Times Staff Writer

IT’S billed as the “After Shopping Paradise,” a “self-indulgence” that combines foot reflexology and “a truly spectacular pedicure to revive your feet and your spirits.”

What is it really? A $200 pedicure.

It takes place at La Prairie Spa at the Beverly Hills Hotel. You slip into a terry robe and slippers and sip a cup of Introspection tea, then an attendant leads you into a candle-lighted massage room. Once you’ve disrobed (for a foot treatment?), you stretch out on the table and await your “reflexology.” La Prairie lotion is lavished on your feet, which are then given a vigorous shake. But the reflexology never comes -- just some light petting. The robe goes back on, you’re led into a pedicure room -- a really nice pedicure room, with a reclining chair that makes you feel like you’re floating, and a view of a gorgeous garden. The pedicure looks and feels great -- this time there’s real massage -- and then you relax in the garden while the polish dries.

It feels like real luxury. Until a couple hours later when you look down and say to yourself, “I just spent $200 on my toes.” (The pedicure is priced at $180, but after a 20% gratuity, your wallet is $216 lighter.) That’s $21.60 per toe.


The “After Shopping Paradise” is just one of a growing number of crazy-expensive spa treatments at luxury hotels.

Not so long ago, hourlong massages for $60 were easy to find, even at upscale day spas. Now a regular old 60-minute Swedish massage will set you back $220 at Montage Resort & Spa’s ocean-view facility in Laguna Beach. For double the pleasure, two therapists will massage you in tandem for double the price: $440. That’s $7.33 a minute. In the spa at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, a two-hour massage costs $385 -- but the massage oil is “infused” with rubies and emeralds.

Spa directors explain that there are reasons for the astronomical prices. As hotels and even some day spas build multimillion-dollar facilities, their owners say they’re pressured to make a profit.

“In the ‘90s, spas were thought of as an amenity that would drive room rates,” says Anne McCall, general manager of spas for Fairmont Raffles Hotels International. “But consumer demand and research show that people want them as mini-destinations within hotels.”


And so the opportunities for profit are much greater than they used to be -- as long as they provide something extra: spa meals delivered from the hotel restaurant; the same high thread-count linens you find in the guest rooms; and sometimes a separate spa pool and sunning deck.

Customer surveys have shown that the facility and the surroundings can count for nearly as much satisfaction as the treatment itself.

“You and I can walk down the street and have our nails done for whatever price,” McCall says. “For me, that’s maintenance; that’s not an experience. When I get my nails done at a luxury spa, I want the full pampering.”

But clearly, perception plays a huge role in pricing. The spa industry doesn’t have a formal rating system, explains Maureen Schumacher, director of Le Spa at Sofitel in Los Angeles. “In the eyes of the public, we are judged by the rates we charge,” she says. “The more we charge, the more exclusive we seem.” (Le Spa’s basic massages range from $125 for a 50-minute “So Relaxing” treatment to $145 for a deep-tissue massage.)


“The massage is often the first introduction to a spa experience,” says Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Assn. “And once you have it, you’re hooked.” Spas recognize that phenomenon, and they’re in a race to invent ever-more fabulous, ever-more expensive experiences.

“When you have 15,000 spas in the U.S. alone, you are always going to look for a way to compete with the spa down the street,” McNees says.

At top resort hotels across the nation and particularly on the coasts, treatment prices have shot up in sync with room rates and ever-increasing expectations. Hotels are especially adept at creating the most lavish environments, complete with prestige beauty products, marble showers, heated massage tables with silk blankets and daylong treatments. They spin the treatments as “indulgences,” and charge accordingly.

$50 at the door


IT’S not just resorts that are upping the luxe factor. Day spas also are reaching deeper into wallets as they upgrade the treatments and the trappings. The basic 50-minute massage at the 6-week-old Voda Spa in West Hollywood is already pricey at $125, and guests must also pay a $50 admission fee that allows access to a pool, saunas, steam rooms, a cafe and even a bar outfitted with Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs.

But at most day spas, visitors don’t have the benefit of deluxe hotel amenities such as elegant lobbies, dreamy pools, fabulous restaurants and sometimes even ocean views.

Sparing no expense, the spa at Santa Barbara’s Four Seasons Resort, the Biltmore, hired star architect Peter Marino for its recent redesign, which includes two-level, loft-like treatment rooms that overlook the ocean and a rose garden.

And for some of the clients of these tony resorts, pampering is just a start -- they’re hoping spa treatments will help them elude the doctor.


“People are extremely conscious about avoiding [plastic] surgery and are very interested in antiaging treatments,” says Wendy Schnee, director of public relations at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where facials can cost from $130 to $280. “For our clients, price is no object. The only issue is whether they can get the time slot they want.”

Someone’s getting a raise

IF the rising salaries of top spa personnel are any indication, there’s lots of money being made inside those gilded treatment rooms. This year, spa directors are expected to see their average salaries jump at least by $10,000 to $85,000 a year, according to the International Spa Assn. and WageWatch.

Spa trade groups such as the International Spa Assn. say they are trying to address the issue of perception and value by instituting standardized business practices that will help unify the industry. Yet consumers have few ways to determine if the $220, 90-minute Carita Extreme Softness Renovateur facial at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay is more effective or pleasurable than the $165, 50-minute Extreme Softness facial at Le Spa at Sofitel in Los Angeles.


Meanwhile, customers are pretty much left in the dark when it comes to choosing services and guessing at the level of treatment quality they might receive. They’re left with scrolling the Internet for reviews, getting recommendations from friends, or, says McNees of ISPA, getting on the phone with the spa. There’s no reason you can’t call and ask exactly what a particular treatment includes. And don’t forget to look for specials.

“You will continue to see value opportunities,” says McNees, noting off-season or bundled packages that offer discounts. “But more likely, it is whatever the market will bear.”