Spa Misfortunes: Lessons From the Spa for Everyone

When I’m exhausted from long work days, sore from workouts and stressed from life’s curve balls, my first instinct is to escape to the spa for quiet relaxation and healing treatments. The spa really is my form of therapy and medicine.

This is what I hope spa owners, directors and designers have in mind for spa-goers too. I assume they design their spa with the intention of providing a place for rest and recuperation for busy people with holistic lifestyles.

So I’m always surprised when I encounter people at the spa who don’t have this same mindset, or spas who don’t seem to have thought this concept through entirely. And it’s a serious bummer when I experience both at the same time because it’s a one-two punch: a giant waste of time and hard-earned money. There were times when I left the spa feeling worse than when I came in.

I wanted to share some of my experiences so that we can all — both spa-goers and spas — learn something from them. While I might not have felt it at the time, there was a lesson in there for me somewhere in that bad spa experience, or in the bad manners I encountered at the spa.

So here we go. Let’s learn from my spa misfortunes, shall we? All spas are honestly named so we know the true who-what-where. In order from bad to worst:

That Time I Came Out of the Spa Shell-Shocked

I went to Las Vegas after a painful breakup, not to drown my sorrows, but ironically to attend a friend’s weekend-long bachelorette bash. I still booked lots of spa time, since that’s what I do every time I go to Vegas anyway in order to combat the Sin City sensory-overload.

This time though, I really wanted a chance to heal. I really wanted solace and solitude in the spa. Since I was staying at the Cosmopolitan, I wanted to book some time in their Sahra Spa for any extra time I had. I was not in the best mindset to choose treatments (I could barely get it together to pack my bags) so a good friend recommended the Sahra’s signature Red Flower Hammam Experience (80 minutes, $300).

Getting a treatment on the Hammam at the Sahra Spa

This was in the early days of the Cosmopolitan’s grand opening. Back then, the treatment descriptions on the spa’s online menu were pretty sparse. They gave you a general idea of what you were in for, but nothing too specific. Although she was well-intentioned, my friend was also a bit vague when it came to describing the experience.

Oh you’ll love it,” she said. “It starts with a coffee scrub on the hot marble slab, and you’re in the big hammam room all by yourself. Then you get a therapeutic massage with some oil that smells really good. Like flowers.”

Well dang, that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I had never been in a hammam before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect other than what I was told.

After I climbed onto the hot and hard slab of marble, covered up my bits with a small towel, and tried to get comfy, it all went downhill from there. Yes, the first part involved a scrub with coffee — and olive “stones.” This really abrasive stuff was then applied vigorously, and by vigorously I mean roughly, by a male therapist with a lot of strength and energy. It was not what my body or psyche needed at the time. I guess I thought I was going to get a gentler way of applying a scrub, but apparently the Sahra provided a more traditional hammam treatment, which was vigorous and more appealing to men.

So now I was hurting all over again, this time physically. My skin was rubbed raw. I couldn’t care less that I smelled like coffee when my entire body felt like I had been dragged along the pavement.

Then came the water shocking. That’s the only way I can think to describe it. Now their menu says,

“Basins of water are then poured over the body, emulating relaxing waves that cleanse the skin.” 

Again, sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Well that’s not what I experienced. The hot water was not poured — it was thrown on me. The waves were not relaxing, they were crashing down on me. The therapist took buckets of hot water and threw them on different parts of my body like he was putting out a fire…nine times. It was a shock every single time. How can you develop a thick skin to that sort of thing when it’s all been scraped off with olive pits and coffee grounds?

To be honest, I barely remember the massage, but what I do remember is that it was very intense and I was not comfortable on that marble slab at all whatsoever. I had to lay in wet towels on this slab, my cheek soaking in them with my head craned to one side. At that point, his pressure levels didn’t matter. I could not relax. The treatment did not make me feel good at all. I came out of that Red Flower experience feeling shell-shocked, stressed, raw, and physically sore. I think I went back to my hotel room and curled up into a fetal position for a few hours.

The moral of the story: I should have done more research into the treatment, and the spa should always provide an accurate description on their menu. I should have called and asked what treatment would have been more appropriate for my current state of being. When you are in a fragile state, whether emotional or physical (or both), you absolutely need to look into what spa treatment is best for you. I felt like a hammer was used on me when it should have been a feather. After this experience, I always call if I am unsure about a treatment, and I also tell anyone that asks what they might expect from a hammam experience. Also — I should have used my voice better, and spoken up or stopped the treatment when I wasn’t enjoying it. At the time I was a wreck and had trouble talking without breaking down and setting boundaries in general, but I still should have said something when it was too much.

That Time I Got Hit On By a Smoker at the Spa, Among Other Things

So this would be the Bad Experience that I mentioned in my review of the Standard Spa Miami. I was in between treatments and wanted to relax outside in the sun and read a book, since I was in Miami, after all. But I didn’t want to go down to the noisy pool just after having a massage, and I wanted some quiet time. So I opted instead for the small outdoor relaxation area (it’s like a rooftop patio) right outside the spa entrance on the Third Floor of the tower that houses spa.

The Standard Spa outdoor patio where the Bad Experience happened

It was empty when I got out there and I chose a chaise as far away from the front door as possible, which was not very far at all because the whole area is quite small. It was all going swell until a guy in pink pants with a glass of champagne in-hand came outside from the spa to smoke. At first I was confused. Was this not the spa? Was I not sitting in a spa lounge? Wasn’t this whole entire place centered around health and wellness with detox programs? Is he drunk? Perhaps he’s European (hello pink jeans) and he doesn’t know that he can’t do that here? Or maybe he’s a flamboyant local and thinks that because this is Miami he’s just entitled to smoke wherever he wants?

He could see that I was looking at him and he just didn’t give a fuck. “Excuse me,” I said, “are you going to smoke here? At the spa?” I wasn’t smiling, I was agitated. Concerned. Displeased. The guy just lit up his cigarette and started puffing away, blowing all of his cigarette smoke in my direction. Confusion gave way to just generally getting pissed off. It was one thing for him to smoke at the spa, but then to blow it towards my face?

After a long drag and an exhale he asked, “Why? Do you want one?” and held out his box of cigarettes while making his way towards me. Let me be clear, I was in no flirty mood. I’m pretty sure I had “fuck off” written all over my face by this point. Disgusted and now more disturbed that he was making his way towards me, I said “Uh, no!” to try and stop him in his tracks. As he stopped he got this look of bemusement on his face and then made only what I can describe as a kissy face at me. He puckered up his lips and kissed the air like he was some kind of Euro douche player thinking that little move worked on women.

Thoroughly disgusted and now all the Zen from my massage completely drained out of me, I gathered up my things to leave because it was clear this guy felt entitled to smoke in this spa and hit on spa-goers at the same time. Or if that kissy face wasn’t hitting on me, he sure was finding a way to try and make me uncomfortable enough to leave.

I had to walk past him to get back into the spa, and as I did he continued his look of bemused flirtation, burning cigarette in one hand, glass of champagne in the other. I went up to the spa reception where the Millennials at the desk were chatting and gossiping away instead of you know, working. I asked, with some incredulity, “are people really allowed to smoke here, outside in the spa lounge? There is a guy outside smoking.” One of the young women behind the desk just shrugged her shoulders and answered, “uh, yeah.” I couldn’t believe it. What kind of spa allows people to smoke in their lounge?? “Are you serious?” I asked. Again, with an apathetic shrug, the girl explained that there was actually a smoking area outside the front doors of the spa. This place, and all it says it stood for, instantly became a joke to me.

I walked away just shaking my head in disbelief. Clearly these Millennials didn’t care and what were they going to do if I complained? Clearly nothing. They looked like they couldn’t solve their way out of a paper bag. I was more upset about the smoking than the kissy face because unfortunately, as a woman, I sort of just got used to bad male behaviour, and I’ve been hit on so many times like that before that now I just don’t give it any validation by reacting to it. (Right or wrong, I just don’t have the energy to react to every guy that makes an inappropriate face to me, especially in the spa)

I hoped to continue reading my book and find another quiet place to sit, but indoors there was really no place for me to do that other than in the dark so-called quiet lounge right behind the spa reception desk, where you wait to be called for your treatments.  This lounge area is also very small. And when I say small, I mean that there were two loungy sofas in there, face-to-face, with only a few feet in between them. Anybody who sat in there was in close proximity to everyone else.

So I sat down on the end of one sofa, behind a dark curtain that I guess was meant to separate this space from the reception and retail area while also blocking out light (which it did) and sound (which it did not). I could hear everything going on outside including the chatty gossip, guest interactions, and the douchebag smoker who came back in the spa and asked, “Did someone just complain about me?” The Millennials just laughed and said, “yeah, kinda. Boy was she pissed.”

So here’s the question I have for the Standard Spa: these are the people you have representing “the best spa in Miami” to greet your guests and send them on their journey in your facilities? Clearly nobody bothered to train them in service or how to be you know, professional, in a grown-up job. More shock and disbelief. Since I couldn’t really do anything, I just made a mental note to escalate this later, hopefully to someone that had more experience than a 24-year old and a better understanding of what spa service in a luxury spa entails. I once again attempted to self-soothe by focusing on my breath. Don’t dwell on the amateurs outside laughing and gossiping about you. Deep breaths!

Of course that can’t be the end of the story.  So I sat inside that small, dark lounge trying to be quiet, trying to regain some calm. Eyes closed. Slow, deep, meditative breathing. Not talking. Not looking at any of the other people in their robes sitting near me because my eyes are closed. “Where are you from? Are you in television?” a voice asked out of the dark. I open my eyes and see that a Black brother sitting by himself in the opposite corner is talking to me, because we are the only two in there. SERIOUSLY. WTF. I just shook my head, said “no” and got up and left. There was clearly no safe, quiet place in that spa for a woman by herself. I am fairly certain that had my boyfriend been by my side, none of this crap would have happened. And that, my friends, is just a sad state of affairs.

What came after that was some bungling of appointments by the Millennials, for which they threatened to charge me for their mistakes, and a couple of attempts to speak with the spa director. By the time the spa director sat down with my boyfriend and I the next day to discuss the whole smoker debacle, I was soured on the whole place. We had an honest, grown-up discussion about what had happened. He explained to me that unfortunately “this was Miami” and therefore smoking was allowed outside, even at the spa, and alcohol would still be served at the nail salon (where douchebag smoker was apparently enjoying his spa time). “But what about your whole mission to be a healthy place of healing and relaxing? And detoxing? Doesn’t that mean anything?” I asked.  He claimed the decision wasn’t his, that it was a hotel thing, but that he would address the issue with those “higher up” in the corporate chain. And even though they served champagne, there wasn’t much they could do about people getting drunk. To me, these excuses were lame and unacceptable.

He wasn’t happy at all to hear about me being hit on — twice — in his spa, or the behaviour of his staff. He assured me that this wasn’t the way he ran things, and was not representative of the “best spa in Miami.” Again, he reiterated he couldn’t control spa guests’ behaviour, but he wished that I had said something so he and the staff could have been given the opportunity to rectify the situation. I replied that in all honesty, I couldn’t trust their staff to actually do the right thing after all I had witnessed the previous day.

The spa director wanted to make it right, and invited my boyfriend and I to come back to the spa “as his guest” to receive the best couples’ treatment they had. We accepted and went back to the spa that evening to receive the KISS 90 (90 minutes, $250 per person) on the house. Service at spa reception was also very professional (if not a bit cold and unemotional) when we went back — of course the young man in charge of the desk was filled in on the entire situation.

The moral of the story: Don’t be a woman sitting alone at a spa in Miami? No, that is of course, ridiculous. Honestly, the only thing I would have done differently was to insist on escalating a complaint of this nature immediately to the spa director, and only to the spa director. At the time, I didn’t want these episodes and complaining about them to ruin my spa time, but that was already a done deal. I hope at least, that spas will take note and learn from this somehow. If your mission is to provide a place of healing, of rest, relaxation and recuperation — then please don’t let people smoke or drink at the spa. Good spas already know that offering alcohol around treatments is not good practice, but it should go without saying that allowing smoking in or around spas is just plain stupid.

That Time I Cried At the Spa

Burke Williams used to be our favorite spa here at Spa Manners. We used to be “Beyond” members — that tier of membership where you basically paid for $85-worth of treatments per month and could come in to use the facilities any time, even without a treatment appointment. So we would go often, to use the sauna one evening, or to steam for an hour here and there. It would just be our place to escape to for just a little bit, where we could have some quiet time and relax.

They pushed this membership hard at Burke, and I guess it paid off because the spa started to get really busy. While this is great for the spa’s bottom line, it’s not so great for spa-goers, and Burke seemed to miss the boat entirely on that one because this membership started bringing in all sorts of people to the spa who didn’t know how to spa. These are the people who treated the facilities like their own, like the hot tub and sauna were in their backyards, and the rest of us were just annoying neighbors crashing their party.

One particular night I had escaped to the spa in an attempt to decompress and find some calm during a chaotic time in my life. My marriage was falling apart, and I was on the verge of divorce. I was emotionally fragile and really needed some quiet space so I could leave negative thoughts and energy behind, if not just for a little while. My place of solace was the sauna.

It was kind of like this. But with more profanity.

On this night, when I came into the sauna there were two other women there. They were chatting away and made no attempt to quiet down when I entered. You see, sometimes spas do not do a good enough job explaining to people what spa etiquette is, and when people who don’t have many manners in the first place, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. These women didn’t understand that most times it’s fine to talk in hushed voices when you and your friends are alone in a spa area together, but when other people are around, you’re either completely silent or whisper at the lowest levels because this is what you do in an environment that’s meant for relaxation.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that they were chatting away at full volume (loud enough so that people outside of the sauna and around the corner could hear them — I could when I was out there) they were also gossiping like mean bitches and then started talking about a sexual predator in their office and the nasty things he was doing. Let me remind you, this was in the sauna, AT THE SPA. The sauna got hotter for me not because of all the water they were throwing on the rocks, but because of their negative energy and all-around bad ju-ju. I really was not in the mood to fight. I had been doing enough of that at home. So in a weak attempt to get them to quiet down, I just looked at them like “really?” and hoped that would be enough of a hint. It wasn’t. They kept going and I told myself that I would give them five more minutes to pipe down before I said anything. They were completely oblivious though, too wrapped up in their drama and negativity to notice they were behaving completely inappropriately.

After five minutes of them talking more about sexual assault and various other horrible people, and I finally mustered up the energy to say, “Excuse me ladies, we’re still in the spa. Could you please take your conversation to a place that’s more appropriate, like outside to the waiting lounge or something?” This just made the beasts mad and their hostile anger just fed each other’s drama fire. “Who says we can’t fucking talk in here! There are no SIGNS in HERE saying we can’t talk. It’s not like anyone’s getting a massage,” one of them spit out with an entitled snarl. The littler one, the follower, doubled down: “We have every right to be in here and fucking talk if we want to.  YOU can just leave.”

I was so sick of drama and fighting, so emotionally spent, that I just sighed and said nothing. Then they even put effort into making me feel even more uncomfortable. First the big one poured way more water onto the hot sauna stones than was safe or necessary, in order to jack the temperature up inside the sauna. They also continued their drama, whining about they should be able to do whatever, and that I was rude, that they were going to complain about me, and so on and so forth.

Ironically they made it so hot that THEY couldn’t stand the heat. After a couple of minutes they were lobster red and looked like they were going to explode. “Fuck this, let’s go,” the big beast declared. They stood up and made their way out of the sauna and literally bumped into one of the spa attendants on duty. They attempted to complain to her about me. In a totally condescending entitled Housewives of OC whine, they said: “EXCUSE me, but we were just told by a very rude person inside the sauna that we couldn’t talk in there. There are no signs saying we can’t talk. It’s not like this is a massage area or anything. Right?”

The spa attendant didn’t miss a beat. “Actually,” she said, “she’s right. You shouldn’t be talking in the sauna, or in the spa in general, but if you must talk it should be in whispers so as to not bother the other guests who come here for quiet time. And there are signs asking for quiet as well, like that one over there.”

The beasts walked off in a huff, obviously not taking too well to the fact that they were wrong. The spa attendant looked over at me, quickly looked around the sauna to make sure no one else was in there, and came in. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that. I could actually hear them from over there and was coming over to see where it was coming from.”  She and I were friendly, and I had come to know her well since I had become a member. So I filled her in on what had happened, and she apologized again. She also cautioned me: “Next time, don’t say anything to people like that. Just go and find one of us and we’ll deal with it. If you can’t find us, go to the manager on duty and he or she will deal with it. It’s just safer that way, honey.” She and the other spa attendant felt so bad for me that later, they brought me a plate of fruit into the sauna.  It was only when I started to encounter this kindness, this empathy, that I started to tear up. These kind ladies made me feel safe enough to let my guard down.

When I was checking out of the spa, the front desk person asked me how I was. She had been told what had happened, as had the manager on duty. As I told her what the spa meant to me, and why I had come to the spa that night, that’s when I began to cry for real. I have to give credit to the Burke Williams staff here, as they were really good about apologizing and trying to make it right. The general manager also called me personally to follow up with me, and she also offered a free massage as an apology for my bad experience that night.

The moral of the story: if you encounter rudeness or inappropriate behaviour of any kind at the spa, don’t approach those people yourself. The last thing you need is some crazy person coming after you in the spa, or any more drama following you around. Always find the nearest spa staff member and quietly explain the situation. If you can’t find anyone in the spa, go to the front desk and ask to speak to a manager. It’s best to leave it to them to deal with the crazy and rude while you quietly go about your business of relaxing.

Other Times When The Spa Wasn’t So Zen
  • There were several times at Burke Williams when groups of women treated the hot tub like it was in their own backyard. Party time at BW combined with that sauna incident was ultimately why I discontinued my membership and didn’t return.
  • Once at the Spa Montage Laguna Beach a woman insisted on using her cellphone inside the steam room. While she was quiet about it (but that’s not the point) it made a bunch of other women mad and they all had to complain about it amongst themselves and to me, disrupting everyone’s right to Zen.
  • When the Miraval Dana Point was the Spa Gaucin at the St. Regis, some woman decided to leave the toilet in a such disgusting state that it stunk up the area near the toilets and nobody seemed to be around to clean it up. That spa was a mess in general and the service was terrible. Maybe it was an f-you poop?
  • The one time I visited Spa Gregorie’s in Rancho Santa Margarita (CA), there was a couple in the co-ed waiting lounge getting it on while waiting for their treatment. Since we’re all naked under our robes, and it was dark in there, I guess they figured, “Why not?”
  • We have had numerous massages at different spas where the therapists just talk too damn much. There have been times where we chatted with them, and it was clear that we weren’t discouraging it. But other times we were clearly unresponsive and they just kept yammering on. For me, that was in the early days, before I was able to create boundaries properly — now I have no problem making it clear that I just need some quiet time during my service. But good therapists know when to STFU.
  • There are spas that we won’t return to because of bad service we’ve received from spa staff. What’s bad spa service? Well, anything that isn’t conducive to a Zen spa experience which includes apathy, entitlement, incompetence, defensiveness, immaturity and just plain rudeness. Just off the tops of our heads, we won’t go back to: Spa Gregorie’s (both locations but the Newport Beach spa is the worst), Balboa Bay Resort Spa (an Old Boys’ Club catering only to the moneyed), Canyon Ranch SpaClub in Las Vegas (we can’t even review this place now because Spa Guru had such a bad first-time experience), Milagro Midwestern Spa Collective in Overland Park (KS), Skinterest Wellness Spa in Laguna Beach (review is forthcoming), Ciel Spa in Las Vegas (Spa Guru won’t go back because she was put off by the staff who booked her appointment), Spa Grande at the Grand Wailea in Maui (Spa Guru doesn’t like the rigidity and clockwork-like wrangling of spa guests) and the R Spa at Renaissance Club Sport (usually complete incompetence at the front desk).

The morals of the stories: If you encounter bad behaviour by spa guests, always speak with an attendant, staff member or manager. Never approach the person in question (or people) directly. It’s not your place to do so, you’re not the spa police. If you encounter unprofessional behaviour by spa staff, always insist on speaking with a manager or spa director after your treatment. Explain honestly and calmly what happened. Good spa managers will always try to make it right. If they don’t, that spa isn’t worth your time or hard-earned money — cut your losses, don’t go back, and tell your friends (and social media) what happened.

But most important of all — don’t let a bad experience (or experiences) stop you from going to the spas who get it right! Tell those spas why you’ve returned, and when they do something well. Appreciate the good ones, thank them and tip well.

Spa, be calm, and be kind.

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About the Author

Spa Pro
This spa-loving mystery woman has been going to the spa for 10+ years, and has had therapeutic treatments like massages for over 20 years. Her ideal spa day would include stretchy time in the sauna, a sugar scrub, followed by 2-hour massage and ending with some meditative time by the ocean.

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