Getting Rid of the Word Spa? The Last Word
The beginning of a New Year seems like a good time to share my response to a remark that was made at the 2012 Global Spa and Wellness Summit in Aspen that has caused quite a flurry of discussion ever since.
Peter Rummell, former head of Disney Imagineering who was one of the keynote speakers, suggested that we, as an industry, get rid of the word “spa.” He said “it conjures up affluent, white, women and is hurting our reputation.”
Subsequently we posed the question Would you get rid of the word “spa”? in a Global Spa and Wellness Summit (GSWS) Weekender blog that goes to tens of thousands of industry professionals.
It has received a slew of responses. Some quite eloquent and thought out, others a tad harsh.
While this is a topic I have come across for decades, I haven’t really shared my point of view in writing before. However after a relaxing time over the holidays, it seemed like a good time to tackle the question and share with you my response to the question, “Would you get rid of the word “spa”?”
I think that getting rid of the word “spa” is an absolutely terrible idea. It would hurt our industry immensely because it would basically throw the baby out with the bathwater. The term has been around for centuries and in the past decades billions have been spent on building up the spa industry so that we have actually become a known and recognized segment of the global economy. In fact the numbers show that globally the spa industry is a $250B economy. Why would we want to throw that out and start over? How much time and money would it take to build to this level with a different word – if it was even possible? And what would be the point of doing so?
You can probably tell that I am not on the fence on this issue – and never really have been. Rather, my suggestion is that we not only come to peace with the fact that “spa” is here to stay, but that we should be thrilled that the word has caught on around the world – and trumpet it! Indeed, whatever continent I am on, I see words in a country’s native language with the word “spa” after it – everywhere despite the fact that people may have different ways of defining it. And that I believe is the issue we need to get over – the fact that we may differ somewhat on the definition.
Our research at SpaFinder Wellness showed us 10 years ago that “spa” was by far the most likeable word when compared to others such as wellness, health, holistic, etc. While not everyone would agree on the definition of the word “spa,” most agree that “spa” has a positive connotation. That’s why so many people use it – from dog grooming places like Glamour Pet Salon and Spa, to car washes like Auto Spa to plant spas like Automatic Watering Plant Spa.
In fact, I would go so far as to say to our industry that it is time to dismiss this conversation altogether and move forward. Every discussion about the “dilution of the word spa” is a step back that in my opinion shows insecurity and possibly even arrogance. We want to “own” the term and not let a dog grooming place use it. Or we want everyone else to define it the way we do. That reminds me very much of the wrangling that goes on in many governments – whether the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. or the various nations of the EU who see things from different perspectives, or any number of other countries who are in a stalemate because there is “in-fighting.”
We are better than that – and, I hope, smarter than that. If each of us would recognize that it is in the consumer’s and our collective best interest to work together, support each other, collaborate and move forward and recognize that agreeing in general is close enough we would be able to move forward in a much more positive way. Many of these issues will work themselves out as we grow and mature. But the banter back and forth in our industry doesn’t help our cause.
Now just for fun and to get a fresh perspective, let’s look at this issue from an entirely different angle. Let’s look at another word (and industry) that might have a similar challenge. Then, let’s look at the discussion from that point of view. I am going to suggest that we think about the word “restaurant’ for a moment.
I think we can all agree that there are many different types of “restaurants.” Some are fine dining, some fast food, some small, some large, some indigenous and some big chains where the food served is the same all over the world. While we may have different thoughts that come to mind when someone says “restaurant,” we recognize that this is normal. Some people might think about their favorite place down the street, others a fabulous place they visited while on vacation. Nevertheless, most of us are able to distinguish between a Bavarian Beer Stube and a Sushi Bar – yet still able to call them both “restaurants.”
I am quite certain that the famous Nobu’s Restaurant in New York is not worried that the Denny’s coffee shop down the street is also considered a restaurant. Consumers are pretty smart….they know that Nobu’s is nothing like Denny’s and are quite able to recognize that they are very different experiences. Yes, you can get food at both of them and you can sit down and eat at both of them. Indeed there are some similarities between the two which makes it quite convenient to use the term “restaurant” to describe them both – to find them online and in directories for example.
However neither is trying to get the other to quit using the term “restaurant.” And while we are on the subject…have you seen the “Doggie Deli” places where they sell cute dog treats? Should restaurants be outraged? Should deli’s be upset? That would be silly. So a place that makes dog treats uses the term deli….that’s kind of cute and possibly a good marketing tactic. It certainly doesn’t mean that people will get confused about what a real deli is. Nor is it likely that doggie deli’s will take over the definition of deli that is already quite well established everywhere else. So why are we outraged when a dog grooming parlor uses the term “spa”?
I have heard the discussion about possibly getting rid of the term “spa” for almost 40 years now – my entire career in the spa industry. I remember about a decade ago when I spoke with various owners of establishments that offered healthy vacations who indicated to me that they didn’t want to be listed on SpaFinder.com because “they are not a spa.” Ok, I said, what are you? The response? Well, some said they were an integrated health retreat, or a fitness resort – others suggested they were a wellness lifestyle center.
My response? Ok, that’s cool. Now let me ask you a question. If a consumer wants to find you on the internet (or in a publication), would they be looking under integrated health retreat? Or wellness lifestyle center? I can tell you the answer to that is a definite “no.” They will look for you under the umbrella term of “spa.”
In time every single one of the places that I had this conversation with came around to recognizing that while they may not use the term spa to describe their establishment, for communication and marketing purposes to consumers (and media) using the term “spa” was a tremendous advantage.
Also of note, in 2008 the GSWS commissioned SRI International (founded as Stanford Research Institute) to take an outsider’s look at our industry and help us with definitions. After studying this issue from the point of view of many different countries as well as from the consumer’s point of view, they came up with some suggestions that quite frankly surprised me. One thing in particular I found to be a new way of thinking is they suggested that we don’t look at ourselves as an industry, but as an economy. In fact they suggested that our best way forward would be to select a very generic umbrella definition of the term “spa” that would allow us to aggregate a fair amount of core, enabled and associated industries within it. Thereafter people could then describe subsets of the larger pie and define that in a variety of ways.
The umbrella definition they proposed is the following:
Spas: establishments that promote wellness through the provision of therapeutic and other professional services aimed at renewing the body, mind, and spirit.
And underneath this umbrella they suggested we can have lots of different ways of categorizing spas: by spa typologies such as destination spas, resort/hotel spas, day spas, medical spas, for example; or perhaps we can divide the pie between those places that have natural mineral spring water and those that don’t; others might want to use size and services to identify different kinds of spas; and some could define by local, cultural and historical context.
And finally, if you are still not convinced, then I would like to challenge you to come up with a suitable word that would be better. In 40 years I have not heard a good case made for any other word. Even in the 50+ answers to the blog post that energized this discussion – no one had a good suggestion. That should also tell us something.
Whew…it feels good to finally get this on paper. Thanks for letting me rant. While I always welcome people’s input and thoughts – and do feel free to comment, I don’t mind ending this with something my twin sister says to me often when she is pretty sure she is right – it usually makes me laugh. “There you have it – my humble and accurate opinion!”