Group Therapy

When Christina Moore took a group of Cox Communications' top performers to Miami Beach last April, she noticed something unusual. "These were front-line employees -- people who normally do not go to resorts," says Moore, now the events manager with the Atlanta-based Cox's AutoTrader.com. While many of the 574 participants played golf, went shopping, and chose other recreational activities, she says, "A fair amount used the spa."

What happened next proved downright surprising, if not amazing. "The spa became its own bonding experience, teambuilding almost by default," says Moore. "We had several people enjoying the spa experience at once, some who'd never tried it before. We didn't have to make anything 'happen'; it was all right there. We just made the appointments."

Indeed, there was a time when spas were considered strictly luxuries. These days, more and more overworked attendees are discovering the benefits of getting wrapped up and rubbed down. In the process, spas are responding with creative takes on traditional teambuilding and evolving into powerful bonding opportunities in their own right.

A twist on the ropes course

A generation ago, such an evolution might have seemed frivolous, if not totally out of the question. Meetings were designed for work, not pleasure, and spa treatments were often deemed time-consuming and expensive, reserved for VIPs only.

That view changed, though, as several trends -- health and fitness, outdoor adventure, and the development of big, upscale meeting resorts -- crossed paths over the past decade. With the increase in larger, more upscale resorts came expanded hotel health and fitness centers. Planners took note, and as they did with sales and catering, began consulting spa personnel when putting together their meeting itineraries. All of these trends fell neatly into place when the concept of team-building came into being in the early '90s. It took a few years, but gradually people realized spas had a role to play in teambuilding. Spas could both assist in and offer rewards for competitive, bonding experiences. In the process, spas responded by adding new elements to the teambuilding experience.

"Teambuilding is one of our specialties, and we have access to those resources," says John DeFontes, spa director at the Centre for Well Being at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, AZ. But while DeFontes can arrange a ropes course exercise or mountain hike, he also offers groups an array of nontraditional bonding options. "If the meeting is very time intensive we can do a ten-minute group meditation break or give a presentation on office yoga, exercises you can do back at your cubicle," he says. "We'll work with whatever's sensible to the group size and time allocated to create a good experience."

Planners can also book traditionally spirited programs -- group Olympics, tepee building, ropes courses -- at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. "We have companies locally that we partner with," says Jill Eisenhut, director of the resort's Willow Stream spa. On the other hand, she says, why not bring a group together on a visionary hike? "We offer desert hikes with a leader who acts like a mediator, spurring conversation on things like personal goals, how to balance work and family life, and planning for the future," Eisenhut says. Typically groups will tie in a spa lunch, and then use the facility in the afternoon. "It's really a nice way to offer a spa experience without any pressure."

Beyond the cool amenities, exotic treatments, and quirky activities, just sharing the spa experience has become its own form of team- building. As director of conferences and special events for Billboard magazine, Michele Jacangelo plans six annual conferences related to the music and entertainment industries. Her attendees, many of them high-ranking record label executives, will buy out the spa for a day to entertain their special clients. "These people like to treat themselves nicely," she says. "They get a massage, sit by the pools, have drinks, and in the process do a little business."

Teambuilding through pampering

More than ever, spas are becoming both the means and the end to promoting team spirit for corporate groups.

Sandy Kinto of the Newport Beach-based Site Konnection recalls one memorable bonding experience involving the Golden Door Spa at the Wyndham Peaks Resort in Telluride, CO. "They had us come to the spa for a party in bathrobes and slippers," she says, had set up a bar, food stations, a prize wheel for spa treats, and were performing massages. "In our robes and slippers, everyone looked and felt like equals, and everyone relaxed and enjoyed themselves," she says.

Creativity is what spa director Jennifer Elton touts about her role at the Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, AZ. "Many planners will say, 'We want to spend this amount on one treatment plus gratuity,' yet they don't have any idea what else we can offer them," she says.

In the case of Lynn Rosenthal and her spousal group from the Young Presidents Organization, that meant a cattle drive. After flying in from Los Angeles, the group spent a few hours herding cows, then returned to the Sanctuary for a meeting, cardio-funk class, and a well-earned round of massages. "It was hysterical," says Rosenthal, adding that the group also came together over good food. "They don't have a spa menu, they have the same food from the main resort's menu," she says, "so we bonded right up to the last night and the last chocolate souffle."