By Katharine J. Crane
The Canyon Ranch health resort in Lenox, Mass., is used to special requests from guests supposedly visiting the spa to improve their diet and exercise habits. Spa staff have heard them all, from the most common—salt, butter, half-and-half for coffee— to the slightly more unusual —Frosted Flakes for breakfast every morning.
And then there is the one guest whose food habits during her biannual, four-day spa visits are unique: three cups of fresh berries for breakfast, followed by five pounds of grilled sea bass or shrimp for both lunch and dinner. Every day.
Canyon Ranch is one of 70 or so destination spas across the country catering to people who seek rest and relaxation in a healthful, and often luxurious, setting. The spas have become increasingly popular in recent years, from 2001 to 2003 the number of people visiting destination spas increased from 500,000 to 2.4 million.
The $399 million industry uses a mix of gentle persuasion and creature comforts to encourage visitors to establish diet and exercise patterns that will endure beyond their spa visit. But despite paying anywhere from $150 a night to several thousand dollars a week in pursuit of lifestyle change, the guests have certain habits, some of which are pretty hard to break. Even for a few days and even at a place ostensibly designed to do just that. So the resort spas accommodate their guests’ requests, knowing that on average 40 percent will return, if not to expunge that habit, then at least to tweak things at the margins.
“The spa’s goal is to help people make changes, but it doesn’t have to be overnight,” said Rich Belair, former director of human resources at Canyon Ranch, which operates another full-scale health resort in Tucson, Ariz., as well as three less formal “spa clubs” in Las Vegas, Kissimmee, Fla., and aboard the Queen Mary 2.
If guests request salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners like Sweet and Low, for example, the resort will provide them, Belair said. And while alcohol is not served at meals, Canyon Ranch guests are permitted to have it in their rooms, and staff will even deliver bottles of wine to guests upon request.
Accommodating special requests is part of the business, spa representatives and nutrition experts say, and part of recognizing that people can only tolerate so much change at once.
“You’re really talking about the area of medicine that is less of a science and more of an art,” said Dr. Mark Liponis, corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch. “Obviously, some people are at different stages of readiness to change,” he said, but most can manage only one change at a time—giving up soda, for example. So Canyon Ranch does not push its guests.
“It is not a jail here,” Liponis said. “If they want to go out to a bar, they can. If they want dessert, they can have it,” he said, pointing out that more restrictive spa programs often are self-defeating.
Industry experts agree.
“Restrictive diets don’t work,” said Michelle Kleist, executive director of the Destination Spa Group, which represents just over a third of the industry. “The whole purpose of a destination spa is education, so we’ll accommodate to a certain extent, but we also try to educate them,” she said. Kleist, a registered dietician who used to work at Birdwing Spa near Litchfield, Minn., said she received mostly health-related requests—vegetarians or people with food allergies asking for special meals, for example.
Overall, destination spas tend to receive more special requests than hotels or other vacation spots, Kleist added. “Generally, we attract people who are more careful about what they eat, and are maybe more particular,” she said.
Some are particular enough to sneak in items they fear the spa will not provide, Forte said, like six-packs of Diet Coke, salt shakers or flavored coffee creamers.
“They are afraid they won’t find it once they get here,” he explained. And indeed, some are shocked by what is not available.
“We constantly get bombarded with questions about why we don’t serve cappuccinos, espressos, lattes,” Forte said. “That’s part of their lifestyle, that’s part of what they’re used to.”
Other guests make sure they are well fed by ordering multiple entrees, said Danny Forte who worked as a demonstration chef at the Spa. He noted that the Canyon Ranch rate—which starts at $1,850 for a four-night stay—includes unlimited meals. Guests are encouraged to “try everything,” he said, though not necessarily in one sitting. Nonetheless, no-one is ever deprived of food, Forte said. What is stressed is “making them conscious of what they are doing.”
Despite health spas’ focus on nutrition, some of the people who visit the resorts each year insist on sticking to their own diet plans. Fads like the current low-carbohydrate diets are common, said Karen Dalury, general manager of New Life Hiking Spa in Killington, Vt. “You see it all,” Dalury said, recalling one woman who insisted on eating huge bowls of raw vegetables for every meal. “It not only was not a lot of fun for her, she wasn’t losing weight either,” Dalury said. “Really, a lot of what we do is sort out the myths” about nutrition, she said.
In the end, making one change that sticks is the aim of most destination spas, which accept that lasting change takes place gradually.
“Even if guests made some changes, they’d still need to come back,” Forte said, because there is always more they can do to improve their health. “First, it’s exercise, then diet. They keep coming back to make small changes until you’ve changed their lifestyles over a number of years,” he said.
And no doubt the incremental approach to lifestyle change helps to ensure the continued success of the industry, which thrives on repeat customers.