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Soft-Price Pampering: Spas Reflect the Economy
Spas have been working hard over the past few years to market themselves as a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle, not an indulgence. But now that consumers are feeling anxious about paying for even more basic needs – like gas, house payments and butter – some spas are responding with a different strategy to appeal to stressed-out, maxed-out customers: discounts.
“We kind of looked at this recession we’re in and said, look, for the next few months, or until this recession can somehow be evaded, let’s cut our core program price in half,” said Alan Coombs, owner of the Green Valley Spa in St. George, Utah.
A recent headline on the spa’s Web site read, “RECE$$ION DEPRESSION?” and Mr. Coombs said he has had a great response to the offer: $248 a night per person for the All About Fitness program, which includes lodging, meals, fitness classes and daily hikes in the nearby canyons and desert. (Weekend rates and spa treatments are extra.)
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“Even in recessions or difficult times, spas are busy because people need what we have to offer,” Mr. Coombs said, an observation few people suffering from economically induced tension would challenge.
Whether the most anxious consumers can spring for a relaxing massage is another matter, but a growing number of spas are offering deals to attract customers during tighter times, a trend that may have as much to do with technology as with the economy.
Following the example of airlines and hotels, which have long relied on technology to adjust their prices based on changing supply and demand (a practice called “revenue management”), more spas are using this strategy to beef up their bookings during slow times. For the most part, these deals involve midweek and off-season discounts, last-minute specials and packages that are cheaper than booking several services à la carte.
While destination spas have traditionally offered lower room rates Sunday through Thursday or during their low seasons, like summer in a hot climate, these types of discounts are now spreading to treatment prices as well.
For instance, the Oasis Day Spa in New York City has been running a Two for Tuesday special for the past two years. Customers who book two 60-minute treatments on a Tuesday, usually a slow day, get the second one for half price. This year, the spa is also doing a Wednesday promotion with selected massages and facials priced at 1998 levels.
“We’ve always run specials, but more so now,” said Niki Tortoreti, Oasis Day Spa’s marketing director, noting that Tuesday and Wednesday are now just as busy as Saturday.
That’s not marketing hype. I recently took advantage of the Wednesday special to get a 60-minute Swedish massage for just $70. It was a great deal (the regular price is $110) and a great massage, but the relaxation area felt like the waiting room at a crowded doctor’s office, with a dozen people in bathrobes listening for a therapist to pop in and call their name.
Sometimes, these midweek discounts are small, like the $15 you can save on a 50-minute massage at the spa at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City ($195 Monday through Thursday).
But when these deals include lodging, the savings can be substantial. Summer rates at the Miraval resort in Tucson, AZ., are about $200 less than during peak season (about $600 a night, including meals, programs and a $125 spa credit). And when customers bring a friend between June 16 and Sept. 22, they both can save an additional 20 percent off that rate.
One of the best current midweek deals is at the Equinox Resort in Manchester Village, Vt. Through May 22, their Cloud 999 special costs $999 and includes three nights of lodging for two people, plus a $999 credit toward spa treatments. (This package is only valid for Sunday through Tuesday arrivals.)
There are some tradeoffs with these off-peak specials, like less appealing weather outside the temperature-controlled treatment rooms, or sometimes eerily empty grounds.
For instance, I stayed at the Ojai Valley Inn and Resort on the Thursday after Labor Day last September and did not encounter another soul while using the steam room, Jacuzzi and lounge before my massage. At first I felt giddy having the whole place to myself, but by the next morning at the pool, my friend and I were a bit bored by the sparse selection of people to watch. (Yet we only paid $274 for the night, versus the typical weekend rate starting at $400.)
Rather than letting rooms remain empty and appointment calendars half-full, some spas are running last-minute specials, usually promoted online or via e-mail newsletters. For instance, the Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah, publishes Last Minute Hot Deals on its Web site, highlighting dates these deals are available during the coming month.
A recent offer included lodging, meals, guided hikes, fitness and nutrition classes and use of the resort facilities for $269 a person per night (with a two-night minimum). Most of the March and April dates that qualified for this offer were weekdays, but Easter weekend was also an option.
Spas are even posting deals on-site to fill empty time slots, rather than letting staff they are already paying for the day sit idle.
The Norwich Inn in Connecticut, have what they call ‘blackboard specials, and we’re going to see a lot more of those.
As it turns out, these deals are actually printed on a sheet of paper that is displayed at the spa’s reception desk, not written on a blackboard, and they’re usually only available Tuesday through Thursday, since the spa is typically booked on weekends.
The goal is to entice guests who have already booked one treatment to add an extra service for a discounted price, 10 to 35 percent off the regular rate.
“It helps us be able to book our therapists when it’s quiet, and secondly, it allows the guests themselves to try something they may not have normally tried,” said Betty Loiacono, the spa’s director. “And that turns into a win-win situation for everyone.”
Although Ms. Loiacono mentioned the industry’s traditional aversion to the word “discount,” she described herself as a big believer in revenue management, and is even looking into buying software that would allow the spa to charge different prices for treatments based on the time of day.
“With any business, you’re going to have peak times and slower times,” she said. “And if it’s tied to the economy, you need to recognize that as well.”
If your tastes run toward pampering spa surroundings, but your budget doesn’t, there are other ways to economize besides taking time off midweek to snare an off-peak discount.
One option is to visit a hotel or resort’s fancy spa just for the day.
“At most resort and hotel spas, even with just the cost of one treatment you can stay in the spa and relaxation area pretty much the whole day,” said Julie Sinclair, editor in chief of Spa magazine. “You book the treatment for 2 o’clock and you show up at 10.”
I used that strategy to visit the spa at the Breakers Hotel and Resort in Palm Beach, FL., in March. If you book at least a 50-minute treatment, you can also use the outdoor lap pool and Jacuzzi (both of which overlook the beach), join a yoga class in the courtyard, and use the steam room and sauna.
The indoor facilities were disappointing: a steam room that resembled the one at my gym and a surprisingly grim relaxation area with curtains that blocked the ocean view. I also had to ask to use the outdoor pool area, which was the only justification for paying $195 for a 50-minute massage (itself rather mediocre). But that price also included valet parking, normally $30, and the chance to wander the grounds of the historic hotel.
At the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, AZ., you do not even have to book a treatment to use the spa’s pools, Jacuzzis, steam rooms, saunas and fitness center; hotel guests can buy a day pass for $20 ($35 for nonguests).
Another tip is to ask for a discount if you are traveling with a group, even if it is just a few friends.
Many other deals are designed for just two people, like the package offered by the Cal-a-Vie spa in Vista, CA., where the second person gets half off the normal weekly rate of $7,395 during certain weeks. (O.K., so that’s not exactly cheap, but even wealthy spa-goers like to save.)
There are also a handful of spas that frequently show up on lists of affordable retreats, like the Oaks at Ojai in Ojai, CA.; the Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah; the New Age Health Spa in Neversink, N.Y.; Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe, N.M.; and Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, which claims it was “the world’s first destination spa.”
For that price, you generally get a lower staff-to-guest ratio and less luxurious accommodations, which aren’t necessarily as important for this type of vacation.
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