Nothing stands in the way of Ann Sebastian's annual reunion with two friends at Safety Harbor Resort & Spa on Tampa Bay--not even a natural disaster. A couple of years ago, a tornado severely damaged her house in Collierville, Tenn., two days before her trip. She showed up at the spa as planned. "My husband understands how important this getaway is to me," says Sebastian, a personnel specialist who commutes weekly from Memphis to the Internal Revenue Service's Washington (D.C.) headquarters.
Sebastian and her friends, Susan Carroll of Jacksonville and Lynda Sowell of Cordova, Tenn., are IRS colleagues who now work in different cities. They rarely see each other outside of their spa week, a break that combines female bonding with concentrated beauty and fitness regimens: pre-breakfast walks, daily massages, low-fat meals, jogging, water aerobics, herbal wraps, facials, and pedicures. But the real draw is the trio's intimate, round-the-clock talks about careers and families. "The rest of the year, we have intense schedules and lots of stress," explains Carroll. "This is our time to connect with each other. Here, others take care of us."
More business and professional women are carving time out of their crammed appointment books for all-female, no-partners-or-children-welcome retreats. Business travel has taught working women--and their spouses--that their families can survive without them.
An industry is springing up to cater to this market niche of affluent women, offering everything from intense mountain-biking trips to wellness retreats to group tours in exotic locales. "Our market is primarily busy, exhausted women, mostly age 35 and up," says Phyllis Stoller, president of Women's Travel Club in Aventura, Fla., which organizes about 25 group trips yearly, from Las Vegas weekends to African safaris. Wild Women Adventures in Sebastopol, Calif., organizes all-female groups of 12 for Irish music tours of Dublin, winter jaunts in the Swiss Alps, or journeys along the Nile. "About half of our clientele is executive women," says President Carol Rivendell.
But the nation's estimated 1,600 spas--which offer everything from rigorous exertion to mind-body tune-ups to nothing more strenuous than a stroll from breakfast in bed to a massage table--are still a favorite destination. Safety Harbor gets 64,000 visitors a year, of whom "75% are women with other women," says Marketing Director Susan Kennedy. With 50,000 square feet of spa and fitness rooms, natural spring waters, and waterfront facilities, the resort has a casual, laid-back atmosphere, as well as lower prices than such pampering palaces as Canyon Ranch.
Guests walk around Safety Harbor all day in white terrycloth robes over bathing suits and plastic flip-flops that won't mess up pedicured toenails. They can sleep late or laze in hot tubs and pools, emerging only for loofah scrubs, mud masks, and aromatherapy sessions. Or they can rise at dawn for tennis, golf, or advanced step, abdominal-power, boxercise, and power-sculpt classes. They can graze on salads and broiled fish or order burgers and key lime pie. They can quaff wine, beer, cocktails, or the ubiquitous carafes of spring water or raspberry herbal iced tea. "We're not judgmental," Kennedy says of the resort's staff. "You do what makes you feel good."
What makes businesswomen feel good, experts say, is relaxation. "Our clients don't want to work," says Stoller of Women's Travel Club. "They want to pay, go, and not think." According to Wild Women Adventures' Rivendell, a former psychotherapist, the great appeal of these trips is that they are not a family vacation where the needs of a spouse and children must be accommodated. "Women find it extremely liberating to do whatever they want," she says.
Marcia Plater, executive director of a social-service agency in Montgomery County, Md., couldn't agree more. She just left for a week in Brazil with two friends. The African American women want to explore African influences on Brazilian culture. "It's our opportunity to relax and share with each other, to talk about our kids, our dreams, and swap career information," says Plater.
"I don't have time to enjoy my friends day-to-day."
Psychologists who study women's social networks say there are plenty of data to back up what many women intuitively understand: that a sense of validation and well-being springs from comparing notes with others in the same boat. "Stressed-out executives seek feedback from other women because they are often in career environments that may not foster, share, or nurture their perspectives," says psychology professor Nancy Genero of Wellesley College.
"REJUVENATING." A case in point is Carolyn Kohn, a trader at Wall Street's Aubrey G. Lanston, who goes on a ski vacation to Keystone, Colo., with eight women friends every January. "It's the most rejuvenating vacation I take all year," she says, in part because it removes her from "my persona in a male-dominated environment where I have to be assertive and aggressive, where there is constant jockeying and bravado." The physical release of skiing is also key because she spends so much of the rest of the year sitting at her desk in a cramped room.
"It's a shame," says Genero, "that women have to go on vacation once a year to experience the joy and freedom of female bonding that should be built into our daily lives." She's right, of course. But working women will take what they can get, squeezing a girlfriend trip into their Filofaxes whenever they get the chance.