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10 Psychological Touchpoints in the Spa


Guest Post by Jeremy McCarthy, Director, Global Spa Development and Operations at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, author of the book The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.

Spas tend to market themselves around the physical aspects of the experience: their facilities, their treatments, their products.  But the best spas realize that the spa experience is, above all else, a psychological experience.  If they aren’t carefully addressing what goes on in their customers’ heads every step of the way, then they can’t deliver on the stress-relieving experience they’ve promised.

To give you some examples, here are 10 things that spas do to deliver spa treatments that are as good psychologically as they are physically:


  1.  Don’t present a burdensome health questionnaire.  The guest is running late and all they want to do is get into the spa and relax.  But what do they find?  A long line at the front desk and some annoying paperwork to fill out.  They are supposed to be there to relax but suddenly they are being asked to consider every medical problem they have had in the past 12 months.  Not a good way to start an experience which is supposed to be designed to relieve stress.  The best spas only ask for the minimum information they need to deliver their treatment, and they do it in person, privately and verbally.
  2. Space out the lockers.  It seems like more often than not when I go to a spa, I find myself awkwardly changing right next to the only other guest in the spa.  The best spas space out lockers based on who’s coming and going when to give guests more space and privacy in the changing area.
  3. Discretely provide the right size robe and slippers.  There is nothing more uncomfortable or embarrassing than a guest having to go out in an undersized robe and ask for a larger one.  The best spas will give their guests exactly what they need without them asking.
  4. Scrub the Jacuzzi tiles every day.   If the guest sees grime on the Jacuzzi tiles or in the steam room they will be worried about the hygiene in every part of the spa.  They will wonder if the therapists’ instruments have been sterilized or if the sheets are clean.  Every part of the spa must be absolutely immaculate to keep the guests’ mind free and clear to enjoy their treatment.
  5. Train therapists to build rapport quickly.  The therapist will warmly greet the guest with a handshake and place their arm on their shoulder as they guide them to the treatment room.  This would be considered rude or too familiar if it was done by the restaurant hostess or the bellman.  But in the spa, they have to ramp up quickly to get to a point where the guest feels comfortable being nude and touched by an unknown therapist. The best therapists will build rapport quickly by starting a friendly conversation and using gentle touches to make the guest comfortable.
  6. Demonstrate good personal hygiene.  The best therapists know it’s not enough to wash your hands before the treatment.  You have to make sure the guest sees you wash your hands.  This will alleviate any nagging hygiene concerns that a guest may have.  The best therapists wash their hands in the treatment room when the guest is already on the table.  This is the last thing they do before they touch their guest.  Bonus:  It also warms up their hands.
  7. Alleviate guests’ privacy concerns.  After hygiene concerns, the #1 worry that guests have in the spa is about nudity and privacy.  The best spas communicate clearly to avoid the awkwardness of disrobing upon arrival to the treatment room.  Many therapists use the time arriving to the treatment room to explain some aspects of the treatment to follow.  But the best therapists will start their preamble with, “I’m going to step out of the room in minute so you can disrobe and get on the table in privacy, but first let me tell you what you can expect in this treatment . . . “
  8. Respect the draping.  The best spas know that the privacy draping during treatments is as much about psychological safety as it is about physical comfort.  The best therapists make sure their client can “feel” where the draping boundaries are.  That boundary is a line which doesn’t get crossed.  If a therapists’ hands start slipping under the draping, the guest may start to wonder how far they will go.  The guest should feel that their privacy is completely respected and they are in a safe place.
  9. Avoid abrupt communication.  Imagine a guest who is halfway to dreamland while in the midst of their treatment.  Suddenly, the therapist asks, “Is the pressure OK?”  –“Huh?!”  The guest is half conscious and not prepared to answer a question.  The best therapist will bring the guest back to consciousness with some brief preamble before asking a question or giving direction: “I’m going to be moving up to your shoulders now, can you let me know if the pressure has been OK so far?”  Or “Please take a couple of deep breaths and then I will ask you to turn over onto your stomach.”
  10. Offer a happy ending.  Whoa!  Not that kind of happy ending!  But the best spas know that their clients will remember how the experience ended more than how it began.  They won’t jeopardize their relationship with their client with an awkward or forced sales pitch for products.

This doesn’t mean the therapist can’t recommend products.  But the interaction needs to be genuine and with the guest’s wellbeing in mind so the relationship ends on a high note.

The items on this list are things that a guest might not even notice during their spa visit.  But they definitely notice when spas don’t do them.

Any one of the things on this list is a tiny detail.  A tiny thoughtful gesture made by a business that is concerned with the psychological wellbeing of its customers.  But done together, these psychological touchpoints are what turns a good spa experience into a great one.


Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing and hosts a blog. He holds a masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology from University of Pennsylvania and teaches a course in Positive Leadership for Spas and Hospitality for the UC Irvine Spa and Hospitality Management program.

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