Adventure Spas

Between a Rock and a Soft Place

By Darren Buford

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2003.

Hanna Johansen is passionate about two things that at first glance seem contradictory: Adventure and relaxation. Yet, she has found a way to combine each in her Montana-based spa. Situated near Big Sky Ski Resort, Alpenglow Traveling Spa caters to an abundance of winter sports enthusiasts from November to March each year by delivering massage, Kripalu yoga and spa services directly to the door of its clientele. It also serves to promote Johansen’s other business which operates during the summer months: An adventure traveling spa, which, together with Mountain Travel Sobek and Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.), organizes trips to various locations around the world including Chilko River in British Columbia; Machu Picchu, Peru; and extensive venture trekking in the United States. The purpose: To offer a variety of vacations that wed river rafting, kayaking and hiking with the spiritual attributes of yoga, meditation and massage in exotic environments.

Alpenglow isn’t alone in rethinking what activities a spa can or cannot include. In fact, many spas across the country are cashing in on this in vogue combination of spa and adventure. “It’s a trendy thing right now,” says Deborah Evans, general manager of Red Mountain, The Adventure Spa in Ivins, Utah. “Spas are adding adventure components to their services to be competitive.”

Alive in both small independent practices and large destination spas alike, the adventure craze is evident in Hawaii’s Kelea Surf Spa and Massachusetts’ Canyon Ranch at the Berkshires. Spa guests at these locations and others have already had the opportunity to experience eclectic activities (fitness classes, dance lessons, nutrition counseling, etc.) for years. Now they can experience guided hikes, snowshoeing, horseback riding and biking, in addition to more traditional fare. By taking advantage of already stellar locations, many spas are finding they can increase guest visits at a time when even during tough industry times. As we will see, few have yet to venture as far into the category as Alpenglow or Red Mountain, but many have begun to incorporate more manageable outdoor activities into their repertoire.

While some spa guests find their vacation solace in the quiet serenity of pampering palaces, others need the rush of a Class IV white water rapid or the exhilaration of a steep rock face to be fulfilled. These high adventure/spa hybrids, as the opening quote suggests, can indeed provide a little tumult, but, more importantly, the addition of body/mind/spirit to help awaken the senses to new heights.

World Traveler

Johansen always promised herself that after she raised her family she would go back to one of her original dreams: traveling and experiencing cultures of the world. “I’ve always traveled a lot in the U.S., but my journeys abroad only began when I started attending spa conferences,” she says. “There I met different spa people from all over the world, and from those friendships I started to be invited to come and do trainings.” This opportunity took her to Thailand and Nepal, among other countries, where she trained staff in American-oriented spa techniques.

Back at home in Montana, Johansen put together spa packages at Alpenglow (then, an on-site day spa) that included hikes with yoga stretching followed by foot massages. “I’ve always included outdoor activities with what I did at the day spa,” she says. “Because my day spa was at a ski resort, a lot of our services were geared around the physical activities clients were doing.” Johansen says she always felt a sense of regeneration and enhancement at being outside and she wanted to make sure her spa included what she felt was the greater advantage of where she lived.

In 2000, Johansen took the culmination of her travel and work experience to the next level when she approached Mountain Travel Sobek and O.A.R.S., experienced adventure outfitters, because she wanted to bring her specialized services to companies she knew had the highest level of professionalism and who could provide safe, active and thoroughly entertaining trips. Johansen wanted to focus on what she did best (yoga and massage) and to leave all the itineraries, planning and reservations to someone else. While it took six months to convince Sobek that this was a wonderful complement to add to their list of amenities, O.A.R.S. warmly embraced Johansen right from the start. “They already knew they wanted something like this, they just didn’t know how to do it,” she says. “Now, Sobek sees the value, too.”

Though on the surface the combination of massage/yoga and high adventure may seem incompatible, Johansen says that actually they are completely natural. “Bringing together adventure, yoga, massage and meditation takes you to a deeper lever of the primary experience, and helps clients to incorporate it into their inner growth,” she says. “Anytime we challenge ourselves in the outer world, we are challenging ourselves in the inner/personal world. To use the outside challenges as a metaphor for increasing our trust and our boundaries of comfort is just a practice for being able to live in an uncertain world, to be able to find a sense of centeredness and peace. I totally believe in the healing power of nature. You look at all these spas now who are trying to bring aspects of the outside in, and create these wonderful environments. I take clients to the original source.”

Johansen says that when most people take trips, they want it to be an experience, and they want to feel like they can return home having learned something. “I have a real passion for turning people on to experiencing the fullness of life through bodywork. I consider yoga, massage, hiking and rafting all ways of using your body to take in spirits. It’s feeling more alive. People are sometimes only half awake, and I want to wake them up

to all the sensations. There’s nothing like being a little scared at the top of a rapid, and then totally celebrating at the bottom. That’s taking in life. That’s a metaphor for going beyond, pushing your comfort level.”

Johansen hopes to inspire people through Alpenglow; to present them with an experience that provides life-long, life-supporting memories; and to enhance intercultural communication. “This may sound crazy, but I feel anytime we’re outside somewhere channeling in energy, love and light into our bodies, we’re blessing that area of the planet. I almost feel the earth is supporting us, and by us being there, we are supporting it.”

Location, Location, Location

Deborah Evans describes her spa’s transition four years ago from fat farm to adventure spa as a “no-brainer.” Red Mountain, The Adventure Spa is in an area of 89 percent public land. It is at the base of a 57,000-acre red rock canyon park, and within 20 minutes of 5,000 feet of elevation. “With our location,” she says, “I’m able to run four seasons on all of my programs except for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.”

For an outdoor enthusiast like Evans, Red Mountain can feel like nirvana. “If you like outdoor recreation, you can camp, hike, rock climb, repel, canyoneer and more. We are in the grand circle of national parks. We run trips to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.”

Unlike many spas that provide an inner sanctum for its clientele to disappear inside, Red Mountain invites its guest to experience all that’s available outside its doors. “Adventure is huge right now. The adventure market is a $98 million market that’s only been created in the past four to five years. Eighty-three percent of the industry is soft adventure, 17 percent hard. Most of the hard adventure has been international. With that change, people are looking to domestic adventure companies more. Those spas that cater to such have seen increases where others are having declining counts.”

Evans has also seen attendance rise because of a much older and much younger spa demographic, atypical to most industry standards. “Traditionally, the spa market is the baby boomer market. And the emphasis in spa has always been on stress management, and now there’s a huge impetus on anti-aging issues. We’ve seen a rise in participation by active seniors, and, for the first time, I’m seeing quite a few Gen Xers coming in who like outdoor recreation and adventure sports.”

Red Mountain is also experiencing a trend in increased male clientele. In fact, Evans predicts in the near future the spa will achieve a 60:40 ratio of women to men. “That’s huge for a spa because most have a male attendance at the 10 percent to 20 percent level.” Evans attributes this shift to the adventure spin and to the spa’s diversification in programming. “We’re not the old paradigm of dieting. We don’t have the food police. We teach self-responsibility and we take a moderate approach that is livable for people.”

Before this type of spa was created, Evans says people sought out adventure trips with outfitters and perhaps stayed at random hotels. “Now there’s a shift where people want that destination-type program and they really want a balance — they want the adventure but they don’t want to be camping out on the bank at night with sandwiches for a meal. They want to go outdoors. They want a full gourmet meal afterward. And they want a massage after a hard day. That’s been the beauty in where the two have come together. Spas are best at offering that pampering component, so when you put that with an outdoor component, it’s a natural. Many spas are located in beautiful natural settings, and they are just starting to take advantage of that by incorporating sporting activities.”

In Deborah Evans’ Utah or on one of Hanna Johansen’s many trips, you’re sure to find the adventure spa experience you desire. “All the trips create challenge, inspiration and the opportunity for clients to return home stronger and more supple than when they came, filled with a sense of gratitude for their bodies, their breath and their increased endurance,” Johansen says. Evans concurs, “With adventure spas people have the ability to have that A-ha! experience.”