When world leaders in wellness gather at Encore Boston Harbor this month it will mark the 15th annual Global Wellness Summit (GWS), co-founded by Susie Ellis, CEO and Chairman. Susie’s journey to wellness defines the spa industry today. From her first job, at Tom Young’s spa in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to several decades at Golden Door in California, opening the spa at Mar-a-Lago, to co-owning Spafinder, her remarkable career led to creating a global forum that is reshaping and expanding the world of spa.
The first “Summit,” held in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria in 2007, featured Steve Case, the internet pioneer and owner of Miraval, and attracted approximately 170 “delegates.” Patterned on the World Economic Forum in Davos, which Susie had attended with her husband Peter, the program was shaped for senior executives in spa and hospitality. It was a smashing success, Susie recalls, because “all of us at the time were just beginning to learn what was happening in other parts of the world.”
Designed as a think-tank rather than a trade show, this gathering of thought leadership revealed how little reliable research concerning spas existed. “What was being measured here and there was like apples and oranges,” Susie comments. They decided to commission a global research study that would provide the first solid numbers of the spa industry worldwide. And put the study on the internet—for free. “That allowed for these valuable industry figures to start spreading worldwide quickly as people were enthused to learn about this growing industry.”
With spa being defined differently all over the world, comparisons were difficult. Susie reached out to leading research firm SRI International, which had studied the golf industry. Funded by several sponsors, the research report was published in time for the 2008 Summit, called “The Global Spa Economy.” The report changed fundamental definitions of spa as an industry. “I am convinced it was one of the key turning points in our history,” Susie recalls, “as it allowed us to begin working together as an industry globally.”
“Susie’s Global Wellness Institute and annual Global Wellness Summits are an opportunity for all of us in the spa world to stretch our boundaries.”—Deborah Szekely
A Generic Definition of Spa
At the time, there was a lot of disagreement about how to define spa. “There were strong hostilities about what was a ‘true’ spa,” reflects Susie. “What the SRI research team advised that was so helpful, is that we all agree on a very generic definition of spa and then form as many categories as we wanted underneath that definition. So, we defined ‘spa’ as places where people could go to renew body, mind, and spirit. Suddenly there was a huge industry figure that made people stand up and take notice!” The study found that there were 71,762 spas generating $60.3 billion globally in 2007, a number that grew to over 149,000 spas, earning $93.6 billion in revenues by 2017.
When the first research report came out, Susie recalls, it was also heartening to see that they had made room for acknowledging the importance of products and services that contributed to the spa landscape, such as equipment, education, and consulting. Added to spa revenue, the overall industry started to look more and more robust. New research led to the term “wellness,” a more expansive concept than spa, spanning everything from fitness to healthy food to workplace wellness, but one instinctively thought to have a great deal of possibility.
“Wellness did indeed open many new doors in our world where spa was not an easy bedfellow,” Susie states. “In fact, we changed our name to the Global Spa and Wellness Summit the year the gathering took place at the Aspen Institute, and then made an additional change in Mexico City, where we became the Global Wellness Summit.” Those changes turned out to be valuable, Susie says: “I feel it was very bold, brave, and insightful for the board to agree in letting us be that nimble. While the spa industry is still a huge part of what the Summit is about, we could lead the way toward a much broader role as our research helped define the global wellness economy over the years.”
As the research and educational initiatives outgrew the annual Summit, Ellis founded the non-profit Global Wellness Institute in 2014. Today it is known for its pioneering research on global wellness markets, its wide-ranging industry initiatives, and international roundtables. The sale of Spafinder in 2016 marked the end of an era for spa marketing. New owner Blackhawk Network based in Pleasanton, California, sells Spafinder Wellness 365 gift cards for treatments at spas worldwide, but dropped reservations and editorial. Susie and Peter had decamped to Miami, growing the Global Wellness Summit and the non-profit Global Wellness Institute. Susie defines their mission: The Global Wellness Summit is “Joining Together. Shaping the Future.” The Global Wellness Institute is “Empowering Wellness Worldwide.”
Hired by Deborah Szekely to work at Golden Door in 1972, Susie began as a fitness instructor, ran Golden Door at Sea aboard the QE2 in the 1980s, including two world cruises. Reflects Deborah, “Susie was one of Golden Door’s finest instructors at the very beginning of her career in spa and fitness, but I am most proud of her accomplishments in the years since. She is now a powerful voice for wellness in every arena—personal, political, and social. Her Global Wellness Institute and annual Global Wellness Summits are an opportunity for all of us in the spa world to stretch our boundaries beyond our own businesses and, yes, our own countries. We all look to Susie to help make the world a better place via the power of personal wellness.”
Born in Bloomington, Illinois, Susie attended UCLA to earn an MBA, and served on the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, chaired by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fate brought her future husband to the Door in 1983, during men’s week. Dating guests was not permitted, but Deborah made an exception for Susie to go out with Peter, and they married two years later.
Peter Ellis owned Autobytel, an internet marketing company for online car-buying. After successfully going public in 1999, he invested in Spafinder, Inc. The couple eventually moved to New York to manage the company. Since relocating to Miami, Susie adopted a new work model; the Internet allows her to work remotely and efficiently. The advisory board of the Global Wellness Summit “has enabled us to create a world-class Summit in a different part of the world every year,” Susie says.
While the spa industry is still a huge part of what the Summit is about, Susie Ellis sees a much broader role: Defining and growing the vast $4.5 trillion global wellness economy.