Proof of Pampering
A burgeoning spa business is rubbing it in.
Spa at the Windsor Court
It isn’t your imagination if lately you’ve noticed friends and family booking manicures, massages and other treatments at the spa with greater frequency than most of us go to crawfish boils in the spring. As a culture, we seem to be rediscovering what our Roman, Egyptian and European ancestors already knew – a visit to the health spa is both time and money well spent. From facials and massages, manicures and pedicures and body scrubs and wraps, to a revival in the oldest type of spa treatment, hydrotherapy, there’s something for everyone and everyone seems to be indulging in something.
The South Central region of the United States, which of course includes Louisiana, makes up 10 percent of the country’s spa industry, according to research from the International Spa Association (also included are Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi). All in all, the region is home to approximately 2,000 spas. The number of spa locations in the country as a whole grew from 4,140 locations in 1999 to 20,600 locations in 2009, according to the ISA. While growth has slowed considerably since ’09, the association’s research from a ’13 study showed only slight continued growth for locations, but a significant rise in the number of spa visits, which went up by 4 million.
The local growth is evidenced, for example, in the form of Woodhouse Day Spa and Earthsavers, which both have opened new locations accommodating the rise in visits. Woodhouse, which began in Victoria, Texas in 2001, has grown to include 35 locations across the U.S. including its most recent second New Orleans-area location in Slidell. Also, relatively new spas have cropped up around town including the Spa at Windsor Court, which is carving its royalty-themed niche in the landscape.
Speaking of the royal treatment, Windsor Court is one of many spas to incorporate hydrotherapy into its repertoire. Rooted in the public and private bathhouses of the Roman Empire, hydrotherapy (formerly hydropathy) enjoyed its last heyday in the Victorian era, when the wealthy, worldly and royal would retire to spa towns throughout Europe to “take to the waters.”
Whether sea bathing or soaking in artisanal springs, New Orleans has seen the waxing and waning of the tides concerning the hydrotherapy trend. In her controversial 1899 novel set in New Orleans, The Awakening, author Kate Chopin portrays the central character Edna Pontellier frequently bathing for health, wellness and recreation, both with her fellow female characters and alone in the now murky waters at the then resort town of Grand Isle. The water is in fact where Pontellier ultimately experiences her awakening, in keeping with the timeless belief of the cleansing and restorative properties of water. Sometimes New Orleanian Mark Twain weighed in on the subject in 1891, when he toured Europe. After discovering that the thermal springs in the famed French spa town Aix-les-Bain helped ease his rheumatism, he was quoted as saying it was “so enjoyable that if I hadn’t had a disease I would have borrowed one just to have a pretext for going on.” Fast forward to the 1900s, when the New Orleans Athletic Club moved into its current location in the French Quarter.
“The pool was built in 1929,” says Mike Walters, general manager of the New Orleans Athletic Club. “It was originally filled by an artesian spring that lies under the pool. It was filled and emptied daily with 55-degree water. It was that way for years before it was converted into a salt-water pool.” To this day, club members take advantage of the 83-degree waters, as well as benefit from the visual enjoyment of stunning architecture featuring the original marble surround and cast-iron columns.
Water cures were at one time prescribed to treat nearly any disease known to man, though now we know that while hydrotherapy has it’s place, it isn’t the answer to everything that ails you. That said, slipping into a tub filled with warm water, bath salts and essential oils is a luxurious ritual many practitioners attribute not only to their mental and physical health, but also to physical beauty. The Regal Retreat at the Windsor Court, for example, combines a full body scrub and steam shower with a stimulating ginger oil massage for one of its aforementioned hydrotherapy treatments.
For a spa session steeped in local lore, try the mysterious and decadent $170, 70-minute Marie Laveau Voodoo love Bath & Massage at the Ritz-Carlton Spa. Incense, voodoo music chanted by a local priestess, candles, rose petals strewn throughout the room and the perfumed oil Marie Laveau is said to have prescribed to her clients are incorporated into this signature treatment. “The Perfumer Bourbon French was in operation when Madame Laveau was practicing,” says spa director Daisye Sudaran. “They purchased her special blend for the voodoo love massage.”
Also included in the Ritz-Carlton hydrotherapy repertoire is its $160, 45-minute Vichy Warm Stone Experience. For this treatment, a therapist combines hot stones and essential oil-infused water with varying temperature and pressure settings, offering an aromatherapy massage. The private room features a seven-head shower, custom marble table and is modeled after a Turkish hamam, which is the Turkish version of a Roman bath.
Sudaran has been with the Ritz-Carlton Spa for 11 years and says the biggest changes in the business are that today’s worldly and well-traveled customers are savvier about treatment options, demanding improved services. Also, the technology has advanced and – consistent with the rise in visits the industry is seeing as a whole – Sudaran says she sees an increase in the number and frequency of clients coming through the Ritz-Carlton for treatments.
“Society in general is taking care of themselves in more of a therapeutic way, rather than using medicine,” says Sudaran. “About 30 percent of our guests are local. Some come every week, some every other week.”
With the addition of fillers and injectables, such as Botox, Sudaran says the industry has had to develop better non-invasive treatments to keep up with the technology and to satisfy results-driven customers. Not only has it brought about improved techniques, but also better products. This crosses over from skin treatments to manicures, with options beyond the acrylic nails of the past to today’s long-lasting gel polish and shellac.
At Belladonna Day Spa on Magazine Street, owner Kim Dudek has so far eschewed the more invasive treatments in favor of a more hands-on, natural approach. While hydrotherapy is popping up on menus as a new service for some spas, it has been on the Belladonna menu for years. Dudek recommends the 110-minute “Be Bamboozled” Zen body retreat. The $165 package includes time spent soaking in the still bath – a to-die-for claw-foot tub deep enough to envelope you in water up to your neck – followed by a scrub and massage. Additional hydrotherapy options include 30 minutes in the outdoor Jacuzzi for $25, and time in the sauna (complimentary with hydrotherapy).
Dudek, an aesthetician by training, opened Belladonna in its former location on St. Charles Avenue in 1989. Since that time, she has seen the spa scene go from the all-white-and-chrome, clinical style to the more “touchy-feely” natural and organic atmosphere and everything between. The biggest change she has seen recently is a greater demand for quick treatments.
“When we first came here, people wanted to stay all day,” says Dudek. “Now they want to get in and get out. They want to know how many treatments they can fit into a certain time frame. Speedy. It’s express pedi and express mani.”
Both Suduran and Dudek say they have a large male clientele. The Ritz-Carlton has enough male regulars to have invested in not only a male locker room and quiet lounge, but also a separate TV lounge for the men. Its menu of services is tailored to the special needs of a man’s skin. For example, the Monsieur Hot Towel Facial, $145 for 50 minutes, takes into consideration that most men shave their faces and therefore the exfoliation process is different than it would be for a woman’s skin.
At Belladonna, Dudek says her customers are about 40 percent men. Individual and couple’s services are on the menu, but Dudek is seeing another trend on the rise in the group services arena, which used to be reserved for bridal and girlfriend getaways. “We’re starting to see grandmothers come in with moms, daughters and sons,” says Dudek.
Earthsavers Relaxation Spa and Store, which began in 1990 as an environmental store on Magazine, has grown to include three locations. Like the other spas, it offers special packages designed for the male clientele. Its Men’s Day package combines a manicure, massage and facial for $165. Mud treatments, sea salt exfoliations, seaweed and honey and almond combinations typify Earthsavers’ menu of services.
It is of course not unusual to find a gym at the hotel spa. For example, the Ritz-Carlton recently added a resistance and Pilates studio to its cardio gym. But don’t be surprised if you start seeing more gyms adding a spa. Franco’s is a great example of a fitness club capitalizing on the popularity of spa treatments. The athletic club’s O Spa offers a full spa menu of massage, body treatments, facials and nail services. Members can make a day of it and enjoy the O Spa Signature Spa Package, $220, which includes a facial, massage, manicure and pedicure and lunch from the club’s Franco’s Grille.
Champagne and light snacks found their way into the spa years ago, but the aforementioned grill is fast-becoming a business staple. At the Ritz-Carlton, the spa café is a secluded room where female guests can enjoy a beverage, a special menu of sandwiches, salads and other light fare, either alone or, for example, with a group celebrating a wedding, shower or birthday.
Guests are welcome to relax in the café while donning their fluffy spa robes.
While health spas incorporating mud treatments, hydrotherapy and even cafés may seem a far cry from their historic spa resort counterparts the similarities are growing. In the 19th and early 20th century, spas were as much about health and rejuvenation as they were about brokering business deals and seeing and being seen. Families flocked to the resorts for vacation at the turn of the century, so for Dudek’s co-ed groups of four generations of family members to visit for a day at the spa, its clear that everything old is new again.
Many of the famous spa resorts, primarily concentrated in the Northeastern U.S. shuttered or converted years ago into the more typical recreational parks and resorts familiar today, but it’s likely that business deals going down at the bar, sauna or swimming pool at the New Orleans Athletic Club has never ceased to happen and more than one guest at the Ritz-Carlton spa likely lingered in the men’s lounge or cafe a little bit longer to hobnob with a celebrity or catch up with a friend.
Though some of us are only now embracing the spa and its health, recreational, social and business benefits, perhaps some were already in on the secret and just keeping it to themselves. Regardless, expect more spas and more and better treatment options to continue to bubble up in New Orleans like the warm waters of an artesian spring.
The 70-minute Marie Laveau Voodoo love Bath & Massage at the Ritz-Carlton Spa