Biz Buzz Extra

The business of spas

The spa industry in San Luis Obispo County is booming despite a sluggish economy

jlynem@thetribunenews.comAugust 27, 2012 

When Todd Lemay, owner of The Bladerunner in San Luis Obispo, started offering spa services in 1989, there were few local competitors.

“Back then, many massage therapists worked out of their homes, and Sycamore Mineral Springs was doing spa services then, too,” said Lemay, who opened his business as a hair salon 25 years ago, gradually adding nail services and a variety of spa treatments ranging from shiatsu massage to micro-buff body polishes and acti-sea body mud wraps.

Much has changed since the early days.

Although it’s unclear how much growth the local spa industry has seen, owners and managers of San Luis Obispo County spas report that more businesses have opened or expanded in recent years as demand for services has grown among women, men and children. Whether it is a butter cream massage, aromatherapy wrap or hot-tub soak, visits to local day spas and spa resorts have increasingly topped the must-do list for tourists and locals indulging in a level of pampering once considered the domain of the rich and famous.

The benefits for body and mind are also a big draw, say those in the industry.

“They have gone from being a luxury to a necessity, a form of health and maintenance,” said Audra Ovist, director of the Sandalwood Spa in Nipomo.

“We see people of all ages — older couples just escaping for the day, children getting massages with their parents and wedding parties,” said Alexandra Sutton, director of the Spa at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.

The rise in spa visits is happening in California and across the country. Total industry revenues increased by an estimated 4.3 percent in 2010, the latest year available, a 2.6 percent increase from 2009, according to a U.S. Spa Industry study. That’s due to a 5 percent rise in total visits, even in the midst of a sluggish U.S. economy, according to the report, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the International SPA Association.

San Luis Obispo County may not be as well known a spa destination as Ojai, Santa Barbara or Palm Desert, but its reputation as a place to unwind is well established.

San Luis Obispo County’s main economic driver is tourism, and by tapping into the county’s natural beauty and connection to the wine industry — the third largest in the state — local spa businesses have the potential for more growth, owners and tourism officials say.

“We find a lot of people will do their spa day, and then they do their wine tasting or go on a hike,” Ovist said. “They will plan their vacations around their spa day.”

About 2.4 percent of domestic visitors to California said they used a spa or health club in 2010, according to the California Travel and Tourism Commission.

“Applied to the 2011 domestic visitor count of 209 million, and this equates to just over 5 million people who partook in one of these activities,” said Jennifer Sweeney, commission spokeswoman. The percentage of visitors staying in paid accommodations who partook in a spa or health club was higher at 4.1 percent, she said.

Stacie Jacob, executive director of San Luis Obispo County’s Visitors and Conference Bureau, said “growing specific service businesses like spas continue to add to the region,” which already has a collection of small, boutique spas.

“A flagship property with a full-service spa is key to building awareness and adding to the tourist assets already in place,” Jacob said.

Steady growth

As the owner of two spas — The Spa Central Coast next to The Carlton Hotel in Atascadero and Avila Lighthouse Suites hotel — Kitty Arosteguy believes the county has already become a destination spa location, with mainstays such as Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa leading the way.

Nine years ago, Arosteguy, whose mother started the Day Spa of Ojai in 1996, decided to open her own spa, capitalizing on the small-town charm of Atascadero. She followed up with the Avila Beach location in 2011 after the chief operating officer of Martin Resorts saw a need for spa services for hotel guests there. Arosteguy also provides spa services for guests at Martin Resorts’ Paso Robles Inn, and she opened Haven Wine Bistro, next to her spa in Atascadero, two years ago, seizing an opportunity to link the wine and spa industries.

She has seen consistent growth since opening The Spa Central Coast in Atascadero, averaging 30 percent growth year over year for the past three years.

After four years in business, the Spa at Madonna Inn continues to grow its clientele, both with tourists who want to experience the inn and increasingly locals who seek a quick escape. Much like the inn, the treatment rooms in the spa feature opulent décor, and guests are treated to cookies, fruit and tea in an intimate waiting area. They also have access to the pool and tennis courts.

“In three to five years, I would say that we will grow as area tourism grows and as the Madonna Inn Resort & Spa continues to grow,” said Sutton, the spa director. She noted that revenues increased 22 percent from 2009 to 2010 and 25 percent from 2010 to 2011.

At Sandalwood Spa in Nipomo, biweekly customers make up the bulk of the business, Ovist said. The spa, built within the Monarch Club at Trilogy Monarch Dunes, opened five years ago. It had its best year in 2010 when it experienced 40 percent growth in revenue. The spa continues to be profitable, and last year, the spa had about 27 percent growth, she said.

Spas have become more of a social outlet for people, Ovist said, and that has been good for business as well.

“The spa parties have become more popular,” she said. “A group of women will come in, and instead of exchanging gifts, they will have a spa experience.”

With its long history in San Luis Obispo County, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa on Avila Beach Drive has also catered to those seeking a complete spa experience, said Charles Crellin, general manager of Sycamore, which has 30 therapists and 10 mind-body instructors. Guests from Bakersfield, Fresno and Los Angeles buy spa packages that include a hotel stay.

He declined to provide specifics on how much business has increased in recent years, saying that “we’ve seen our revenue significantly grow in the spa and health and wellness in the last couple of years including massage, facials and hot tubs as well as in daily classes like yoga, tai chi and Pilates.”

The spa and resort is in the process of completing upgrades, including a refurbished spa lobby, locker rooms and Oasis pool, and adding new furniture, photography and amenities such as bowls of fresh fruit and a fresh mineral spring water station.

Crellin has noticed that guests who had shied away from spa treatments are returning, and where “a couple of years ago people would do one treatment, they’re doing two or three,” he said.

A boost for the local economy

Owners and managers of local spas tout a collaborative environment — often visiting each other’s facilities to compare notes — to remain competitive, and they say it’s important to stay on top of the latest trends and prices.

Prices vary depending on the spa and service, but clients can pay as little as $50 to $60 for a basic massage or facial, or as much as $130 or more for special services such as hot stone massages and deluxe facials. Many spas also boost sales by selling the products they use.

Spa owners and managers say clients mostly want an affordable, quality experience.

At Healing Touch Day Spa in Nipomo, business is steadily growing. Kathleen Stowell started the business in 1998 with her husband, Rudy, as a way to pay the bills. Stowell used to massage clients in a room in her home, but her business is now in a 6,000-square-foot space with eight massage therapists and six treatment rooms. Most of Healing Touch’s clients are local and repeat customers, with the rest being tourists or occasional guests with second homes in the county.

“Business has grown at least 50 percent a year since we moved here (to the new location) in 2008,” said Stowell, who plans to add more treatments for the skin. “We’re competitive with our prices and always try to remain a little less expensive than the other spas.”

At La Bonne Vie Spa, a high-end spa at the Dolphin Bay Resort in Shell Beach, spa director Brittanee Waters said the spa has “seen exponential growth,” with local clientele doubling since she started there more than five years ago.

In addition to special events and promotions to attract spa visitors, the spa continues to incorporate treatments such as ultrasound technology to reduce cellulite, spray tanning and microdermabrasion skin treatment. While those treatments can run more than $100, a basic half-hour massage starts at $50.

The more spa businesses the better, Waters said.

“More spas are starting to peek through,” she said. “Whether they are competition or not, that sort of growing of the business is great.”

Arosteguy, owner of The Spa Central Coast, said helping to support their community is paramount for some of her clients. Many, she said, come to her spa before they go on vacation because they can get a more affordable treatment, and “they are keeping the money in our local community,” she said.

“When you can offer visitors to our area such a great, relaxing experience, they are much more likely to come back and visit, and that is great for our local economy,” she said.

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