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Bashing Spas, The Economist Reveals Gap in Great Experiences

by Bernard Burt
November 21, 2012

British business magazine The Economist doesn’t review spas. So it’s surprising to find spa bashing in the current (December 2012) issue of its magazine Intelligent Life.
Spas often take a bad rap as being a superficial luxury indulgence (“dedicated to narcissism” the Intelligent Life article says), but the anonymous author of this piece shows limited understanding of the spa experience.
The article describes spas as “a mish-mash of promises” using a hodge-podge of modern technologies alongside ancient healing remedies to promise everything from better health and beauty to psychological wellbeing.
On one level, spas deserve some of this criticism. Marketing untested “Anti-aging” treatments, for example, is common in the industry. Even the word “spa” is used ubiquitously and imprecisely, for a carwash or petcare.
Response to The Economist from American spa specialists has been fast and furious.
“Many people are not aware of the truly healing and life enriching experiences that are available at destination spas,” says Jeremy McCarthy, author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. His research is based on real experience, as spa director at the La Costa resort in California, Four Seasons hotels, and currently director of spas worldwide for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Jeremy’s guide to the science of holistic healing grew out of studies in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and he travels constantly maintaining service standards.

Misconceptions cause confusion,” McCarthy explains on his website Psychology of “People do not realize that “medical spa,” commonly used to label beauty salons where botox injections and laser hair removal services are performed, was once used to describe wellness spas, where a physician supervised true medicinal treatments and healing programs.”
The spa industry is filled with passionate individuals like Jeremy who are committed to improving their clients’ well-being across mind, body and spirit. He suggests:
Healing is holistic. Unlike modern physical medicine which seems to view the body as a machine, spa therapists treat people holistically across mind, body and spirit.
Prevention is the cure. While modern medical systems seem to be content to wait for people to become ill and then figure out what drug, surgery or procedure can be used to fix them, spas promote a healthy lifestyle, encouraging healthy eating, exercise and mind-body practices that prevent illness in the first place.
Given the diversity and fragmentation of the spa industry, it is natural for consumers to be somewhat confused. Do spas today offer healing and transformation or pampering and beauty? They offer both. But the promise of spa is a new way of looking at healing that considers the whole person, focuses on prevention, and taps into our own abilities to heal ourselves.
The Economist might also look at how many jobs are created by the spa industry. Why getting certified as a massage therapist in Ontario, Canada, requires a degree plus 2,200 hours of practical experience before you can get a job at the Trump Toronto hotel.
Perhaps the editors of Intelligent Life need to visit Canyon Ranch, Golden Door, or Miraval for an authentic spa experience.
The British blogger acknowledges some health benefits, facetiously quoting Auberon Waugh, the late columnist and son of Evelyn, who holidayed annually at spas—but only, he said, so that he could eat and drink without compunction the rest of the time. And then there is the power of human touch: "Beauty-centric international chains like Red Door and Bliss day spas have well-trained therapists and an attractively American belief in the customer always being right."
In the end, it's all about you.

About the Author:
Bernard Burt defined healthy lifestyle experiences for Fodor's Healthy Escapes (1986), documented "100 Best Spas of the World" for Globe-Pequot (2000); and expands coverage of wellness resorts in "Spectacular Spas" (2013) and online at Examiner. com. Founding director of the International Spa Assn. (ISPA), he is chairman emeritus of The Washington Spa Alliance, tracks trends for Spa Management Journal. E-mail him at


Bernard Burt

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