by Jane Duckwall
With her 50th birthday approaching, Brenda Harris, who works in financial services in Raleigh, saw an ad for the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone. She was considering treating herself to a “gift of wellness,” prompted in part by the high stress level of her job. She picked a six-day retreat at the center’s Shankara Ayurveda Spa, which cost “a couple thousand dollars,” she says. It was so worthwhile that she has returned to the center for other programs, including a six-day yoga retreat. “I’ve never been off the health wagon,” she says, “but this just really tweaked it in a way that brought in the missing puzzle pieces.”
A growing emphasis on wellness has strengthened some muscles in North Carolina’s tourism industry, with more hotels and resorts offering a range of services designed to relieve stress and promote better health. Trips to the spa have become a popular way for overworked professionals to rejuvenate and become more centered. “From a hotel standpoint, it’s a fabulous new revenue center,” says Dana Clark, director of Appalachian State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program.
Adding spas and wellness programs at hotels translates into higher revenue from guests who either would not have showed up or might have sat by the pool. Hotels get a portion of the payments for massages, body wraps, facials and other treatments performed by licensed professionals, who typically are independent contractors. The number of licensed massage therapists has more than doubled since 2004, according to the website of the North Carolina Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy, a state-appointed group started in 1999 to regulate the industry. That represents a growth rate eight times faster than licensed hairstylists, manicurists and makeup artists — which grew 14% since 2002, according to the North Carolina Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners.
Venkat Srinivasan was earning a six-figure salary as a research scientist at Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas when he decided he wanted to do something more meaningful. In 2011, he started working for the Art of Living Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bangalore, India, and founded in 1981 by Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The group, which has programs in 152 countries, promotes peace and humanitarian causes with a focus on managing stress through meditation, breathing techniques and yoga. Srinivasan now manages the Boone retreat center, which was opened in 2012 by the foundation’s sister organization. The group also has a smaller center near San Antonio, Texas. Encompassing 381 acres, the Watauga County center mixes traditional stress-relief programs such as yoga with more exotic offerings such as Shirodhara, a treatment that involves pouring warm oil over the forehead to promote relaxation and improve mental clarity.
The Art of Living center is most popular with women age 40 and older, but it also attracts couples and executives holding business retreats. Srinivasan’s corporate background may give him special insights into the latter group. He recalls watching the transformation of some New York executives during a three-day retreat. When they arrived in the mountains, their faces suggested “they were used to that fast-paced life,” and their “minds were buzzing,” he says.
“This whole mountain has that whole vibe of serenity,” making it a perfect setting for getting rid of toxins that accumulate from unhealthy diets, lack of sleep and stress, Srinivasan says. A retreat at the center “is more like a cleanse: mental, emotional and physical.” One such “cleanse” starts at $2,990 for six nights’ lodging and a week filled with treatments, yoga and cooking clinics, according to the center’s website.
To attract more women, traditional hotels and resorts began to add spas about 20 to 30 years ago, Clark says. By enticing wives to join their husbands for weekend golf outings, spas help resorts raise their revenue-per-room tallies while setting new standards for high-end hotels — and the expectations of their guests.
Spas are also popular at the beach, including the Sanderling Resort in Duck, where 11% of revenues come from its relaxation programs. About 60% of its spa clients are female, according to spa manager Rachel Wilkerson, though the number of men getting massages, therapeutic soaks, pedicures and more has increased steadily over the last decade. Spa treatments that were considered pampering in the past have “become part of our health regimen,” Wilkerson says. Wellness tourism may have begun as a trend, she says, “but now it’s a necessity.”
More men view massage as an essential way to relieve certain health issues and as a form of physical therapy, says Carolyn Doe, spa director for the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, where treatments account for 13% of total revenue. Many spas design packages especially for men, such as the Umstead’s Dogwood: a 100-minute treatment for $215 that starts with a Swedish massage and ends with a “gentleman’s facial.” Many also have spa packages for couples, such as the Sanderling’s Soul Mate Sanctuary, a $420 package for two that features an aromatherapy salt soak followed by an 80-minute side-by-side massage and a glass of champagne.
Massages and yoga aren’t the only attractions for vacationers and business travelers with wellness on their minds. Outdoor activities, organic gardens, healthy restaurant fare and weight-management programs are also magnets for travelers. The Sanderling offers a digital detox program that challenges guests to check their cell phones and iPads at the front desk — and earn a 20% discount at the spa.
Business travelers are looking for places to “regenerate” and “refortify,” as well as get a good night’s rest, says Jim Beley, general manager at the Umstead, which is owned by Cary-based SAS Institute Inc. co-founders Jim Goodnight and John Sall. By offering complimentary use of some of their spa facilities, the Umstead helps guests do that, he says. They also provide bicycles for guests who want to explore a nearby lake and trails.
Hotel spas and wellness centers aren’t just for tourists. Many of the Umstead’s weekend guests are couples, groups of friends or families who live within an hour’s drive but want a special way to celebrate an anniversary or birthday — or just get away from the pressures of home, Beley says. “It’s a great, easy way to have a staycation,” Beley said. Locals who pay for spa and wellness treatments, while not spending the night, are bolstering hotels and resorts. Srinivasan says many spa guests are considered “cultural creatives,” a term popularized by the book The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, that describes people actively seeking a healthier, more socially conscious life.
Juggling a stressful career with raising three children, Harris says her retreats pay off with more than a temporary high. “I feel like I have better relationships at work, and I feel more productive with the hours I put in,” she says. “I feel better at 50 than I have ever felt in my life.”