GSWS Weekender 30: Do you think our industry should get rid of the word “spa”?

Posted on Saturday, October 6th, 2012, by Dulcy Gregory | Leave a Comment

Would you get rid of the word “spa”?

Yes, you heard us right. Think about it. Getting rid of the word spa. Good idea? Bad idea?

This simple yet disruptive idea came straight from the mouth of 2012 Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS) keynote speaker, Peter Rummell, former head of Disney Imagineering.

Peter was part of a Tuesday afternoon panel, along with GSWS board member, Philippe Bourguignon, and fellow keynote speaker, John Kao, titled “Imagining the Healthy Town of the  Future.” And the conversation went a bit like this (taken directly from the session transcription)

MR. RUMMELL: If I were the king of your world, the first thing I would do would be get rid of the word “spa.”

I had this conversation with some people who were more worldly and smarter than I am yesterday, and they reminded me that my reaction was an American reaction and that may well be true, but the word “spa,” at least here in the United States, has a connotation to it which is just deadly, compared to the openness and the broader thinking that I have heard in these rooms for the last two days. So I think there is some fundamental redefinition that needs to happen, and it is as simple as branding.

FEMALE VOICE: What is the deadly definition, in your opinion?

MR. RUMMELL: The deadly definition of, “spa”? Is that it is for rich, white women. Well, you asked me.

Well, there you have it. And while Rummell may be right in saying that the reaction is that of an American, it is a reaction nonetheless.

One of the things that didn’t go on the record, which we learned later, was that some of the 2013 GSWS keynote speakers—Peter Rummell, Jose Maria (former president of Costa Rica) and innovation expert John Kao—all agreed that, before attending the Summit, they had no idea the spa and wellness industry was truly this important and significant.

Serving up a good ol’ dose of controversy might be exactly what we need to get innovative and move our industry forward. And that first step might be to take a good hard look at S-P-A.

So, do you think our industry should get rid of the word “spa”? Let us know. And feel free to elaborate, expand or go off on a tangent. Get controversial if you will. You’ve gotta admit, it’s kinda fun.

Happy Weekend,
The GSWS Team


56 thoughts on “GSWS Weekender 30: Do you think our industry should get rid of the word “spa”?”.

  1. Micahel Bruggeman

    I love how this topic has spurred energetic conversation. That means there is potential for true reinvention. I believe whether or not the word spa has relevance and defines an industry depends on the corner of the world in which you live. In many parts of the world, the origins, definition and purpose holds true today. In North America and specifically the US, I would agree with many that the word has become diluted. In the purest sense of the definition, the vast majority of “spas” have no relationship to pure water and it’s healing properties.h

    I agree with Diana that the word wellness has also fallen victim to the same phenomenon.

    Where I think the word spa limits the US industry is both in perception, for all the reasons stated, and it reality.

    I look at at spa through a man’s eyes and it is rare that I truly feel comfortable and/or welcomed in spa. I don’t mean by a staff of gracious professionals and a plush environment, but rather by the menu, the design, the treatment options…

    Somewhere along the evolutionary path, spa has become predominantly female focused. I thing in the US, in particular, we unknowingly marginalize a segment with true buying power and interest. It is out duty to help men understand the importance of our various modalities on their health and well being. Helping them make the connection between how our services translate into success and results in life is the next frontier and an entirely new revenue stream.

  2. Pam Price

    This batte of words reminds me of the Presidential Debates (emotional, opinionated, hostile, confused, lack of fact checking).

    The “SPA” word has morphed into the category of contentious. Historically the word spa orignated from an abbreviation (rooted in the words health from water). I think if you confine the official definition to this it should spark such hostile debate. And that is one of the issues emanating from the overuse of the word spa, it has become far too commercialized.

  3. Geeta Morar

    Simplicity and intuition if understood right are roads to success.
    When I started my first spa in India seven years back,I had an intuition to be in India to create benchmarks in the industry. It has been the longest path and many times very disheartening but there was this inner voice telling me to be persistent when I had decided to come back home to the US. I stayed and pursued.
    It sure has paid me well.
    Simplicity is truly the ultimate sophistication. Simple means ergonomic, clean, easily understandable and very Zen. Peaceful and serene with no clutter means well paced growth.
    We have established our spa menu with ease of reading for the guest with few but efficacious services offered and the decor simple and clean.

    This has brought many discerning guests who know simplicity is manageable and they know what they want with an understanding and knowledge of each treatment on the menu.

    Empowering the Self….
    Geeta Morar CEO


  4. Steve Capellini

    Should we get rid of the word spa? Absolutely not.

    And besides, we can’t.

    We can no more get rid of the word spa than we can get rid of the word “asparagus.” It’s part of the vernacular. What Mr. Rummell said is true; these businesses we call spas are indeed positioned as a product for rich white women. The problem is that even though we in the spa industry spend a lot of time and research money trying to prove otherwise, we actually want it this way. In some deep, dark corner of our minds, we like being exclusive. I spoke to this issue in my book, Touchy Subjects. “It’s no accident that the most successful spa chain, with hundreds of locations in the U.S. and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, is called Massage Envy. The founder of this company had a good grasp of middle class consumers’ aspirational mentality. Massages there, at $49 for an introductory session and $59 a pop month-to-month, are almost cheap, but not quite. They still have an aura of something to be envied, and as the middle classes struggle mightily to keep from falling into the lower classes during tough economic times, they find that getting massages is a way to reassure themselves that they’re not poor, at least not yet, because poor people, as a general rule, don’t get massages. What these consumers most likely don’t know is that the founder of Massage Envy sold the company, and it’s now owned by the same group that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Church’s Fried Chicken. Massages in this setting are basically a form of fast-food packaged to look like the luxurious offerings at the St. Regis and Mandarin Oriental.”

    So, even when the spa industry tries to offer value, it still plays the exclusivity card. Mr. Rummell knew what he was talking about. As the former head of Disney Imagineering, he has spent a great deal of time creating unreal experiences for vast numbers of people. That’s what people pay for when they go to Disney—to escape reality, not embrace it. And if he’s suggesting something similar here—that by branding the industry differently and calling spas by another name, we can offer vast numbers of people yet another way to escape reality—then I would suggest this is not what we as an industry actually want. Even though at times we may profess a desire to attract a wider, more inclusive audience, we don’t, in our hearts, want people to approach spas like they approach Disney World—as an escape from reality. For us, spas are not an escape from reality; they are reality. Those of us in the industry know that lots of healthy human contact and a wellness lifestyle are optimal for everyone, yet when we present our product to the public, we continue to brand ourselves with yet another advertising campaign or product launch or press release touting our spas as “exclusive” or “the ultimate in luxury” for “a very select few.”

    If we limit our definition of “spa” to what we see represented at the big trade shows, we will most likely end up with a vision of our own industry that is skewed toward the upper classes. That’s ok, if that’s what we want. But don’t we want something more? Isn’t that why we ask someone like Mr. Rummell to analyze our industry in the first place?

    Our problem may be that we’re afraid of our own humble roots. My own role of massage therapist, for example, has been historically played by slaves, dating from the Roman Empire until the present day. Even as you read this, human traffickers are snatching young women from their homelands and ensnaring them in “spas” all around the world. We may try to distance ourselves from this seedy underbelly of our industry, making absolutely sure the public knows that we and our establishments are legitimate, but that won’t make it go away. And it is this distancing that is part of the problem. If we are really serious about change, we should not bother getting rid of the word spa. Rather, we should begin by admitting what the word has come to mean. We should fight against human trafficking in a strong and vocal way. We as an industry can and should do much more on this issue because, in a certain sense, these women are our spa sisters and our spa daughters. To deny the reality of their situation is to deny a part of our own reality, and this denial makes our problem worse. People perceive spas as unreal, as places where unrealistically beautiful (and rich) white women go to have unrealistically expensive experiences that, in the end, are absolutely unnecessary. We brand ourselves that way. Like Gucci purses, spas are status symbols, and the masses envy people who get massages. This, again, is similar to what the imagineers at Disney World do, as I mention in my book: “Modern spas, with their hushed tones, marble hallways and heavenly music playing, can sometimes become a little like Disney themselves, touted as ‘escapes’ from reality, just like the Magic Kingdom. I dislike this about spas, and that’s why I prefer to receive massages lying on a mattress on the floor of a little storefront in Thailand with roosters crowing and traffic passing by and children crying in the background. This is what massage used to be like in ancient times and still is in much of the world today—integrated into daily life. It’s only recently that massage and spas, in certain places, have undergone Disneyfication and become more like Fantasyland than reality.”

    We don’t need to get rid of the word spa but rather embrace everything that the word spa represents. In my experience, “spa” can also represent something truly sublime. For the past two years I have been working with a friend and colleague in Kathmandu, Nepal. When Rob Buckley was a Peace Corps volunteer in that country, he was amazed how little was being done for the “untouchables,” those people on the lowest rungs of the persistent caste system that has kept hundreds of millions locked in poverty and disgrace for generations. After the Peace Corp, Rob came home to the US to study massage therapy, and when it came time to chose his career path, he knew what he had to do. Returning to Nepal on his own, he opened the first massage school in that country, calling it Himalayan Healers. In this school, for the past eight years, he has trained over a hundred “untouchables” to become massage therapists. He guarantees each one of them a job after graduation in one of several spas he has opened in hotels and trekking lodges. These spas are not fancy. Entering one, you would not get the impression they were designed exclusively for “rich white women.” They are clean and humble, and they hum with the vibrations of a place where something special is going on. I call it love.

    Enter a Himalayan Healers spa, and you’d never know that the proud, smiling person giving you your treatment was raped and left for dead in the jungle, or abandoned by her family, or widowed in a civil war. Rob Buckley’s program helps these people overcome past traumas and the prejudices of an entire culture. One by one, they learn to trust again. They learn that their touch is not dirty. They learn that they themselves are not “untouchable.” The international visitors and upper class Nepalis they come into contact with in their new positions do not share the same prejudices that have kept them ensnared in the caste system. Working in these spas, they make ten times the salary they could otherwise, up to three hundred dollars a month. Himalayan Healers has been named humanitarian spa of the year by Asia Spa magazine.

    Rob Buckley continues to struggle. He has received death threats. Corrupt organizations have set up rival “massage schools” that were nothing more than fronts to siphon money from government coffers. But day after day, Rob carries on. I’ve visited his operation twice and witnessed what he’s been doing. I’ve talked to the people whose lives he’s changed. I’ve helped him raise funds to keep going.

    When you step foot inside a Himalayan Healers spa, something begins to vibrate in your heart. It’s just a tiny drop in the bucket in a vast sea of human suffering, but that tiny drop fills you up. “This,” you say to yourself, “is what spas can be.”

    By embracing all that the word spa can mean–by fighting human trafficking in our industry, by championing the humble mom-and-pop storefront spas around the world where people proudly offer their touch and their love, by supporting the efforts of people like Rob Buckley who literally change lives through their missions in the spa industry, and yes, by enjoying the luxurious experience of a Five-Star spa now and again (perhaps funneling a tiny percentage of the money spent there to help others like Rob doing great things in our industry), then we’d have a word to be proud of, a word that people could sink their teeth into, to believe in.

    Isn’t that what we want from the word “spa”? To believe in it? Be proud of it? To not squirm ever so slightly in our seats when the word is mentioned? Well, then, we have some work to do. And it just may be the most satisfying work yet.

    Steve Capellini is a spa trainer and author of The Royal Treatment; Massage for Dummies; Massage Career Guide; The Complete Spa Book for Massage Therapists; and Touchy Subjects

  5. Jeremy McCarthy

    I’m not in favor of eliminating the word spa. Nor would I turn a blind eye to how the meaning and perceptions of this word are changing over time (and one might even say that these changes are accelerating.) I may be in the minority here but I applaud GSWS for including someone like Peter Rummell on the agenda to give us some outside perspective, challenge our assumptions about what our industry stands for, and stimulate some incredibly interesting and insightful dialogue about what we, as an industry, hold most dear. I would suggest bringing some of the voices above together at the next GSWS to really dig in to the culture and philosophy behind the meaning of “spa.” And I would even invite Peter Rummell to bring a critical eye and remind us that the passionate aspirations we all share at the apex of this industry do not always reflect how our industry is represented in the real world.

  6. Pingback: Revisando El Concepto de Spa | Spa Balance

  7. Susie

    Peter Rummell, Philippe Bourguignon and John Kao,

    Hope each of you are well. Thought I would share a bit of “follow-up” from our Aspen Summit (that did, by the way, get rave reviews thanks to all of you!)

    Each week we send out a newsletter called the Global Spa and Wellness Summit Weekender and in it we have been discussing innovation and imagination – the them of our 2012 Summit. This was in effort to help people prepare for the Summit and then also as a vehicle to share the various presentations (all of yours included) and encourage an engaging conversation between delegates – and non-delegates – after the Summit.

    One of the liveliest conversations resulted from a recent GSWS Weekender we sent out referencing the “Imagining the Healthy Town of the Future” session. As you will see from the link…we used your comment, Peter, about getting rid of the word ‘spa’ as the topic, and the comments have been flooding in. So far about 46 people have commented and I expect more will follow.

    It’s also heartening to see that the topic of innovation is becoming much more visible in our industry with the recent ISPA conference here in the US having added a session on the topic, and another spa event in Asia highlighting innovation in their theme. In addition, we will be recognizing some innovative ideas for our industry at our next Summit in India next year. I do believe you definitely got the ball rolling and that is a very good thing.

    Many thanks again for making our Aspen event so memorable…and hope you enjoy the somewhat “heated” discussion that ensued since your panel.

    Very best,

  8. Peter Rummell

    Susie- This is great-thanks for forwarding.

    My favorite comment was; “Get rid of those three white male knuckleheads…why were there no women on the stage”

    Not unexpectedly, the opinions are all over the place, so I would say that is good.

    Means we hit on an interesting topic.

    My sense is many agree but nobody knows what the new term would be- that would be an interesting exercise.

    I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but can anyone think of an example of an industry that has re-branded itself- might be some lessons- good or bad- to be learned from what others have done. Always my first instinct- never invent when you can steal!!

    Peter Rummell

  9. Susie Ellis

    Article taken from Jeremy McCarthy’s blog. Link to The Promise of Spa article:

    This week, Intelligent Life magazine posted an article on their blog refuting the benefits of spas. Spas often take a bad rap as being a superficial luxury indulgence (“dedicated to narcissism” the Intelligent Life article says.)

    The article describes spas as “a mish-mash of promises” using a hodge-podge of modern technologies alongside ancient healing remedies to promise everything from better health and beauty to psychological wellbeing.

    On one level, spas deserve some of this criticism. Many spas do overpromise in their marketing materials, promising unproven or untested benefits. ”Anti-aging” for example, which is much easier said than done, is a common theme in the industry.

    The spa industry also suffers from the problem that the word “spa” has been used ubiquitously and imprecisely, and often describes facilities that are not really offering wellness, but focus more on superficial beauty treatments.

    Many people, for example, are not aware of the truly healing and life enriching experiences that are available at destination spas. And people do not realize that the name “medical spa”, which is now more commonly used to label beauty spas where botox injections and laser hair removal services are performed, was once used to describe wellness spas, where a physician supervised true medicinal treatments and healing programs.

    The good news is, these healing spas do still exist, and the spa industry is filled with passionate individuals who are committed to improving their clients’ well-being across mind, body and spirit. So the question is . . . how do we go from the common perceptions of spa (sometimes accurate and sometimes not) to the promise of what a spa experience can really be? How can spas change the way we think about modern healing?

    I look to spas with an incredible sense of reverence. Spas are different from other healing institutions in our society, and fill in some important gaps in the way we look at human wellness. I think the following principles describe a promise of spa that could change the way we look at healing in our society:

    1. Healing is holistic. Unlike modern physical medicine which seems to view the body as a machine, spas understand that true wellness is achieved by treating people holistically across mind, body and spirit.

    2. Prevention is the cure. While modern medical systems seem to be content to wait for people to become ill and then figure out what drug, surgery or procedure can be used to fix them, spas promote a healthy lifestyle encouraging healthy eating, exercise and mind-body practices that prevent illness in the first place.

    3. We can heal ourselves. Most of medicine for most of human history could be boiled down to the placebo effect, a.k.a. self-healing. Indigenous or shamanic rituals were used (effectively in many cases) to aid people in healing themselves without the aid of scientifically proven, technologically advanced or pharmaceutically induced interventions. Spas still pay homage to the importance of ritual, alternative healing methods, and encouraging self-healing.

    4. Healing should feel good. I find it interesting that we dread going to most of the healing institutions in our society. Doctors, hospitals and clinics are all designed to make us feel better and yet we detest going to them. The spa may be the only healing institution in modern society that we actually look forward to visiting. I believe the way a healing intervention is delivered has an effect on the outcome, and spas have figured out how to deliver their treatments in an enjoyable way.

    5. Healing is not only high tech, it’s high touch. It’s not only about the next piece of new technology or pharmaceutical innovation. Sometimes people just need to be heard and sometimes people just need to be touched.

    Given the diversity and fragmentation of the spa industry, it is natural for consumers to be somewhat confused. Do spas today offer healing and transformation or pampering and beauty? They offer both. But the promise of spa is a new way of looking at healing that considers the whole person, focuses on prevention and taps into our own abilities to heal ourselves.

    References and recommended reading:

    Browse research on the science behind spa offerings at

    I will be donating 100% of the revenues from pdf e-book purchases this month to recovery efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy. See The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing. Link to my blog:

    by Jeremy McCarthy

  10. Denise Gagnon

    yes – considering it myself. will the word wellness be the replacement or is there another word in consideration?

    Thank you and have a wonderful day,

    Denise Gagnon
    Natural Health Practitioner
    SPA Essentials Health & Wellness Centre

  11. Susie Ellis

    I had to laugh..for one thing, I totally agree with you. For another – I have never seen you write anything so short! We will post and am planning on writing my thoughts on this topic at some point for that blog post however just haven’t had time yet.

    All the best for the holidays!

  12. Terry Herman

    It’s unfortunate that sexism and racism have entered the discussion because doing so demeans and slanders. Any word used to replace the current term would only further confuse and mislead the uniformed and those who prefer not to become informed. Even the term wellness doesn’t have universality in purpose or understanding.

  13. Terry Maindonald

    Hi there,
    I own a Spa in Coquitlam B.C.
    It has a salon for hair, three esthetics rooms
    & a massage & body work room.
    Also a nail salon in the front & five tanning rooms.
    What would you call that…not a convienience store or a grocery
    store or a drug store,but all of the above have a wide variety of services & products.
    Spa couldnt be a better word…so it sounds like a big treat…well in most cases it really is.Perfect idea for a birthday or valentines …etc. gift from your honey.
    A Spa package of pampering anyone would be thrilled to get as a gift.
    Especially in this abraisive world.Please dont rob us of a little pleasure.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>