The opportunity to run a spa was a dream a long time in coming. Mike and I had talked about opening a day spa-yoga center when we first moved to Napa in 1980. I would do massage and bodywork and we would both teach yoga. We would have a tea room, a meditation room, and have classes and community-building events. I never let go of the dream, even as the years passed and other parts of the dream fell to the wayside. Over the years, as I worked as a massage therapist in five different high-end spas, I made note of what worked and what didn’t in each one. I paid attention to the flow of the designs and ease of movement that each one afforded the therapists. As I worked, I made mental notes of how the various treatment protocols worked, and how they didn’t; sometimes I found ways to do them that were both more beneficial to the clients and easier on the therapists. I paid a lot of attention to what the clients liked or didn’t like about each spa. As a therapist, I was well aware of the inferior treatment and low pay that the therapists received. With my return to the Napa Valley, I now had my chance to bring it all together and try to create the ideal spa—one that was a wellness center and that also treated the therapists well. I wanted it to be a place where people would line up at the front door to get in and therapists would line up at the back door to work there.
For the next three years I built and maintained a great team at the spa and we all created something to be proud of. We had the best in completely organic products– some of them made especially for us. I created innovative treatments from the old standard ones and gave the therapists a chance to shine by being on the Master List and offering their specialty treatments. We became a spa on the cutting edge of the industry. We were written about in many magazines, filmed for a few television programs, and I was asked on more than a few occasions to give presentations to various facets of the spa world. The days were long and there were too many long days in a row, but I was happy in the rhythm I had created for myself.
It took me a couple of years to figure out that the owners of the spa had never expected it to be successful, and perhaps they had never wanted it to be. I started getting resistance at every turn. Decisions began to be made that were in direct conflict with allowing the spa to grow and expand. Like a fish swimming upstream, I kept moving forward against the flowing current, determined to keep the dream alive.
After three years, I was offered what I thought would be my dream job. A resort in the California Sierra Nevada was building what was to be a Platinum LEED-certified spa and they wanted me to be the Spa Director. Here was my opportunity to take what I had learned so far, apply it to another venue and increase my expertise in the process. And, I would get to do it living and working just outside Yosemite.
Right from the beginning, I had been told by the resort’s General Manager that he had no idea about running a spa. This was made evident repeatedly as I discovered how the spa had been designed and what decisions had been made by the people who had been contracted to set it up. It was obviously a case of the purchasing people not talking to the design/construction team, and all of them seeing an opportunity to spend a lot of someone else’s money. I saved the spa $14,000 on my first day merely by changing the style of massage tables. Why pay for electric tables when there were no floor outlets in which to plug them? I will never be able to reconcile the fact that the spa was designed with no doors to the separate the men’s and women’s locker rooms. Even the fact that I stopped a man walking into the shower area of the women’s locker room (as teen-age girls were in the showers) did not motivate the addition of doors.
It was more than the physical design that prevented me from realizing the full potential of the spa as a destination resort. I had designed retreat programs that were to be held throughout the following year. The test retreat was the gathering of various public relations people, travel and spa writers, and leaders of various spa-related groups that was held as the grand opening. It was a resounding success, and we received a lot of positive publicity for it. In my mind, all we had to do was wait for the year to unfold, allow people the time to make their plans to come, and in the following year we would be well on our way. In three years I think we would have been a well-known world class spa.
The resort was owned by an extremely large corporation headquartered in the Eastern U.S., and if the local General Manager didn’t know anything about spas, the corporate leaders knew even less. It was as though I were speaking in a completely different language. To deaf ears. They were used to having instant payback on investment, and try as I could, I couldn’t get them to see that a spa is not the same as a T-shirt shop or a hot dog stand. It isn’t just put the stuff in the store and people will come in and buy it; it’s an entire culture that needs to be developed. The development of a spa takes time, and the fact that this one was up in the mountains with no local foot traffic and people traveling with Yosemite as the focal point of the trip meant that it would take even more time. That didn’t seem to matter, and the machinations that began to happen in the corporate maze to force the issue and get the money in the door began to wear away at the integrity of the spa. More importantly, it began to wear away at my personal integrity.
I am not a quitter. Among other situations throughout my life, I stayed in a marriage for a full five years longer than I probably should have in order to keep working, keep trying, and keep hoping for a change for the better. It took longer than it could have, but I got myself through school on my own. My way of doing things is to stay with what I have set out to do until I have exhausted every possibility, and usually I have been successful at coming to a good resolve. But, as with my marriage, the time came at the spa when I needed to take a good hard look at the situation. One evening, at the end of one of my regular ten-hour days, long after all the other managers had gone home, I closed my office door, turned off my computer, and sat there allowing myself to clearly assess the situation.
I was being put in a situation where, in order to defend the principles by which we had opened and advertised the spa and its products and programs, I had to go up against many people who had little knowledge of the spa culture but a great investment in the corporate one. The scenario was straightforward: the spa would not fulfill its potential because it would not be given the natural course of time to do so; its failure to do so would rest with me as the Spa Director, not with those who prevented me from doing what was not only best for the spa, but also would in all likelihood ensure its success. I could, as I saw other managers at the resort do, sit back and take the money and not really invest myself in the operation of the spa. It would have been easy to give way to the decisions being made, without any consultation with me as the Spa Director, which grasped at the straws of immediate gratification by infringing on the integrity of what we said we were. In other words, I could allow myself to become merely the face and the voice of a huge lie.
As I sat there, I made certain that all the anger was out of my system. I imagined two lists in the air in front of me, not wanting to bring myself out of my steadiness even to write something down. On the one side, I saw my personal and professional integrity. On the other side, I saw the money, the prestige, my cute little cottage in the hills, the end of my thirty-year dream, and the future that had nothing else in it if I left. For each and all of those, I saw that they did not outweigh the one thing on the other side. Better the end of a dream than a dream destroyed and my integrity with it. I calmly turned on my computer, and wrote my resignation letter.
(Addendum) Five years later, the lack of corporate integrity became apparent to the general public as it was announced the the corporation, while it had been hired to run the service areas at Yosemite National Park, had surreptitiously copyrighted the names of the most important and well-known places in the Park; names that had stood as symbols of the Park since its inception. Now, in 2016, having been replaced by another company, they are suing to have all the names removed from the Park. It’s a $55 million lawsuit that never should have happened.