What women really want: massages

Forget the sheepskin slippers or cashmere sweater. What many women want for a holiday gift is relaxation.

In other words, a trip to the local day spa.

What might seem like mere pampering to some - Vitamin-C facials or exfoliating back treatments - has become a necessity to others. Pampering is serious business these days, a way to soothe those feeling frazzled and stressed-out. It is also a multibillion-dollar industry.

"There's an explosion of new spas in the US," says Lynne Walker McNees, executive director of the International SPA Association. Today, there are about 10,000 spas, a number that has doubled every four years since 1995, an average annual growth rate of 20 percent. The ISPA reports that 160 million Americans were steamed, rubbed, or waxed in 2001, a 71 percent surge from two years before. Seventy-one percent of spa-goers are women, but the clientele increasingly includes men and teenagers.

Susie Ellis, president of Spafinder, a trade magazine and website, says three factors are fueling the $12.5 billion industry, most of which is dominated by day spas.

First, Ms. Ellis says, baby boomers are seeking spa treatments because they think they will help them look and feel young. Second, people of all ages are visiting spas in hopes of relieving stress. And lastly, spa-goers believe they are improving their health and wellness.

"Spa treatments used to be considered a luxury, but people increasingly rely on them to be therapeutic," Ellis says.

Holly Chase can hardly imagine life without her twice-monthly spa visits. "I'm a regular," says the single mom from California. Laughing, she adds: "Actually, I'm an addict. I love the European setting, the soft candlelight, the hushed voices, the cool cucumber slices."

Ms. Chase, who keeps busy taking care of her two daughters and running her own business, says the spa is her way to "escape." "It totally relaxes me," she says. "I can turn everything else off."

Angela Cortright, owner of Spa Gregories in Newport Beach, Calif., says that Ms. Chase and many of her other clients are seeking a sense of balance in their lives. A visit to the spa is often seen as an antidote to demanding personal and professional lives and too few vacations.

Indeed, many spa clients consider the spa a sanctuary. Upon entering, they are often greeted with a "leave your troubles at the door, we're here to take care of you" attitude. It may take a few minutes to relax, they say, but lying down under a soft fleece blanket in a dark room and listening to the sounds of crashing waves while someone rubs your face and shoulders usually does the trick.

It sure worked for Ms. Cortright, whose only breaks during 22 years in the fast-paced high-tech industry were lunch hours spent at a spa.

Since she and her husband started their own spa six years ago, they haven't looked back. "We started with 18 employees and about 30 clients a day. Now we have 80 employees and about 350 clients a day," she says.

Gretchen Monahan is another spa owner who's basking in success. At Grettacole, which has four locations in the Boston area, business has surged 300 percent in the past five years. About 40 percent of appointments are for massages and facials, essentials for spa-goers.

But increasingly, as Monahan's customers become savvier about their options, they are also booking more exotic treatments, including full-body salt scrubs, detoxification wraps, and skin conditioning with seaweed.

Most clients, she says, visit her spa to manage stress. "A visit can provide a high level of relaxation in a short period of time."

Carol Previte can vouch for that. Her job as an event planner, with frequent deadlines and travel, keeps her hopping. To recharge, she heads to a spa two blocks from her office, a couple times a month. "Afterward, I feel engaged and energetic," says the 50-something Boston executive.

Most regular spa-goers are professionals, like Ms. Previte, who are in their 40s and 50s and make an average annual salary of $75,000.

That's one major reason the spa business hasn't seen a decrease in business, despite tougher economic times. But the biggest factor is much simpler.

Many people agree with Chase, the single mom, who says, "Going to the spa is [now] a requirement." Even if that means pinching pennies elsewhere.

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