More and more hotels are building spas, perceiving them as a lure not just for leisure travelers, but for meeting attendees as well.

CONSIDER the figures: In 1980, only 60 hotels and resorts offered spa programs in the United States. During the 1980s, that figure doubled. By 1999, more than 400 hotels offered some form of on-site spa facility, according to Spa Finders, which specializes 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," claims 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 that cater pre-dominantly to the corporate meetings and incentives market are convinced that a spa is another draw for this market. What is behind this trend, and does it really appeal to meetings groups, or just to 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."

The increasing number of business women 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 (iSPA, www.experienceispa.com), 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. Notes Nancy Robbins, of Boston-based NDF Communications, "The younger groups are much more experiential. And they are more health conscious."

Elizabeth Zielinski, the president of Fairfax, Va.-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 a good return on investment as far as their time is concerned."

She adds that "as executives and meeting attendees become more diverse, so do their interests. And that is why you are seeing such a proliferation of spas. 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 in stereotypes when it comes to spas, thinking of them as proverbial "fat farms" - stand-alone facilities featuring a regimen of carrot sticks and strenuous exercise. Other outdated perceptions are that spas are for the rich and famous or just for women.

Moreover, many in the business world have yet to be sold on the merits of spas as places for serious meetings. Bonnie Weiss, director of pharmaceutical sales for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Old Greenwich, Conn., says the groups she deals with may want health clubs and/or fitness centers, but not spas per se. In other words, most of her clients are interested in working out - not getting worked on. Says Weiss, "People generally don't have the time for spa services, or they just aren't familiar with the philosophy behind spas."

But these days spas are much more than diet centers or places for massages and manicures for the R&R set. In the 1990s, spas have evolved into centers of fitness, wellness, relaxation, and invigoration for travelers young and old, male and female, leisure and business. Spas now continually update their offerings with new treatments, workshops, and services.

"There is such a wide variety of spas to choose from. Some are European in nature, with luxurious marble decor and familiar treatments such as facials, body wraps, and Swedish massages," says Laura Gydesen, national sales manager for KSL (the parent company of such well-known spas as Hawaii's Grand Wailea, California's La Quinta, and the Spa at Doral in Florida). 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 in order to choose a facility that matches with 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. In other words, the spa is not the sole focal point, as it is at destination spas such as Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., but one more 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 based in Pompano Beach, Fla. "A spa allows another option to help balance the conference agenda. Meeting planner Janet Cone, of Boston-based JMC Associates, concurs. "I look at the spa as just one more alternative for recreation," says Cone. "And it serves as a great balance to golf."

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 they want to learn lessons that they can apply in their everyday life." 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 meeting planner can work with a spa director to develop other active group exercises, ranging from wellness seminars to nutrition workshops to creative recreation such as Corporate Olympics or other teambuilding programs.

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, be it of a physical or psychological nature, takes place during the course of a business session or after hours, Health Fitness Dynamics' Singer says the payoff "is greater focus, which will lead to more alert meeting attendees and more productive meetings."