Hotel spas remain restful recessionary retreats

On the exfoliated and massaged surface, the business of spas ought not to do terribly well during times of recessionary panic and economic turmoil. Who has time for a relaxing seaweed facial when the markets are on a roller-coaster? However, spa owners and managers across the country say that, while they certainly expected some lean times as consumers clamped down on unnecessary luxury spending, the end result has been uplifting, if admittedly a little shy of booming.

Maybe the recessionary resiliency of spas shouldn’t come as such a surprise though. After all, hedonistic Roman aristocrats frequented bathhouses as their calamitous empire crumbled around them, and the debaucherous Turkish Baths of the Ottoman’s remained popular, even as that empire was being shown history’s door. So what can spa-managing hoteliers learn from lessons of the ancient as well as recent past?

“I guess when people get stressed about the economy, they still look to a spa to help them relax and unwind,” says Krista Foulis, spa director, Stillwater Spa in the Park Hyatt Toronto. “We’ve certainly seen a little bit of a decline, as I think everyone has, but we didn’t feel the pinch as much as we probably could have,” she adds.

As the steward of one of the most popular spas in Toronto, Foulis operates from a unique position, in that the Park Hyatt’s spa is hardly dependant on hotel occupancy. “The Stillwater has been around for 10 years, and we continue to be the busiest spa in the city. We’ve got a great local clientele, so we can be very busy even if the hotel is not full,” she says.

Tapping into local business, is something other top spa managers across the country are also trying to do, particularly when occupancy rates are sluggish. In fact, even hotel spas located outside busy urban centres, like the spa at Fairmont’s Château Montebello, are adjusting their product offerings to lure day-trippers. “We’re fairly remote, but when we built the new facility four years ago, we created the space with the intention of attracting more local business, and, for us, local means people as far away as Ottawa and Montreal,” says Sylvie Legault, spa manager. “In the last few years, we’ve gone from less than five per cent local business to 15 per cent, and that number is increasing every year.

What’s more, Legault says that while the spa used to rely almost exclusively on guests looking for a one-off massage or facial, the team has found that the day-trip client, is actually a very lucrative one. “Our location is a challenge, but it also means the locals we do attract tend to be very good customers, in that they’ll come and spend the whole day and get a number of treatments,” she adds, noting the increase of local business hasn’t just happened by accident, or simply by building a bigger operation; it’s meant a focused set of offerings. “We do a great day package, where we serve a very healthy Bento box style meal for lunch, which is becoming very popular.”

When it comes to challenging remote vacation destinations, few areas in Canada can match the isolation or recent popularity of Tofino in B.C., home of the Ancient Cedars Spa at the Wickaninnish Inn. Despite the small local market, however, spa manager Miranda Moore says the Inn views any tourist, at any Tofino property, as a local, and often attracts spa clients from other hotels or spa-less resorts in the area. We’re small but mighty,” she says. “We like to think of ourselves as the icing on the cake for people travelling to Tofino, and we can provide them with a magical experience.”

But given the recent economic turmoil, what type of experiences are consumers really looking for these days? According to Moore, the biggest boom in business is coming from couples looking for a unique, authentic experience, something the Tofino property, steeped in indigenous tradition, is more than willing to offer. “We’re one of the smaller spas here, with only seven treatment rooms, but two of those are side-by-side couples rooms, and our location lends itself to that sort of couple’s treatment,” she says. “One key feature is that we’re staffed entirely by very caring, nurturing, spiritual type people. I think it sort of goes with the territory around here.”

According to Moore, the spiritual focus, coupled with the recent trend towards local, authentic treatments has combined to create a truly unique Tofino experience. “I think a huge trend moving forward will be domestic or indigenous treatments. Today, when a lot of people travel to a destination, they want to find something authentic, and something they wouldn’t be able to find at home or in a city spa,” she says. “In Canadian spas, it’s been a challenge for us to figure out what that means, because we’ve adopted so many treatments from all over the world: Thai massage, Lomi Lomi, hot stone — you name it. Last year, we developed our own indigenous treatment, incorporating a traditional Pacific-Rim cleansing ceremony.”

Called the Hishuk Ish Tsawalk, Moore says the treatment comes from the Nuu chah nulth phrase of wisdom meaning ‘everything is one — all is inter-connected.’ The elements of fire, water, wind and air are harnessed, incorporating techniques gleaned from traditional cleansing ceremonies of the West Coast’s indigenous people. The full treatment involves a full-body exfoliation using local seaweed, followed by hot and cold water therapy and a final step of heated local basalt stones used in a massage.

While spas in Toronto and Montebello can’t claim an aboriginal-inspired treatment of their own, both spa directors also note the rising popularity of naturally derived treatments — such as deep-sea water and seaweed at The Stillwater, or al fresco manicures and facials on the terrace at the Château Montebello — as well as couple’s massages. Additionally, they also say that those treatments are attracting the opposite sex into the spa with a greater frequency. And, of course, in the spa world, that means men. “The response we get today from men is amazing,” says Legault. “Fifteen years ago, we’d never see a man in the spa, or at least it would be very rare. Now, they come all the time for scalp massages, manicures, pedicures, massages, men’s facials, anything. The key, says Legault, is a positive introduction, usually occasioned by a couple’s treatment. “I’d say for a man at the spa, it usually starts with a couple’s massage, and after that, they almost always schedule something else for the very next day. It’s like they say ‘what have I been missing?’ It’s a stress relief for men, too,” she adds.

“Couple’s massages are very popular for special occasions, and we can do up to 30 treatments at a time,” says The Stillwater’s Foulis. However, she also notes that a solid couple’s massage is not enough to entice a male client back for more, the spa also has to be aesthetically appropriate as well. “We’ve always been pretty strong here in terms of male clientele, but I think that also speaks to our intentionally neutral design,” she says. “Some spas are decorated strongly to the female demographic, in pinks and florals. The tones here are natural, with the deliberate use of stone and glass, it lends itself to be a more accessible, comfortable place for men,” she adds.

Whether your client is a man, a woman or a couple looking to up the romance factor, it’s important to make the right impression, and spa managers say that begins the moment guests step into the hotel. “We try to think about the spa as being about the entire experience, rather than just the actual physical treatment, or the designated spa space,” says Legault. “That extends to everything being presented properly, right from when the guest calls to when they are waiting in the lounge for the treatment. We take a very holistic approach.”

In Tofino, Moore certainly agrees. “In our circumstance, the spa is an extension of what we’re doing at the Inn,” she says. “When people get to Tofino, there is plenty to do outdoors, and the natural thing to look for are different ways to relax, so the spa is a natural part of that. In fact, it’s standard procedure at the Inn, to mention the spa right away when guests are booking a room, so it’s very much at the forefront of what we do.”

Whether it’s trendy treatments in the heart of Toronto, sun-drenched manicures in the Salon Soleil at Montebello, or an indigenous experience in Tofino, it’s clear that pampering remains a poplar indulgence at Canadian properties. And, with the economy in a slow but hopefully steady rebound, in 2011 we may well be less stressed about our RRSPs, but it’s hard to imagine we won’t collectively find something else to fret over, thereby needing that scalp massage all over again. When we do, spas will be set to soothe.

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