Pampering for the health of it Spas are evolving from luxury retreats to providers of health and wellness services (published in Forever Young)
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
SPA: Sanitas Per Aqua (healing by water).
The concept of spas goes back centuries, some say to Roman times when the legionnaires would heal their wounds and rejuvenate their bodies by bathing in hot natural spring water. In Europe, healing centres sprang up around mineral springs, attracting the gentry and originating the concept of “taking the waters.”
In North America, however, luxury and pampering have long defined the spa experience, with stereotypical images of soft terry robes, soothing facials, pedicures and manicures, relaxing massage.
But times are changing. No longer the purview of exclusive resorts and celebrity enclaves, spas are evolving from luxury retreats to providers of a variety of health and wellness services, describing themselves increasingly with terms such as “healing,” “nurturing” and “rejuvenation.”
“Wellness is a cornerstone of the Canadian spa industry today,” maintains Kathryn Stolle, spokesperson for B.C.-based Leading Spas of Canada, the only national organization providing member services, professional development, education and marketing to support to spas across the country.
It’s a baby boomer driven concept, she says. “These are savvy consumers who are looking for something to help them relax, de-stress and keep looking younger, things that are all about wellness and not so much about pampering. The reality is it’s all about taking care of yourself; after all this is the only body you have.”
Spas are responding to that, Stolle says, positioning the Canadian industry as one of wellness, which appeals to the 21st century demographic. “We are an aging population and that makes our product that much more attractive.”
In fact, many spas advertise “anti-aging” programs touting special skin treatments and fitness workouts to improve mobility and flexibility of aging muscles and joints. And spas are becoming standard offerings at many adult lifestyle and retirement communities. Places like Thorne Mill on Steeles Retirement Residence in north Toronto and Origin Retirement Communities’ offerings opening up in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, for example, are touting spas designed specifically for the older adult.
“There is a strong expectation that health and wellness will be a major feature of the seniors’ market and that such interest will not be confined to the traditional hot springs resorts,” writes Peter E. Murphy, a researcher and consultant who has penned a number of books about management in the tourism industry, in his latest The Business of Resort Management. “In addition to health facilities, seniors will be tempted by the light exercise and recreation opportunities provided by many resorts, particularly the golf and swimming pool facilities and by healthy menu creations.”
While this is a philosophy that spas today are increasingly embracing, it’s been the focus for more than two decades at The Hills Health Ranch at 100 Mile House in British Columbia, one of the first spa resorts in the country to place a primary focus on wellness.
“Our commitment to health and well-being has been the bigger commitment, more than a focus on pampering and relaxation although that comes with it,” says Pat Corbett, who owns and operates the ranch with his wife, Juanita. “We always wanted to reach little bit deeper.”
That focus was driven by personal experience, says Corbett. His wife was plagued for years by serious infections of the urinary system, which traditional medicine was unable to control other than by surgical removal of body parts, including one kidney. In desperation the couple turned to a holistic medical practitioner in California, which he says was considered “a pretty radical thing to do” in the early eighties. That doctor determined, through blood analysis, that Juanita had virtually no vitamin A — “the infection fighter” — in her system and treated her accordingly with the result that the infections disappeared permanently.
“That was a transforming experience for us,” says Corbett and led to opening the resort with a mission statement to “provide an environment for a kick start to an improved lifestyle in a summer guest ranch environment and a winter ski resort environment.”
It was a brand new concept when the resort opened in 1985 and even the name was radical, he says. “No one really knew what we were about.”
The spa, situated in the middle of a 20,000-acre working cattle ranch, complete with horseback riding — and even horse-whispering demonstrations which are part of the health education, illustrating the negative health impact of bottling up emotions — offers a slate of wellness programs including weight loss, fitness, hydrotherapy, anti-aging and even caregiver support.
Part of the health commitment, right from the beginning, says Corbett, was to include working health professionals onsite and his staff roster includes a general practitioner, orthopedic doctor, nutritionist, kinesiologist, behavioural counsellor, and microbiologist in addition to a number of personal trainers.
Treatments designed for older clients at Hills Health Ranch include customized facials based on a homeopathic aesthetics analysis of each person’s skin to determine what nutrients are most needed. There’s also a strict focus on a healthy, low-fat diet and Corbett says he’s seen many diabetics achieve significant improvement in controlling their blood sugars and reducing or even eliminating the need for medication.
Juanita Corbett has also developed several natural oils — such as rosehip and chamomile — processed from local plants gathered from the surrounding hillsides. Rosehip oil, a potent source of vitamin C, bioflavonoids, minerals and essential fatty acids is particularly good for aging skin since research has shown it to be beneficial in promoting tissue regeneration, often used on scars, burns and wrinkles. The Corbetts say their wild rosehips are grown at 3,400 feet, allowing a higher nutrient content.
Leading Spa’s Stolle notes that such indigenous treatments, making use of natural materials in the immediate environment, are another feature that is beginning to define Canadian spas. Other examples include the use of sea flora by coastal facilities or the mineral waters at Grail Springs, at Bancroft north of Toronto in the Ancient Granite Highlands also known as the mineral capital of Canada with rich deposits of marble, granite, sodalite and quartz. Another spa boasting natural mineral water therapy is Temple Gardens Mineral Spa in the surprising location of the prairie city of Moose Jaw, Sask., claiming to draw its special waters from the porous rock formations of ancient seabeds more than 4,500 feet below the earth's surface.
In addition to wellness services offered by many destination and day spas, there are also spas springing up with the “medical” label. These include sites such as the Vivian Medical Spa at Mount Albert in Ontario’s Halidmand Hills, which describes itself as a place “where nature and medicine work in perfect harmony… integrating medicine with a traditional and modern European Spa and Wellness Clinic,” or the Santé Spas at Calgary and Bear Mountain B.C., founded by Dr. Wendy Smeltzer to combine benefits of well-trained medical staff with the relaxation and comforts of a spa. When Hills Health opened nearly a quarter century ago, Corbett says he could not have dreamt how the industry and the wellness component would grow into the 21st century. From a handful of spas at that time, there are now more than 2,300 across the country and Stolle says the number is growing exponentially — 10 to 15 per cent a year for the last decade. And, she says, showing no signs of slowing down for the foreseeable future.