Spa Vacations for Men: The New Executive Perk

FOR ONE WEEK this summer, the crowd at Cal-a-Vie, a Provençal-style wellness resort spread over 600 acres of chaparral in Southern California, looked…different. “We had a corporate retreat here and it was 90% men,” recalled Terri Havens, who owns Cal-a-Vie with her husband, John. “Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t get a guy to come in. We never dreamed we would see the day when we had more men than women here.”

Circular reasoning was at work. “My image was of a bunch of ladies in robes getting their nails and their hair done,” said Peter Shaper, a founding partner of a Houston private-equity firm. And that image—widespread as it was—kept men away: Guys didn’t go because they thought guys didn’t go. Mr. Shaper’s wife, who frequented spas with her mother and sister, spent years trying to convince him to join her on a trip, emphasizing the fitness and sport options, rather than the ylang-ylang-scented pampering. Eventually he went along to Arizona’s Canyon Ranch, among the biggest names in American wellness retreats.

The verdict? “She was right,” he said. He hiked, biked and did a boot camp class. “I didn’t do any facials. I may have gotten a massage. At first I wasn’t even that excited about that part.” It was enough to entice him to try other spas with her, including Cal-a-Vie, which has long been trying to beckon guys like Mr. Shaper. Cal-a-Vie co-owner John Havens had “really rich leather boxing bags made for boxing class and he [added] rowing machines and TRX and then serious hikes. Macho stuff,” said Ms. Havens. Even the spa offerings took on a testosterone tinge. “Instead of a mani-pedi,” she added, “it’s now a hand and foot sports conditioning.”

Mr. Shaper’s first visit to Cal-a-Vie was followed by another, with the business leadership group YPO, the Young Presidents’ Organization. After that, he came back again, and then again. Friends—fellow CEOs and entrepreneurs—began to take notice. “I’d get some ribbing about it, but eventually I said “Look, you guys will be shocked. You need to try it.” Among those he converted: Chris Papouras, an oil industry executive, who had long written off the male spa experience as a “metrosexual boondoggle.” Instead, he found it to be an “intense, physical experience,” the only lowlight of which was “recognizing how out of shape I am.” That recognition spurred a life-changing return to fitness, and a return visit.

While guys still constitute the minority of spa-goers, the industry’s efforts to lure more men are paying off. At Primland, a resort in southern Virginia where activities include hunting, recreational tree climbing (it’s a thing) and motor sports, males have gone from just 10% of the spa’s customer base when it opened seven years ago to 42% today. Golden Door, a hyperluxe Southern California wellness retreat styled like a Japanese ryokan, has seen a nearly 70% jump in male clientele since 2012, said general manager Kathy Van Ness. The spa resort now offers a Men’s Camp Week—think sleep-away camp with herbal wraps and ultracompetitive water volleyball—six times a year, up from just twice in 2012. Looking ahead, she added, “I think we could get to 10.”

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