Although Canyon Ranch (multiple locations) began as the result of one man wanting to save his own life, it has gone on to save many more by giving spa-goers the tools they need to live healthier and happier lives. Founded by Mel Zuckerman and his wife, Enid, Canyon Ranch (Tucson, AZ) debuted in 1979 as a luxury destination spa dedicated to life enhancement. The idea originated from Zuckerman’s journey to live more healthfully. After his father’s death from inoperable lung cancer, Zuckerman had an “Aha!” moment in which he realized he needed to take control of his health before it was too late. Planning to stay only 10 days at The Oaks at Ojai (CA), he ended up staying a month. While there, he called Enid to ask her to join him, wanting to share the experience with her. Recalling her suggestion from years past to build a “fat farm,” the idea for Canyon Ranch began to take shape.
Encompassing 150 desert acres in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains, Canyon Ranch served as a major game changer for the industry. “We’ve always been 10 steps ahead of the market,” says Zuckerman. “We’re now four times the size as when we opened in terms of the number of people we can handle.” Aside from the Tucson location, the Canyon Ranch brand has also grown with an additional location opening in Lenox, MA, in 1989; Canyon Ranch Living debuting in Miami in 2008, although it’s no longer operated by the company; resort SpaClubs; SpaClubs at Sea on the Queen Mary 2, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises; and this year, there are plans to expand internationally. While such growth is not uncommon, what’s truly impressive is the fact that at any given time, more than 60 percent of spa-goers at the Tucson and Lenox properties are return guests. Here, Zuckerman shares how he and Enid transformed not only their lives but also the lives of Canyon Ranch guests with their innovative thinking.
To what do you attribute Canyon Ranch’s success?
A. I think our success is probably attributed to the fact that as the founders, we basically didn’t have a clue about what we were doing. Instead, we were trying to self actualize a new lifestyle for ourselves with the goal of achieving health. I ultimately believe we became what we are today and became the gold standard in the industry because I decided to follow self exploration and actualization to the ultimate, thanks to a moment of realization. Going into a business we knew nothing about was a great opportunity to be original and not follow anyone else’s model.
Why do you think Canyon Ranch’s message of health and wellness has resonated with so many?
A. What I kept saying to myself is if, at 50, I could all of a sudden find this out about myself, there must be a lot of other people out there who don’t know what’s possible. And we’ve always been about the power of possibility and having people reach their full potential and their ability to discover what was possible for them—the potential they have.
What role does the staff play in the spa’s success?
A. For so many years, our philosophy really focused on mind and body even though I was fully aware that the triangle of life was the mind, body, and spirit. But I always felt if we hired the right kind of people, we could create the right kind of environment. The real secret to our success is our ability to get the staff we do. We draw people who share our mission and express a generosity of self to our guests. They know it’s much more than just a business. I have guests tell me, “I’ve never been anywhere where the staff is so generous with their time and their emotions.”
How do you attract new and repeat guests and keep them coming back year after year?
A. It’s not our fitness classes or our treatments, although for some, it actually is the food. In all of our surveys about what people care about the most, guests respond that they can trust Canyon Ranch, and that it’s authentic. People feel safe here. They trust what they hear, and they’re willing to experiment. Now, as we take this stage in our life where bad news seems to pervade the media, we’re moving more into spirituality. It’s got nothing to do with faith or theology. It’s got to do with self-fulfillment and the meaning of life and being open to explore those things that give you purpose. A large number of our clients are searchers, seekers, and thinkers. I think what they find here is a depth of meaning and purpose and direction for their own lives that allow them to focus on the important stuff. There are people who only want to talk about what is negative in the world. I want to talk about what is positive, such as being resilient and improving the quality of life.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in creating and growing the brand?
A. It was a difficult decision to even do the second property. In the beginning, my wife and I decided we were doing this just for our own health. When people heard I wanted to spend $6 or $7 million, wasn’t going to serve alcohol, and it was going to be a health resort, they thought we were crazy. There had never been such a place. Ultimately, I had dozens of bankers I worked with successfully for years when I was in the building business who wouldn’t lend me a dime. However, we went all in, and I liquidated every asset I owned. We were all in, not as a business, but all in just to stay healthy and try to make enough money to break even. We didn’t know what we had.
In 1978 and ‘79, there was no mainstream consciousness in this country about wellness. They didn’t even use the word at the time. In 1984 and ’85, it began to creep into the media with new research on heart disease. All of a sudden, health clubs began opening in the cities, and health-conscious people started to take heed. All of a sudden, our business began to grow like crazy, and I began adding 10 rooms every year. In 1987, I added 30 rooms and built a bunch of condos that we sold and put in the rental market. We went from 60-some rooms to 185 rooms in just a matter of a few years. That’s when I realized I had a tiger by the tail. And what do you do with a tiger by the tail. You swing it and throw it or feed it and nurture it. That’s when the entrepreneur in me came out. It was all because of our guests.