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Hospitality Lawyer — What does “spa” mean? Where does the word “spa” come from?

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28 October 2006
Spas have become one of the hottest amenities for hotels and hotel mixed-use projects. JMBM’s Global Hospitality Group® has worked on enough spa agreements, spa financings and spa management agreements, however, I had never stopped to think about what the word “spa” means or where the word came from. But while celebrating the 25th anniversary of founding Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, I was with the other Founders of the Firm at the Four Seasons George V in Paris, and I learned one interesting story on the meaning and origin of the word that now describes such an important part of our industry. I thought you might like to know it too.


Like so many other hotel guests and travelers today, I arranged for a few hours of spa treatments following my long trip to Paris. After a nice deep tissue massage, relaxing with some ginger tea at the spa, I found a delightful book called Seducing the Senses — Spa Visions of a Bon Vivant by Umberto Angeloni. It has many beautiful illustrations and is well written.

Having just come from the ancient Roman ruins at Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy, where the guide spent considerable time showing me around the Roman baths at both sites, I found one of Angeloni’s chapters particularly interesting. It talked about the Roman legacy of thermae.

The first destination spa?

Although some might look to ancient Greek baths in Homeric times, according to Seducing the Senses, the ancient town of Baiae, located northwest of the Bay of Naples, was the world’s first destination spa. It was a place of mythological beauty and one so renowned that Romans would journey long distances to seek rebirth and rejuvenation. It was no mean accomplishment to achieve this status because the Romans literally built entire spa towns wherever they found thermal waters. Examples include Bath in England, Baden-Baden in Germany, Evian in France and Budapest in Hungary.

Seducing the Senses describes Baiae as a place that appealed to all the senses as follows:

“Baiae … was blessed with a stunning hillside setting, soothing thermal springs and a pleasing southern climate. Visitors could stroll through Baiae’s famous silva, a park shaded with cypress and myrtle trees, and inhale the ocean breezes perfumed with jasmine and orange blossom. Grapevines, oleander, and laurel spilled down the terraced hillside where steppes of honeycombed rock formed natural grottos containing thermal pools. Baiae was a gentle paradise, a real life Elysian Fields.”

Where the word “spa” came from

The Romans created these spa towns and elaborate baths because they believed in the healing power of water. But the term “spa” originated as an acronym from Emperor Nero’s affirmation of the Roman faith in the healing power of water. Emperor Nero said, “sanitas per aquas,” which means “health through waters” and gives us the acronym “spa.”

By the way, as a post script, Seducing the Senses notes that Nero pursued with a passion the building of elaborate spas at Baiae and Rome, where he built the well known imperial thermae. These baths were so impressive that they led one wag of the times to say, “What is worse than Nero? What is better than Nero’s hot baths?” (“Quid Nerone peius, quid thermis melius Neronianis?”)

Other interpretations?

Naturally, as a hotel lawyer, I had to do some research to see if there were any other accounts for the origin of the word “spa.” It appears that there is at least one other widely accepted theory that the word spa was derived from the name of the Belgian town Spa, where in the 14th century a curative, thermal spring was discovered. And according to this version of the story, the word came to mean a place where the water — usually from a mineral or hot spring — is believed to have special health-giving or medicinal properties.

I personally prefer the story attributing the phrase to Nero’s quip of “sanitas per aquas,” but maybe that just reflects my appreciation for the Roman ruins and beautifully done book, Seducing the Senses. What do you think?

Our Perspective. We represent developers, owners and lenders. We have helped our clients as business and legal advisors on more than $125 billion of hotel transactions, involving more than 4,700 properties all over the world. For more information, please contact Jim Butler at or 310.201.3526.

Jim Butler is one of the top hotel lawyers in the world. GOOGLE “hotel lawyer” or “hotel mixed-use” or “condo hotel lawyer” and you will see why.

Jim devotes 100% of his practice to hospitality, representing hotel owners, developers and lenders. Jim leads JMBM’s Global Hospitality Group® – a team of 50 seasoned professionals with more than $87 billion of hotel transactional experience, involving more than 3,900 properties located around the globe.

Jim and his team are more than “just” great hotel lawyers. They are also hospitality consultants and business advisors. They are deal makers. They can help find the right operator or capital provider. They know who to call and how to reach them. They are a major gateway of hotel finance, facilitating the flow of capital with their legal skill, hospitality industry knowledge and ability to find the right “fit” for all parts of the capital stack. Because they are part of the very fabric of the hotel industry, they are able to help clients identify key business goals, assemble the right team, strategize the approach to optimize value and then get the deal done.

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Jim Butler is a Founding Partner of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro LLP and he is Chairman of the firm’s Global Hospitality Group®. If you would like to discuss any hospitality or condo hotel matters, Jim would like to hear from you. Contact him at or 310.201.3526. For his views on current industry issues, visit

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