‘Spa’ is a word that most of us have heard of, but few can actually define. This is because its meaning is constantly being stretched by the beauty industry in order to cover a wide range of venues, products, and treatments that will hopefull y appeal to an exhausted public who want to find the ultimate ‘retreat’. But the burning question is, do the growing number of spas present a threat or an opportunity to the humble therapist who doesn’t have plunge pools or marble pillars?
Many believe that the word ‘spa’ is an acronym based on the Latin phrase sanitas per aquas - meaning ‘health through water’. Others argue that the small village of Spa in Belgium gave rise to the word, where Roman soldiers would bathe in the village’ s warm, natural spring water, promoting wound-healing and bringing relief to aching muscles and joints after battle. Whichever, if either, of these interpretations is correct, both imply that a spa involves using water for curative purposes - but to wha t extent is this true of today’s ‘spas’?
What’s in a name?
Although the spa business is clearly booming in continental Europe, the word ‘spa’ itself is not one commonly recognised by those who do not use English as their first language. However, semantics aside, in countries such as France, Italy and Greece, the spa experience is one that still relies heavily upon fresh supplies of natural spring or sea water, which the client either drinks or bathes in. These mineral-rich t reatments (including thalassotherapy) are believed to have a ‘medical/curative’ effect, helping to soothe a whole range of conditions, from eczema and arthritis, to kidney stones and liver complaints. The fact that the health authorities in countries su ch as France are also willing to pick up the bill for these treatments clearly demonstrates how highly regarded the spa is by the medical profession throughout Europe.
In fairness, this used to be the case in the UK. In the 1940s, the NHS was provid ing 250,00.
But what of the other spas that are starting to pop up in manor houses, hotels, and leisure centres throughout the UK? Are they offering something that the ‘health farm’, ‘salon’, or ‘complementary centre’ is not? And why is it that the beauty indust ry refers to the new Harrods Urban Retreat as a ‘spa’, even though it currently offers no water-based treatments? What, essentially is the difference between Harrods Urban Retreat and any other plush premises offering a range of holistic and beauty trea tments? The answer may well be “none”, which would suggest that ‘spa’ is simply the latest buzz word - a new package for the same old treatments, perhaps with a sauna, jacuzzi, and a few marine-based mud wraps added to the treatment list in order to mak e the new marketing-cap fit a little better. One only has to look at the increasing number of ‘themed’ spas opening across the world to appreciate that a new angle means new clients. For instance, those with a passion for chocolate can visit the The Spa at The He
The search for an official definition
Quite simply, there is no official definition of what a spa should or should not be before it can be called a ‘spa’ in the UK. There are a number of different spa ‘bodies’ trying to bring some clarity to the matter, but typically, they all provide co nflicting definitions, with some having more commercial interests underlying their definitions than others. For instance, while one body advocates that the contemporary spa “must use water as the primary medium for the delivery of therapies and treatmen ts”, another awards a Spa Rating to a “treatment centre offering spa treatments employing one therapist but meeting basic standards of service delivery (non-specific - not necessarily spa qualified)” ... which means ‘not necessarily water treatments’. As both of these bodies apparently represent British spas, this does make matters a little confusing. Such confusion is also likely to remain unless spas in the UK return to providing treatments that they claim are ‘medical’, in which case the health authorities would
Spas: not a threat, but an opportunity
Some therapists, particularly salon owners, feel that the rising number of spas is a threat to their business. Admittedly, the spa is a self-contained retreat, where clients can escape from the hurly-burly of real life for the whole day as opposed to just an hour or two - a ‘total experience’ that the average therapist cannot provide (unless they can afford to install bathing pools, saunas, relaxation rooms, and a restaurant into their salon or home). Rather than trying to provide a poor version of the spa experience, which will only mislead and disappoint clients, the modest therapist would do well to concentrate on the possible advantages they have over the larger spas…
As the majority of spas offer a wide range of treatments to their clients, they often employ therapists who are rich in qualifications but poor in experience, as this is a cost-effective approach. However, clients now e xpect more for their money - they want a 5-star treatment and educated answers to their questions about general health and the therapy they are having. Thus the therapist who has been qualified for 4 years and performs nothing but reflexology, massage a nd aromatherapy treatments will be better equipped to meet these demands than a college leaver who has to perform seven or more different types of treatment a day.
Due to the sheer volume of staff and clients employed by and visiting the spa, treatments can lack continuity. Generally speaking, the bigger an establishment is, the less personalised the service - purely because of t he numbers involved. Regular clients tend to want the same therapist each time they have their preferred treatment, which may not be possible if they are regularly attending a busy spa. Many therapists also prefer to have a regular client base as oppose d to lots of ‘one off’ clients who are just treating themselves for the day, or using up a voucher they received for their birthday.
A spa is somewhere where the client can feel relaxed, pampered, and good about themselves. It is about finding a comfortable place where they can put their stressful lives on hold and concentrate on their own needs. Most therapists can answer this calling - without charging above the odds, or a membership fee. Make sure that your treatment area is as relaxing and retreat-like as possible. You may not be able to provide marble pillars, but you can use candles, plants, fl owers, oil burners, music, and soft towels to make your treatment room warm and attractive.
Remember, the rising number of spas could actually generate more business for the average therapist; not only will the benefits of complementary therapies gain increasing press coverage, there will also be potential clients looking for more affordable, personalised treatments that are closer to home.