The headline made me do a double take: “Spa-goer 101 — Taking the Stress Out of Going to a Spa.” If I had found the article anywhere but on the International Spa Association's (ISPA) Web site, I would have thought it was a joke. I mean, who gets stressed over getting de-stressed?

After reading the article aimed at allaying first-time spa-goer fears, I realized it was an issue everyone interested in the healthy growth of the industry needs to take seriously. While Americans are flocking in record numbers to spas — ISPA reports one in five have visited a spa — many people find the prospect of their first visit unnerving and are riddled with insecurities about everything from what to wear to how much to tip. None of us want to appear foolish or unsophisticated even if all we're trying to do is order a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant. Now imagine attempting that feat while wearing only a bath towel. That's why I sought out industry executives to discover how they soothe newcomers' nerves.

“Our business is conducted behind closed doors and people take their clothes off. That in itself is intimidating to a newcomer,” explains Elaine Fenard, vice president of spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “In my view it is essential to recognize the first-time guests and hold their hand throughout the whole experience. Our mantra is: take away the mystery and the guest will feel relaxed.”

Fenard suggests asking newcomers if this is the first time for their scheduled treatment. If it is, then offer a complete tour and explanation of what is okay and what is not.

Anne McCall Wilson, general manager of the Fairmont Spas for Fairmont Hotel & Resort, introduced the concept of spa guides. Once a guest checks into the spa, one of the staff members guides the guest on an orientation tour. All of the staff are trained in the “newcomer's dilemma” and are prepared to answer questions, McCall Wilson says.

Because men want to know the rules, the Fairmont Spa includes the rules in its brochures, and the staff reviews the rules with the clients when they make a reservation. Pay attention to treatment names because men won't buy what they can't pronounce or what they feel stupid requesting.

A cheat sheet that clients can refer to privately can also help calm concerns, says Alexis Ufland of Lexi Design — Spa Definition, Design and Development.

“I always make a mini-sign for the inside of the lockers written in a style that fits the personality of the spa — cute and fun if the spa is young, hip and trendy, or professional and elegant if the spa is more upscale. The list explains the basics, such as ‘If you are having a massage, take your bra off, keep your panties on; if you are having a facial, take your bra off, keep your panties on, take your necklace off; turn your cell phone off,’” Ufland says.

Deborah Smith of Smith Club & Spa Specialists addresses first timer concerns with a special section on her Web site, much of it about what — or how much — to wear. However, Smith contends that covering up what's under those sweats is not the only bottom line newbies are worried about.

“Price is typically a key concern of first-timers who may not be totally ‘sold’ on the idea of indulging themselves with a $100 treatment,” she says. Smith suggests mini treatments to encourage low-risk experimentation.

The Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas offers a spa package called Spa 101 Vegas-Style that offers one-night accommodation for two including breakfast and a “combo platter” of four 25-minute sample spa treatments from a user-friendly menu of massages, facials, wraps, baths, exfoliations and salon services. Upon arrival, guests receive an orientation where their questions can be answered discretely.

“The goal is to replace concern with TLC and understanding, to turn the fear of the unknown into anticipation and assured comfort,” says Bonnie Crail, director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas.

For McCall Wilson, relieving the guests' fear of the unknown should begin with the design of the spa — using colors and materials that will make people feel comfortable.

“To me it's not only about calming fears of ‘exposure,’ but it's also about feeling that you belong and not exposing your spa ‘newbieism,’” she says.

To acquaint yourself with some of the many questions and concerns worrying those new spa goers, chill out by reading the Spa 101 article I found in the media room at www.experienceISPA.com.


Polly Johnson is vice president for SpaEquip Corporate Accounts Division. SpaEquip offers technical spa consultations during the design phase and are a FF&E and OS&E procurement company for many of the world's finest destination and resort spas.