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When Deciding Where to Stay, One Question May Determine the Choice.
Does It Have a Spa?
By Battinto Batts Jr., The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 3, 2006--Connie Stone and her husband, Elliott, have careers in the financial services industry that require them to travel often to meet with clients. When deciding on a place to stay for the night, the answer to one question can determine their choice.

Does it have a spa?

"Traveling is tough," said Stone, 52, an accountant based in Martinsville. "To make it better, you always try to find a spa and book ahead of time to give yourself a couple of hours to say, 'Aaaahhh.'"

Operators of hotels and resorts, including several in Virginia and Hampton Roads, are increasingly seeking to capitalize on consumer demand for massages, body scrubs and facial wraps during their stay. It has become a vital piece of the luxury. Many properties either have elaborate spa facilities or are seeking to enhance their offerings.

Those properties with nothing risk losing lucrative business, several hospitality and tourism industry analysts said.

"The destination for a lot of people who are vacationing is either resort spas or facilities that have a full-service spa in them," said Richard Lewis, spokesman for the Virginia Tourism Corp. "You can see by the number of places in Virginia that have incorporated spas into their facilities that they recognize that demand as well."

In Virginia, the history of spa treatments as part of hotel accommodations dates to Colonial times to The Homestead resort. Located in Hot Springs, the resort and its mineral springs were favored by Thomas Jefferson. Hence, the springs were named Jefferson Pools.

The spa industry has spread throughout the state over the last 250 years or so, with several hotel and resort properties offering some sort of treatment. Among them is Flowering Almond Spa at The Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach, the Stones' choice of where to stay when in Hampton Roads.

The spa, which opened in June, was added to the property as part of a $5 million expansion of its recreation and leisure facilities.

"We definitely wanted to appeal to leisure travelers," said Lydia Hanks, director of Flowering Almond. "Travelers are becoming more sophisticated and are making decisions on what property to stay at based on whether they have a spa."

In addition to appealing to leisure guests, spas also help hotels attract other patrons.

"We've seen in just the eight to 10 weeks that we have been open, conference groups book a whole afternoon as a group after their meetings are over," Hanks said. "Conference planners use the spa as a way to attract attendees and get them to come."

There's evidence that the competition for hotel spa patrons is heating up in South Hampton Roads. The Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel opened in March 2005, with spa services as part of its offerings. The hotel's operator is already contemplating an expansion of those services.

"We obviously saw there was a demand for that, and we want to give that to our guests," said Emily Walker, spokeswoman for Gold Key/PHR, which operates the hotel.

Spa travel has become popular in the United States, according to a 2006 report titled "Identifying the spa traveler." The report was prepared by the International SPA Association and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

About 32.2 million people in the United States can be identified as active spa consumers, the report says. The report lumps all spa goers into one group, which includes those who patronize spas close to home and those who partake while traveling. People identified as spa travelers tend to be familiar with various spa treatments and thus likely to spend more during visits.

Take Stone, for example. She said she has visited spas in Mexico, Jamaica, Arizona, California and Florida.

Statistics show that spa facilities can be lucrative forms of revenue for hotels and resorts. A 2005 study of the spa industry conducted by PKF Hospitality Research found that spa revenue accounted, on average, for 2.3 percent of hotel revenue.

The study found that the interest in spa facilities for travelers might be in response to increased automation in the hotel industry.

Guests are now able to do many things, like checking in, without the help of hotel staff. Personal contact has diminished, the report says, and spas fill that void.

The report found that massage services are the greatest source of revenue for hotel spas, at 43.5 percent of the total. Treatments such as facials, scrubs, masks and wraps were next, at 22.1 percent.

Benchmark Hospitality International, based in Itasca, Ill., operates several spa facilities in the United States including Flowering Almond at The Founders Inn.

Anyone looking to capitalize on the spa industry should be aware of the start-up costs, which can be expensive, said Mary Bronaugh, who oversees field staff support for Benchmark.

"It can be a profitable business, but it takes a whole lot to get there," Bronaugh said. "To create a true spa, it takes a lot of capital. You are putting in the finest -- the massage table, the machines, the environment."

There is enough growth in the spa industry for the Virginia Tourism Corp. to begin marketing some of the state's offerings on its Web site.

The industry pioneer, The Homestead, remains one of the state's gold standards when it comes to spa facilities. But it is getting some stiff competition.

Today, there are the Wintergreen Resort in Wintergreen, Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, and the Landsdowne Resort in Leesburg. There are also spas at the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach and the Embassy Suites in Hampton.

The demographic profile of a spa traveler tends to be female, and 35 or older . Those numbers are likely influenced by another phenomenon in the tourism industry known as girlfriend getaways.

These trips, featuring two or more women, are a time for bonding, cultural enhancement and pampering. Spas have become a popular venue for these outings.

That's not to say that spas aren't becoming more popular with men, Bronaugh and other industry experts said.

"The biggest trend that we are seeing is couples," Bronaugh said. "But that doesn't always mean husband and wife. People like that they can do it together. People who might have been a little intimidated by a spa are more comfortable going in with people they know."

Men who have gone with a spouse or significant other are more likely to feel comfortable going to a spa on their own, industry research shows.

Stone said she and her husband, Elliot, 49, a representative with Heartland Financial USA Inc., have stressful jobs. Though they choose finer accommodations during their overnight stays, the experience is enhanced if it can include some spa time, she said.

"If I can get a quality hotel and they have a spa, I might wait to see if I can get an appointment," Stone said.

Recalling their recent visit to Flowering Almond, Stone said it made for a more pleasurable drive home to Martinsville.

"Instead of checking out and leaving at 11 a.m., we left at 3 p.m.," she said. "We were able to be more relaxed."

Recognizing that there are other travelers like the Stones, Bronaugh said, any hotel or resort that is in the planning stages and doesn't have a spa is making a mistake.

"I can't imagine a hotel or resort being built now without one."

Reach Battinto Batts Jr. at (757) 446-2642 or battinto.batts@pilotonline.com.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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