Columbia runs spa? There's the rubdown

Quasi-governmental homeowners group operates facility

April 01, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The lighting is dim, the music New Age. The business at hand hardly seems the stuff of local government. Aromatherapy. Sea-salt scrubs. Reflexology. Bikini waxes.

The Columbia Association, which runs the Day Spa at Columbia Gym, isn't technically a government, though it often acts like one.

It charges an annual property assessment. It participates in the Sister Cities exchange program. For years, it ran a bus service.

Add to that municipal-sounding mix a day spa. It opened in December 1998 and is on track to make its first profit in the fiscal year that ends April 30.

Day spas have popped up all over the country during the past decade, a trend that industry experts say has been driven by baby boomers with the means and inclination to pamper themselves.

But few other spas, if any, are run by homeowners associations, said Hannelore R. Leavy, president of the Day Spa Association, a trade group based in West New York, N.J. "Usually they are privately owned," she said. "That's very unusual."

Offering six styles of massage and exotic skin and body treatments such as the "oxygen-energizing deep-pore facial," the Columbia spa reflects not just the breadth of Columbia Association enterprises but also Columbia's evolution from everyman 'burb to affluent enclave.

"It's part of our wellness," said Nancy Kipke, 46, of Ellicott City, as she waited for Mocha Java Mauve polish to dry on her nails Friday.

The mother of 6- and 9-year-old boys and a part-time marketer of technology services, Kipke treats herself to manicures, eyebrow waxes, massages and facials.

"Massages are really therapeutic. We should have them weekly," she said with a laugh.

The spa is in a gym in River Hill, Columbia's newest and wealthiest village. Unlike older parts of town, River Hill has no subsidized housing or apartments.

What it does have is people who can shell out $100 for a 90-minute "spa sampler."

In line with other amenities

Rob Goldman, vice president of the association's sport and fitness division, noted that the prices are in keeping with some of the more traditional amenities the association offers.

"It doesn't cost any more for an hour of services at the day spa than for an hour of golf lessons," he said.

The prices might not raise eyebrows, but the services certainly aren't run-of-the-mill association fare.

Take the honey-milk wrap body treatment.

Aesthetician Felicia Northrop applies a paste made from oatmeal and tomatoes, adds a honey-milk mixture, then cranks up a heat lamp for 12 minutes.

What sounds like misguided fusion cuisine is one of the most relaxing hours money can buy, says Northrop.

It costs $66, or $88 for the 90-minute version.

Hard to find

The spa is open to the public, though members of Columbia Association health clubs get a discount on services.

Tucked in the lower level of the gym, the spa's biggest problem is that many people don't know it is there, employees said.

Goldman said the spa did not break even last year. He declined to be more specific.

A more detailed account cannot be found in association budget documents because the spa's finances are not separated from those of the health club.

For the fiscal year that ends April 30, the spa is projected to have revenues of $275,000 and expenses of $250,000, Goldman said. "It's improved, and it's serving a good amount of people, and it's making a little bit of money," said Goldman.

Making a profit is no easy task in the $5 billion-a-year spa industry, said Ken Ryan, editor in chief of Spabusiness.com, an online trade magazine.

"So many of them have cropped up," he said. "It's not an easy business to be profitable in, because it's so labor-intensive.

"Payroll expense is like 50 percent, because everybody who comes in needs a person to work on them."

Competitors aren't worried

The competition does not seem to mind that the Columbia Association spa has a homeowners association to subsidize it if the business doesn't make a profit.

Right around the corner from the spa, Lutfi's International Salon and Spa has to turn people away on some Saturdays.

"There's enough business for everybody," said Lutfi's manager, Lisa Vaccaro.

Since December, the spa has been managed by Rita Sherman of Ellicott City and Joanne Shagogue of Long Reach, both of whom worked at the association's Supreme Sports Club for more than a decade.

They have a staff of about 30, all of them part-timers.

Quick learners

Neither Sherman nor Shagogue had professional spa experience before taking the job.

But they said they quickly learned the business by studying trade magazines such as Spa Finder and Nail Pro.

The staff members who provide services all have professional training and certifications, and they have been a big help to the two managers, both said.

Now Sherman and Shagogue sound like a couple of old pros, discussing the merits of a new massage technique that might not make it to the spa.

It involves having hot rocks placed on the body.

Sitting beside a scented candle and a bubbling tabletop fountain, Sherman said the spa's work environment is "very good for our blood pressure.

"It's a whole different world of relaxation."

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