A Big Day on the Hill


The cry went out far and wide to members of the spa industry just before they gathered this last week (March16-18) in Washington, D.C.

“Bring your walking shoes!” 

On Wednesday, I and some of the most respected leaders in the spa industry and related fields—including fitness resort and spa founders, regional leaders of spa associations from across the nation, wellness-related product manufacturers, journalists, and even the founder of America's first certified Biodynamic winery—gathered on the steps of Congress for the classic “photo op.”

Then off we went to walk the halls of the Congressional offices in the Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn buildings south of the Capitol. In all, we had six personal appointments spread throughout the day.

We also had one appointment with a member of Senator Feinstein’s staff in the Hart Senate Office Building.

It was a physical demanding trek, navigable only on foot, down hall after hall of gleaming white terrazzo floors flanked by windowless walls (in the case of the House offices)—these broken only by brass name plaques and two flags—state and U.S.—flanking each office doorway.

My frequent walks and Pilates classes back home served me well on this epic day, and I walked the miles without trouble, as did my colleagues.


The meetings went well, but before I get into the details of the day, a little background:

The Washington Spa Alliance (WSPA) is a group of spa leaders in the DC area that hosts an annual Symposium. (Their mission: “WSPA works to promote the exchange of education and innovation in the field, and to ensure that the highest ideals of spa are met through policy and action.”) This year’s gathering at the National Press Club was entitled “Spa Comes Of Age: The Democratization of Spa” with an agenda filled with interesting speakers and multiple panel discussions.

As the day neared its end, a town-hall discussion was held on how spa leaders might work together to build a coalition and chart a national agenda. It’s been my dream for years to see the $14 billion-a-year spa industry, which has over 350,000 workers and serves over 160 million “spa visits” a year, step into the national agenda with a unified voice on matters that affect the health of Americans today—and especially our future generations.

We got off to a good start. Ideas ranged from support of healthier school lunch programs to demands for more testing of potentially toxic chemicals before they hit the market; the perfect example being the case of flame retardants, which seemed like a good idea decades ago but are now blamed for multiple childhood ailments.

Bottom line: people who have dedicated their lives to wellness and especially prevention are now starting to focus also on protection, because no matter how much we try to live the natural life, exercising and eating healthy food et al, we are exposed to unseen, unknown hazards. In perhaps the most famous example, a study of 10 babies of African-American, Hispanic and Asian heritage were found to have over 200 trace chemicals in their umbilical cord blood—which is outrageous. No one can argue that this level of exposure is somehow good for Americans.

Two articles that detail the overall state of chemical hazards in America today include “A Rising Tide of Contaminants,” by Deborah Blum (NY Times Sept 25, 2014) and “West Virginia chemical spill in Elk River poses a new test for lawmakers,” by Joel Achenbach (The Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2014). I recommend them highly.

Note that this is not about “health care”—we in the industry focus on prevention and protection as our ideals, thereby diminishing the chance of illness! Of course we are also healers, but what particularly concerns us today are health issues that are avoidable, either through personal actions or regulatory protective measures.

It will be important to use the wisdom of these spa leaders, and I will work closely with them and Wellness Warrior to see how we can speak with a unified voice.


The following day, those symposium attendees that could stay an extra day went to The Hill to meet, as mentioned, with Senator Feinstein (D-CA), as well as the Honorable Jared Polis (D-CO2), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY12), Nita Lowey (D-NY17), Juan Vargas (D-CA51), Susan Davis (D-CA53), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL9).

(By the way, you can track analyses of these and other members of Congress’s voting records, bill sponsorship, and co-sponsorship, at gov.track.us. I highly recommend that you sign up for GovTrack.us updates on pending and enacted legislation as well.)

Every one of our appointments was honored promptly. We found these members of Congress to be welcoming, attentive, and open—as Juan Vargas said, “I want to be educated on your issues! Educate me!”

Some examples:

Senator Feinstein’s staff member emphasized that any update of TSCA (the Toxic Substances Control Act) must not supersede state regulations, mainly because California already has some of the strictest regulations in the country that will be hardly be matched by any new mandates on the federal level.

The Honorable Susan Davis suggested that the spa industry focus more on helping returning war veterans, and their spouses. “We must work toward their social and emotional healing,” she said, citing her experience on the Armed Services Committee (her district in San Diego includes many Navy and Marine families).

The Honorable Juan Vargas emphasized immigration issues, and the health of many children is at risk from the affects of poor diet.

At one point in the day, part of our group, quite perplexed by the hallway maze, was looking for the tunnel to the Longworth building’s cafeteria. A man in a suit approached the group and said, “Can I help you find something?” He led us onto an elevator, down to the tunnel, and walked us to lunch. Of course, once in the elevator, we asked if he was a Representative. Sure enough, Republican Congressman Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville, Georgia, gave us the biggest dose of Southern hospitality one could ask for.

He left us with the great line, “Y’all in the spa industry could probably be the most popular lobbying group here.”

I look forward to sharing more soon about the results from our day on The Hill. In addition, keep an eye out for contributions from our spa leaders in our VOICES section; they will be offering their insights about prevention issues and how we all can be part of a movement that changes the future of Americans' health for generations to come.

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  • Paul Schmidt
    commented 2015-03-23 10:37:34 -0400
    What an honor to be part of this landmark gathering as the 5th Annual Washington Spa Alliance Symposium brought a voice for all things spa to Capitol Hill. The capacity to expand the message of prevention to one of protection reveals a powerful shift in our industry. To speak out on our right to safety and a healthful environment to live and raise our children and grandchildren underscores the important connections between personal and planetary vitality. Staying on to further the charge through GSN with 5 more Hill visits the following day opened my mind to just how easy and important it is to raise our voices. Finding our elected officials eager to listen and learn left me filled with hope and pride. Thank you Mary Bemis, Deborah Szekely and everyone who made this event one for the history books. Be a Warrior. Join the movement! Paul Schmidt
  • Christi Cano
    commented 2015-03-21 14:52:34 -0400
    Our day on The Hill representing the spa and wellness industry was historic, a positive eye opening experience and truly inspirational. We were welcomed with open arms and given valuable time. In true spa fashion, we offered to be of service which was greatly appreciated. Led by Deborah Szekely, always forthright and focused, we were passionate educators providing insight into the impact of wellness not only on our industry but for our citizens and not just from the U.S. but globally as well. Alot of work lies ahead of us. This is the right time, the right place and we are the people who will get it done. ~ Christi Cano, Proud Wellness Warrior
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