A Day (or a Career?) at the Spa

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Nov 01, 2003

Could you succeed as a“trainer to the pampered”? Spa professionals offer career highlights.

Wellness is the watchword for the future. Or at least that’s the forecast of Paul Zane Pilzer, an economist who predicts that within the next 10 years, the wellness industry will generate $1 trillion annually. The continued growth and economic success of the spa industry in spite of a significant recession supports the likelihood of his prediction.

According to the International Spa Association 2002 Industry Study, revenues for the U.S. spa industry were $5 billion in 1999. Between 1999 and 2001, aggregate revenues grew 114 percent, and today the industry generates almost $11 billion annually. The Day Spa Association reports that nearly 13 percent of American adults, or over 19 million people, have been to a day spa in the past 3 years. This amazing growth represents new opportunities for personal trainers poised to take advantage of the trend.

Today’s spa service “menus” highlight health and fitness services—including personal training and nutrition consultation—as well as other body and beauty treatments. One factor driving this movement is the demand of aging Baby Boomers, who want to preserve their health, beauty and vitality and are willing to pay for the opportunity. Another factor is an increase in the number of resorts that have year-round members drawn from local communities. In addition to hosting vacationers, these resorts serve regular members who use the fitness, spa, and meal and beverage services, as well as the golf courses, tennis courts, kids’ camps and swimming pools.

As a personal fitness trainer, you can position yourself to capitalize on the opportunities created by these spa trends. The following insights shared by international spa directors, managers and personal trainers can help you prepare for a rewarding spa career.

Providing the Total Experience

As “50-something” Baby Boomers search for ways to look and feel their best, the field of antiaging medicine is experiencing rapid growth. According to facial plastic surgeon Bradley Greene, MD, whose practice is in Los Altos, California, antiaging medicine combines “surgical rejuvenation, nonsurgical rejuvenation, nutrition, physical activity and spiritual wellness.” Greene and other doctors in the field advise clients to consider using all five of these treatment modalities. Boomers are urged to think about prevention, not just correction. As Greene says, “A good fitness program is definitely a part of that picture.”

Today’s clients come to spas not only to be pampered and reduce stress but also to take care of themselves. Keeping this in mind, many spa directors are including fitness services in their packages. “The client who travels to a resort primarily for the spa is now truly looking for a life-enhancing experience,” says Chris Pulito, spa director at the Spa at Stoweflake in Stowe, Vermont. “I have seen an upswing in the number of guests . . . looking for wellness programming.” In addition, spa clients who work with personal trainers at home want to continue regular workouts and learn about new fitness trends while vacationing.

What’s on the Spa Menu

Many spas pursue a holistic approach to programming. Lauren Brand, athletic director at The Club at Allegria Spa in the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek in Colorado, says, “The boundary between fitness and spa is becoming less defined.” Robin Jumper, spa director at ANARA Spa in the Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa in Hawaii, agrees: “Fitness and spa services are not mutually exclusive. ANARA’s guests participate in our classes and utilize the workout facilities and then take time away from their regime to revitalize the body with some of our fabulous body treatments or a specialty massage.”

Some of the popular combinations at today’s spas include:

Massage Therapy and One-to-One Training. The Club at Allegria Spa is just one place where clients combine massage with their workouts. “Thanks to the collaboration of massage therapists and trainers,” Brand says, “our clients find their posture and health are restored quickly as they journey toward optimal health.”

The massage and fitness departments at The Oaks at Ojai in California have joined forces to create a signature treatment called “massage.com” for guests who spend too much time at a computer. According to Elizabeth Horton, Oaks director of activities, the treatment focuses on body work specifically for stressed areas such as the hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, neck and low back; and also includes strengthening and stretching exercises for the same areas.

Yoga and Massage. Savvy spa directors focus on a mind-body approach to deliver a total experience. Jeremy McCarthy, spa director at the Four Seasons Resort Maui in Hawaii, says, “In our Western culture it is difficult for us to slow down and calm the mind enough for meditation, and yet we are yearning for that kind of peace and calm in our lives. . . . Mind-body disciplines help us develop concentration skills and breathing techniques to get to a more meditative state.”

The Club at Allegria Spa offers a package called the “Journey to Wellness,” which links yoga practice with massage therapy. Clients participate in private yoga and meditation and then go right into a massage. “The key here,” Brand says, “is the collaboration between the massage therapist and the yoga instructor.”

AnnMarie Comiskey, a licensed massage therapist and hatha yoga instructor at the Avon Salon & Spa in New York City, says, “[Our] client usually comes for several spa treatments. . . . Some clients come for a personalized hatha yoga session and foot reflexology with neck and shoulder massage. . . . People really enjoy the yoga as it helps them relax and let go of stress.”

Fitness, Massage and Nutrition. At The Greenhouse in Arlington, Texas, the nutrition department works with the fitness and massage departments to help guests achieve a variety of results. Greenhouse fitness director Marsha Taplett says that specific programs are combined to address the different goals of clients, whose results are maximized by the cooperative effort made in each area. For example, a guest on a detox (body purification) program might participate in a fitness activity like rebounding to help the lymphatic system, while taking cleansing herbs and having detoxifying massages. “Addressing the [client’s] issue from three different areas intensifies the body’s ability to release toxins,” Taplett explains.

Nancy Mullen, fitness supervisor for The Spa at Silverado in Napa, California, sums up the new philosophy: “More people are aware of the benefits of wellness. And wellness in some cases does not cost as much as sickness. By marketing the many benefits of wellness, you can combine the services of the spa, such as massage and reflexology, with the benefits of a complete exercise program to do something good for yourself.”

The Role of Personal Trainers

Fitness programming at a spa encompasses much more than personal training sessions. When personal trainers start careers in the spa industry, they have the ability to help plan an individual’s wellness journey for a full day, week or month. Trainers may schedule body treatments, lessons in the spa kitchen, and group exercise classes, as well as personal training sessions, says Lawrence Biscontini, mind-body personal trainer, group exercise manager and nutrition counselor for Wyndham’s Las Casitas Golden Door Spa at El Conquistador in Puerto Rico.

Spa directors all see an increase in the demand for personal training services in several areas, including:

  • fitness assessments
  • strength training
  • water exercise
  • core conditioning
  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • wellness lectures

Nordine Gaetan Zouareg, fitness manager at Miraval Life in Balance in Catalina, Arizona, says, “We have boosted [our] one-on-one business by 625 percent in the last 3 years in both assessments and strength training as well as movement therapy.” Other spa professionals echo this type of growth, noting a particular increase in the demand for yoga and Pilates.

According to Michelle Adams, fitness and movement therapy director at the Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires Health Resort in Lenox, Massachusetts, “There has been a growing demand for personal training services that include mostly strength training and, most recently, . . . more core workouts. We have seen growth in the areas of Pilates and yoga. . . . Guests are more likely to book both services, not necessarily one over the other. It is not unlikely for guests to have a yoga or Pilates private session and a personal training session during their stay.”

Preparing to Fill the Bill

What special characteristics or skills do you need to have a spa career? Many professionals agree that personal fitness trainers who work with spa clients require more versatility than traditional trainers and must be willing to go the extra mile to provide excellent customer service.

“My normal day includes teaching up to seven classes across the board and squeezing in personal training sessions when I’m not teaching [group exercise],” says Karen M. Salsbury, MEd, ACE personal trainer about her spa career. “I, as well as coworkers, must be competent in all teaching . . . capacities.”

Vickie Loucks, staff member at the Golden Door Spa at The Boulders, a resort in Carefree, Arizona, adds, “My position is mainly personal training. However I do several services: I teach numerology, lecture on various health and fitness topics, and do emotional kinesiology, a form of ‘psycho energy clearing.’ ” Loucks feels that wearing more hats makes her more marketable in the spa setting and decreases the chance of burnout from doing personal training alone.

The right personality is also key to working in a spa, according to Carol Tibbetts, a fitness specialist at the Golden Door in Escondido, California. Essential personality traits for working in a spa include:

Flexibility. You need to be able to adapt to a variety of personalities and fitness levels. “Many of our clients are just starting or restarting a fitness regime,” Horton explains. “Trainers need to be prepared for [guests who are] inexperienced or [at] low levels of fitness.” Clients may be struggling with injuries or physical limitations, so being prepared for special populations is important. In addition, Tibbetts notes, guests’ goals and needs may change from day to day, especially if they are involved with “inner workouts,” so you need to be prepared to vary your training techniques and modalities.

Compassion. In some cases guests go to spas when they are mourning a loss, Tibbetts points out. In other cases buried emotions suddenly become awakened as clients begin to relax and let their guard down. Knowing how to respond sensitively is crucial.

Listening Skills. Being a good listener is especially important when you have only 1 week to hone in on what a client really needs to take home to stay motivated, Tibbetts advises. Brand adds that you have to be friendly, patient and “present” enough to make clients want to come back year after year.

Humility. Guests come to a spa to be treated like royalty, spa professionals point out, so there’s no room for trainers who are divas. Be prepared to check your ego at the door.

Wellness Orientation. Bryan Hoare, fitness manager at Chiva-Som Luxury Health Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand, says, “Trainers need to move away from a focus on the ‘body beautiful.’ There is much more to fitness and health than a six-pack.” Biscontini adds, “Fitness, especially in the spa market, has long been redefined as ‘wellness,’ and people expect a more wellness-oriented approach. They want a program to take home from their trainer that addresses, not only the body, but the brain and breathing as well.”

Payment and Perks

While the perception may be that spas cater to the rich and famous, most spa directors admit that personal trainers in spas are not paid at the same hourly rate as trainers in fitness clubs. In general, spa trainers are employees who not only do personal training but also teach group exercise and provide other spa services, such as wellness lectures and massage.

The benefits of working in a spa often include medical and life insurance, sick days, paid vacation time, and an annual allowance for continuing education. In addition, most spas offer employees various perks, such as discounts on spa services and special deals at related chains. Kristi Anderson, a fitness trainer at Rancho La Puerta in northern Mexico, describes her living situation: “Because the spa is isolated, the fitness staff lives on the premises; meals—all vegetarian—are included. I’ve been here for 4 years now and I love it. The lifestyle is difficult to match.”

Other benefits of working in a spa may come from the clients you meet. A spa guest might fly you out of town to provide services for some of his own clients, Loucks explains. One Pilates instructor she knows was flown to Greece to set up a Pilates studio for a guest.

In day spas and smaller hotel spas, trainers might work as independent contractors and be paid a percentage of the total training rate. In these cases the trainers’ compensation is usually slightly less than, or about equal to, that of personal trainers who work in area fitness clubs. Tessa Coker, a fitness instructor at Double Eagle Resort & Spa at June Lake, California, explains that while the pay may not be high, “It is such a joy to work with delightful people in a beautiful environment. For me, that is emotional and spiritual remuneration!”

Some entrepreneurial trainers have created their own businesses to provide health and fitness services to hotels and spas. Nora Wallace, an exercise physiologist, is a co-owner of State of the Heart Fitness in Santa Monica, California, the health and fitness consultant team for the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel Fitness Center and Spa. “We manage and perform the personal training, health education and exercise classes, and develop the health and fitness programming,” says Wallace.

Unique Rewards and Challenges

Most spa professionals seem to love their work. Since it is demanding and challenging, spa training attracts highly dedicated and motivated trainers who enjoy variety and working with a diverse clientele. Tibbetts says, “Every week is exciting and different. No one gets bored with us, and we don’t get bored with them.” In 5 years Tibbetts may train as many as 600 different clients. “Training so many different people has exposed me to a much more varied spectrum of medical and injury histories, personality challenges and goals,” Tibbetts says. “What I have learned in 5 years here would be the equivalent of 10 or more years at a gym.”

Julie Naggar, a certified personal trainer and an indoor cycling instructor at The Woman’s Club in San Diego, California, adds, “I really enjoy working in a spa environment in an exclusive women-only club. I feel that we get more . . . special populations. We have some members who are cancer survivors, others who have rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, and still others who are considerably overweight.” Naggar believes that working with these special populations has made her a better trainer by forcing her to keep up with women’s health issues and really learn about her clients’ needs and limitations.

While contact with spa guests may be limited in time, the experience of working in a spa can be both intimate and powerful. Michelle Herold, spa director at Chateau Élan Winery & Resort outside Atlanta, says, “We strive to create an atmosphere where [both] the avid and novice exerciser feel very comfortable. Recently a woman came to the spa on a luxury 7-day vacation after a stressful divorce. She wanted to start focusing on her health and physical appearance. It was truly rewarding seeing her learn how to exercise for the first time. She left each class stronger both physically and mentally. She learned that she is important. She set goals for fitness and empowered herself for her future.”

Your Place in the Wellness Revolution

Whether or not Pilzer’s prediction of a trillion dollar wellness industry will be realized remains to be seen. But people in the field of preventive medicine have been advocating the value of preventive care on both a personal and social level for decades. Working in a spa environment may be a good match for you if you have a passion for inspiring people to live an integrated wellness lifestyle that focuses on treating the body, mind and spirit. The road to wellness is a path we can all share as we continue to enrich our own lives and the lives of the many others we are fortunate enough to reach.

IDEA Personal Trainer , Volume 2004, Issue 10

© 2003 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in L...

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