The Corn Belt’s former weight loss destination has evolved into a holistic wellness mecca—but still delivers country charm in spades.

Courtesy The Heartland Spa

The Heartland Spa, a quaint retreat occupying 32 acres of Midwestern farm country in the tiny hamlet of Gilman, Illinois, first garnered national attention back in the early ’80s when it was a strict weight-loss facility.

As the story goes, in 1983, Steven Spielberg called the Heartland to page high-profile guest Oprah Winfrey and inform her that she was his choice for the lead role in the film The Color Purple. The then-actress had to cut short her stay, as Spielberg wanted her to be heavy for the part. But Winfrey, who went on to become one of the most influential and successful women in the world, has since raved about the spa on-air on several occasions.

And the Heartland has grown and succeeded as well, shedding its draconian approach by the late 1980s as major advances in the field of wellness led employees—almost all of whom are licensed nutritionists—to shift their focus. (In its early days, a stay at the Heartland meant submitting to a diet of about 1,000 calories a day, surrendering your car keys so that there was no chance of escaping to Gilman’s Dairy Queen and donning a pig-shaped lapel pin if you dared ask for a second helping of food.)

Today, management deems it far more beneficial to help guests spearhead positive lifestyle changes than to harp on restriction and rapid weight loss. Fad diets aren’t entertained here, nor are fleeting fitness crazes and newfangled spa trends. “Today, we serve a diet of about 1,500-1,800 calories a day, and we’ve made a conscious effort to provide a more educational, fun experience,” says Heartland’s health and fitness manager Kimberly Onnen.

Over the course of 27 years, the bucolic spa has indeed developed a reputation as an unpretentious, nurturing environment that inspires guests to make positive lifestyle changes as they experience the latest in fitness, nutrition and stress management.

The Road Home

Though the majority of spa guests hail from the nearby metropolises of Chicago (90 miles north), St. Louis and Indianapolis, the Heartland also attracts far-flung spa aficionados seeking a certain brand of escape that many other destination facilities can’t provide: the unparalleled tranquility offered by endless surrounding acres of golden-hued, vacant farm country and a level of support that a small town serves up best. Once a dairy farm, the Heartland first opened its doors in 1983 after a 10-month, $2 million renovation, during which an indoor pool and three-acre, man-made lake were installed as well as an underground tunnel leading from the Manor (a former farmhouse) to the Spa Barn (where repurposed stables serve as treatment rooms).

The Heartland’s small guest rooms are simple and cozy, and its manor, rife with wicker furniture, crocheted pillows and patriotic tchotchkes, has the air of a time-frozen grandmother’s home, rather than a state-of-the-art destination facility. According to Onnen, the décor contributes to the spa’s appeal.

“We want people to feel like they’re coming ‘home to The Heartland,’ ” she explains. “A judgment-free, low-key environment where there’s no attitude and no competition. We intentionally keep it simple.”

Up to 32 guests at a time—most often middle-aged gal pals, mother/daughter pairs and solo guests seeking serious unwinding—spend two to five days sans TVs, cell phones and other outside distractions. To nurture a strong support group, guests do almost everything together, including taking meals, morning walks and fitness classes.

“But the first rule of the Heartland is, you do as much or as little as you want, no pressure,” Onnen says. So while some guests flock to the front row of each yoga class, others prefer to while away time in front of the manor’s stately fireplace, reading between spa treatments and meals. Still others simply seek emotional rehabilitation.

“People tend to come back to us after experiencing the loss of a loved one, or after being diagnosed with a serious illness or having survived a disease,” Onnen says. “They’re seeking ways to continue to live healthfully, so we offer complimentary bereavement services with a licensed counselor.”
Guests also take part in motivational wellness seminars (popular choices include “Master Your Metabolism,” “How to Create Your Own Fitness Program,” “Laughter Yoga” and “Aromatherapy for Mind & Body”); participate in group exercise and stress management classes; and dine on fresh, low-fat meals and snacks prepared by Chef Barb Peters, who pairs her healthy fare with cooking demonstrations.

A 2:1 guest/staff ratio ensures that each client receives ample, personalized guidance throughout his or her stay. And the unofficial Heartland uniform—an oversized T-shirt and gray sweats provided to all guests—signals that vanity and pride (and by proxy, cosmetics, accessories and electronic devices) are inadvisable. The result is an added element of relaxation.

“Once you’re here, it doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, what you do or where you live. We find that people are more at ease, open-minded and comfortable this way,” Onnen says. “And if you do opt for makeup or jewelry, you’ll probably just have to take it right off for a spa treatment!”

All the Right Moves

Prior to a guest’s stay, Onnen and Peters will personally call to discuss any dietary restrictions, allergies, medical issues and fitness goals, and tailor all meals and exercise programs accordingly. Upon arrival, guests tour the fitness facilities, receive their schedules and then meet spa and salon director Tiffany Caputo, who explains the benefits of each treatment, performing mini-demonstrations.

“Education rules our spa philosophy,” Caputo says. “We don’t rely on special promotions or marketing strategies; it comes down to teaching our guests about their skincare needs, and how spa services can complement their wellness goals and help them relax.”

Once the floor is opened up to guest questions, most queries concern options such as the Heartland Barefoot Massage (60 min./$100), the Botanical Mud Wrap (45 min./$80), which is performed beneath a Vichy shower, and the most popular menu item, Ear Candling (45 min./$55).

According to Caputo, the majority of guests opt to receive much more than the 40-minute massage that’s included with their stay. The European Facial (60 min./$80) is a common choice, as is dressing up the basic massage treatment with extensions and add-ons such as aromatherapy, Raindrop Technique and scalp massage.

The spa menu remains constant, save for seasonal adjustments (fall’s Detoxifying Pumpkin Bliss Wrap [60 min./$125] is morphed into a Citrus Bliss treatment for warmer months). The facilities—a sauna, steam room and coed hot tub—are frills-free, open until midnight and serve as popular post-workout destinations. Because participants are more likely to integrate the Heartland’s principles at home if they discover activities they enjoy, the fitness schedule includes a wide variety of classes to try, such as aerobic interval training, Resistaball, yoga, cardio dance, Bosu training, Body Express (a euphemism for striptease aerobics), spinning, cross-country skiing and the perennial favorite, water aerobics.

The Heartland also emphasizes stress-management through its relaxation classes. A popular Friday night session of Tai Chi with a local master includes meditation and guided imagery, a discussion of improved communication strategies and ancient Qigong breathing exercises. Throughout the rest of the week, yoga stretching classes reinforce guests’ awareness of how daily tension accumulates and affects their overall attitude and well-being.

“We focus on the power of endorphins to boost mood and help guests to better function in all facets of daily life,” Onnen says. “We emphasize feeling good!”

A Steady Heartbeat

The Heartland often treads a thin line between day spa and destination facility, as its light weekday traffic leaves plenty of service time slots open for locals to fill. “Overnight guests are our priority,” Caputo says. “But we also offer special ‘Pampering Packages’ Monday through Thursday, for the community, to come in for a discounted massage, facial and nail service trio. That way, all spa departments can experience steady business.”

Likewise, fitness classes are offered to locals, though only during resident meal times, to ensure that program guests receive optimal personal attention. “We’ve also recently increased our community offerings,” Onnen says. “Local residents can receive meal-planning sessions, fitness consultations and metabolic assessments when we’re not taking care of program guests.”

According to Onnen, attendance has remained steady despite a struggling economy. “We started using Groupon and LivingSocial a couple of years ago to offer budget-friendly, one-night stays,” she says. “While we prefer that guests experience our more comprehensive programs, we certainly see a lot of new faces. We get more younger, fitter guests these days, and a lot of last-minute reservations.”

So what’s the Heartland’s formula for sustained success? “Truly taking care of repeat guests,” says Onnen. “We advertise some on the radio and in newspapers, but since we primarily rely on word-of-mouth referrals, our first priority is personal attention.” Plus, each full price–paying guest is automatically enrolled in a loyalty program that offers $100 off the ticket of a return trip, with a $50 reward if they bring a friend. “We try to constantly evolve our fitness programs to make them more personalized and up-to-date, but we don’t cut spa services, because we never want a returning guest to think, ‘They don’t have this anymore?! Oh, why’d I come?’” •

Katie O’Reilly is DAYSPA’s senior editor.

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