kids, my mother and a bunch of sandwiches into the car for an hour’s drive from our Southern California home to Desert Hot Springs. We would pull up to what is now called a “day spa,” but what was then a modest collection of pools and saunas frequented by Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugees like my father, a survivor of Buchenwald, and his brother Nat, who managed to leave Europe before war broke out and eventually sponsored Dad’s immigration.

After a quick change into swim trunks, my father would escape into steamy baths and hours of kibbitzing with whomever showed up that day. The rest of us would splash around in the cold chlorinated swimming pool. Occasionally, we ventured toward the steam, dipping our toes in. As we grew older, we became friendlier with the heat, even opening our eyes under the hot, turbulent seas. At the end of the day, my father would take the wheel again, his posse fast asleep. The lingering spell of the baths is so vivid, I can still picture the blue green bubbles above me, practically boiling my little head.

My father inherited his love of mineral water from his parents, who enjoyed vacationing amid the legendary baths at Baden Baden. As an adult, I’ve continued the family tradition as much out of necessity as choice. In 1995 and again in 1996, I was injured in a pair of car accidents. As part of my rehabilitation, I experimented with physical and aqua therapies, various forms of body work and exercise — anything for relief. When I was finally well enough to travel as a journalist on assignment, I quickly realized that enduring long flights and schlepping bags troubled my back. Making sure I soaked in mineral water or indulged in a massage along the way, would, I figured, just make good sense.

It wasn’t long before I landed a freelance gig to cover Israel’s four seas, the Red, the Dead, the Med and the Bread, for the Baltimore Sun’s Sunday travel section. I reveled in the mud baths, hot springs and massages required of my assignment. Since then, I’ve gone on to visit about 100 spas — day spas, stay spas and resorts — and to sample a dizzying array of treatments. Geneva brought a Cleopatra-inspired milk and honey bath. Hershey, Penn., dictated a chocolate wrap at the eponymous Hershey Spa. Rancho Mirage (Riverside County), served up a four-handed abhyanga Ayurvedic massage with a pair of brothers who freaked me out. All of this in addition to admittedly more than my share of traditional services: deep tissue massage, herbal wraps, hydrotherapy baths, facials, manicures, paraffin treatments for hands and feet and hours of exfoliation, hot stones and aromatherapy.

I’ve come to realize something crucial. I seek treatments out, enjoying them for what they offer — a few hours of relaxation, freedom, distraction. In the end, they don’t deliver long-term stress relief. Times passes and the benefits fade. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Spas are everywhere, enticing ever more people who used to think an herbal wrap was a vegetarian sandwich.

Never have Americans visited spas at the rate we do now. The International Spa Association reports more than 136 million annual visits to 12,000 spa locations. “People are busier than ever before and want to reward themselves for working so hard,” says ISPA President Lynne Walker McNees. “They are going to spas in record numbers. The emphasis for spagoers is increasingly that of self-preservation. Spas have gained a new aura of respectability.”

One reason customers keep coming back is the nature of spa benefits. Almost as soon as they depart, their time for relaxation transforms into a memory. The demands of everyday life — work, family — continue to mount, helping feed an ongoing need for R&R. Spas don’t solve the ultimate practical and existential tangle of our lives — earning a living, changing diapers. But that’s not preventing Americans from spa hopping. If anything, it’s fueling the industry. That’s because the top 20 percent of individuals earning in excess of $100,000 annually consume the vast majority of leisure services, says Professor Neil Fligstein, an economic sociologist at UC Berkeley. “And that number is big and stable. It’s not going anywhere.”

At the same time, consumption of services of all kinds keeps climbing, says Fligstein. “With Americans working more hours, particularly at the top of the income distribution, that means not only do they have more money, they have less time, so they are more likely to consume more services. And if you’re working more, then you’re more stressed out and getting a massage seems like a really good idea.”

It’s such a good idea that a recent study by Coyle Hospitality Group concluded those surveyed spend an average of $912 per year on spa services. In fact, spas have grown into the fourth largest leisure industry in the United States, with $11.2 billion in annual revenues, according to ISPA, whose members include more than 2,500 health and wellness facilities and providers.

How much spa does $912 buy? That varies greatly by location. The Kabuki Springs & Spa in Japantown is the largest spa in San Francisco in terms of services purchased per year — 70,000 visits in 18 treatment rooms — according to Chip Conley, founder and chairman and executive officer of Joie De Vivre Hospitality. The chain includes 28 hotels, as well as the Kabuki and two other spas. Costs range from $16 for the Kabuki’s signature communal Japanese bath to $150 for a 105-minute Javanese Lulur body treatment. This traditional Indonesian ritual blends a jasmine-scented massage with a turmeric and rice skin scrub, cooling yogurt application and private, candle-lit flower bath. “What’s great about the Kabuki is it is very democratically priced,” Conley says. “It’s known as one of the more affordable spas.”

Luxury resorts, in contrast, typically charge much more for individual services than day spas, and, sometimes the differences are dramatic but bring added benefit. The Kabuki, for instance, offers a 50-minute Swedish massage for $75; Berkeley’s Claremont Resort & Spa charges $118 for the same service but includes access to whirlpools and saunas. Another example is a popular 100-minute package at the Claremont that combines massage, facial and lunch for $260, compared with the Kabuki’s $150 sans lunch. The Claremont’s price tag also includes access to the Club Area, a workout room, plenty of fitness classes (yoga, cardio, tai chi, strength training, Pilates, spinning and more), an outdoor swimming pool, hot tub and saunas. At least three to four hours is needed to squeeze it all in.

The Claremont’s reservation desk told The Chronicle that men, women, friends, mothers and daughters frequent the spa. “It’s for anyone who wants to indulge themselves really and have a relaxing day.” But the costs are well beyond paychecks of average barristas at Starbucks earning $8.50 an hour and other low-wage Americans. As Fligstein explains, the Bay Area is home to many wealthy residents who can easily afford these prices and often not at the expense of contributing to charity or other worthy causes. The Claremont, named one of the top urban spas by Fitness, Elle and Vogue magazines, and “Best Place to be Pampered” by the Chronicle Readers Choice Awards, remains in high demand, dishing up as many as 196 services on any given day. That’s due in part to extensive spa renovations in recent years.

Spas have practically become a necessary ingredient of any self- respecting, mid- to upper-end hotel. In fact, spa upgrades are widespread among the luxury tier of hotels, says Rick Swig, president of RSBA & Associates, a San Francisco hotel-consulting group. Up to 15 years ago, many luxury resorts lacked wellness facilities that have since become a “competitive staple.” Among urban hotels, the greatest challenges have been finding physical space for spa treatments and learning how to deliver them in a “consistent fashion across the entire brand.”

One increasingly popular solution for consistency is relying on established products or brands with a loyal customer base. That’s exactly what Starwood Hotels, the parent company of the W hotel chain, did with New York’s Bliss Spa in January 2004. Known for its Ben & Jerry’s-like playfulness, Bliss began when prospective Columbia University student Marcia Kilgore was short on tuition and began a personal training business instead. In 1991, she began offering facials and five years later expanded into a “no-attitude” spa she called Bliss. The company continued to grow, giving offbeat names to services designed to appeal to contemporary working women. Think “Rubber Neck and Triple Oxygen Facial.”

With a brisk growth trajectory, in 1999 Bliss formed a partnership with LVMH and continued expanding until Starwood acquired the company. In December 2004, Bliss opened its first hotel spa: 23,000 square feet at the W New York Hotel. Chicago is slated for this fall and Los Angeles for early 2006. Bliss already premiered its first West Coast location with 5,000 square feet in San Francisco in mid-July. “Building a national name means growing in great cosmopolitan cities,” says Bliss President Tyler Morse. “San Francisco residents recognize and appreciate quality without taking themselves too seriously, just like Bliss.”

In fact, San Francisco has always “been a mind, body and spirit kind of place, on the edge of whatever is new in terms of health regimes,” says Conley, whose latest enterprise, the Hotel Vitale in the Embarcadero, offers spa services and daily complimentary yoga. “If someone travels to San Francisco on business, the quality of massage is going to be very high because there are a lot of practitioners and a lot of schools. People come to San Francisco to eat. Now more and more people are coming here to rejuvenate and relax.”

Visit enough spas, however, and eventually you’ll meet the spa addicts, typically very wealthy or devastatingly debt-ridden men and women who have bought into spa culture almost as if it were a way of life with optional tips for excellent service. The ISPA recognizes there are spagoers who typically believe “spas are an integral part of health and wellness — physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.” But the ISPA also recognizes these folks are in the minority.

Most spa guests are infrequent customers seeking “indulgence, escape” and “near-term” benefits for familiar ailments such as headaches, tight shoulders and everyday stress. They seem to recognize that a spa treatment is nearly only as good as it lasts, or at best, for that day. If your facialist was really on target, a tired complexion will still show some plumped-up benefits after a week. And if your masseuse figured out the ropes in your back, neck and shoulders, you’ll still feel good the day after instead of terribly sore. Most spa customers even admit to a get-in, get-my-pampering, get-out perspective rather than a long-term, holistic approach to health.

Some experts predict that attitude may be changing. That’s in part because Baby Boomers and younger generations don’t rely solely on traditional medicine, says independent spa consultant Sheralyn Aberjay, a 26-year industry veteran. They frequently count on alternative medicine and “don’t mind paying for it. The next generations will do more of that.” The Kabuki’s Conley, who practices yoga and receives massages regularly, agrees. “Alternative health for Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is becoming a more integral part of their health and wellness plan.”

But newcomers wouldn’t necessarily witness that at SF Bliss, where mass media, fattening foods and alcoholic drinks abound. Guests watch “Sex and the City” and the feature film “Grease” on plasma screens at movie-while-you-manicure stations. They visit the signature “brownie buffet” and enjoy wine, Brie and gourmet crackers. Granted there are also herbal teas and beautifully presented fruit-infused waters served to rhythm and blues tunes, but a holistic approach isn’t exactly on the menu. Many ordinary consumers struggle with justifying expensive treatments they could self-administer at home, such as a pedicures, manicures or facials. And as personal care and home spa products continue to proliferate, differentiating spa versus home experiences for the less fortunate may become more difficult. In fact, Bliss relies on its own line of bath, body and skin care products for its in-spa treatments, and shamelessly markets them for home use nearly everywhere you turn.

Even after hours of treatments and nevertheless realizing spa benefits are nearly always fleeting, I’m still a sucker for a mineral bath, massage, facial or all of the above, preferably in that order. And with this predilection nearly encoded in my DNA, I never imagined I would ever tire of spas, until one day, when I unexpectedly couldn’t bear it anymore. As a contributor for the 2001 edition of “Fodor’s Healthy Escapes,” I updated 40 spa entries in California. Traversing the state from Meadowood in Napa to Golden Door in Escondido, I finally discovered my threshold. I endured so many body scrubs, I found myself pleading, “No, not another body polish!” During pedicures, I couldn’t stop laughing. I had shed so many layers of skin, I was practically a child again, returned to a state of Desert Hot Springs innocence.

Still, if you twist my arm, I might consider another little spa vacation, I mean assignment. Little did my father know what he started.


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