TOURISM Spas report surge of interest in recent years
When looking into places advertised as having 'spa' services, make sure to verify what's offered.
By JANE ENGLE
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Amid the travel slowdown, one segment of tourism still seems to have some steam: spas. For consumers, that's good and bad.
Good because there are more hotels with spas than ever and a cornucopia of new treatments.
Bad because there's almost too much to choose from, and there aren't as many deals as you might hope.
"We've seen a spa explosion in the last couple of years," says Lynne Walker McNees, executive director of the International Spa Association, or ISPA. The organization, based in Lexington, Ky., claimed 1,783 spa facilities and providers in 55 nations as members in late November. That's 27 percent more than a year ago and nearly triple the number that existed three years ago.
Types: There are about 5,700 spas in the United States, of which about 750 are in California, according to a study done last year for ISPA by PricewaterhouseCoopers. About three-fourths of the nation's spas are free-standing day-use facilities, but those attached to resorts and hotels are a growing category, composing the next largest group, about 8 percent of the total.
A far smaller number, about 75, are what are called "destination spas" by experts -- or "fat farms" by detractors -- according to the study. These are the grandes dames and generally the forerunners of the spa craze, such as Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., and the Golden Door in Escondido, Calif., where clients typically check in for a week or more of low-fat cuisine, exercise and treatments.
Destination spas have loyal customers, but it's not a growing category. Too much time commitment, experts say. The growth is occurring in day spas and hotel-resort spas. "You almost can't open a hotel without a spa anymore," says Pete Ellis, chief executive and chairman of New York-based Spa Finder Co., a spa reservation service and marketing company.
The factors behind the growth are many, experts say: aging baby boomers, the fitness movement, high-stress jobs and more male customers. Although the typical spa visitor is a woman 31 to 54, more men are joining in -- about 25 percent more each year for the past two years, McNees of ISPA says.
Income: Resorts make money off spas, but not that much -- about 3 percent of their total revenue, according to a recent study by Phoenix-based Warnick & amp; Co., a consultant and investment banking company that specializes in hotels and recreation. Golf (9 percent) and food and beverage service (30 percent) contribute more.
So here's the real appeal for resorts and hotels: A spa is "the equivalent of what a swimming pool was 20 or 30 years ago ... a competitive necessity," says company president Richard A. Warnick. In short, guests demand it.
In demand? Are they still demanding it after the Sept. 11 attacks? That depends on whom you talk to. McNees says her members have reported no decline in spa bookings since Sept. 11. And some spas, especially those whose clients arrive by car rather than plane, say business is "the best they've ever had," says Spa Finder's Ellis. Nerve-jangled citizens are seeking "something that's healing" without having to travel far, he says.
Still, although spas have bounced back from a "huge amount of cancellations" by travelers immediately after the attacks, Ellis says, business overall is off -- perhaps by 10 percent to 30 percent at destination spas and 40 percent to 50 percent at resort spas.
The spas have responded with some mild price-cutting. The week of Nov. 26, Ellis' company's Web site, www.spafinder.com, posted packages for nearly 20 spas discounted 10 percent to 35 percent. "They weren't doing [discounts] at all last year," Ellis says.
Why aren't the discounts deeper? McNees and Warnick say the profit margin for spas isn't large, so there isn't much fat to cut.
"While spas can be profitable, they are tremendously expensive to build," Warnick says. They are also labor-intensive, and it's not easy to cut the staff's pay, he says.
So if you're not going to get great deals, it's especially worthwhile to find out what service you are getting. When booking a hotel or resort, call the spa directly to find out what facilities and treatments it offers, experts suggest.