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Revitalize & Renew

Illinois flourishes with spa hotels and resorts that relax attendees between meetings

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

For decades, a typical meeting agenda has included coffee breaks, happy hours, and perhaps a golf outing. Today, those extracurriculars often translate to smoothie bars, yoga sessions, and body massages—all because savvy meeting planners are picking up on the booming wellness trend by adding healthy programming to the mix.

The trend is only expected to continue. About 50% of U.S. consumers report wellness as a top priority in their daily lives, according to a 2022 survey by global management consultancy McKinsey and Co. That’s a significant rise from 42% in 2020. 

Furthermore, the survey reveals consumers increasingly value and seek out ways to address their wellness needs across various dimensions, such as through fitness, mindfulness, and nutrition. “If there is one good thing that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s it,” says Abbi Porter, spa director at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena.

With meeting planner clients in mind, hotels and resorts across Illinois are responding by boosting their spa and wellness offerings. They’re upgrading their facilities, forging partnerships with outside wellness experts, and creating treatment menus of therapeutic activities and experiences.

A Shift in Priorities

“It started about seven years ago that everybody wanted to do team-building events,” says Colin Sanderson, director of sales and marketing at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa. “In the last two and a half years, the trend has gone from team building to more of a wellness event.” 

“People, especially employees, have re-prioritized what is important to them,” Porter says in agreement. “They want a work culture that respects the fact that they are taking care of themselves.”

Aerial view of golf course at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena || Courtesy of Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa is located in the scenic region of northwestern Illinois. Scattered throughout the property are an 80-room inn and 150 villas and homes for rental. Its Stonedrift Spa opened in November 2022 in a stand-alone building on-site. Also on the grounds are a fitness center and four golf courses. 

“When you come out to Galena, it’s an environment unlike anything else,” Sanderson says. “We have rolling hills, beautiful farmland, beautiful little mountains, and waterfalls. When people get here, they immediately start to relax. They say, ‘I didn’t know there was a world like this.’” 

At Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park, Anita Rahman, director of sales and marketing, also sees an uptick in the demand for wellness programming. “People are willing to meet and come together again, and that’s fantastic,” she says. “The overarching piece is that people’s well-being is at the top of everyone’s mind as it comes to attendees. The meeting planners and hotel staff who are working with them are trying to incorporate fun, innovative ways to match the purpose of the meeting.”

Elegant product display at Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park’s Leaf Spa || Courtesy of The Dana Agency

With 687 guest rooms and suites, the 45-story Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park high-rise is just steps from Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, lush green spaces, and vibrant Michigan Avenue. The hotel’s Leaf Spa offers nature-focused facials and body treatments, and the adjacent fitness center was recently upgraded.

“We don’t see this as a trend—we see it as a way of moving forward,” says Kelly Gasspari-Fleming, director at the Waldorf Astoria Spa & Health Club at Waldorf Astoria Chicago. “Being serious about wellness programming is something that sets a lot of the hotels apart.”

The French-inspired Waldorf Astoria Chicago recently underwent a comprehensive renovation to its 214 guest rooms and suites, lobby, restaurants, and spa, with more to come next year. The 60-story hotel is located in the city’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

Facial at Waldorf Astoria Spa & Health Club at Waldorf Astoria Chicago || Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Chicago

The Perks of a Healthy Meeting

Meetings that include wellness programming lead to benefits before, during, and after the event. A hotel or resort with spa and fitness amenities—and integrated opportunities to enjoy them—can entice attendees to register for a conference and boost their overall satisfaction. Interspersed throughout the agenda, activities such as a yoga class or guided meditation help reduce stress and increase productivity.

“We have all been in those 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. meetings,” Sanderson says. “You have a coffee break, get back to the meeting, have lunch, get back to the meeting. By the end of the day, you’re either falling asleep halfway through it, or you don’t remember anything. Wellness activities break it up to where you’re actually getting rejuvenated in a way. You’re more relaxed and more willing to go back to a meeting to learn.”

“If you can say to your attendees, ‘We have reserved the spa from 3 to 8 p.m., and these are the services you can book,’ people are very grateful,” says Kerri Stokes, wellness director at The St. Regis Chicago. 

Caroline Astor Suite guest room at The St. Regis Chicago || Courtesy of The St. Regis Chicago

The St. Regis, the city’s newest spa hotel, opened last June in the Lakeshore East neighborhood. Its 192 rooms and suites occupy the first 11 floors of a 101-story building, the third-tallest in Chicago. Among the amenities are a spa, fitness club, and indoor heated swimming pool. Behind the hotel is a 6-acre park with ornamental gardens and water features.

Gasspari-Fleming adds, “We’re teaching them something. For instance, the chair yoga we are doing is something they will be able to use in their offices and homes, and perhaps even teach someone they know how to relieve some stress in a 10-minute session without even leaving their office or their chair.”

Creative Wellness Programming

Need some ideas for planning a wellness-centered event? These suggestions will get you started. Consider incorporating yoga classes on a rooftop terrace or golf green, stretching exercises, mini-Zumba classes, chair yoga, neck massages, guided meditation, crystal healing, sound baths, forest baths, nature hikes, equine therapy, wellness seminars, and fun runs. Spa treatments can be offered as an award, a door prize, or an amenity to the entire group.

Eagle Ridge arranges trail riding on horseback, as well as a no-ride equine-assisted program in which participants learn to guide horses through various maneuvers. The exercises are designed to build communication and leadership skills, Sanderson says.

DeAnna Gasen, the office manager and meeting planner for the Illinois Pipes Trades Association in Springfield, says Eagle Ridge’s wide variety of activities is a big draw. A recent agenda included massages and facials with lunch and a catered open bar. The group also participated in golf outings, nature hikes, and pontoon boating on the lake.

Stonedrift Spa’s relaxation room at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa || Courtesy of Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

The Herrington Inn & Spa in suburban Geneva on the Fox River features 60 European-style guest rooms and suites with oversized whirlpool tubs. Most have private balconies or patios. Guests can book a range of body and skin care treatments at the spa, or they can select from the bath menu and indulge in a signature soak in the privacy of their rooms. Spa attendants will even draw the bath. The hotel also offers amenity baskets of bath and shower products for sale.

“I had one group that ordered an amenity basket for each room, so they could be enjoyed while they were here,” says Lisa Van Bortel, director of sales and marketing.

Colleen Stenslik is the meeting planner for a credit union that holds its annual board meetings at The Herrington, where the spa is a favorite among both attendees and their spouses. “We just prefer Geneva,” she says. “It’s more quiet. No worries about cabs or getting around, and it is always safe and very walkable. The view of the river from the rooms and meeting spaces is another fabulous part.”

Meeting Planner Tips

The best advice from spa directors and sales managers is to plan ahead. Think about the types of activities you might want to add to your agenda. If you are out of ideas, they have plenty and are happy to customize them to the size and objectives of your meeting. 

Planning is essential if you want early-morning exercise classes, a smoothie break instead of coffee, or a block of time for spa treatments. The hotel may have to bring in extra instructors or therapists, or adjust their hours to account for private groups. Consider whether you want everyone to visit the spa at the same time, or to stagger appointments throughout the meeting.

Indoor pool at Waldorf Astoria Chicago || Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Chicago

“A lot of times meeting planners don’t know what they are looking for, but they know they want something,” Gasspari-Fleming says. And they often need to fit it within a short time period, she adds. 

One of Gasspari-Fleming’s meeting planner clients initially intended to incorporate chair massages into an event. In discussing the matter, they acknowledged the challenge of booking one-on-one sessions for 90 attendees during a 15-minute break. As an alternative, Gasspari-Fleming made arrangements for a group chair-yoga class led by a single instructor, which was highly successful. 

“A lot of it is educating meeting planners about what we can offer, things they may not have thought of,” says Rahman. “It might be as simple as having a break in the morning or afternoon with a neck massage, but why not take it one step further to include a spa treatment as a thank you, a recognition, or just to relax post-meeting or to prepare pre-meeting?”

Treatment room at Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park’s Leaf Spa || Courtesy of The Dana Agency

“The planner really needs to key into what type of meeting they are planning and choose the venue that will best pull that off,” Van Bortel says. As an example, a group making tough decisions due to budget limitations might want a relaxed ambience away from crowds and parking restrictions—and spa retreats make the perfect add-on.