In late November, a couple of months after the global financial crisis leaped to the top of news reports, spa lovers browsing were showing new interest in a concept fit for jittery times. Along with the usual search terms, like “day spas” and “massage,” a newly prominent word was typed into the site’s search engine three times more often than it had been in the summer. That word was “stress.”
When the economy was good, taking a spa vacation was largely about pampering yourself. It didn’t matter that the afterglow of that $165 carrot-and-sesame body buff lasted only until your next shower. Now, with the sinking economy on most people’s minds, a trip to the spa has become something else — an investment of sorts, in well-being.
People are “giving up the fluffy gold and caviar facials,” Ms. Ellis said in an e-mail message, “but honing in on core stress busters like therapeutic massage, etc. Especially if the price is right.”
Yoga class attendance is up at the Emerson Resort and Spa in Mount Tremper, N.Y., for example, while pricey treatments like the $185 Abhyanga Scrub and Soak are down. And more guests are opting for the least expensive spa treatment — a 30-minute back, neck and shoulder massage for $55.
The shift in mood is not lost on spa owners, who have long been savvy marketers, convincing people of the purifying qualities of sweat lodges and persuading them that a nightingale cleansing mask, made from sanitized bird droppings, was truly worth $109.
Miraval, the spa resort company based in Tucson, Ariz., is offering a new De-Stress Me package designed for “these trying times,” according to Tracey Anne Latkovic, the vice president of sales and marketing. The Eldorado Hotel and Spa in Santa Fe, N.M., is running a Stress Bailout promotion to attract travelers looking “to escape the nonstop coverage of the economy,” according to a press release.
And under the usual New Agey marketing jargon that flashes across the sleek home page of Canyon Ranch, the destination spa company that was luring guests for body poundings and weight-loss regimens before the modern spa proliferation was a gleam in marketers’ eyes, there is a new message straight from its founders, Enid and Mel Zuckerman. “Has there ever been a time when you could have used an escape to Canyon Ranch more?” it reads, under the caption “The Vacation You Need” and a proverb about health, hope and happiness.
“No?” the pitch continues. “Then book your healthy, revitalizing getaway today and let us help you re-establish your balance. In times like these, nothing — nothing at all — is more important than taking care of yourself and on focusing on what really matters: Health, hope, love and a tranquil mind.”
During past economic downturns, Mr. Zuckerman said in an interview, business had been “very strong, because people need to get away to deal with stress, deal with fear, go to behaviorists, do life management, protect their health.” So far, Canyon Ranch’s revenues are “holding up very nicely” this time, too, he said, despite a dip in occupancy of about 10 percent in Tucson and Lenox in 2008. And the company opened a new luxury spa in Miami in December, just when the recession was proving itself entrenched.
Of course, a little financial incentive also helps. To battle the uncertain economy’s dampening effect on leisure spending, spas are marrying their new emphasis on stress relief with a flood of discounts and deals.
Rancho La Puerta, just over the California border in Tecate, Mexico, explains its decision to keep prices at 2008 levels — starting at $2,795 a person for seven nights, double occupancy — this way on its Web site: “We feel that in these tumultuous times a destination spa vacation is more important than ever.” It has also been running Bring a Friend weeks that allow a guest staying Feb. 21 to 28, for example, to double up and share $1,500 to $2,200 in savings.
Miraval’s Authentic Remedy package, which starts at $399 a person a night — more than 40 percent off regular rates — includes extras like organic wine tastings and cooking classes. Mii amo, at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., is holding rates at 2008 levels and offering a $740 discount on its seven-night themed journeys in February.
Not to be outdone, the Golden Door in Escondido, Calif., has rolled back weekly rates to 2007 levels of $7,750 a person through May 24, down from $8,275 originally planned for this year, and is offering special rates like $6,000 a person for Presidents’ Day week or a $500 saving if you bring a friend.
Even Canyon Ranch, which has never lowered its published rates — “I could never compromise our standards or cut our programs because we no longer could be who we are,” Mr. Zuckerman said — is tinkering with pricing.
Canyon Ranch in Tucson is offering credits of up to $350 for stays of at least four nights (which start at $3,770 a person, based on double occupancy) to out-of-towners, to help offset airfares. Its sister property in Lenox, Mass., has a fifth-night-free deal through April — in effect a discount of as much as $1,000 depending on accommodations and time of week — and is also offering 15 percent in savings when two guests who have never stayed at a Canyon Ranch resort share accommodations.
Last year, in New York, Ian Schrager, the trendsetting hotelier who is designing a new spa brand for Marriott, suggested another way spas could improve business — add spaces where spagoers can hang out.
“These are places where people can meet and socialize before or after spa treatments,” he said in a keynote address. “People feel good when they come out of the spa and spas can take advantage of that.”
Spa owners have no more insight than anyone else into how long tough economic times will last. “I have no idea whether we got another year or two or three years ahead of us,” Mr. Zuckerman said. But in the last few weeks, Canyon Ranch bookings have been picking up ever so slightly, he said, which he takes as “the message that people still want and need what we have to offer.”
For the nail-biting stress victim who still has enough money left to relax at a spa at all, this may not be entirely the worst of times.