Insider's Guide to Spas
WSPA debuted at the Jefferson Hotel on June 17, 2010. Pictured here with Honorary Board members Deborah Szekely and Susie Ellis, are the founding board members, Bernard Burt, Mary Bemis, Mary Gendron, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, and Ada Polla. Not shown, Laurie Dietter.

Regional Spa Groups

The Spa Files: The Debut of WSPA

Mary Bemis

With the Seventh Annual WSPA Symposium set to take place March 20th at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, we thought it would be nice to take a trip back in time to the very beginnings of the Washington Spa Alliance—a regional spa group that made its debut at the Jefferson Hotel on June 17, 2010.

Here’s an article, penned by founding WSPA board member, Ada Polla, that originally appeared in ISPA‘s Pulse magazine. It’s a wonderful overview that details how WSPA began. Enjoy the read, and hope to see you in DC on March 20th.

Positioning Spa as a Catalyst Toward Alliances in Wellbeing

By Ada Polla, President & CEO, Alchimie Forever, Founding Board Member, WSPA

Every year, I come away from ISPA’s Annual Conference energized by the people I meet, the topics addressed, and, through the vision of ISPA leadership, the current big picture of our industry. In sessions and informally, we discuss the future of spa and its pivotal role in helping people lead healthier, happier lives. Inevitably, I return home with fresh thoughts and ideas that are ripe for implementation.

At the 2009 ISPA conference in Austin, I joined a small group of people over coffee to explore the idea of starting a regional group that would give spa professionals in the greater Washington, D.C. region a structure for coming together regularly to discuss topics of common interest. It didn’t take long to determine that: 1) this was a great idea, and; 2) given the Washington, D.C. location, we had the opportunity to take a larger educational role. We saw the value in sharing with others our recognition that the greater spa industry’s pioneering efforts encompass a unique inter-disciplinary approach to fitness, travel, alternative and preventive medicine, and a connection to nature, as well as sustainable practices ranging from economics to agriculture. We envisioned that the group’s role could be to serve as a catalyst for discussion and action that could, by virtue of the location in our nation’s capital, build a coalition among individuals and organizations with complementary vision.

We envisioned that the group’s role could be to serve as a catalyst for discussion and action that could, by virtue of the location in our nation’s capital, build a coalition among individuals and organizations with complementary vision.

By the end of this conversation, that group—consisting of Bernard Burt, Mary Bemis, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, Mary Gendron and me—formed a Steering Committee and agreed to get to work on creating what we ultimately decided to call the Washington Spa Alliance. How we founded the organization—now a Collaborative Member of ISPA—may be instructive for spa professionals in other geographic regions who may be interested in doing the same thing. Here’s a primer:

1. Enlist the right mix of talent to form your Steering Committee: Our core group included individuals whose expertise centered in spa marketing, operations, products, media and public relations. We quickly added a talented art director, Laurie Dietter, and we were on our way. Our individual backgrounds, joint passion for our purpose and willingness to work in true collaboration proved a winning combination for the task at hand.

2. Forge ahead in an organized fashion: Because we were geographically dispersed (Laurie Dietter in California, Mary Gendron in New York and Mary Bemis often traveling), we set a standing conference call, issued an agenda beforehand and distributed conference notes afterwards with action steps to be completed before the next call. It helped that everyone on the team stepped up to take ownership of tasks; though small, our Steering Committee had no shortage of volunteers.

3. Adopt a mission statement: After group discussion on one of our calls, we asked Mary Gendron and Mary Bemis to create a first draft which we discussed as a group and tweaked over several days until we agreed on the following:

“The mission of Washington Spa Alliance is to act as a knowledge center, connecting spa professionals in the nation’s greater capital region. Washington Spa Alliance works to promote the exchange of education and innovation in the field, and to ensure that the highest ideals of spa are met through policy and action.”

Referring to our mission statement on a regular basis ensured that we stay on a direct course toward our goals.

4. Take small steps toward large gains: Though our initial impulse was to take on the world in each call, we quickly realized that our calls were more productive when tackled one or two issues at a time. So on one call, we determined who would look into the legal matters of incorporating (that fell to me); on another, what the group’s name should be (spirited discussion by all); who would serve as the liaison to the Honorary Board we were assembling (Mary-Elizabeth Gifford); and also, who would draft the website content (Bernard Burt, Mary Gendron) and who would design the website (Laurie Dietter), and so on.

5. Set realistic deadlines and work toward them: As the organization took shape over several months, we developed the confidence to set a launch date (June 17, 2010) and the date for the first Annual Symposium, an event that would allow us to bring together experts from various disciplines to begin to address issues of common concern (March 24, 2011).

6. Launch with a splash: For our June 17th launch, we enlisted a partner location—The Jefferson Hotel with its big heart and jewelbox spa. The event was organized as a “spa tea” hosted by management of the conveniently located hotel, a charter member. We secured the participation of our Honorary Board Chair, Deborah Szekely, whose imprint on Washington, D.C., and matters of national policy, mirror her influence in the spa world. We invited additional members of our Honorary Board (Dr. Pam Peeke and Susie Ellis attended) as well as area spa owners, operators and managers, and, importantly, members of the press. The event was well attended and garnered immediate and positive press coverage which helped to quickly put the organization on the map and helped to jump-start a membership drive which has since been put into the capable hands of one of our working board members, Susan Gwaltney.

7. Engage members quickly and often: Once launched, we set about fully organizing, by enlisting area spa professionals who we thought would make effective board members. We held our first official meeting as Washington Spa Alliance at my office boardroom and elected our full working board headed by co-chairs Sharilyn Abbajay and Bernard Burt and populated by former Steering Committee members and other new members of the organization. Later that day, we held a member mixer, which has become a mainstay of our activities. It serves as a gathering for existing members and an introduction for potential new members. We are now in the process of establishing an ongoing calendar of events, each themed and highlighted by a speaker.

8. Make the bold move: While still a fledgling association, we took the confident step to plan and execute our first symposium: “New Realities: Redefining the American Spa Experience” which was held at the National Press Club last March. Co-chaired by Mary Bemis and Bernard Burt, the symposium kicked off with Deborah Szekely, followed by a keynote address by Philippe Bourguignon, Vice Chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Revolution Places and CEO of Miraval, setting the stage for programming that addressed: Health & Cuisine; Science, Spirituality & Beauty; and Travel & The Environment. “A Taste of New Spa Cuisine” featured recipes from Miraval and Rancho La Puerta at lunchtime, and the day ended with a Visionary Panel featuring members in attendance from our Honorary Board. Sponsorship from Precor and Universal Companies and corporate support from Miraval, Rancho La Puerta and Glen Ivey Hot Springs helped to minimize the symposium’s registration fee which included a one-year membership in the organization. This boosted our member roster which today includes area-based headquarters of Hilton Hotels Worldwide and Marriott International as well as day and hotel spas and regional representatives of major brands including Red Door Spas and Sprayology.

9. Set a long-term agenda: In under two years, Washington Spa Alliance has, through its initial steering committee, established a vision, drafted a mission statement, launched the organization, solicited membership, designed and continually updated a website, Facebook page and Twitter account, established an annual symposium, held several mixers for members, and joined ISPA as a Collaborative Member. What started out as Steering Committee calls are now working board calls organized by our Secretary, Penny Kriel. With our next board meeting, we will begin to focus on our long-term agenda as an alliance, not only for spa professionals in the Greater Washington area, but for individuals and organizations outside of the spa industry whose missions coincide with spa’s commitment to wellbeing.

To learn more about the Washington Spa Alliance, click here.


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.