Do You Know What a Spa Is?

Ojai Resort and Spa
••• Spa means a lot of things, from bare bones day spas to a lavish week-long wellness experiences. Ojai Resort and Spa

The word spa conjures up images of long days filled with mud baths and meditation classes, exquisitely prepared spa cuisine, and fragrant eucalyptus groves. But spas seem to be everywhere: strip malls, village storefronts. Salons with one massage table tout their "spa" services. How can they all be spas?

For one thing, no one is regulating use of the word spa, so anyone can use it for any purpose they want.

In addition, what spa meant in the 19th and early 20th century—a wellness resort centered around mineral springs where visitors could take a cure—has evolved in the modern era. Today it means a place to receive massages, facials, body scrubs and other services in either a day spa or overnight setting.

The confusion comes because the distinctions that the spa industry used to convey what kind of experience the guest could expect have become blurred. Traditional destination spas offering an immersive wellness experience now call themselves spa resorts. On the other hand, traditional resort spas have added more wellness options like exercise classes, personal trainers, even consultations with integrative medical professionals.

But if you like to go to spas or are just thinking about going for the first time, it's worth getting a handle on the different types of spas and how the labels are being played with so that you have the kind of experience you're expecting.

Spa Definition

The International Spa Association defines spas as "places devoted to enhancing overall well-being through a variety of professional services that encourage the renewal of mind, body and spirit.”  This is an extremely broad definition that is meant to include all the various types of spas in operation—approximately 20,000 in the U.S. Here are the different types of spas and what you need to know about them to be a savvy spa consumer.

Day Spas

This is a place where you can get usually get, at a minimum, massage, and facials, on a day-visit basis. About 80% of spas are day spas, but they aren't all the same. Day spas include places like Massage Envy, a low-cost chain which has no locker rooms or robes because you undress in the room.   Sometimes small local spas with a few rooms have this same model.

Traditional day spas offer more services, including body treatments and nails. They have amenities like changing rooms, robes and slippers, steam room, sauna, and a "tranquility room" with treats like tea, lemon water and dried fruit and nuts. Day spas are often associated with a hair salon but should be in a separate wing or on a different floor to keep a calm spa atmosphere.

Many resort spas are open to locals on a day-use basis, but are more expensive and have more lavish facilities.

Destination Spas 

This small but select and highly influential group of spas (less than 100 in the U.S.) devoted to providing an immersive wellness experience. The whole environment is geared to promoting a healthy lifestyle, with lots of exercise classes, lectures aimed at physical and mental wellness, and special interest programs, such as hiking.

Destination spas usually require a minimum stay of two to three nights and encourage longer stays. They offer a friendly atmosphere that is perfect for the single traveler. They are age-restricted; usually, teens 16 and over are allowed. The most famous (and expensive) examples of the traditional destination spa include Canyon Ranch and Golden Door. There are more budget-friendly options that provide a health-oriented experience without the luxury factor.

The tricky thing about destinations spas is that even though everyone in the industry knows what the term means, most consumers don't. Since consumer-directed internet searches are so important, most destination spas have changed their names to "spa resort" or "resort & spa" to reflect how they are being searched on the internet.

Prices are usually all-inclusive of accommodations, meals, classes and lectures.

They usually include a spa credit you can use toward services.

Resort and Hotel Spas

In the 1990s, many resorts and hotels began putting in spas so guest could enjoy a massage alongside other pleasures like golf, tennis, and swimming (the classic resort experience), or while staying in a hotel for business or pleasure.

As spas have become more important, so have the spas in resorts and hotels. Many resort spas have added a healthy roster of exercise classes (usually for a fee but sometimes included). They have gyms and sometimes personal trainers on hand. Some have even added wellness centers that are specifically aimed at improving health.

So the lines have become blurrier, but a few things haven't changed. Destinations will be all about wellness, including the food. Classic resort spas have more wellness options, but you can eat a 12-ounce steak, a pile of curly fries and wash it down with a bottle of wine if you want. Pricing is a la carte at most U.S. resort spas—accommodations, meals, classes, and spa services are all billed separately.

There are about 2,000 resort and hotel spas in the U.S. and they can range from small inn spas to the over-the-top glitz of Las Vegas spas. That's why it is so important to research what a specific property offers instead of trusting the resort spa label. Depending on the property, resort and hotel spas are a great choice for families, couples, and business travelers. If you want to be able to travel alone and meet people easily, destination spas (aka spa resorts) are a better choice.

Cruise ship spas, an onboard amenity to enhance the guest experience, can be seen as part of this group.

Mineral Springs Spa

These spas offer an on-site source of natural mineral, thermal or seawater that is used in hydrotherapy treatments. It is the historic root of the spa experience when people traveled to mineral waters for their health benefits. This spa culture reached its zenith in the 19th century when the wealthy gathered at elaborate pleasure palaces to see and be seen. Many of these, such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia, The Omni Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, and the spas of Baden-Baden in Germany are still open and offering a taste of yesteryear alongside more modern offering.

There were also more basic hot springs, such as Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, many of which are still thriving. Mineral springs spas fell out of favor as modern medicine developed in the 20th century. But now many people are realizing the simple of benefits of a relaxing soak.

Medical Spas

A medical spa is a hybrid between a medical clinic and a day spa that operates under the supervision of medical doctor. The most common services rendered at a medical spa are laser treatments, laser hair removal, IPL (intense pulsed light) treatments, microdermabrasionphotofacials, injectables like Botox and fillers, chemical peels, skin tightening or skin rejuvenation and treatment of cellulite. There are nearly 2,000 medical spas in the U.S.—almost as many as there are resort and hotel spas!

Club Spas

These are spa located in a fitness club, like Equinox. Its primary purpose is fitness, but it offers professionally administered spa services on a day-use basis. Non-members are welcome.