Michael McAdams of Lake Austin Spa Resort
How a “Diamond in the Rough” Became One of the World’s Most Acclaimed Destination Spa Resorts
BY DEBORAH HAMILTON-LYNNE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAKE AUSTIN SPA RESORT
You may have heard about the accolades and awards won by the Lake Austin Spa Resort over the past 10 years — it’s consistently ranked among the world’s best by Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, USA Today, Fodor’s, Town and Country and U.S. News and World Report— but what you may not know is the story of how a pair of determined fraternity brothers from Louisiana found a sleepy, run-down hippy hangout and turned it into one of the most highly acclaimed destination spas, bringing visitors to Austin from across the United States and around the world.
To say that the history of Lake Austin Spa Resort has been colorful is an understatement. Built in the 1940s as a fish camp, Lake Austin Lodges had 10 guest rooms and 36 boat slips. It was open to the public and offered a pool with a snack bar, water sports, a restaurant, live music and access to hiking and turkey hunting. The next incarnation — The Sunshine Nudist Camp — was short lived in the ‘70s, and the property was subsequently used by the Steiner Rodeo Ranch as a place to lodge and train cowboys and rodeo clowns. In 1978, when it became a weight loss facility named The Bermuda Inn, the motto of the property was: “Where you can lose a pound a day the fun way!” In the ‘80s, when restricted calorie diets were shown to be dangerous, the Bermuda Inn gave way to the Lake Austin Resort, which focused on healthy lifestyle choices. In 1994, the name changed to the Lake Austin Spa Resort with an emphasis on a healthy active lifestyle and health-conscious cuisine.
By the time Michael McAdams and Billy Rucks, two businessmen who had met as fraternity brothers while attending Louisiana State University saw the property, it was a slightly run-down “diamond in the rough,” but the pair saw the potential from the beginning. “What we saw was how extraordinary the setting was — the property is beautiful and is located on the ancient bend of the river. Before it was dammed up, the river would flood and so we have the wonderful silt and sandy soil that ended up at this bend. The resort has all of this perfect garden soil. What we saw was a little piece of perfection that could never be replaced or replicated.”
The two young men had very successful careers: Rucks as a founder of an oil and natural gas business and as a venture capitalist in Louisiana and McAdams in commercial real estate at Trammell Crow as the President of Trammell Crow Design Centers. McAdams also served as the founding president of Design Centers International, which provided him a comprehensive background in both real estate and architectural design. But in 1997, the two were feeling burned out and together were looking for a business opportunity.
To balance his type-A personality, McAdams had spent weeklong retreats at The Ashram in California, which provided intense bootcamp fitness experiences that also focused on the mind-body connection and healthy eating. “I had taken a year off from Trammell Crow because I was determined to find something that I loved and wanted to do — a passion project. Finding this property with such potential was the perfect melding of all the things I was interested in and passionate about — real estate, design, a place to connect with a natural setting and provide a holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle including exercise, mindfulness, and cuisine. It was 1997, and I had a hunch that there were a lot of people who were looking at taking care of themselves so that they would age better than our parents had done, and at the time there were only a few places like what I envisioned — a true destination spa.”
Although the property was not for sale, within a week of seeing it and hearing McAdams’ plans, the pair was off to San Francisco where they struck a deal with the elderly California owner and the creation of a true destination spa began. “Billy and his wife, Cathy have been involved from the beginning, and they love the place, but this is really my passion project,” McAdams says. “I knew we had a diamond in the rough. The staff was really great and it had a lot of soul. The food was delicious, and the gardens were beautiful. There was a lot to build on, but most people wouldn’t have put the money into a property that needed so much work as we have. The property just had not been loved and nurtured the way it needed to be nurtured.”
Because the structures had been grandfathered, McAdams knew he would never be able to build so close to the lake, and so he began to renovate beginning with the original 10 cabins and eventually extending to every structure on the property. The major renovation included tearing the original cabins down and rebuilding to high quality standards while keeping with the rustic and welcoming feel of the property. “We knew that we were not going to make money with a bargain basement spa and that we wanted to create a top destination spa, so we had to build a better product,” McAdams recalls. “Both Billy and I had traveled all over the world for work and we knew what we liked — what we wanted in a resort. The question for us was ‘how do you keep the magic — how do you do what needs to be done to revitalize this place and turn it into an ongoing profitable business?’”
With Rucks’ support, McAdams spent five to six nights a week at the resort learning everything he could about the place, interacting with the staff and the guests, sleeping in a different room every night, and carefully deciding on each and every element of the renovation. The goal was to provide a very authentic and amazing experience to build a base of loyal guests who would return and also spread the word about their experience. McAdams did not reach out for advice but instead trusted his own vision and intuition about what he wanted to create. Instead of hiring consultants, he consulted with and trusted the “incredibly talented” staff that were already at the resort. And the result was that people loved the changes and word of mouth began to spread about this very nurturing destination spa in, of all places, Austin, Texas.
While renovations on the existing property were underway, McAdams was contemplating plans for building the spa. “My goal was to build the ultimate destination spa. I wanted to knock it out of the ballpark. I knew that before I could create the spa I wanted to build that I had some things to learn about the spa business. So at first we concentrated on the rooms and the public areas while we gathered information and ideas.”
Drawing on his own knowledge of architecture and design, McAdams created the concept for the 25,000 square foot LakeHouse Spa and hired an architect and interior designer to execute the plan.The design was created to make guests feel the warmth and hospitality McAdams had grown up with and included beautiful fabrics, antiques and furniture as well as one-of a kind art and furniture pieces from craftsmen and artists all over the world to give the spa a luxurious yet comfortable feel.
As for the experience and services, McAdams once again let it develop organically, relying on his existing team of people: a spa manager, general manager, and staff. Keeping it in house turned out to be the right decision, and the LakeHouse Spa was a huge hit from the beginning. The day spa also increased the resort’s outreach and public availability by providing the volume of a world-class facility while maintaining the overnight guests with world-class, five-star service and amenities.
And that is how a sleepy, run-down hippy joint became a renowned world-class destination spa resort sitting on the ancient bend of Lake Austin. “Looking back, I would say we did not do it in the typical way for real estate development and that is what kept the authenticity. We are one of a kind. This property is special, and I have tried to honor the property. Our biggest challenge is to understand how our customers are changing,”McAdams says. “We try to keep our finger on the pulse of our guests and provide what they want: healthy food, fitness, spa treatments, and other enriching activities, as well as relaxation and maybe a little group socialization if they want it. We may have celebrities in the house, but honestly here every guest is a V.I.P. Our service and hospitality are the same for everyone. When you stay here, I want you to feel that everything has been hand selected — from the staff to the art to the furniture to the cuisine — and that has a spirit to it that reflects what we want you to feel — connected to Lake Austin Spa Resort.”
For additional information and reservations, call 800-847-5637, or visit lakeaustin.com
Nourish Yourself at Lake Austin Spa Resort
Aster Café’s Aster After Dark Sunday Suppers feature four-course gourmet experiences created by nationally recognized chefs and wine pairings from local vineyards. Dinners begin at 7 p.m. at the LakeHouse Spa and cost $95 per person, including food and wine. Reservations are required. Spa appointments are available to schedule prior to the dinners at an additional cost.
June 9 - Daniel Olivella, Barlata, Austin
June 14 - Wayne Brooks, 827 Ray’s Kitchen + Cellar, Austin
Aug. 4 - Nick Braswell, Toscano and Siena Ristorante, Austin
Sept. 8 - Johnny Vee, Las Cosas Cooking School, Santa Fe
Nov. 10 - Martin Rios, Santa Fe
Lake Austin Spa Resort shares secrets of preparing deliciously healthy cuisine for one week every month during its celebrated Lake Austin Culinary Experience ™ program.
Culinary Experience Dates and Featured Chefs:
June 10 & 11 - Marge Perry & David Bonom, New York
July 15 & 16 - Amanda Cushman, North Carolina
Artist Series-For the Love of Books will feature New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe. For resort guests only.
Artist Series Dates and Authors: June 25 - Mary Alice Monroe
Known for its diverse offerings of more than 100 spa treatments, the LakeHouse Spa is introducing these new treatments this summer:
Deep Rest Massage treatment designed to induce a deep state of relaxation.
Watsu A deeply relaxing treatment where you are supported by a therapist while floating on your back in the pool and are rhythmically cradled, moved, stretched, and massaged.
LakeHouse Forest Bathing Journey Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Designed to increase your immunity and reduce stress, this treatment includes an invigorating scrub, eucalyptus shower, and therapeutic massage.
A complete listing of the resort’s 100+ spa services: lakeaustin.com/spa/services/
Just Breathe weeks enable resort guests to practice inner wellness and feature mindful meditation and Nia Dance classes led by special guests that focus on holistic fitness, health, and well-being.
Just Breathe Week Dates and Guests: June 17-23 - Featuring Guest Sarah McLean