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The golf course is not the only place to do business in a casual setting. The new spot to network with colleagues and clients is the hotel spa.
According to the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, 39 percent of the high-end hotels being planned in the United States will include spas, more than double the number five years ago. The increase is partly a result of demand from business customers, according to the firm.
For a growing number of companies, the spa is the novel choice for corporate outings. During annual sales meetings at the camera company Canon, participants wrap up several days of number-crunching and strategy brainstorming with a choice of either a golf outing or time at the spa. Over the years, the spa option has grown more popular, said Terry Markwart, a sales director for Canon.
“Golf isn’t relaxing,” he said. “It’s very competitive, and you have to get up early in the morning. It adds more to the stress.” A trip to the spa at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco two years ago gave Markwart the chance to get the kinks out of his back as well as hash out advertising strategies with colleagues.
“It’s a good chance to network and talk in a relaxed atmosphere,” he said.
Hotels say the demand for spa time among groups of business travelers is at an all-time high. “We’ve actually moved toward adding spas in virtually every one of our properties because spa usage is growing at a very rapid pace,” said Eric Terry, vice president for sales and marketing at Benchmark Hospitality International, which operates more than a dozen hotels and conference centers.
For many meeting planners, the lack of an on-site spa can be as much of a deal breaker as the lack of high-speed Internet access.
For their part, spa operators say they are finding a new customer base to try their services.
“The kind of clients we’re seeing are generally financial companies, law firms, people who would potentially be Bliss customers,” said Robyn Fishelson, brand manager for Bliss Spas, a company that has outlets in half a dozen W Hotels. Hotels also eagerly court potential spa clients because they help fill their rooms during low season.
Hospitality industry professionals say a major reason behind the growing popularity of spa networking is that the experience is no longer perceived solely as a pastime for the ladies-who-lunch set.
“There was a time when the word spa conjured up an image of facial masks and pedicures, but now I think that gender gap has been erased,” said Neil Pompan, president of the International Association of Conference Centers.
Terry Blumenstein, an independent meeting planner who helps companies plan sales conferences, said he had seen a similar shift among his clients.
“There’s definitely a change of more men not golfing and doing more spas instead,” he said.
Growing workplace stress and hectic schedules also make the promise of softly lit, aromatherapy-infused sanctuaries of calm all the more appealing. “After being in meetings for three or four days, people just want to relax,” Blumenstein said.
Anecdotally, hotel managers also say they are noticing increased interest in spas among business travelers.
“It used to be that golf was huge. Now our golf and spa revenues are competing with each other,” said Terry Bechtold, resort manager at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Florida. He said the Diplomat’s 30,000-square-foot, or 2,800-square-meter, spa was sometimes taken over by corporate groups wanting to combine debriefing with destressing.
This year, Laura Thieme, president of the search engine marketing company Bizresearch, started a conference series called Search N Spa that combines technology education sessions with spa activities.
“I saw a need for high-level execs that really want to get more attention. It’s been an extreme hit,” she said. The two events she has held sold out quickly, and she is planning more.
Mark Gerardot, an owner of a Web site design company, said he welcomed the chance to hit the spa during participation in Bizresearch’s Search N Spa conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan, in August.
“It’s a very concentrated slice of information you have to digest. The spa part of it allows you to relax,” Gerardot said. It also allowed him to ask Thieme questions about the subject matter in an informal setting, he added.
Just as the golf course demands knowledge of certain etiquette and customs, spas have their own codes of conduct and the potential for faux pas.