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INTERVIEW With a background in


fashion, Van Ness brings a new perspective to the spa business


KATHY VAN NESS


The new owner of Golden Door appointed a fashion expert to oversee the destination spa’s aesthetic and ethical makeover. Katie Barnes asks the COO about her plans to outshine the competition once more


T


he world-renowned Golden Door destination spa in Escondido, California, reopened in October following a two-year overhaul of both its property and business.


The luxury retreat, which lost its sparkle


under 13 years of corporate ownership, was acquired in late 2012 by frequent visitor Joanne Conway – the wife of Carlyle Group co-founder, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Conway – for US$25m (€23m, £17m). “She was a guest for 22 years and knew that it needed a really special owner, she really felt passionate about saving it,” says Kathy Van Ness, the COO who Conway brought in to oversee its transformation. With new, extensive funds, the goal was to bring the


32 spabusiness.com issue 2 2015 ©CYBERTREK 2015


57-year-old Golden Door back in line with founder Deborah Szekely’s original vision – a spa experience that can empower guests ‘to reposition themselves at the centre of their own lives by tending to their bodies, their minds and their spirits’.


A diluted brand Golden Door Spa as it was then called opened in 1958 as the upscale sister property to Rancho La Puerta – a health farm just over the Mexican border which Szekely set up with her husband in 1940. The ranch was one of the first destination spas in North America and Szekely, now in her 90s, is fondly referred to as the nation’s spa godmother (see SB13/1 p32). While the rustic ranch was a place


where people ate around a camp fire, slept in tents (in the very early days) and hiked


the hills surrounding Tecate, Golden Door Spa was a destination for preening and pampering with an alluring Oriental twist. The property, themed around a traditional Japanese honjin (inn), attracted an exclusive clientele including stars such as Elizabeth Taylor who went there between films to get screen-ready. In 1998 the Szekelys sold Golden Door


Spa to Patriot American Hospitality (later renamed Wyndham International) which was bought by private equity giant Blackstone in 2005 (see SB08/1 p58). Under corporate ownership the gilded name was used strategically to brand four other hotel spas across the USA and the concept dwindled in popularity as its Asian authenticity became diluted. As part of the Conway deal, the licence agreements with the other hotels expired


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