Waldorf Astroria’s Guerlain Spa Closes and Poses the Question: Are Hotel Spas an Endangered Species?

Given the blast of parties, press releases and popping champagne corks whenever a spa opens at a hotel, it’s amazing how quiet a closing can be. Consider the Guerlain Spa at the Waldorf Astoria.

This 14,000-square-foot swathe of luxury opened in 2008 to kudos from spa-goers and critics alike. Each of the 16 treatment rooms boasted its own bathroom, shower and locker. And first-time guests received a footbath and massage while filling out health forms.

Add jaw-drop views, décor that married Art Deco and Zen, a perfumey atmosphere courtesy of Guerlain and the ultimate New York luxury, space (the spa stretched over an entire floor). With its perch in the 1,120-room Waldorf, hardly an obscure boutique hotel, scaring up well-heeled customers should have been a snap.

But Guerlain, the spa that seemed to have everything, shut its doors this month. Is this the beginning of the end for hotel spas?

Probably not. A closer look at Guerlain’s fundamentals indicates those heady fragrances masked some serious woes. With sky-high prices, services fell short of those offered at rivals like the Mandarin Oriental or Peninsula. A disgruntled visitor last month gave the spa two measly stars on Yelp, citing disappointing, overpriced services.

Long-time spa authority Bernard Burt, author of 100 Best Spas of the World and editor of the web site Bernard Burt’s Spa Goer, told me: “Having been to the Guerlain Paris spa and franchises at The Breakers in Palm Beach and Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, I can tell the difference: attitude and services. They make you feel special.” New York did not.

He cited poor management by Spa Chakra, the American company that oversaw the Waldorf Guerlain and declared bankruptcy this month. “Guerlain executives in Paris told me they had no control of Spa Chakra management – and it showed,” Burt said.

The weak economy played a part, as well. The spa opened just as the Recession roared.

Indeed, after nearly 20 years of growth, the spa industry is slowing. According to statistics released last month by the International Spa Association, spa visits dropped 10.3 percent from 160 million to 143 million and the number of spas fell 3.2 percent from 21,300 to 20,600 from March 2009 to May 2010.

Spas at urban hotels have never been a must-have amenity as they are at resorts, where visitors tend to stay on campus. With the end of the go-go years for hotel spas has come reevaluation. Hilton and Sheraton are sizing up their spa operations worldwide, weighing new design concepts in both facilities and treatments, Burt said.

And though Guerlain may be gone, new hotel spas opened this summer at the Trump SoHo, Ink48 and the Chatwal. Don’t expect a shortage of massages or facials any time soon.




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