In Defense of Pampering

Pampering at the Spa (Image_5629 by digital-eye)

Pampering at the Spa (Image_5629 by digital-eye)

I recently spoke at the New York Spa Alliance (NYSPA) annual symposium (see the SpaTrade blog here, and my blog on another session from the conference here).  The theme of the symposium was “Pampering versus Wellness,” a debate which has been raging in the spa industry for the past few years.  Actually, it hasn’t been much of a debate, since most people in the spa industry have turned their back on pampering and prefer to send the message, “spas are about wellness not pampering.”

This is a dialogue that is based on fear.  In a competitive marketplace where consumers are increasingly reluctant to spend their money on frivolity, it is critical for the world of spas to establish its importance to the welfare of its customers.  The spa industry was challenged by the marketplace to show what it is made of and professionals rallied around the question:  “Are we about pampering or about wellness?”  Given those two choices, the industry did the only thing it could.  It chose wellness.  Pampering be damned.

The problem is the whole pampering versus wellness debate is based on a false dichotomy.  It presumes that you have to be about either pampering or wellness, but spas are about both.   Not only is pampering an important part of the spa experience, it is an essential part of what makes up a spa.  To illustrate this point, simply imagine your favorite spa.  Remember how it made you feel the last time you went.  How much did you look forward to it?  Once you were there, how did the staff treat you?  What facilities or amenities did you enjoy?  What treatments did you experience?

Now imagine removing everything from that experience that you might think of as “pampering”.  While we are at it remove anything that is “luxury” or “indulgent” (other taboo elements to a “serious” wellness experience some might say.)  And remove anything that has not been scientifically validated as a health intervention using randomized placebo-control trial experiments.  What is left probably no longer looks like a spa.  It looks something like . . . a hospital!  Now think about the last time you went to a hospital (or any other healing institution for that matter—doctor’s office, clinic, emergency room, or lab.)  How much did you look forward to that healing experience?  Chances are it wasn’t quite so enjoyable.

This is what is unique about a spa, creating healing experiences that are enjoyable, that we look forward to, and that we want to return to often.  Rather than trying to remove the pampering out of the spa experience, we should be asking why DON’T we get pampered in the other healing institutions in our society.  If hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices are all designed to make us feel better, why are spas the only ones we look forward to going to?

Do spas risk losing customers by embracing pampering?  A quick twitter search of “pampering” and “spa” would suggest otherwise.  Consumers seem to be craving more pampering, and recognize the spa as a place to get it.  Science supports pampering as well, with research linking warm touch, loving kindness, positive emotions, kind conversations, and nurturing relationships to wellbeing.  Science is discovering more and more that “feeling good” and “being well” are highly related. Rather than turning away from pampering, spas should embrace their unique place as a healing institution that knows how to make people feel good, while making them feel better.

References and recommended reading:

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Lynch, J. J. (2000). A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. Baltimore, MD: Bancroft Press.

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11 Responses to In Defense of Pampering

  1. Louisa June 1, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    Hi Jeremy, I love this blog post. For me, pampering is an important part of my wellness plan so I don’t see so much of a separation. When I take the time to pamper myself I feel I am valuing myself and I feel calm and relaxed. It fills me with positive emotions. I also like your analogy about hospital vs. spa. I had a recent experience where I went for a massage at a massage therapist that was renowned for his deep tissue massage. He was not available so another therapist treated me. I got there and he said “Oh, just head on in and change and I’ll be right in.” There was no offer of water or tea or soft music playing. When I went into the room, the old linens from the last customer were piled on the floor at the side of the massage table! Then when he massaged me he was very medicinal with his approach – not pampering at all. I will probably not go back. When you’re a mom and you need a break, pampering is what you need!
    Louisa

  2. Lisa S. June 1, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    I’m completely with Louisa – pampering IS wellness! When I have a spa experience – and believe me, that’s very rare – I want to be pampered. I head to a spa for “me” time and to get away from having to look after others. I want someone to look after me. I can look after other aspects of my wellness, like physical health and exercise and eating right, etc. But a spa offers something else – and that pampering is its competitive advantage.

  3. Jeremy McCarthy June 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Louisa, A blog is always better when it shares personal stories. I’m so glad you shared yours! Thanks, Jeremy

  4. Jamie June 2, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    Well said. Coming from a spa junkie I think pampering = wellness. When your life is full of chaos and screaming and phonecalls and television, candles and soft sheets take you to another place. Just to sit in that atmosphere for five minutes is healing.

    Dentists are already catching on – they offer TVs and foot massages while you get your teeth cleaned. If only hospitals and doctors could adopt that philosophy. Maybe we would all be a bit healthier.

  5. Jason M. June 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Thanks for the great post. The imagination exercise was very interesting. I once had a conversation with a pioneering quantum physicist (famous even by Berkeley standards) who said to me, “more and more, I have a hard time distinguishing between the subject of my studies and the structure of the laboratory.” It took it awhile for the meaning of that to sink in…that the he was doing research at the level where its ALL just energy…even the walls, the counters, the lights, etc.

    As an architect, it has long been a belief of mine that the design and materiality of the space we are in has great power to influence our experience of what happens to us in that environment. The “intangibles” of light, sound, color, and smell have long been used to great effect by the spa industry. Why do I feel more relaxed having walked past a beautiful fountain before getting a massage?

    I do wish other business models would learn from the Spa industry. Hospitals are an obvious cousin that could gain so much from this lesson. More and more, the corporate world is learning that just providing a cubicle or an office with a door isnt enough to produce great work results. How about the DMV, the post office, or even the public library? The community centers of old have been replaced by Starbucks not just because they sell good coffee, but because they provide a environment that nurtures social interaction and pampers us for a few minutes of our busy lives.

  6. MIchael Garvey July 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    I agree!

  7. natural anti aging for antiaging July 27, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    Good article. Pampering also helps keeps the body young and reverses the aging process.

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