Kathy Van Ness is credited with helping revitalize Golden Door. // © 2018 Golden Door
Feature image (above): Golden Door is considered one of the original U.S. luxury wellness retreats. // © 2018 Golden Door
Few would argue about Golden Door’s influence on the modern wellness movement.
In 1958, long before chia seeds, Gwyneth Paltrow or SoulCycle became associated with wellness, Deborah Szekely founded Golden Door as a luxurious, Zen-inspired getaway. Hollywood stars such as Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor were among the Door’s A-list guests.
“Golden Door is the grand dame of wellness,” said Beth McGroarty, director of research and public relations for Global Wellness Institute. “It was so ahead of its time.”
But, as the decades passed, Golden Door’s ownership changed hands. Former guests could sense an unwelcome difference — just as spa and wellness travel was becoming a fiercely competitive industry.
Enter Joanne Conway, a 22-time Golden Door guest and billionaire philanthropist, and Kathy Van Ness, a passionate long-time executive in the fashion industry.
In 2012, Conway bought Golden Door for nearly $25 million, with the goal of returning the property to its former glory. In addition to acquiring additional acreage, renovating the grounds and elevating the retreat’s organic farm and cuisine, Conway hired Van Ness to strengthen its business practices and develop and restore the Golden Door brand.
Their collective efforts have worked. In 2015, Golden Door was hailed the top destination spa of the year by Travel + Leisure, and Van Ness says occupancy rates are now higher than ever.
Below, we check in with Van Ness — who serves as the Door’s general manager and chief operating officer — to see exactly how she brought the groove back to Golden Door and how the retreat fits into today’s world of wellness.
Wellness travel is now a huge industry whereas it wasn’t so much when Golden Door was founded in 1958. What do you think about the term “wellness?”
“Wellness” is a marketing word. We must be careful how we use it because it’s really personal. Healthcare cannot be homogenized. You may not be able to give up meat or take that pill because it’s not good for you — all our bodies and minds are different.
Wellness can be a very dangerous word today. Is a person unwell if they have cancer or are stressed out? We have to address every person and look at them as a unique human.
How influenced is Golden Door by trendy treatments and fitness classes?
We might offer a new massage that comes in, but for the bigger picture, we think that the simpler a wellness practice is to execute, the better it is for you to manage when you leave.
What are some ways that Golden Door is different than a typical spa?
Nobody else has personal training. And now archery and fencing — taught by a former Olympian — are classes. Where else can you do all that? We also offer bee tours, butterfly tours in the summer and breakfasts served on a mountaintop.
Wherever the weather and temperature take us, we will do some fun things. We are always changing it up. We approach our business with wit, fun and whimsy. We want to make you laugh again. Why not have some fun?
We also offer a daily massage in your room. You get off the table and can roll onto the bed. There’s no need to walk somewhere, unlike other places where you still have to get out of the room and sign your bill. How much of that massage will be left for you to have a profound change? That’s the unique difference at Golden Door — your masseuse knows you, and she or he is improving your experience every time she or he sees you.
Golden Door has some very loyal guests — how do you cultivate that?
Last year, two gentlemen came for their 100th visits. We paid for two separate parties and brought in outside entertainers. It was beautifully done. No other hotel would ever do that.
On that note, there was a good age range of guests during my recent visit at Golden Door, including a few women in their 30s.
We now attract a lot of young people. The average age has gone down by 18 to 20 years. We made sure that youths who didn’t know about these places now do. Stressed-out young executives have to take care of themselves, too.
How are you attracting the younger set?
We attended events they were at such as awards parties, charitable events, book launches and speaker series. We communicated that we were young, mindful and cool — and people like cool.
One of my main objectives is to reach across all platforms to show that this is what people need to maintain their health. Keep your equipment happy and healthy and have great sensitivity to yourself, and you will be fine.
Have you heard of folks visiting Golden Door and feeling transformed or changed in some way?
I’ve been here for almost six years, and I hear it every week. They might be lost in their lives and now have a moment to relax and ponder, along with someone to embrace them and help them get on that right path. We have guests who come here and say Golden Door is why they’re healthy. There are so many stories.
Can you share a few examples?
Let’s walk through the different kinds of transformations. If a guest wants to eat healthier and get away from foods — such as sugar or things their doctors told them to cut back on — we teach them they don’t have to suffer. They can still have a cookie, but they should eat it very thoughtfully. Don’t just grab sugar. Choose some grapes or a healthy shake instead.
The other kind of transformation is the mindful kind; we have guests who are super stressed-out executives who can’t turn off. We met a senior executive who was yelling at someone in the parking lot at the start of her stay; by Wednesday (day four of her visit), she said, “My phone is in my safe. I’ve never felt better or clearer. I didn’t think I could live without my phone, but now I can live with myself, turn it off and be happy.”
That’s a big transformation; we have perfect phone service. We didn’t take away her phone. It doesn’t work if you’re forcefully starved because that leads to more stress. Guests will think they’re missing something. Our guests purposefully put away the things that are distracting.
How do you get folks to digitally detox if you don’t take away phones?
We tell them you can’t bring phones to dinner, and guests have incredible conversations with fellow guests. But it’s something we do in a very kind way. We’re guiding them into withdrawal. Once you get to that Wednesday, you think, “I don’t want my phone to invade my life here, I want to be myself.” That’s when the mind starts getting healthier and can focus on you.
You wouldn’t know that you could do that unless you went to a place that honored you enough.
What’s something that folks might not understand about your itineraries?
We take a personalized approach to each guest. People don’t really realize how different everyone’s schedules are. Everyone is doing their own custom thing. If you are a busy executive, you have to plan your life all the time. That doesn’t happen here. As soon as you book, we’re working on your schedule behind the scenes.
What are some changes you’ve made as general manager?
We used to do spa treatments throughout the day, but everyone wants their spa treatments after 2 p.m. We flipped our personnel schedule to be in the afternoon. Now there’s many more hours available in later in the day when guests want to quiet down their bodies. It works like a charm.
Do you think that the bonding among guests is the sweet spot for Golden Door?
Yes. Your fellow guest is a friend who has no agendas. The bonding side of our business is not small. Humans love comradery, especially when it’s safe. Many people make friends for life here.
It’s not something that anyone believes until they do it, but I’ve seen this every week for the last six years. I see guests go in tired and leave shiny and smiling.
Can you tell me more about Golden Door’s charitable giving?
Golden Door is a business for profit, but we send our net profits to charitable foundations that help children get out of abusive situations. If we can transform children’s lives, that will be the greatest gift.
What are occupancy rates now?
They are amazing — the best they’ve ever been. Every year it’s gotten better. We are so thrilled that so many guests are coming back and bringing their friends.
How can travel advisors better sell Golden Door?
The ones who know us and have treasured Golden Door are our best ambassadors. They send their guests week after week. It’s hard to explain what we do — it’s so deep — so it has to come from someone you trust. That’s what sells Golden Door.
Otherwise, it’s hard for people who don’t understand the differences in the wellness business. We are a program that will make someone’s life better.