It must be confusing to run a spa these days. The recession has prompted cutbacks in spending on luxury goods and services, the demanding Baby Boom generation is still seeking the fountain of youth, and discerning clients are using words such as "wellness" and "eco" as they book their treatments.
And they want the results in less than an hour.
That's a tall order, but spas seem to be adapting. According to the International Spa Assn. of Lexington, Ky., 86% of ISPA members are now offering a wider variety of 30-minute options, instead of traditional and pricier 60- or 90-minute sessions. While consumers continue to ponder the wisdom of pricey vacations and designer labels, many still see value in the sanctuary of the spa. Spa visits are up 58% over the same time last year, partly because of the more affordable treatments, said ISPA President Lynne McNees.
"According to ISPA's research, we know that the No. 1 reason people go to a spa is to relax and learn to manage stress," McNees said. Indeed, therapeutic massages are the top-ranked treatment.
In addition, spas are complementing those massages and other touch therapies with techniques that are billed as aiding overall wellness. Pasadena's Huntington Spa at the Langham two weeks ago unveiled a spa-within-a-spa devoted to traditional Chinese medicine treatments such as acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion (in which inserted acupuncture needles are warmed with a burning moxa stick) and other Eastern practices that are supposed to address muscular, respiratory and digestive disorders. For otherwise-healthy clients, the luxury spa continues to offer a large menu of facials to address another source of concern — looking old. Nearly every facial on its menu aims to reduce the skin's signs of aging.
The Chinese treatments, however, are philosophically different from the West's "fix it now, take a pill approach," said Maria Shea, the Langham's spa director. Instead, wellness is "something you practice over time to get healthy again."
Across Southern California, spas are pioneering methods to link our looks to our lifestyles. At his El Segundo spa and medical practice, Dr. Howard Murad has developed a 10-week, inclusive health program that addresses topical skin care, internal nutritional care and even the emotions and their nemesis, stress.
Such an all-encompassing approach, he said, "gives your body the best environment to take care of itself."
Following the lead of ISPA, spas are moving away from the concept of anti-aging and toward the idea of healthy aging, "because you really can't stop the clock," McNees said, "but you can learn from licensed practitioners who can help you find tools to live a healthier life and age gracefully."
As spa-goers get wise to the concept of overall wellness, they're increasingly seeking treatments that are less hype and more help, according to Hannelore Leavy, executive director of the Day Spa Assn.
"The customer is no longer willing to pay for things that are promised to them but that don't give results," Leavy said, citing treatments such as caviar and champagne facials and chocolate body wraps.
"Those kinds of things were a lot of fun, but they had very little continuing benefit," Leavy said. The lack of results was a contributing factor to the widespread failure of day spas during the recession. By her estimation, about a third of all day spas nationwide went out of business in the last few years, leaving about 10,000 survivors.
The increased economic pressure also has forced spas to be more receptive to consumer needs, including the expectation of eco-friendly practices. Leavy doubts that many consumers really, truly care if their spa uses sustainable wood, low-flow faucets and natural-fiber robes. Yet a growing movement within the industry is making the case that what aids the planet aids the person.
Employee uniforms like those at Terranea in Rancho Palos Verdes are made from eco-friendly fabrics to minimize dry cleaning. Spa treatments and fitness classes correspond to the body's natural biorhythms — intended to energize and invigorate in the morning and calm in the afternoon
In Sebastopol, Calif., the 3-year-old Green Spa Network is helping member spas learn how to rate their spa's environmental impact on things including the laundry, the lightbulbs and products that clean the floor or treat the skin.
It's perhaps inevitable to see overlap in today's leading spa trends for improving the health and looks of an aging planet and its people. After all, European spas have a long history in the kind of environmental protection that kept their mineral springs pure and their bathers healthy. The American spa lifestyle embodies chunks of environmentalism and a lot of the packaged hope that wrinkles can be defeated with the right combination of products and pampering.
Above all, spas offer what matters most to today's perpetually overwhelmed population —time.
"Spas give you permission to spend time on yourself," McNees said.