JUST LOOK at the figures: In 1980 only 60 hotels in the United States offered spa programs . During the 1980s, that figure doubled. By 1999, more than 400 hotels had some form of on-site spa facility, according to Spa Finders, a company specializing in booking spa trips.

"In recent years, spas have become to hotels and resorts what swimming pools were in the 1960s and golf courses were (and are) in the decades following," says Mary Tabacchi, PhD, professor of nutrition, wellness, and spa management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. "In fact, spas are one of the fast-growing segments of the hospitality industry."

It seems that every hotel worth its mineral salts is building or expanding a spa. And many properties catering predominantly to the meetings and incentives market are convinced that a spa is another draw for this market. What is behind this trend--and is it really a trend appealing to incentives groups, or just leisure travelers?

STRESS Reducers The major reason for the surge in spa facilities is stress, Tabacchi explains. As people become increasingly concerned about the havoc stress can wreak on their physical and mental well-being, they are looking for answers, for modes of stress reduction. And golf, the most popular business sport, is not always a stress reliever, notes Tabacchi, especially when one is trying to decide how to lose to the boss without being obvious about it, or if one is just having a bad day on the course.

"We had a meeting at a conference center/spa last week," reports Joan Eisenstodt of Washington, D.C.- based Eisenstodt Associates. "The group, all women who work in the field of economic development, thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work in an atmosphere that allowed them to relax and not fight the elements."

Certainly the increasing number of businesswomen has been a factor in the popularity and proliferation of spas. But men are also contributing to the cause as they quickly catch on to the spa phenomenon. According to the International SPA Association, 35 percent of the resort spa market is made up of men.

Indeed, as Generation X grows up, golf may no longer be the be-all and end-all of business meeting networking and fun. Says Nancy Robbins, of Massachusetts-based NDF Communications, "The younger groups are more experiential and health-conscious."

Elizabeth Zielinski, president of Virginia-based Meeting Horizons, concurs, adding, "The boom in the dot-coms has led to a younger clientele. This group doesn't see golf as the only way to skin a cat. Younger executives simply aren't inclined to squander more than four hours out of a valuable day making contacts on the golf course. It's not worth the return on investment as far as their time is concerned."

She adds, "Spas are a wonderful alternative that can provide opportunities for personal relaxation, stress reduction and networking through recreation, regardless of someone's age, gender, or background."

OVERCOMING Challenges Nonetheless, many business travelers still believe stereotypes when it comes to spas, thinking of them as proverbial "fat farms" featuring a regimen of carrot sticks and strenuous exercise. And many in the business world are interested in working out--not getting worked on, says Bonnie Weiss, director of pharmaceutical sales for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Old Greenwich, Conn.

But nowadays, "There is such a wide variety of spas to choose from. Some are European in nature, with luxurious decor and familiar treatments such as facials, body wraps, and Swedish massages," says Laura Gydesen, national sales manager for KSL. Others have a more holistic, Eastern feel, and some focus more on recreation than relaxation. "Because each spa has a different personality, you need to get a sense of what each one is about to choose a facility that matches your business culture," she says.

And where spas were once destinations in and of themselves, nowadays, the trend is for spa development within existing properties. The spa is not the sole focal point, but one more important component on the amenity menu available to guests.

"For the meeting planner, the presence of a spa becomes a qualifier," says Judy Singer, president and co-owner of Health Fitness Dynamics Inc., a spa-consulting firm in Pompano Beach, Fla. "A spa allows another option to help balance the conference agenda.

BENEFITS Abound "People are not just juggling plates these days," says John DeFontes, spa director at the Centre for Well-Being at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz. "They are juggling platters. Business travelers are looking for ways to create balance in their lives and wanting to learn lessons that they can apply in their everyday lives." That's why elements such as meditation, yoga, personal growth seminars, and stress management workshops have been added to many spa menus.

While many of these activities may seem individual in nature, all can be adapted to a group setting. And the creative incentive planner can work with a spa director to develop other group exercises ranging from wellness seminars and nutrition workshops to corporate olympics. For example, at The Centre for Well-Being, spa employees often lead "energy breaks" during coffee breaks. According to DeFontes, these five- to 15-minute sessions consist "of stretching and breathing exercises designed to wake everyone up and move the blood around."

Whether the transition between work and workout takes place during a business session or after hours, Singer says the payoff is "greater focus, leading to more alert meeting attendees and more productive meetings."