On a still, sun-drenched afternoon last May, Miraval, Arizona’s iconic “pleasurable wellness” mecca, gathered board members, loyal guests and press (DAYSPA included) to officially unveil its contemporary new Life in Balance spa facility. The poignant ceremony, set to the tune of Tibetan singing bowl beats and ancient Hopi chants, was a celebration in speeches and song. Sage aromatically burned while onlookers cheered, toasting the happy occasion with champagne (unlike your average health spa, Miraval accommodates indulgences like wine, lattes and cookies).
Company CEO Philippe Bourguignon enthusiastically thanked the spa’s staff—all of whom had operated out of a makeshift spa village for 10 months, helping to prepare the new spa—as well as the many designers and artists who’d had a hand in creating the serene new space, and representatives from Clarins, the French skincare company whose recent partnership with Miraval helped make the new facility possible. Bourguignon ended by noting that the new spa’s philosophy—“intuitive minimalism”—means providing “everything guests need, but nothing more.”
Indeed, with a focus on simplicity and sustainability, the new spa is an understated palace of slate, glass and desert-inspired artwork. The structure reflects the raw beauty of its Sonoran surrounds via eco-savvy design flourishes such as a recycled papier-mâché wall meant to represent the Earth’s surface, and the fallen cedar tree trunk that was repurposed into a reception desk.
This stark brand of elegance is a far cry from Miraval’s previous spa facility, a kitschy Western-style structure that originally served as part of the famed Sierra Tucson’s drug and alcohol rehab facility. Now a hotbed of personal growth and integrative health, this space has come a long way since those beginnings in 1995. (In fact, encouraging constructive behavior and choices that help prevent trauma such as addiction is a core component of Miraval’s mission.)
This recent ribbon-cutting was the culmination of 10 years’ planning and two years of concerted action. More developments—all intended to further facilitate “joyful wellness,” as spa director Simon Marxer puts it—are also underway for Miraval. —Katie O'Reilly
Creating a structure that could better convey the indigenous appeal of Miraval’s surroundings—the desert foothills of the Catalinas outside Tucson—was the team’s guiding principle, according to Marxer. “That’s a huge part of what guests come here for,“ he says. “They arrive from the East Coast, and they feel like they’re on Mars.” Hence the new spa’s simplistic indoor lounges (where the focus is centered on mountainous views), reflecting pools and the tribal fire bowls that are set ablaze in the al fresco lounges come nightfall.
Another crucial objective? Getting guests to turn their focus inward. To that end, the team devised a deceptively large, labyrinthine space meant to help transition guests’ attention from the outside world to the here-and-now. There’s even a “portal,” flanked in reclaimed barnwood, dividing the reception area from treatment rooms. “In our old facility, there was no transitional space between the lobby and treatment rooms, which have totally different energies,” Marxer says. “Here, we try to gradually alter the setting with lighting and furnishings as you proceed into the treatment area, so guests can really become present and connect with their breath before they get onto the table.”
The advent of the new spa also gave the team reason to seriously up its sustainability ante. Many a piece of repurposed furniture has found a home in the new spa, and when the team did have to seek new furnishings, they employed materials such as Resista, a wood substitute made from rice husks, and Floorfolio, cushioned flooring made largely from post-consumer recycled materials. “Without a doubt, guests are now looking for these things,” Marxer reports. “They want to connect with a spa brand whose values align with their own.”
All 70 of the spa’s therapists can speak to these upgrades knowledgeably. “It’s something they’re all trained to discuss,” Marxer says, “because service providers are the ones talking to guests. They are our greatest ambassadors.”
Over the course of Miraval’s tremendous overhaul, therapists themselves served as real catalysts for change. Following the 2010 union with Clarins, the two companies’ trainers and therapists went to work devising 30—yes, 30—treatments to debut in the new spa. Among these additions to Miraval’s (already considerably sized) menu are: Mountain Berry Clay Renewal (100 min./$285), an exfoliation featuring sustainably harvested bamboo coupled with an antioxidant berry wrap; Nâga Thai Massage (50, 100 min./$215, 285), which employs richly colored silk suspensions to help deepen stretches; and the Grounding Facial (70 min./$225), essentially a hot stone massage for the face. All new treatments were initially dreamt up by core teams of seasoned therapists, who had to sell management and trainers on each idea, modifying until the entire spa staff was on board.
This eclectic menu mix is typical for Miraval, longtime home of Spirit Flight (110 min./$375), a renowned “letting go” ceremony performed by an energy healer using singing bowls, prayer, massage and acupuncture; and Bountiful Earth (100 min./$285), a body ritual involving indigenous ingredients from four different continents; and, of course, Dr. Andrew Weil’s well-known Integrative Health Program. Here, spa services are meant to challenge the body, open the mind and restore the spirit. Upon arrival, guests must sign a waiver indicating that they’re willing to push themselves physically and emotionally (and another one stipulating that they won’t use cell phones on property!).
Throughout the day, it’s not uncommon to witness guests thoughtfully staring off into the postcard-worthy mountain scene, or engaging in philosophical banter at the juice bar. Come nightfall, Miraval airs documentaries exploring the phenomena of happiness and other transcendent topics. For clients likes these, who approach spa-going somewhat like a TED conference, Marxer has found it best to create challenging services clients would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
“During the recession, we’d try to introduce trends like mini-services, but no one would book them!” he says. “Guests started to come less often, but they continued to book our most one-of-a-kind, $200- and $300-plus treatments. So we now focus entirely on exclusivity and uniqueness, differentiating these services as much as possible with our menu descriptions.”
As a result, creativity and individuality among staff members is highly encouraged. There’s no script to follow, and customizing services, even when that means straying from protocol, is permitted. Along with management, therapists themselves interview and test prospective hires—one must deliver three treatments deemed successful by consensus to make the cut—and new hires are immediately paired with experienced mentors. It’s safe to say that Marxer is a believer in massaging internal spa resources for overall improvement.
He strongly cautions against incorporating a spa trend just because it “happens to be newsworthy for a moment. Guests will be able to tell when it’s gimmicky.” Miraval ensures authenticity by devising treatments that truly harness therapists’ talents. For example, craniosacral therapy was only added because an acupuncturist on staff had vast experience performing the service on dolphins. “She was really passionate and very talented, so we gave it a go,” Marxer says. It’s now among Miraval’s most celebrated offerings.
Preparing the staff for the recent grand opening was no small undertaking. “Six hours of training for each of 30 services for about 70 therapists—it was an enormous task,” Marxer recalls. And for the 10 months leading up to the grand opening, Miraval had no working spa, but rather a makeshift “spa village” set up in a cluster of resort guest rooms. Interestingly, guests “actually didn’t seem to notice, and business didn’t drop at all,” Marxer reports. “That was one of my team’s greatest accomplishments.” The spa had the interior designer in charge of the new facility appoint the temporary spa village in the same aesthetic. “It just got guests excited for us,” Marxer says.
How did Miraval manage to launch a major expansion and renovation during the recession, when many other spas were forced to downsize? Marxer cites positive press attention and diehard guest loyalty. “Editorial stuff has been huge for us,” he says. “We’ve won some prestigious awards [including DAYSPA’s Top Destination Spa of 2011] and we’ve been fortunate to curry favor with Dr. Oz.” Indeed, TV’s pre-eminent wellness magnate often calls upon the spa to divulge tips on wellbeing and demonstrate cutting-edge treatments.
Miraval also has the benefit of having passionate, unwitting advocates dispersed throughout the country. “People tend to have breakthroughs here,” Marxer explains, “and that’s so indelibly stamped into their emotional memories that they come back again and again, then push their companies to host retreats here, or suggest us to friends and family for reunions.” (The flip side of this is, guests tend to grow extremely attached to factors such as their particular therapists, treatment rooms and guest rooms, rendering the accommodation of repeat visitors a bit of a juggling act!)
Perhaps Miraval guests enjoy such memorably distinct experiences because there is no prescribed experience or plan here. With its dizzying array of spa rituals, fitness offerings, adventures and artistic opportunities guests truly chart their own ways. Thus, “Personal breakthroughs arise organically,” Marxer says.
“The decisions we make and the behaviors we choose have much more to do with our well-being than any prescribed routine,” he continues. “Some people come to sit by the pool and have cocktails, without a lick of exercise or introspection, while others confront physical and emotional fears head-on. At different times in life you need different things.”
After all, when guests go back home, they’ll be confronted with critical life choices every day. Miraval not only proffers countless routes to improved well-being, but it aims to get guests thinking harder about using less, and living sustainably and ever more mindfully. “Just as life is what you make it,” Marxer says, “a Miraval experience is how you interpret it.”
Open since: 1995
Size: 16,000 square feet
Facilities: Reception; boutique; quiet room; his-and-hers locker rooms with steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi; outdoor women’s lounge; 23 treatment rooms (including 6 outdoor and 4 wet rooms); VIP spa suite; 3 pedi/2 mani stations; Naga Studios; Aqua Zen pool; outdoor hot tubs and reflexology pool
No. of employees: About 70
Product lines: Body Bliss, Clarins, Dr. Dennis Gross, EmerginC, Red Flower
Most popular treatments: Acupuncture, reflexology, Spirit Flight, Thai massage
Katie O’Reilly is DAYSPA’s managing editor.
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