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Destination Spas and REAL Wellness: Don't Believe the Awful Things You Read about Spas in the New York Times

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A New York Times article on spas makes such resorts appear to be far less sensible than they are. Here's the real story.

Introduction

Maybe bad press is better than being ignored, at least for some businesses that welcome attention, provided the publicity is not TOO bad. Mildly unfavorable publicity can provide a seize the day situation where adversity can be turned into opportunity. At least that's the hope of spa industry leaders after a recent event that brought unwelcome details about resort spas.

In the last days of 2012, the New York Times published Destination Wellness, an account of a reporter's visits to luxury spa resorts, most on the West Coast. The descriptions ridiculed the silliness of the New Age, quack-heavy spa programming on offer at each stop along the reporter's way. Unfortunately, the writer linked the self-indulgence and foolishness with wellness, albeit spa-style. Holy ionic detoxification foot baths! If the programs described represented wellness, I'd prefer drugs or religion. Either would be a more rational alternative. Of course that's not the case - what passed for wellness at these toney resorts is not even close to any recognizable offering outside of a spa that I've ever encountered. The story is just another example of how the term wellness gets twisted and bent into whatever form fits a purpose, however much removed from reality. At some spas, there seem to be few limits.

Most offerings profiled seem useless or, at best, of dubious value. Many defy common sense.  

Readers of the Times piece lacking knowledge of the progress made by the spa industry to promote evidenced-based modalities will come away with a low estimation of the industry. There was little mention of steps taken in recent years to strengthen the quality and utility of spa offerings. A casual observer might not realize that much has been accomplished in recent years to promote substantive, respectable spa offerings, to convey a consistent positive message and to educate the public and media about sound initiatives on offer at most resorts.

Sample Spa Offerings

A few highlights or, more accurately, low-lights of spa offerings featured in the Times story:

  • The mission of the reporter was a search for wellness - that seemingly  unimpeachable state. Huh? Where did that description come from? What is an unimpeachable state, anyway? Who would want to be in an unimpeachable state, except maybe Barack Obama? To discover spa wellness, the reporter meditated and hyperventilated, was plyometric-ed, watsu-ed and ceremonially crowned ... (had) chakras read ... ate quinoa and got naked with a bunch of strangers. Wow. I've only done one of those things. Guess I have not discovered what wellness is yet.
  • Wellness is not cheap, it seems. At the Chopra Center, you can buy everything from mala beads (starting at $5.50) to week-long teacher training courses that can run more than $12,000." The product catalog offers a range of products specifically geared for your dosha. I have to admit at this point that I am not doing so well, evidently, as I don't have a dosha or even know what it is. Deepak Chopra offers a program on workplace well-being aimed at corporate customers that purports to decrease absenteeism, increase productivity and promote greater vitality and mental health. Lovely. Step right up - prices (for small corporate groups) start at $3,995 for a 90-minute lecture (for this you still don't get Chopra) but if you prefer a full day, that starts at $20,000. What do you get for 20 grand? Stress management tips and group meditation - including ayurvedic lunch. (Corporate leaders note: I'm offering a blue light special for half that price - but only if you act NOW! Operators are standing by - hurry.)

The article ended with this summary: Maybe wellness ... is just what you made it: a catchall of anything and everything aimed at making you happy, or healthy, watsu-ed or whatever. And just like walking a labyrinth with a paper crown, it might not lead anywhere in the end. But it feels good while you're doing it.

Well, a lot of things feel good while you're doing them. Surely a reporter could have learned something more than that from spending so much of the newspapers money running around in search of wellness.

Take Away Insights

For industry leaders, one lesson seems clear: a great deal of work remains if destination spas are going to succeed in growing an audience for programming that transcends pampering, weight loss, alternative medicine and foo foo silliness.

Susie Ellis, the president of Spa Finder Wellness in New York, wrote a commentary on her blog about the article and invited comments on the Times article. You can read how industry leaders and responded here. Among other suggestions was to do a better job of communicating what spas are about in order not to be quite so vulnerable to misrepresentations, such as noted in the Times story. In other words, carpe diem by learning from this publicity debacle.

Naturally, I could not resist commenting about the wellness aspect of the piece.

My Take on the Times Story

Jesse McKinley should be prosecuted for a hate crime - that of distorting, maligning and misrepresenting the nature of two innocent parties - the spa industry to some extent and particularly the wellness concept. The impressions communicated about the latter are abysmally inaccurate and misrepresented. But, as a self-appointed spokesman for the latter, I refuse to press charges. Instead, I urge spa industry leaders to do what I did - have a good laugh - and get even!

The way to get even is to work with SFW and others in the spa industry who have an expansive, science-based vision for a spa industry that will offer REAL wellness. Efforts are well underway toward an evolution of the industry in ways consistent with the untapped potentials of destination spas. With solidarity around a better, more sophisticated sense of the nature and appeal of quality of life programming, a new order of spa offerings can emerge that, in short order, will attract better writers to visit better spas to visit and describe genuine wellness programming.  
 
This is the kind of response to the Times piece that could turn this lemon of an article into something a lot more than just lemonade. And, after all, haven't we all often heard that there is in every setback or crisis an opportunity?  
 
I would enjoy seeing the spa industry seize this one. Thus, a first step carpe diem-wise is to look on the bright side. Mr. McKinley, while producing an unflattering overview of the industry and an insipid misinterpretation of what wellness represents, did in fact get three things right: 

  1. Jesse recognized Halbert L. Dunn as the originator of the phrase high level wellness.
  2. Jesse referenced the watershed 2010 Global Spa and Wellness Summit report by SRI.
  3. Jesse mocked a good number of ludicrous offerings that some spas still feature.    

Moving Forward
 
The next step is to further explore the true, best nature of wellness. Sure, it includes the usual and customary elements, such as exercise, nutrition and stress management. But, these are fragmented parts of the whole. A systematic approach to the concept is needed to make clear to one and all that a wellness way of functioning is more than a lifestyle. This way of thinking and acting is more than medical self - help, weight loss and beauty treatments. It is, in fact, a perspective that transcends physical health. It is about life - it deals with elements properly associated with philosophy. For spas to promote wellness would entail a transition from alternative medicines and anti-aging products, medical clinics and fitness centers to specific educational offerings that target living well, explorations of meaning and purpose, guidance on the art of creating and sustaining supportive environments and communities and practical experiences for gaining greater serenity, peace and fulfillment in good times and bad.

The skill areas or dimensions that can be studied and taught as genuine wellness include reason (critical thinking, respect for and appreciation of science), exuberance (joy and humor, pleasure and happiness), athleticism (includes fitness and a whole foods plant-based diet) and liberty (organizing one's life so as to realize maximum personal freedoms).
 
Two Challenges

 
There are two basic problems with our health care system that fails to promote positive well being in a quality of life sense. The two problems are: People expect too much of it and too little of themselves.  
 
We can all profit by recognizing that wellness is up to us - nobody is going to do it for us. Destination spas can profit - and better serve the people of this country, by developing creative, interesting REAL wellness offerings that bring respect and appreciation of the industry and, most important, facilitate better lives for clients in the years to come.

When future, wiser reporters from the New York Times and other media come to spas and discover centers for higher education in whole person well being, they won't have ionic detox foot baths to kick around anymore. Instead, they will likely want to write about the myriad ways in which physical, mental, emotional and existential interests are nourished and advanced. 

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