With her lustrous hair, beautiful skin, and always-positive energy, Elizabeth Snowdon Bonner, founder and creator of Nusta Spa in Washington DC, is the quintessential “spa girl.”
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved going to spas,“ says Elizabeth. “Anytime I went anywhere—on vacation, to a new city—I would find a spa. For me, having massages and facials was never a ‘treat’ but a way of life, a lifestyle.”
Recently, over ginger tea, Elizabeth shared her roller-coaster ride of creating the country’s first LEED Gold-certified day spa. And the low point in her life—when she contemplated selling it.
In the indigenous South American language, Quecha, “Nusta” means “royalty.” To be treated royally is exactly the vision Elizabeth had in creating a much-needed healing oasis in the heart of DC. After earning a graduate degree in business from Duke, Elizabeth returned to her native city, where stints in corporate communications and investment banking “weren’t gelling.”
“I wanted to do something I loved, and I just kept coming back to this idea of spas,” shares Elizabeth. “At that time , there were no full-service, stand-alone day spas in DC. There were salons and high-end hotel spas. But nothing in day spas. There was a hole in the market. I created a business plan, enlisted a commercial real estate agent, met with an architect who had fantastic ideas for creating an environmentally sound, sustainable, clean-air spa. And the idea just snowballed. Enthusiasm mounted, and before I knew it, we were doing this—creating not just a healing day spa for the nation’s capital, but an eco-friendly, sustainable spa model for the entire country.”
In the indigenous South American language, Quecha, “Nusta” means “royalty.” To be treated royally is exactly the vision Elizabeth had in creating a much-needed healing oasis in the heart of DC.
Nusta debuted with bamboo flooring, LED lighting, furniture made from recycled materials, a sophisticated air filtration system, wood harvested from an old barn and renewable forests, and a commitment to natural product lines—all of which are still in place today. Just enhanced.
On my visit to Nusta, Elizabeth was marking the spa’s 10th anniversary—and the launch of new spa product lines (Naturopathica, OSEA, emerginC, and BodyBliss); the addition of well-seasoned, veteran spa director, Allen Hunt, to the spa team; and new signature treatments. As I waited to sample the two-hour Royal Signature facial (a blissful creation by Naturopathica), followed by an Interpretive Touch massage by Nusta co-owner, Brad Drummer, Elizabeth reflected on some of her more challenging moments in managing the spa. And of the gratitude she feels today, to be celebrating the spa’s milestone birthday. As any spa purist can attest, the road to transformation and self-discovery is not always a smooth path.
“It wasn’t always balanced,” Elizabeth admits. “There was a point in time where I was running the spa by myself on a daily basis, and I was struggling. While I love Nusta and all we’ve created here, I didn’t know much about the actual spa industry, or how to run a spa, the day-to-day operations. I had a huge learning curve and it was hard. There were days I felt so overwhelmed and paralyzed, I wanted to quit. I was stressed and the stress took a toll on my health. I started drinking. A lot. Every day, actually. And my vision became clouded. Was I drinking because I was doing a bad job managing the spa? Or was I doing a bad job because I was drinking? I knew I needed to make a big change. And I thought of selling Nusta, just closing it down. But even in my ‘unwell’ state, I loved it too much.
“If spa has taught me anything—anything at all, it‘s that you have to be well yourself—recognize when you’re out of balance, stressed, and when you need to step back and ask for help. And so I stepped back, breathed, took time out to address my dependence on alcohol. And allowed someone else to step in to help.”
Actually three “someones.”
The first “someone” was lead therapist Brad Drummer, a former actor and fellow entrepreneur, who was already doing his massage magic on Nusta’s loyal following. Brad is now a co-owner of the spa. The second “someone” was renowned spa consultant, Amy McDonald, who spent hands-on, one-on-one time at the spa, analyzing, experiencing, observing, then making recommendations for eco-friendly product lines, new signature treatments, staffing, and training. It was Amy who led Elizabeth to “someone” three—new spa director Allen Hunt, who earned his spa stripes at The Ritz (among others). Allen lives and breathes the spa life, and now brings his uncanny know-how and attention to detail—starting with “the way the towels are rolled”—to Nusta.
In the decade since opening Nusta, Elizabeth has married, had a baby (who’s nearing his first birthday), renewed her passion for the spa and wellness lifestyle, and remains sober. “I savor every day, with gratitude,” she says.
As my conversation with Elizabeth winds down, my therapist, as if on cue, arrives to lead me down the candlelit hallway, for my facial and massage treatments. Elizabeth smiles, pauses, squeezes my hand, and whispers, “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad I‘m here.”