Canyon Ranch Is Fit for the Future

Its founders may have retired, but CMO Kathleen Shea says Canyon Ranch is just getting started

A stroll through any U.S. city or suburb tells you everything you need to know about what's important to the average American. On one street corner there's a yoga studio. On another there's a CrossFit gym. Three doors down in one direction is a vitamin shop. Three doors down in the opposite direction is a juice bar. And scuttling past it all each day? A steady stream of joggers out for their morning, mid-day, or evening run.

Clearly, America enjoys being healthy. That wasn't always the case, however. Just a few short decades ago, fitness was a four-letter word to everyone but bodybuilders and Olympians. That changed in 1979, when husband-and-wife team Melvin and Enid Zuckerman joined forces with close friend Jerrold Cohen to open the original Canyon Ranch wellness resort in Tucson, AZ, helping to ignite a health-and-wellness revolution that has transformed America from a nation that loathed nutrition and exercise into a nation that loves them.

Nearly 40 years later, in March 2017, the founders announced their retirement. Their legacy, however, remains. And so does the Canyon Ranch brand, which promises to continue growing and prospering under the leadership of CEO Susan Docherty, who joined Canyon Ranch in 2015 and has since expanded her leadership team to include new additions like Chief Marketing Officer Kathleen Shea. On the eve of a new epoch for Canyon Ranch, Successful Meetings spoke with Shea about the history and future of Canyon Ranch, the evolution of wellness and wellness travel, and the continued growth of healthy meetings.

Almost everyone who's even vaguely interested in wellness has heard of Canyon Ranch, but few people actually know its history. Can you share the resort's origin story?

Our premier health and wellness resort began almost 40 years ago with an "aha" moment by our founder, Mel Zuckerman. It really came out of a personal story and experience. He had health issues, so he chose what we would call today a "fat farm" to address those health issues. There was a lot of deprivation at those places -- a lot of low-calorie diets and aerobic exercise -- and that's what Mel experienced. He found it was work; it was not a vacation. It was not an experience that he wanted for himself or for others. So with the encouragement of his wife, they were inspired to launch Canyon Ranch Tucson in 1979, and that really was the beginning of an entire movement of wellness as we know and call it today.

Which begs the question: What is "wellness," exactly? It's a buzzword, but what does it mean at Canyon Ranch? 

Really, it's defined by each person. It's a lifestyle. At Canyon Ranch we are distinguished by our integrative approach, treating the whole person, including the mind, body, and spirit. We have five pillars of health that are the foundation of everything we do: health and healing, fitness and movement, food and nutrition, mind and spirit, and spa and beauty. So, wellness for us is about treating the whole person and leveraging our team of experts -- doctors, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and chefs, all working together -- to provide optimal health for our guests. 

Canyon Ranch really pioneered the concept of wellness travel. Why do you think has that concept caught on so well?

If you look at the statistics from the Global Wellness Institute: Out of a $3.7 trillion multifaceted wellness economy, wellness tourism is the fastest growing piece. It's caught on, I think, because people are looking for -- as I did when I was a road warrior -- a place where they can achieve work/life balance by having healthy meals and fitness and opportunities for mindfulness. It's about much more than going to a spa. It is allowing guests to tap into their bodies and, ultimately, to transform their lives. 

Canyon Ranch has been around for nearly 40 years. How has the brand changed in that time? 

The landscape has evolved and we continue to be innovative. What we offer now is more relevant than ever. One of the areas that we've spent a lot of time and focus on is our culinary program. Our culinary program has evolved into a much more collaborative effort between nutritionists, food development experts, chefs, and local farmers. This is very important to our guests. Also, in 2014 we launched our Spiritual Wellness Center, which really was a response to people looking for a stronger connection to themselves, others, their loved ones, nature, and the divine, if they so choose. I think that whole sense of mindfulness, which is now very much front and center in the minds of our guests, is another great area of evolution for the brand.

Speaking of evolution: Canyon Ranch's founders have retired, leaving the brand in the hands of a new leadership team, of which you are a part. What does this change in leadership portend for Canyon Ranch?

We have a tremendously talented leader, our CEO Susan Docherty. She and the executive team that she has appointed -- including myself -- are fully committed to the mission of Canyon Ranch and to continuing to lead in the wellness area. But we also brought on executives like myself with hospitality experience, and we really want to continue to elevate the hospitality aspect of the experience. We're also looking at a number of other areas to develop and extend the brand. We're looking at urban locations, for example, and we're looking for healthy culinary concepts to launch potentially as standalone restaurants. We're pursuing expansion of our "At Sea" product that's currently offered on 20 cruise ships. And we are also looking to serve new markets, like potentially families. There's a lot that's in the development pipeline, and we're really excited about the future.

Obviously, leisure travelers have really embraced wellness travel. What about the group market?

We've had some great success and look forward to even more with meeting and event planners. We're more than a relaxation or spa venue; we give attendees tools to leave the meeting and have more work/life balance, which then is going to go back in their work situations and make them more productive. Feeling better produces better results. All those things work in our favor. 

Meeting planners like our program because it's all-inclusive. Everything is self-contained. One thing that people really respond to is the opportunity to disconnect. Everybody's on their devices 24/7. Meeting planners and attendees love our program because it gives them the opportunity to take a break from the hyper-connected environment we're in. Another thing we offer that meeting planners love is opportunities to build a sense of community. Teambuilding is really important to planners and we can provide a variety of activities to help them accomplish that. For example, we offer a demo kitchen where you can have a hands-on learning experience about the healthy foods that you're eating when you're on-property. Or we can do a ropes course, or hiking or canoeing. These are things that make us unique and have made us popular with the meeting planning community.

You offered a glimpse of where Canyon Ranch as a brand is going next. What about health and wellness as an industry? What trends should meeting planners be watching if they want to stay on the cutting edge of healthy meetings?

In terms of meetings, there will be a focus going forward on the refinement of venues. The meeting space itself will be promoting wellbeing in terms of the airflow and the lighting and even the seating, which will move away from the traditional. I think people are interested in a connection to nature, so there will be more opportunities for meetings and conversations to take place in a more informal way outdoors. And as I said, work/life balance is very, very critical to people, so I think the industry will continue to look for ways to provide people with at-home and at-work tools to keep themselves healthy and ensure peak performance. Those are all areas that will continue to be very prevalent in the space.