Spa Treatments Overtake Golf as Most Popular Activity at Corporate Meetings

Spa treatments have overtaken golf as the most popular attendee activity during corporate meetings and events, consultants said, and the hotel industry is rushing to keep up. Resort spa managers said as much as half of their current customer base is coming from corporate groups, and the growing demand is not expected to peak anytime soon.

Forty percent of new luxury and upper-upscale lodging projects under development include spa facilities, compared with 27 percent of existing hotels in that segment that offer spas, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

'It clearly is a dramatic change,' said Bjorn Hanson, head of the PwC hospitality and leisure practice. 'It's very unintuitive. I don't even think people in the industry understand this.'

The research indicates that the hotel spa industry, which has been brewing steadily for a decade, may now be growing at an even faster pace. That growth has come at the expense of golf demand, said Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel and former president of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives. It has also come at the expense of other activities, as Boyd said he can think of at least 10 resort properties that have replaced their tennis courts with spa facilities.

'Golf was largely a male sport, and spa has become a way where people can get together and interact a little more,' Boyd said. 'A guy or a girl always can play golf at home. It's largely been at the expense of golf that I think spa has become the number-one choice of activity on any incentive trip,' Boyd said.

Spas have become a favorite method of boosting attendance at corporate events and motivating staff, said Hanson.

'Meeting and conference planners are increasingly challenged on how to attract as many attendees as possible,' said Hanson.

Baby boomers increasingly are asking for spa services as they grow more concerned about health and wellness issues, and Gen-Xers also are big fans of spa facilities at hotels, he said.

'For either experienced spa visitors or not, this is one of those appealing issues, a different kind of experience to help increase attendance,' Hanson said.

Market research shows that younger generations are trending toward adventure travel and the spa trend might seem to be counterintuitive, Boyd said, but spas actually are part of the adventure market.

'After a full day of hiking, there is nothing better than to go to the spa and relax for a while,' he said.

Groups may even be straining the capacity of the hotel spa market, Boyd said.

'One of our customers just sent me an e-mail today looking for a destination in October 2007, but it has to have a 200-spa-appointment capacity over a 48-hour period,' he said. 'That's the criteria for selection these days.'

Sunbelt Motivation & Travel has not had any problems with attrition when promising group business at spas, he said, and a significant number of attendees have to be placed on waiting lists.

As more luxury and upscale properties add and promote spa services, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts' spa brand Willow Stream has gone so far as to declare that the competition between hotels for the best beds has moved 'to the spa,' promising wider, longer treatment tables. They also tout their 'fluffy test,' citing research that guests pay a lot of attention to spa details. An extra inch of fluff on the table means 'four inches of fluffy total,' according to a Fairmont release.

Corporate groups make up at least half of demand at The Spa at Hotel Hershey, said spa sales manager Mary Ann Otto. Attendees can pick a number of chocolate-themed treatments, including a whipped cocoa bath and chocolate fondue wrap, which entails being slathered in warmed moor mud and essence of cocoa and then wrapped in a blanket. Cuban-themed treatments also are available, such as a mojito sugar scrub.

'An average group has 60 guests that will take part in the spa, and I've had well over 100,' said The Spa at Hotel Hershey's Otto, adding that groups should try to spread out attendee spa activities throughout the day, rather than try to schedule one large event.

'It's so dependent on availability and when they call. The key to any of this is to call way in advance,' she said, adding that lead times need to be four to six months to ensure availability.

The spa also works with meetings scheduled at the resort to offer wellness breaks for attendees.

'We've done chair massages, for example, where they will incorporate a spa service just to break up the meeting,' Otto said. 'We can do hiking, we can put together tai chi and yoga classes, and we have a number of different classes that we can offer as a group activity rather than just individuals.'

Outdoor activities have proved highly popular with groups, she said. 'There's such a trend toward holistic activities,' she said, 'but I would have to say our most popular services are the chocolate services.'

With demand as high as it has been, corporate groups have not even attempted to negotiate for lower prices, according to Otto. The spa also sees a large amount of repeat business.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts recently expanded its spa collection to 40 hotels and resorts with the addition of eight destination properties.

'We're seeing a huge need and interest in the corporate meetings market for spa. If the meetings have any free time at all, it seems like spa is either number one or number two on the list of extra activities they require,' said Carol Lynch, Starwood's vice president of group global sales.

While spa services have been a standard at resorts for years, more urban properties are adding spa facilities and activities for their corporate group customers. The increase in demand for urban spa facilities has been noticeable for the past three years, Lynch estimated.

'I don't think even three to five years ago you would associate a corporate meeting with needing to have a spa.'

Spas are becoming even more popular as professionals work longer hours and travel becomes more arduous. 'It goes back to the whole trend of people trying to lead healthier, balanced lives. Meeting organizers offer healthier breaks, healthier food options and this goes along with that,' she said.

Spas are a relatively new request from corporate meeting buyers, but Lynch said the demand for such services seems to be long-term. 'I don't think it's a new trend that will go on for a couple of years and then stop,' according to Lynch. 'I think this is something that will be offered as long as there is any free time in a meeting program schedule.'