Interview
Deborah Szekely

Deborah Szekely has been working in the industry for more than 80 years. Today, she’s active, healthy, and reading Socrates. Jane Kitchen travelled to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico to talk about the industry, the power of nature and plans for her 100th birthday


Considered by many to be the founder of the modern fitness resort and spa movement, Deborah Szekely has thoroughly earned the nickname ‘The Godmother of Spa’. Together with her late husband, Edmond Szekely, she started Rancho La Puerta in Tecate Mexico in 1940 with a focus on living simply, respecting the body’s inherent wisdom, and embracing a life in nature – principles that still guide the resort today.

While Rancho La Puerta has come a long way since its start – when guests brought their own tents and paid US$17.50 (£13.30, €15.80) a week – its motto of ‘Siempre Mejor!’ (‘Always Better!’) has helped it grow and change with the times while remaining true to its original mission of helping people live a healthier life in both body and mind.

Szekely will celebrate her 100th birthday on 3 May this year; she still travels from her home in San Diego to Rancho La Puerta once a week, where she holds a special evening talking to guests, regaling them with stories and answering questions.

Her status among guests – most of whom have visited numerous times – borders on celebrity. I sat down with Deborah on the sun-dappled terrace of the Ranch’s restaurant for a late breakfast, and we paused our conversation numerous times as guests snuck in a quick hello, or wanted to ask a question or recommend a book or just be briefly in her presence.

In our own industry, she is a legend, and we celebrate her as an embodiment of all we stand for: a life lived well, in good health in body, mind and spirit. As she approaches her centenary in excellent health, she is still sharing with others, finding joy in nature, and doing her best to make the world a better place for the next generation.

It was my honour to sit down with Deborah in the shade of trees she planted 80 years ago and discuss the industry, the democratisation of wellness, and plans for her birthday celebrations.

How can the industry realise its true potential?
I believe that for the spa industry to go outward, we first have to go inward. Staff have to be given time for massages and exercise classes for themselves, so they know what they’re talking about, and they can really be examples.

We have a whole wellness programme for all our employees that includes a doctor, family counsellor, psychologist, and nutritionist and all our staff are able to take treatments. All our employees also bring their kids to work every year so they see where their parents work and they understand. Being involved with the staff so the staff feels loyalty is key. In our case, we have those whose grandmothers worked for Rancho La Puerta, so they’re not just people who come for a paycheck.

Part of the place’s magic is the sense of community among guests, but you also feel it from staff members – they feel like part of the family, they’re proud of their work and happy to be here. If you build that sense with the community and the staff first, then it will spill over into how guests interact and how they feel when they stay with you.

Spas also need to reach out to become part of the community, which is another way to focus first inwards, then outwards. You need to think from the ground up, whether it’s your employees or your community or the food you plant.

How do you hope the industry will look in 2050?
I hope they’ll be out of business because everybody is living the right way! I hope spas will work better together, support one another, train each other’s staff, and share new ideas. I also hope there’ll be less of a separation between spa life and everyday life.

As an industry, we’ve gone from a focus on spa and massage, and now – especially with COVID – it’s coming back around to a focus on the whole body and the mind/body experience. My husband, Edmond Szekely, was a brilliant man and ahead of his time. He was the inspiration for Rancho La Puerta and the destination spas that followed. He was talking about the mind/body connection long before anyone else.

How can we democratise wellness?
People must develop an appetite for wellness first – they need to realise how important activity and food is to their health. We have to start in schools with more health and nutrition education, and work on offering healthy lunches. In the US, many kitchens in schools are gone because they were too expensive to maintain – now it’s all frozen food. Our whole culture will change when we’ve educated the next generation about wellness. Health begins in youth and pays off throughout a lifetime. I had no intention of living to be 100 – I never thought about it one way or another, but here it is staring me in the face.

Wellness starts with education. We must teach children that we humans are part of something immensely important – nature – and bring it into everyday life. People should take their kids to the park – they need the curing effects of greenery and it doesn’t cost a thing. Most cities have parks, yet we don’t see as many kids in them as we should. Nature gives you faith — it’s hard to have dark thoughts when you’re surrounded by trees.

Through the non-profit we started here – Fundación La Puerta – we teach children about ecology and environmental protection. That should be a course in every school, so children learn that we’re part of a phenomenal universe. We’re also part of a dying planet, and we have to slow and soon stop that decay because our planet is in trouble. The future is in all of our hands – it’s our responsibility and not our children’s – and we all have to be conscious of the fact that we’re building tomorrow and each of us must contribute to that.

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
My daughter. But beyond that, it’s the role I’ve had in politics. I’ve always been involved and when I was in my 60s, I ran for Congress. I didn’t make it, so I moved to Washington and ran a federal agency. I put together 12 retired Congressional chiefs of staff and we created the Congressional Management Manual, a 300-page book about how to run a congressional office, and nothing like it existed at the time.

Congress still uses it; it’s in its 17th edition. I had the idea and I put together the people, and I’m very proud of that – it’s had a real impact.

And of course I’m very proud of The Ranch, because my husband and I started it from scratch. We actually came up with the idea of the fitness spa – there was no such thing at the time. We had a mountain, fresh air, a river and a creek and guests had to bring their own tent. And we had lectures – my husband spoke every day at 4.00pm under the big tree, and everyone attended. Then we’d all have dinner later under that same tree. So the importance of the mind and the wisdom of the elders was always very important – there’s so much that we can learn from them.

The Ranch has been carefully designed so there’s an easy flow between the inside and the outside. I credit my daughter Sarah Livia with the siting and architectural thoughtfulness. My husband wanted everyone to walk three miles every day, and so the buildings are all scattered.

If you want to go to the dining hall, or the gym and get a massage, you walk at least three miles a day – much more if you take one of our hikes. The people who come regularly exercise at home and watch what they eat. Yet they – and the very few other people who don’t exercise – are still impacted by their stay, while the percentage who return is tremendous.

You’re building residences at the ranch now
Yes, and with one exception, the people who’ve bought a residence are former guests. Many would like to retire and so they buy them as future retirement homes. And they know that they’ll live in a community of like-minded people and they’ll support one another, and the attraction will be nature – we happen to be enormously fortunate when it comes to nature.

Is there anything you still hope to accomplish?
At my age, no. But I still contribute through the Center for Science and Public Interest. The most important thing is for the food industry to clean up. We have a right to eat food that’s good for us and not full of chemicals.

The cumulative effect of smidgens of this and smidgens of that makes a lot of smidgens. Everyone has hundreds of chemicals in their body that accumulate over time. We’re in a constant battle between common-sense practices that protect people, and businesses that protect their profits rather than people.

There’s still a lot to learn – I’m always reading something for fun and something to learn from; right now it’s Socrates and he addresses so many problems we can relate to today.

How will you celebrate your 100th birthday?
We built a huge park for the residents of Tecate, with a soccer pitch and tree-shaded terraces, and we’ll celebrate there on 1 May, which is May Day. Everyone is invited – I like to think we’re celebrating
their contribution to the Ranch’s success, rather than my longevity. We’ll have entertainment, fireworks, and chefs cooking wonderful dishes.
Anyone who wants to give me a gift has been asked to contribute to a programme we’re calling ‘Green Umbrella’ – a fund to plant trees in Tecate’s schoolyards, churchyards, and parks. The idea has its roots at the Ranch, where we’ve planted so many trees over our 82 years.

I look at those and wonder at how much they’ve grown along with the Ranch ... and my own long life. So many were planted as saplings, and now I can barely get my arms around them.

Trees help give children a love of nature, cool the town, and cleanse the air. Kids are smart and they’re building their thought processes from a young age, so their environment truly contributes to their growth into healthy, productive, happy adults. We’ll make sure they have a dose of nature every day.

Any further words of wisdom?
Throughout my life my friends have been my most important support system. They bring out different things in me and their interests in art and music, religion and medicine enrich me.

I like to say I always pick friends who are smarter than me, better educated, and younger!

Nobody should be lonely, and we must help those that are, especially later in life. Here at the Ranch, everybody makes new and soon-to-be permanent pals and they often come back together at the same time. We change people’s lives – we offer so much to learn and when you leave you don’t realise how much has crept into your mind – it’s like a week of college. You’ll experience and learn things to think about long after you go home. And then, when that begins to fade, it’s time to come back again.

More reading: Access the Spa Business interview with Deborah Szekely celebrating her 90th birthday at www.spabusiness.com/Deborah90

Deborah Szekely
A few things I like to say...

‘You can’t give with a closed hand’
– In the act of giving, you receive

‘Right is might’
When you’re doing things right and you know you’re doing things right, you have power

‘Do your best, God does the rest’
Doing your best is all you can do, and after that, have faith that the universe or something bigger than you will take care of the rest

Szekely started the ranch in Mexico in 1940, with husband Edmond Credit: Rancho La Puerta
Credit: Rancho La Puerta
The ranch ensures its staff are well cared for, and that sense of health and happiness naturally spreads to guests Credit: Rancho La Puerta
Szekely headlining at the GWS Credit: GWS
The ranch fosters a sense of community, and lasting friendships are made Credit: Rancho La Puerta
Deborah with daughter, Sarah-Livia Szekely Brightwood, president of Rancho La Puerta Credit: Rancho La Puerta
Everyday life at the Ranch Credit: Rancho La Puerta
Rest and recovery are an essential part of the Rancho La Puerta philosophy Credit: Rancho La Puerta
The Ranch has land holdings that ensure an unspoilt setting Credit: Rancho La Puerta
The focus is on natural living and pure ingredients Credit: Rancho La Puerta
The focus is on natural living and pure ingredients Credit: Rancho La Puerta
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Spa Business
2022 issue 1

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Leisure Management - Deborah Szekely

Interview

Deborah Szekely


Deborah Szekely has been working in the industry for more than 80 years. Today, she’s active, healthy, and reading Socrates. Jane Kitchen travelled to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico to talk about the industry, the power of nature and plans for her 100th birthday

The soon-to-be-centenarian is a legend in the wellness industry Rancho La Puerta
Szekely started the ranch in Mexico in 1940, with husband Edmond Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta
The ranch ensures its staff are well cared for, and that sense of health and happiness naturally spreads to guests Rancho La Puerta
Szekely headlining at the GWS GWS
The ranch fosters a sense of community, and lasting friendships are made Rancho La Puerta
Deborah with daughter, Sarah-Livia Szekely Brightwood, president of Rancho La Puerta Rancho La Puerta
Everyday life at the Ranch Rancho La Puerta
Rest and recovery are an essential part of the Rancho La Puerta philosophy Rancho La Puerta
The Ranch has land holdings that ensure an unspoilt setting Rancho La Puerta
The focus is on natural living and pure ingredients Rancho La Puerta
The focus is on natural living and pure ingredients Rancho La Puerta

Considered by many to be the founder of the modern fitness resort and spa movement, Deborah Szekely has thoroughly earned the nickname ‘The Godmother of Spa’. Together with her late husband, Edmond Szekely, she started Rancho La Puerta in Tecate Mexico in 1940 with a focus on living simply, respecting the body’s inherent wisdom, and embracing a life in nature – principles that still guide the resort today.

While Rancho La Puerta has come a long way since its start – when guests brought their own tents and paid US$17.50 (£13.30, €15.80) a week – its motto of ‘Siempre Mejor!’ (‘Always Better!’) has helped it grow and change with the times while remaining true to its original mission of helping people live a healthier life in both body and mind.

Szekely will celebrate her 100th birthday on 3 May this year; she still travels from her home in San Diego to Rancho La Puerta once a week, where she holds a special evening talking to guests, regaling them with stories and answering questions.

Her status among guests – most of whom have visited numerous times – borders on celebrity. I sat down with Deborah on the sun-dappled terrace of the Ranch’s restaurant for a late breakfast, and we paused our conversation numerous times as guests snuck in a quick hello, or wanted to ask a question or recommend a book or just be briefly in her presence.

In our own industry, she is a legend, and we celebrate her as an embodiment of all we stand for: a life lived well, in good health in body, mind and spirit. As she approaches her centenary in excellent health, she is still sharing with others, finding joy in nature, and doing her best to make the world a better place for the next generation.

It was my honour to sit down with Deborah in the shade of trees she planted 80 years ago and discuss the industry, the democratisation of wellness, and plans for her birthday celebrations.

How can the industry realise its true potential?
I believe that for the spa industry to go outward, we first have to go inward. Staff have to be given time for massages and exercise classes for themselves, so they know what they’re talking about, and they can really be examples.

We have a whole wellness programme for all our employees that includes a doctor, family counsellor, psychologist, and nutritionist and all our staff are able to take treatments. All our employees also bring their kids to work every year so they see where their parents work and they understand. Being involved with the staff so the staff feels loyalty is key. In our case, we have those whose grandmothers worked for Rancho La Puerta, so they’re not just people who come for a paycheck.

Part of the place’s magic is the sense of community among guests, but you also feel it from staff members – they feel like part of the family, they’re proud of their work and happy to be here. If you build that sense with the community and the staff first, then it will spill over into how guests interact and how they feel when they stay with you.

Spas also need to reach out to become part of the community, which is another way to focus first inwards, then outwards. You need to think from the ground up, whether it’s your employees or your community or the food you plant.

How do you hope the industry will look in 2050?
I hope they’ll be out of business because everybody is living the right way! I hope spas will work better together, support one another, train each other’s staff, and share new ideas. I also hope there’ll be less of a separation between spa life and everyday life.

As an industry, we’ve gone from a focus on spa and massage, and now – especially with COVID – it’s coming back around to a focus on the whole body and the mind/body experience. My husband, Edmond Szekely, was a brilliant man and ahead of his time. He was the inspiration for Rancho La Puerta and the destination spas that followed. He was talking about the mind/body connection long before anyone else.

How can we democratise wellness?
People must develop an appetite for wellness first – they need to realise how important activity and food is to their health. We have to start in schools with more health and nutrition education, and work on offering healthy lunches. In the US, many kitchens in schools are gone because they were too expensive to maintain – now it’s all frozen food. Our whole culture will change when we’ve educated the next generation about wellness. Health begins in youth and pays off throughout a lifetime. I had no intention of living to be 100 – I never thought about it one way or another, but here it is staring me in the face.

Wellness starts with education. We must teach children that we humans are part of something immensely important – nature – and bring it into everyday life. People should take their kids to the park – they need the curing effects of greenery and it doesn’t cost a thing. Most cities have parks, yet we don’t see as many kids in them as we should. Nature gives you faith — it’s hard to have dark thoughts when you’re surrounded by trees.

Through the non-profit we started here – Fundación La Puerta – we teach children about ecology and environmental protection. That should be a course in every school, so children learn that we’re part of a phenomenal universe. We’re also part of a dying planet, and we have to slow and soon stop that decay because our planet is in trouble. The future is in all of our hands – it’s our responsibility and not our children’s – and we all have to be conscious of the fact that we’re building tomorrow and each of us must contribute to that.

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
My daughter. But beyond that, it’s the role I’ve had in politics. I’ve always been involved and when I was in my 60s, I ran for Congress. I didn’t make it, so I moved to Washington and ran a federal agency. I put together 12 retired Congressional chiefs of staff and we created the Congressional Management Manual, a 300-page book about how to run a congressional office, and nothing like it existed at the time.

Congress still uses it; it’s in its 17th edition. I had the idea and I put together the people, and I’m very proud of that – it’s had a real impact.

And of course I’m very proud of The Ranch, because my husband and I started it from scratch. We actually came up with the idea of the fitness spa – there was no such thing at the time. We had a mountain, fresh air, a river and a creek and guests had to bring their own tent. And we had lectures – my husband spoke every day at 4.00pm under the big tree, and everyone attended. Then we’d all have dinner later under that same tree. So the importance of the mind and the wisdom of the elders was always very important – there’s so much that we can learn from them.

The Ranch has been carefully designed so there’s an easy flow between the inside and the outside. I credit my daughter Sarah Livia with the siting and architectural thoughtfulness. My husband wanted everyone to walk three miles every day, and so the buildings are all scattered.

If you want to go to the dining hall, or the gym and get a massage, you walk at least three miles a day – much more if you take one of our hikes. The people who come regularly exercise at home and watch what they eat. Yet they – and the very few other people who don’t exercise – are still impacted by their stay, while the percentage who return is tremendous.

You’re building residences at the ranch now
Yes, and with one exception, the people who’ve bought a residence are former guests. Many would like to retire and so they buy them as future retirement homes. And they know that they’ll live in a community of like-minded people and they’ll support one another, and the attraction will be nature – we happen to be enormously fortunate when it comes to nature.

Is there anything you still hope to accomplish?
At my age, no. But I still contribute through the Center for Science and Public Interest. The most important thing is for the food industry to clean up. We have a right to eat food that’s good for us and not full of chemicals.

The cumulative effect of smidgens of this and smidgens of that makes a lot of smidgens. Everyone has hundreds of chemicals in their body that accumulate over time. We’re in a constant battle between common-sense practices that protect people, and businesses that protect their profits rather than people.

There’s still a lot to learn – I’m always reading something for fun and something to learn from; right now it’s Socrates and he addresses so many problems we can relate to today.

How will you celebrate your 100th birthday?
We built a huge park for the residents of Tecate, with a soccer pitch and tree-shaded terraces, and we’ll celebrate there on 1 May, which is May Day. Everyone is invited – I like to think we’re celebrating
their contribution to the Ranch’s success, rather than my longevity. We’ll have entertainment, fireworks, and chefs cooking wonderful dishes.
Anyone who wants to give me a gift has been asked to contribute to a programme we’re calling ‘Green Umbrella’ – a fund to plant trees in Tecate’s schoolyards, churchyards, and parks. The idea has its roots at the Ranch, where we’ve planted so many trees over our 82 years.

I look at those and wonder at how much they’ve grown along with the Ranch ... and my own long life. So many were planted as saplings, and now I can barely get my arms around them.

Trees help give children a love of nature, cool the town, and cleanse the air. Kids are smart and they’re building their thought processes from a young age, so their environment truly contributes to their growth into healthy, productive, happy adults. We’ll make sure they have a dose of nature every day.

Any further words of wisdom?
Throughout my life my friends have been my most important support system. They bring out different things in me and their interests in art and music, religion and medicine enrich me.

I like to say I always pick friends who are smarter than me, better educated, and younger!

Nobody should be lonely, and we must help those that are, especially later in life. Here at the Ranch, everybody makes new and soon-to-be permanent pals and they often come back together at the same time. We change people’s lives – we offer so much to learn and when you leave you don’t realise how much has crept into your mind – it’s like a week of college. You’ll experience and learn things to think about long after you go home. And then, when that begins to fade, it’s time to come back again.

More reading: Access the Spa Business interview with Deborah Szekely celebrating her 90th birthday at www.spabusiness.com/Deborah90

Deborah Szekely
A few things I like to say...

‘You can’t give with a closed hand’
– In the act of giving, you receive

‘Right is might’
When you’re doing things right and you know you’re doing things right, you have power

‘Do your best, God does the rest’
Doing your best is all you can do, and after that, have faith that the universe or something bigger than you will take care of the rest


Originally published in Spa Business 2022 issue 1

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