Insider's Guide to Spas
Photography by Justin Kriel: WSPA Board members past & present. Front Row, left to right, Laurie Dietter, Christi Cano, Ada Polla, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, Michael Scholes. Back Row, left to right: Greg Kasparian, Mary Bemis, Bernard Burt, Penny Kriel, and Mary Gendron.

Regional Spa News

The Washington Spa Alliance: Moving Spa Forward

Mary Bemis

WSPA has come a long way since its 2010 debut—and its influence has reached far and wide. It has served and continues to serve as an incubator for the ideas that move spa forward. As a founding board member and Symposium Chair Emeritus, I know firsthand that WSPA brings together the major players in our industry for policy decisions, and more.

Personally, I couldn’t be prouder of the conversations that have started—the new ideas that have transpired, inspired, and given us a renewed passion for the work that unites us. We’ve made spa history!

Stepping up this year is new board member and Symposium Chair, Kate Mearns, Principal Consultant, 5 Spa Consulting, who’s off to a wonderful start. WSPA’s Seventh Annual Symposium was held March 20th, at the Watergate Hotel, and the theme this year was Connect, Engage, Deliver: How Spa is Fostering Wellbeing in America Today.

“When I accepted the role as Chair of the Seventh Annual WSPA Symposium, I knew I had big shoes to fill,” shares Mearns, whose other leadership roles have included serving as ISPA Board Chair. “After all, I had attended past symposiums and always walked away with new information, a fresh perspective on wellness, and most importantly a sense of obligation and responsibility to our industry. Each year our group  is reminded of the important work we do. We create beneficial programs and services  for a diverse group of consumers who are continually looking  to improve their overall wellbeing effectively and economically.”


In 2010, WSPA had its coming-out party at the Jefferson Hotel in DC. It was an understated and elegant media event, and included honorary board members Deborah Szekely and Susie Ellis, and founding board members Bernie Burt, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, Mary Gendron, Ada Polla, and me. (Missing from the group was founding board member Laurie Dietter.) As a newly formed alliance, we had a mission: to act as a knowledge center, connecting spa professionals in the nation’s greater capital region—and to work to promote the exchange of education and innovation in the field, ensuring that the highest ideals of spa are met through policy and action.

Action. Now there’s a word. We moved fast from that humble debut to our very first annual Symposium at the National Press Club in 2011. Our goal? To leverage the strength of the spa industry and to make a more a lasting contribution to the wellbeing of the nation. Our theme that year was New Realities, Redefining the Spa Experience, and speakers included pioneers in the field who discussed how spas can broaden their mission of promoting health and fitness. Our Honorary Chair, Deborah Szekely, spoke to our nation’s health and what spas can do to help, and our inaugural keynote, Philippe Bourguignon, spoke to disrupting and reinventing the future—he spoke of the art of escapology becoming the art of survival, of a move away from a period of excess to a period of reason; of authenticity and togetherness. Of happiness as the new GDP. . .

In 2012, our Symposium focused on Spa and the New Economy. Our keynote that year was the formidable Doctor Sheila Johnson, media mogul (co-founder of BET), philanthropist, co-owner of professional sport teams, and  founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts. We looked at the challenges and tasks of answering crucial questions in the wake of the recent recession. That year, we explored the role that spas could play in the health of our nation going forward and how spas can serve as catalysts for people and organizations whose missions are to promote the wellbeing of the nation.

2013 brought a different theme altogether as we went Beyond Wellness to Define Wellbeing. We identified Seven Timeless Truths of Spa to encourage Americans to live a life of wellbeing. Those fundamental truths? Community. Nature. Food. Fitness. Water. Quiet, and Sleep. Dr. Pamela Peeke, in a rousing keynote shared The Wellness Magna Carta: and brilliantly deconstructed the Seven Timeless Truths. Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg spoke to nature, biology, and spa—and why nature and spa matter. Michael Tompkins shared his unique wellness journey from medical professional to spa CEO. In 2013, we even looked at how to take the waters 21st Century-Style. And Congressman Tim Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation, became the first sitting legislator to ever address a spa group.

In 2014, History Made Real was the theme, and we used the word “history” because through the work we do, we are making history. Every time we look back five years, we—those in the spa industry—have influenced a little bit more of how people live every day. Our speakers that year included Todd Walter, CEO of Red Door Spa who is guiding the brand through its renaissance and AnnBeth Eschback, founder of Exhale. Jeff Kohl and Anne McCall shared insights and wisdom.

In 2015, our theme was Spa Comes of Age: The Democratization of Spa. At this, our 5th symposium, we scored three major Firsts. Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, founder of the Spa Hall of Fame, chose WSPA to host its inaugural induction ceremony. Gifford, the  Hall of Fame curator, named nine legends of our field—Ruth Stricker, Sheila Cluff, Jerrold Cohen, Pat and Juanita Corbett, Deborah Szekely, Mary Tabacchi, Clodagh, and Bernard Burt. Industry icon Sylvia Sepielli was inducted the following year. Additionally, for the first time ever we gathered spa regional leadership on the same stage. And perhaps, most importantly—we continued to make spa history the following day when we marched on Capitol Hill, awakening our lawmakers to the critical impact of spa in our nation’s healthcare system.

2016 brought The New Language of Spa. And boy did this theme strike a nerve! This year, Philippe Bourguignon returned and gave a rousing keynote on the importance of understanding yourself and those around you in a fast-changing world. Michael Scholes spoke to a new vocabulary of spa for corporate, clients, and consumers and explained how language is redefining the spa experience. Pamela Peeke, MD,  and Brent Bauer, MD, were among those exploring the intersection of healthcare and spa. We also shined the spotlight on beauty and its place in the spa landscape in a discussion moderated by Mark Wuttke, who continues to deepen that conversation as head of GWI’s Beauty Initiative. Damon Cory Watson of Wellness Warrior joined us for the first time, helping to lead the charge on WSPA’s 2016 visit to Capitol Hill. We ended the day with a heartfelt poem by India K. Robinson, entitled  The Language of Spa, inspired by this year’s Symposium theme.


Bernard Burt, WSPA Founding Board Member & Chair Emeritus

Rotating off the WSPA Board this year are:

• Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, Founding Board Member & Chair

• Michael Scholes, Secretary

• Mary Gendron, Founding Board Member & Head of Communications

• Mary Bemis, Founding Board Member & Symposium Chair

• Christi Cano, Membership Committee

A very special thank you goes to Maria Smith, who dedicated countless hours to WSPA.


The working board of 2017 includes:

• Penny Kriel, Chair, Corporate Operations Director for Spa, WTS International

• Denise Vitiello, Vice Chair, Business Development Director— Spa Division, Natura Bisse

• Greg Kasparian, Treasurer, Director of Corporate Accounts, Edge Systems, LLC

• Allen Hunt, Secretary, Director of Spa—Pure Spa, The Marriott Marquis Houston

• Kate Mearns, Symposium Chair, Principal Consultant—5 Spa Consulting, LLC

• Sab Shad, Membership Chair, Partner/Chief Operating Officer—KARMA by Erwin Gomez

• Sandra Sadowski, Events Chair, Director of Operations, ESPA

• Sallie Fraenkel, Symposium Committee, President, Mind, Body Spirit Network

• David Edwards, Industry Relations, Vice President of Business Development, and Corporate Strategy, Zeel

• Diane Trieste, Education, Vice President Business Development, Salability

• Laura West, Education & Membership, International Educator, Dermalogica

• Josh Luckow, Board Officer, Executive Director, Health Care Division, Canyon Ranch


Recently formed, this council consists of three founding board members:

•Mary Bemis

•Mary Gendron

•Mary-Elizabeth Gifford

For more information on 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.