Insider's Guide to Spas
Mary-Elizabeth Gifford


On Spiritual Architecture with Mary-Elizabeth Gifford

Mary Bemis

Equal parts entrepreneurial and collaborative, she has worked as a Strategic Advisor with some of the world’s leading destination spas, as well as on the green side of the beauty and skincare business. She is one of the most trusted names working in global health, wellness, and spa today.

Insider’s: You’ve worked behind-the-scenes on so many innovative projects. You are known for your collaborative work ethic and gift for global team building. Given the international scope of your work, which organization do you believe best speaks to Spa Culture?

Mary-Elizabeth Gifford: Rancho La Puerta in Baja California sets the standard for how all spas — and for how all modern business — should be judged.

Insider’s: Where do you go when you need to unplug?

MEG: The truest spa experience is the one that resonates within for days, weeks, and months after one has returned to home and life. I find myself making a regular pilgrimage to a place deep in the interior of Jamaica, a 2,500-acre farm named Pantrepant, which is Welsh for “house on a hill in the valley.” From the moment of arrival the origin of the name immediately becomes clear, as the Pantrepant farmhouse sits on a knoll of grasses surrounded by a sea of lush green valleys, pastures, and farmland all fed by the pure headwaters of the Martha Brae River and circled by the slopes and foothills of mountains in a seemingly perpetual state of bloom.

Insider’s: You serve on a number of pretty impressive Boards, including the non-profit Demeter, Stanford University’s Center for Responsible Travel, and the Washington Spa Alliance (WSPA). What is the thread that weaves these three together, and how does your approach reflect your business ethic?

MEG: All three boards work to make the world happier, healthier, greener and more prosperous through conscious capitalism and social entrepreneurship. I have always believed in bringing an interdisciplinary approach to organizational culture by forging close links between management, staff, strategic partners, influencers, and stakeholders alike.

Biodynamic is a system of agriculture considered “beyond organic” and Demeter is the non-profit that sets the standards and certifies all Biodynamic agriculture, wine, and products in America; the Center for Responsible Travel is a research and advocacy group which recognizes the World Bank finding that travel is the world’s largest economic sector and then looks closely at issues of economic justice, and the Washington Spa Alliance encourages the $12 Billion a year spa industry to engage in a more meaningful way with the public policy issues of our time.

Insider’s: How do you define “Spa Culture?”

MEG: Spa culture is the shared spiritual architecture that guides our work, re-awakening an awareness in ourselves and others to the fundamental beauty of nature and simplicity of life.

Insider’s: Do you have any favorite spa rituals of your own?

The spa ideal is never about “checking out,” it’s about checking in, to reconnect with one’s own sense of…this present moment.

MEG: Sea bathing has always been a solace. In my own experience, ocean tides can be a teacher in finding a more peaceful tempo, making it possible to breathe more deeply and live more slowly. It is said that minerals, elements, and compounds found in the ocean are almost in the same proportion as the human body. It is also said that human life began in the ocean, and why, when we return to the sea, it feels like coming home.

The bath, or a hot compress soaked in chamomile or the quiet found in the simple motions of combining water with herbs and pouring a cup of hot tea all speak to the conviction that the spa ideal is never about “checking out,” it’s about checking in, to reconnect with one’s own sense of self, to live in this present moment.

We are not the first generation to search for a way to live in the here-and-now. Even in the Old Testament Psalm 118 suggests we remember, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; rejoice and be glad in it.” I love this passage as it suggests that even 5,700 years ago, the author, King David, counseled the practice of gratitude.

Insider’s: You are considered a leader in the “Second Generation” of the American spa experience. What is your first spa memory?

MEG: When I was twelve, my parents threw away the refrigerator and they determined we’d buy fresh produce, fish, and meats on a daily basis. They were influenced by their deep friendship with the activist Dick Gregory and their early support for Black Panther Fred Hampton and his focus on food justice. I see continuing the work of making real these ideals as a moral responsibility.

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis is editorial director of She is an award-winning spa journalist, honored with Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and the distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She sits on the board of Wellness Warrior, is a Global Wellness Day Advisor and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.