If Deborah Szekely is the godmother of the spa industry, then Bernard Burt author, journalist, and co-founder of the International SPA Association, is surely its godfather.
Bernie, as he was affectionately called, passed peacefully in his sleep on November 13th, at the age of 94. He was a true believer in the healing power of spa and dedicated his life to spreading the good spa word. My memories of Bernie are too many to share here—I met him in the late 1990s and collaborated with him on a multitude of stories that he penned for my various spa publications over the years. Until the day he died, Bernie was a valued Contributing Editor to Insider’s. I enjoyed traveling to new spas both here and abroad with Bernie—a more perfect dinner companion simply did not exist. He and I saw eye-to-eye on what a spa was all about and could sniff out the fakers in a heartbeat.
Our conversations throughout the decades were always lengthy and charged, and typically ended with: What can we do to move our industry forward? In 2010, we, along with Mary Gendron, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, and Ada Polla, co-founded the DC-based Washington Spa Alliance. Some of my most-cherished Bernie time was working with him on WSPA’s annual Symposium. He especially delighted in the choosing of spa chef and spa menu for our Symposium luncheon.
Bernie was a grand networker, the ultimate connector, always pushing the industry forward—sometimes stepping on toes along the way. He was a visionary who wanted to ensure that the consumer who was on a quest to find the appropriate spa could do so easily and efficiently. Educating the consumer was paramount.
Ironically, my last trip with Bernie happened a year ago to the day he departed this good earth. Last November, we met up at Preidlhof, a glorious spa resort in South Tyrol. Bernie, at 93, was fragile, but sharp as ever. He had traveled alone against the wishes of his (understandably) concerned family and doctor. Nothing was going to keep him from a spa experience—and an extraordinary one at that. We spent a marvelous week on retreat together, under the loving care of Patrizia Bortolin and Carmine Signorile. Bernie was as alert and as curious as ever—and, as always, the perfect dinner companion.
A few weeks ago, I returned from a 10-day travel jaunt that included the Global Wellness Summit in Miami. During the latter part of those 10 days, I learned from Bernie’s devoted nephew, Jeffrey Burt, that Bernie was no longer with us. When I first entered my office upon my return, I gasped—and then laughed aloud: There in full bloom and in all their magnificent red-and-white glory were two gorgeous amaryllis flowers that Bernie had gifted me three Christmases ago. Hello, Bernie! I said aloud. Thank you! There is no way those flowers should’ve or could’ve bloomed in November. When I departed 10 days earlier for Miami, those two flower pots held bulbs with maybe an inch of green. They did not have water. They had Bernie.
“Bernie will be missed—his ethos, his kindness, his constant searching for how to do matters differently and better.”—Ingo Schweder
A Founder in His Own Right
Before there was a spa industry, there was a spa journalist and his name was Bernard Burt. While on assignment for Fodor’s, the noted travel publisher, he was the first to recognize and write about the cultural and economic phenomena that came to be known as spa. While Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door are the founding destinations in this field, Bernard Burt is a founder, too, in his own right. A longtime member of the Washington, DC press corps, he opened the doors to the National Press Club so that lawmakers and legislators could hear for themselves from voices that included my own, as well as Marsh founder Ruth Stricker, Canyon Ranch co-founder Jerry Cohen, Cornell University’s Professor Mary Tabacchi, and designer Sylvia Sepielli. Those of us who were there at the beginning, are never unaware that ISPA was founded by Bernard Burt in collaboration with a small handful of others—an occasion which exemplifies my favorite Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”—Deborah Szekely, Co-founder Rancho La Puerta, Founder, Golden Door, Past President Inter-American Foundation
The Consummate Professional
Mel [Zuckerman] and I always enjoyed the time we spent with Bernie. He was the consummate professional and truly understood all aspects of our industry at a time when very few others did.—Jerry Cohen, Co-Founder, Canyon Ranch
Creative Mind & Strong Supporter
I met Bernie when ISPA was a gleam in his eye. We were on a train from Manhattan to The Sagamore for a press trip I had organized to celebrate the opening of their new spa which was converted from a dark, disco-style nightclub to a lovely environment, flooded with natural light from its location overlooking Lake George. Bernie told me that a spa association was being formed and that I should be a part of it. He was so convincing that I committed on the spot to learn more. I attended the first annual gathering of what would become the International Spa & Fitness Association—later shortened to ISPA. The conference was held at Turnberry Isle, and I became a member of the founding board and Bernie became the organization’s first executive director.
We worked closely together in those formative years, attracting members and planning annual meetings in places including Doral Telluride and PGA National Resort and Spa (where we booked a rising Deepak Chopra as a keynoter). What impressed me about Bernie from the beginning and through all our years of collaboration and friendship were his creative mind and his penchant for making connections among people in the world of spa. I met more people through Bernie than I can possibly count. He was a strong supporter of me and many others in the industry. He was generous with his time and with his talent. And he cared about the spa industry as much as anyone on earth.—Mary Gendron, Senior Vice President, Managing Director, Mower
Iconic & Insightful
Bernie was a dear friend and a true mentor who was instrumental in the creation of ISPA. His passion and vision for the spa industry was unparalleled. As ISPA’s first Executive Director, he set the stage for the future of our beloved industry. Bernie was an industry icon and more importantly, a beloved confidante to countless leaders in the industry. His insightful vision helped shape where we are today, and where we will continue to set our sights in the future. God speed, sweet friend . . . —Lynne McNees, President, International SPA Association
A Boundless Breadth of Knowledge
Bernie and I would often meet at his Watergate residence for lunch or dinner. Pre-pandemic, we met there and reminisced about our many years of ISPA adventures. His breadth of knowledge about all things global spas was boundless. As he enriched my spa knowledge, I returned the favor sharing exciting wellness science which he thoroughly enjoyed, always eager to hear more. Bernie was an extraordinary spa icon and will be deeply missed.—Dr. Pam Peeke, former ISPA Board Member, Harvard University Institute of Coaching
Collaboration & Community
I remember meeting Bernie in 2005, when I landed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, DC. I had just returned from Southeast Asia, where I had lived for a year and a half, cutting my teeth as an intern at Chiva-Som. Bernie and I immediately hit it off, and I felt a sense of true welcome into this industry, which I was driven to explore during an early phase of my professional career. During the time that we knew one another, I always felt he saw me in ways that I may not have seen myself in the industry. Bernie was always encouraging many of us in the industry to mobilize and collaborate to spark new ideas to serve the culture of our industry and those that we served in our businesses and consultancies. He was someone I had deep respect for. He will be truly missed.—Eric Somerville, Chief Executive Officer, Venture for America
Innovator, Founder & Friend
Bernie was a great spa advocate. I met him in the mid 1980s when he kindly helped one of my master’s students with research. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to the infamous meeting at Neversink, New York, with Werner Mendel and Bernie. The meeting was held in the local firehouse because Bernie thought we should not promote anyone’s spa until we met and decided what we needed to do. Hence was born the International Spa Association (ISPA). Bernie pushed my [Cornell] students and me to do some of the first academic research on the spa and wellness industries. We at first called the organization “The International Spa and Fitness Association.” We wanted to be known for wellness and fitness, as well as all the other relaxing modalities of spas. I will always remember Bernie as an innovator, founder, and friend. “To know him was to love him.” I’ll always love you, dear Bernie.—Mary Tabacchi, Professor, Hospitality Management, Cornell University
Spas as Healing Places
I met Bernie in 1987, in Sweden, while I was working on opening Sturebadet. He was very interested in Europe and spa. We met again at the first ISPA conference in Florida—Kerstin Florian was the only vendor! Bernie and I both love spa healing, and we became good friends and kept in contact. He was always a great supporter of Kerstin Florian. Bernie had a dream that spas would be healing places. I am grateful that I can say he was my friend.—Kerstin Florian, Founder, Kerstin Florian International
The Ultimate Teacher
I met Bernie at the New Age Health Spa gathering of spa professionals in Neversink, New York. That gathering was the genesis and “who’s who” of our industry and would inspire the start of The International Spa Association (ISPA) soon after in 1991. “Dear Sweet Bernie” makes me smile. It’s a pet name shared by myself and a few of my old spa cronies who knew and loved him well. It was our quiet acknowledgement and acceptance that he could also be curmudgeonly and demanding. An impending visit from Mr. Bernard Burt took weeks of planning and preparation. The on-site PR person would prep the Executive Committee of a resort, while I would personally give tips and “head’s up” to housekeeping, F&B, and as many Front-of-House team members as I could. I would often have to soothe and encourage the Spa staff to “just be yourself and do your best.”
Having Bernie visit your spa was a bit like having both Robin Leach and Gordon Ramsay visit at the same time. He was never shy about immediately telling us what was wrong. In the 1980’s and 90’s, it often took months before his articles would be published and we would finally find out if he approved of the spa. I enjoyed chatting with him. He was a wealth of information—part gossip-fest and full of the latest happenings. But he always scolded me, and as I got older, just grumbled at me, when he was not the first to find out about one of my projects.
Bernie loved spas. He traveled all over the world visiting and writing about them. So many of us have had numerous opportunities throughout the years to thank him personally—and publicly—for creating awareness of our fledgling industry. But it has taken me until just now, writing about him, to realize the impact he had on our service standards, awareness of guest needs, and precise attention to every aspect of the spa experience that spa-goers now take for granted. He was not just complaining. He was teaching us. Thank you, our Dear Sweet Bernie. Thank you.—Sylvia Sepielli, President of SPAd, Sylvia Planning and Design
A Wellness Warrior Unlike Others
My initial get-to-know and professional exchange with Bernie took place in the mid 1990’s, when he called me regarding his editorial work for Fodor’s Healthy Escapes. I had just opened Rajvilas in Jaipur, India, and he wanted to get feedback on how authentic, experience-driven deluxe hospitality merges intriguing culture, heritage architecture, traditional wellness elements, and modern hospitality on the Indian subcontinent.
Our fairly regular interaction expanded to his book, 100 Best Spas of the World [co-authored with Pamela Price], among other articles, book ideas, and general analysis of our industry. We very much enjoyed our interaction, as we shared viewpoints from often different angles, cultural backgrounds, and we both had a global outlook on all matters spa— ranging from spa etiquette to design subjects and the maximization of profits to help our industry gain more economic clout and acceptance as a maturing industry.
I personally enjoyed having this interaction with not only one of the founders of ISPA, a true spa historian and forward-thinking spa industry insider, but also a truly passionate and knowledgeable wellness warrior unlike many others. Bernie will be missed—his ethos, his kindness, his constant searching for how to do matters differently and better. He was a deeply spiritual leader, and I feel honored to have been able to cross paths, to exchange and learn from him—a true icon of our industry.—Ingo Schweder, Chief Executive Officer, GOCO Hospitality
A True Pioneer
My memories of Bernie are that he was a pioneer . . . his book, Fodor’s Healthy Escapes, was what first captured my attention. He really had the internal understanding of places where people improved their body/mind/spirits, and so to me was one of the first who recognized that there are multiple locations around the world where a person could improve their health and wellbeing, and it would be a good idea to share that with others. I also admired him for some of the trends that he observed in the early years and those were an inspiration also. My subsequent work with SpaFinder and then GWS Trend Predictions were definitely rooted in his early work. I always saw him smiling and admired that he was true to his focus.—Susie Ellis, Chair & CEO, Global Wellness Summit, Chair & CEO, Global Wellness Institute
A Gentle Determination
It is said that epic things start with small and humble beginnings. Bernie Burt’s quiet and gentle determination helped ISPA blossom from the formation of the idea of an association dedicated to spa through ISPA’s first conference, and the next few years assisting the board and membership as Executive Director. We owe many thanks to this gentle man who never heard the word “no,” and who dedicated his life to telling the world about spa.—Jane Segerberg, former ISPA Board Chair & Board Member
The Tradition & Legacy of Spa
I have three distinct memories of Bernie. We met in 1991, at the first official ISPA conference in Florida, and we had a good time together. We had a really good time at Brenner’s in Baden-Baden, in 1995, where ISPA held its first international conference. My third memory of Bernie was in Washington, DC, after the Washington Spa Alliance’s annual symposium. Bernie and I spent a day going to museums. We went to the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Air and Space museum. We also went to the newly opened National Museum of the American Indian. We walked and talked and sat and walked and talked.
Bernie was mild-mannered, quiet, and observant. He wasn’t boisterous, but he was perceptive. He usually took a while to make a decision. At times, he was flustered by the way things were going—by the over-commoditization of the spa industry. Bernie had a bigger view, a longer and a wider view. He had a critical eye. He was genuine and authentic in his criticism where he called out fluff. He was very interested in the waters. Bernie offered a perspective on spa—it’s not just what’s next—it’s tradition, it’s legacy—it’s not what’s trending. Water has no upgrade. It’s not all the technology, at its core it’s the blood of nature, the waters.—Professor Jonathan Paul de Vierville, Spa Historian, Vice President & Co-Founder, Balneology Association of North America,
A Bright Light
Bernie was a sweet soul who understood and believed before others knew. A bright light has gone out.—TAG Galyean, Architect and Owner, TAG Studio, President Emeritus, Smooth Ambler Spirits