The Spa Way of Life

If you are a team player with a passion for serving others, a spa career could be your calling.

Is it ever possible to please all the people all the time?

Maybe not, but if any business comes close, it is probably the spa industry, which specializes in making people feel happy, healthy and, perhaps above all, hopeful that life after their spa experience will be better. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times pointed out the extent that today’s spas are willing to go to woo, soothe, educate, stimulate and entertain guests, noting that leading spas offer help on everything from chakra balancing to art therapy, spirituality to sexuality. “Nothing is off-limits, as spas have become our gurus on mountaintops, places to go for relaxation, pampering and now enlightenment” (“Illuminate, Exfoliate,” Valli Herman, February 24, 2008).

Fitness has always had a place on the spa menu, as an effective strategy against stress, aging, excess weight and other demons that spa-goers hope to exorcise. But fitness is not the star player: according to the 2007 Industry Report of the International Spa Association (ISPA), 93% of spa revenue in North America comes from body and skin care treatments and retail products. What’s more, 80% of spas are day spas, which focus on daily-use services and have limited space for fitness programs. 

However, fitness still has a strong presence, particularly in destination, resort, hotel and club spas. Thirteen percent of spas offer fitness or sports programs, according to the 2007 ISPA survey. Most frequently offered services are personal training (67%), cardio (59%), free weights (59%) and Pilates (53%). Almost 20% offer mind-body-spirit programs (most frequently offered: meditation, yoga, relaxation and tai chi). And over one-third of spas offer health-related educational programs and workshops (most frequently offered: nutrition and weight management, stress, emotional health).

Is there still room for fitness in the spa industry? “It’s not possible to have a spa movement without fitness—they go hand in hand,” says Lynne Walker McNees, president of ISPA. “Spas are about living a healthy life, and fitness is part of that. Beauty and fitness are not mutually exclusive.”

She adds: “There’s a lot of partnering going on between the spa industry and the fitness industry right now. Quality day spas are partnering with personal training clubs, gyms and health clubs, working in tandem to teach people about activity, nutrition, even healthy cooking. Here in Lexington, Kentucky, which is a small town, there’s a local medical spa that has partnered with personal trainers to offer guests more complete lifestyle services.”

As the spa industry continues to grow (at a rate of 13% in 2006), and consumers become increasingly knowledgeable about wellness benefits, spa opportunities for fitness professionals—especially if you love people and have a passion for wellness—are greater than ever.

Not Just About Relaxing Anymore

“Immersing yourself in a healthy lifestyle was something that began with destination spas, but now day spas and resort and hotel spas are all branching out to offer wellness-based services, such as stress relief, life coaching, nutrition and fitness counseling,” says Julie Sinclair, editor in chief of Spa Magazine.

“It’s not just about relaxing anymore. Guests want to expand their horizons, try new things. They may not take the time to get a fitness evaluation [at their local club], for example, but when they’re at a spa, they might just try it.”

Sinclair notes that some spas are offering fitness evaluations combined with personal training sessions, consultations with nutritionists and holistic health practitioners, and extensive take-home programs.

“I don’t believe in the word ‘pampering,’” she says. “People go to spas to find balance, to take time for themselves, to get more out of life. Even at day spas, you see people from the local community coming together to connect, learn about new things—in a sense it’s a nonsectarian version of the role that churches or community centers have played.”

McNees notes that today’s spa guests expect tangible results. “We’ve become a demanding nation. We know what we want, and want it now,” she says. “Spa guests are booking lengthy pockets of time—2, 3 or 4 hours—instead of just a single treatment. They also want customization—services tailored to their individual needs.”

McNees points out that 1 in 4 American adults has been to a spa, but adds that the growing spa market is not just for adults. “We have over 4 million teenagers going to spas. It’s this captive audience we can teach collectively about healthy living, the importance of exercise, how to handle stress.”

A Plethora of Opportunities

According to ISPA, the U.S. spa industry employs more than 230,000 people. About half are full-time employees, and 18% work on a contract basis. ISPA offers a variety of career training tools, including a Spa Professional Career Guide and a spa management certification course (see www.experienceispa.com).

Lawrence Biscontini, MA, an international spa consultant who teaches during the winter season at the Golden Door Las Casitas Village resort and spa in Puerto Rico, is enthusiastic about spa careers for fitness professionals. “The spa trends of fusion fitness and cross-training offer more growth and exposure than ever for fitness professionals, who can transcend the boundaries of the classroom, providing more outdoor training and lifestyle training in spas than they could do in a traditional fitness facility. The best spa departments for fitness professionals right now are all departments, because spas are booming. They open their minds, heart and doors to trainers and instructors who have a great attitude and the ability to fuse different talents.”

Jeff Kohl, veteran spa expert, former ISPA board member and now a sales and marketing manager with Precor Inc. in Woodinville, Washington, agrees that the outlook is rosy. “I can’t count the number of calls I get from spas looking for staff. There’s a labor shortage in the industry, across the board. In fact, to meet the need, several major universities are starting to incorporate spa management into their curriculums.” Kohl is optimistic about the industry’s future growth, in part because of the aging Baby Boomers, but also because of the 19- to 25-year-old market. “They appreciate taking care of themselves, and I envision it will be a strong market with continuing growth potential.”

David-Dorian Ross is the wellness manager for Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach, California, and has consulted for a wide range of world-renowned spas. “There are many different kinds of opportunities. You can work as a fitness or wellness manager. You can be a permanent full-time staff person who teaches classes, works as a personal trainer or watches the fitness center floor. Another option is to come in on an adjunct or on-call basis to teach classes, offer lifestyle coaching or [do] personal training. There are crossover areas if you’re multitalented: you could be a massage therapist and a personal trainer, for example, and build your clientele by cross-referring your guests into both areas.”

Ross notes that life coaching is a hot new topic, but cautions that many hotels and spas [do] not really understand it. “I think there will be a lot of growth in this area in spas in the next 5 years, but [as a coach, you will] have to offer education [about what you do]. You can give in-house programs as a way of introducing yourself. Or you can create internal wellness or fitness programs for spa or hotel employees, to get yourself known.”

As Ross sees it, chances for employment abound in all types of spas. “Of course there are wonderful opportunities at destination spas, because guests come with an end goal in mind and are there for a longer period of time. However, [day spas] are very unexplored territory—there are a lot of possibilities for life coaching and offering classes. Resort and hotel spas also have many areas of education and training that could be introduced by a creative fitness professional.”

Ross explains that simple spa economics is likely to drive innovation and growth in the industry. “As spas become more competitive, they start maxing out at how many people they can put into salons for haircuts, or pack into treatment rooms. The fitness center becomes prime real estate. Wellness programs offer unlimited opportunities from a revenue-generating standpoint, and they can be done outdoors or even in the lobby.”

Montage offers an average of 50 fitness classes a week. “We offer complimentary classes to all our hotel guests, including everything from yoga to Pilates to dance and BOSU®, tai chi to cycling,” says Ross. “We also offer complimentary 15-minute personal training sessions, [as] a showcase for the talents of our trainers, who book a lot of sessions as a result.”

Spotlight on Management

If the spa industry is ripe with opportunities at all levels, managers are especially in demand, according to several experts.

“There is a strong need to grow the next generation of spa leadership,” says McNees. “That’s going to come from all modalities, including fitness professionals.”

Kohl adds that spas particularly need staff for leadership positions because managers tend to move on to larger properties. “Of course, you have to realize that you probably aren’t going to start out your first spa job at an 80,000-square-foot facility. It takes time, but it can be a very fulfilling career in a very friendly industry, if you have a passion for it.”

Lori Hutchinson, owner and founder of Hutchinson Consulting in Sonoma, California, which recruits for hotels, resorts and spas, notes that her organization sees 60–100 spa positions open in any one week in the United States. “People don’t always stay long in positions. They get seduced by more compensation, sometimes before they have time to leave a legacy of work, which can be unfortunate. But there is definitely a need for qualified individuals in the spa business, especially in management. There are a number of opportunities for people who are fitness-oriented to become involved in spas as a fitness manager.”

To become a spa fitness or wellness manager, you need supervisory experience, says Hutchinson, but you can move up the ladder within a spa. “If you are a personal trainer who wants to become a fitness manager and perhaps ultimately a spa director, you need to work at a property that offers educational and supervisory opportunities. You may also want to get additional education in business management.” 

What Spas Want Most

Trish Martin has been the fitness director at the trendsetting original Golden Door spa in Escondido, California, for 11 years. She says the spa looks for people with either an advanced degree in a health- or fitness-related area or a professional certification from a leading industry organization. Fitness specialists are full-time staffers working 30–40 hours per week, and they must be able to teach classes and provide personal training. The Golden Door brings in independent contractors to lead specialty classes. Programs range from indoor cycling and water exercise to flat walking and mountain hiking; from Nia® and belly dancing to calypso and tap dancing; from cardio boxing and cardio/interval tennis training to archery and fencing. Not surprisingly, yoga, Pilates and meditation are on the schedule, but there are also lectures and programs on everything from healing sounds to happiness, hypnosis, journaling and expressive arts.

“We need people with very diverse skills. The benefit is, you really get an opportunity to grow and develop here. You can work on your lecture and presentation skills, which is an opportunity [you] might not have working in a health club. Education is a big draw for us. We’ll send staff to conferences and help them with certifications. We bring outstanding people in to train our staff.”

Training expertise is only one part of the equation for spas. You also have to be willing to expand your people skills. “You get a whole new set of guests and a whole new set of challenges every week. You have to constantly be on your toes,” says Martin. In fact, diplomacy may be a mild word for the level of sensitivity and flexibility required to work in spas. “We have very high-end clientele who are used to getting what they want,” Martin adds. “We need to be really careful to handle all guest situations delicately and tactfully.”

Martin adds that the spa interview process can be extensive. “You are interviewed by at least four people, and you typically spend at least 4 hours, because there are people who fit into spas and people who don’t. This is a hectic, fast-paced environment, where you have to adapt to sudden changes, be flexible, want to give to others, and have a little bit of a spark that will appeal to our guests. You can’t be a ho-hum personality.” 

The Rewards of Spa Work

Since 1999, Peter Vasilis has been the fitness director at Cuisinart Resort & Spa on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. He is responsible for the fitness center, teaches classes and offers personal training to spa guests. “Doing something that I love and am passionate about makes going to work each day a pleasure,” he says. “One of the main advantages of working at the resort in Anguilla is the beautiful surroundings and the ability to offer outdoor classes year-round. The guests love the outdoor exercise pavilion, where most of the classes are held, and the ability to walk or run on the beach is definitely more motivational than training inside on a cardio machine!”

Ross agrees that the spa setting is high on the list of pluses. “The spa environment is extraordinary to work in. You’re surrounded by great visual beauty every day. I take my clients out to the park overlooking the ocean, and it just doesn’t compare to working in the depths of a gym somewhere.”

“You meet very interesting people, too,” adds Martin. “You may stay in touch with guests for a long time. Tamilee Webb is an example of an amazing success who began her career at our spa.” Ross points out that celebrity trainer and best-selling author Bob Greene was working at a spa when he met his most famous client, Oprah Winfrey.

Since spas are generally known for providing high-quality services, landing a spa position can also be a boost for career-building. “One of the best things about working for a spa is that it looks great on your resumé,” says Ross. “Having worked at a spa can help you stand out among the stiff competition in the fitness industry.”

What about pay and benefits? According to Margaret Dyekman, WageWatch president and chief operating officer, the WageWatch 2007 Spa Industry Survey found that fitness instructors at destination, resort or hotel spas in the United States are likely to receive an average hourly wage of $10.50. However, the survey also stated that “it is not unusual for instructors to average $30 or more per hour with base pay and/or fee for service.” WageWatch offers online industry wage, salary and benefits survey data to companies in the spa, hotel, gaming, healthcare and senior living industries.

At management levels, Hutchinson offers these general salary ranges: $45,000–$75,000 for a fitness manager at a fairly large venue; $50,000–$65,000 for a manager of spa operations; $60,000–$100,000 for a spa director who is accountable to the property’s general manager; and $130,000–$200,000 for a corporate spa director with three or more facilities. Additional bonuses can range from 10% to 25% of salary.

Depending on the size of the spa, says Hutchinson, benefits can include medical, dental, life and vision insurance plans; relocation assistance; 401k plans; paid vacation and sick time; and discounts or complementary services, such as a free meal a day, paid industry conference registrations or reduced rates at other properties owned by the same company. Bonus plans are common, typically based on group or corporate goals, such as revenues or guest satisfaction levels.

Most spa experts agree that compensation should not be a primary reason to pursue a spa career. “We look for people who want to be in spas for the right reasons,” says Martin. “You may want to hone your skills and have a lot of variety. You need to want to help others. You have to be willing to come in and work as a team player. This isn’t a good fit for someone who is primarily money-driven.”

Says Kohl, “If you have a passion for helping others, you will reap the benefits of their success and your own. If you don’t have that, it will be hard. You [have] the chance to help people find [a] moment of relaxation or rejuvenation, and you have to be prepared to deliver that every moment of the day.”

It also helps if you see yourself as an important part of the spa’s mission. “Spas offer a wealth of insight as healing centers on the planet,” says Biscontini. “Fitness professionals are a good match when they see themselves as part of that chain.”

For the right person, spas can offer a unique and long-lasting career. “Most of our fitness staff have been here 5–25 years,” says Martin. “As people age, they find new skills and interests to offer to guests. People who work here really evolve. The guests may come and go, but you’re here, and it becomes more than a job. It’s a wellness lifestyle—a whole way of life.

SIDEBAR: Tips for Spa Career Success

Spa experts we interviewed for this article offered these ideas for successfully securing a spa position:

  • Do a self-inventory. Are you enough of a team player to work at a spa? Are you prepared to follow the rules of the spa and fit into its culture? Are you strong at customer service?
  • Approach human resources rather than going to the spa director. (If you have a good relationship with someone at the spa, this person may be your introduction.)
  • Apply even if there are no current openings, and keep trying; spas typically have a lot of turnover.
  • Don’t be afraid to take an offer into a different position to get your foot in the door.
  • Get a mentor in the spa industry, someone who knows you well and understands the spa world.
  • Identify your dream job and work backward from there, figuring out the steps you need to take.
  • Get to know people in spas; relationships are important in this industry.
  • Consider ISPA’s certified spa supervisor course, and check out colleges that offer spa management courses.
  • See www.spa-addicts.com and www.spafinder.com for job openings.
  • Make sure that your personal values align with the mission of the spa.
  • Attend the ISPA conference, and don’t miss the job boards.

SIDEBAR: Mind, Body and Spirit Programs Offered.

SIDEBAR: Fitness or Sports Services Offered

SIDEBAR: The Guest Is Always Right

The luxury environment of many spas demands a unique set of working skills for which fitness professionals are not always prepared. Stephen Lambert, director of guest service training at Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah, provides ongoing customer service training for every single team member at the spa.

“People go through a lot of challenges when they get into a luxury hospitality environment,” he says. “They have to learn that guests are always right, even when they’re dead wrong. Some people have a hard time getting that. We had one staff member who didn’t want to give a guest something because it wouldn’t be fair unless you gave it to all the guests. Things don’t work that way here. We provide customized happiness on an individual level. Here’s another example: a guest wanted to return an $80 shirt to our retail store that he had bought a year ago at another store. Of course we did it, because it’s not about the $80 shirt. It’s about the $3,000 experience that the guest is having.”

Lambert tells the story of a guest who came to the spa expecting a fitness class that wasn’t offered and had never been listed on the spa’s schedule. “We found an instructor to come in and offer the class at no charge, because it’s not about who’s right or wrong. It’s not about policy. It’s about making the guest happy.”

Flexibility, empathy and caring are indispensable if you’re going to work at a spa, says Lambert. “We hire for personality and train for skill. We look for people who can create magical moments for guests. You have to be someone with what I call a built-in applause system. If you feel great because you just made someone’s experience special, that’s what’s going to keep you in this industry. If you don’t have that, this is too difficult of an industry to stick around in.”

SIDEBAR: Spas May Not Be For You If . . . 

A spa career can be a terrible fit if you’re not prepared for its unique demands. Here are some reasons that might mean you are not cut out for the spa life:

  • You Need Big Classes to Motivate You. Spas typically offer “bigger” attention to smaller classes.
  • You Want to See Long-Term Results in Your Clients. You will see clients for only brief periods of time, so you typically won’t get the satisfaction of seeing them make lasting changes.
  • You Like to Run the Show. Spas are team-oriented and require a cooperative attitude.
  • You Like to Hold Back a Little. In spas, you must fully commit to the mission of the place, to its culture and to the team. Indifference won’t work.
  • You Don’t Really Know If You Like Spas. You may have to live at the spa location, spending your leisure time there as well as your work hours. The novelty of an exotic resort eventually wears off. You might also need to adapt to a foreign culture.
  • You Like to Keep Your Weekends Free. Spas serve guests around the clock. Nine-to-fivers need not apply.
  • You Are Short on Patience. Without patience for a wide variety of people, your spa career will be short-lived.

SIDEBAR: Educational Programs and Workshops Offered

Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

For the latest research, statistics, sample classes, and more, "Like" IDEA on Facebook here.

Mary Monroe

IDEA Author/Presenter
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.
July 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Get the award-winning IDEA Fitness Journal delivered to your door every month!

Get IDEA Fitness Journal

Article Comments

Add Comment

7 + 1 =
Cancel
View all questions