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Travelers Should Shape Their Agendas Before Choosing a Spa : Fitness: To avoid disappointment, it helps to know exactly what amenities you want when booking a health-oriented vacation. Some terms are misleading.

September 12, 1993|JACK ADLER

Spa vacations are becoming increasingly popular as a more health-conscious public seeks fitness-oriented getaways. However, when booking vacations, consumers should be aware that terms such as "spa" and "health club" can sometimes be misleading.

"A hotel might have a fitness center in its basement, a massage therapist on call and a Jacuzzi using tap water, and claim to offer a health spa," said Frank van Putten, president of New York-based Spa-Finders, a travel agency specializing in health, fitness and spa travel. " 'Spa' has such a health aura that it has become chic to claim it as a selling point. To be a real spa, a place needs to offer more in the way of facilities and treatments."

" 'Spa' is definitely a loosely used term," agreed Martha Scott of Glendale Travel. "Someone can call a resort a spa just because it offers a spa-related amenity. Since everyone uses the word, consumers need to know what they're really looking for to avoid disappointment.

"For example, a woman may say she wants a spa vacation, when in fact she's really looking for a place with special diets and exercise programs for weight reduction. Men, on the other hand, may be particularly interested in places emphasizing general fitness."

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Most spas fall into one of three categories: traditional, European-type spas with thermal springs; spas with a variety of health/fitness programs but without thermal springs, usually found in hotels or specially designed fitness facilities offering accommodations, and minimal spa facilities of any sort, usually found in hotels. The trend, what with today's increased emphasis on health and fitness, is for properties with thermal springs to add health/fitness facilities along with such sporting activities as tennis, golf, jogging and hiking.

One of the biggest misconceptions about spas, according to many people who work in the industry, is that they are for only the rich and famous. Not so, claims Van Putten, who says that the cost of a spa vacation should be flexible enough to accommodate most travel budgets.

According to Van Putten, prices for a weeklong stay at a European spa range from $700 to $3,500. But a four-night Bargain Spa package offered by Spa-Finders (telephone 800-ALL-SPAS) at Murrieta Hot Springs costs $325 double, $395 single. The package includes accommodations, three meals per day, mineral baths with body wrap, fitness program, plus golf, tennis, aerobics, aqua-aerobics and weight and cardiovascular equipment.

Spa-Finders also offers a package at the National Institute of Fitness in southwestern Utah, less than two hours by car from Las Vegas. A six-night package costs $739 double, $1,074 single, and includes accommodations; three meals daily; classes on fat control, nutrition and fitness; exercise program; personal fitness evaluation; cardiovascular endurance test, and tennis.

Mounting interest in spas has meant a healthy growth in business, Van Putten confirmed. He said business was up 40% for the first half of 1993 over the same period in 1992.

While there are no set standards for what a spa is, the 150-member International Spa & Fitness Assn., a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., applies three criteria for membership, according to Bernard Burt, a co-founder of the group who now serves as a consultant. For starters, a hotel offering a spa must have an organized program for overnight guests, a professional staff with proper fitness credentials and a full-service facility that offers a variety of services and treatments, including special cuisine as well as indoor and outdoor exercises.

"The biggest problem for consumers is to determine the difference between a serious spa, a resort spa and what is basically a health club," Burt said. "A serious spa is a destination offering specific programs for some aspect of health and fitness. A hotel could have a health club on its premises with all sorts of equipment, but that still doesn't make it a spa unless it also has a structured program and a professional staff."

Before choosing a spa vacation destination, travelers should assess what services are available, on what basis, and what is specifically included in the package. "Find out what type of meals are involved, regular or spa/nutritional, and just how structured the program is," Burt advised.

As a consumer aid, the association can provide information on its members. Call (202) 789-5920.

" 'Spa' is a term used more in the United States," Van Putten said. "In Europe, the term isn't as widely used or understood. Europeans call these places 'thermal facilities,' and they tend to go there on medical recommendations and sometimes to cure or alleviate specific conditions. Or they go for rest and recuperation.

"Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to go for general pleasure as well as health reasons, such as improving fitness, beauty or for weight loss. Stress reduction can be another special program. Travelers have to define their desires."

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