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Massage Today
June, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 06

Spa Letters

By Steve Capellini, LMT

Author's note: The Spa Letters column features news, personality profiles, trends, and plenty of professional possibilities for LMTs in the spa industry. The style is epistolary, meaning the articles are letters to a fictional massage therapist friend of the author.

Dear Lou,

You see? It wasn't as bad as you thought. When you were able to convince management that the "open book" policy might work for your spa, and that it was a good idea to disclose some of the costs of doing business with the therapists, everyone calmed down a bit. Now the therapists are happier doing the same work they were before, and they feel more a part of the big picture, too.

The open-book policy can be a good one for many spas, and you've seen it work. But now the therapists have just one last bone to pick as far as what they want from the spa, and on this topic I'm going to have to side with them. They want the spa to pay for part of their continuing education in the field, and I think that's right.

Of course, once again you're stuck in the middle as the spa treatment supervisor, needing to appease the therapists on the one side, and management on the other. I think there might be a solution that will make everyone happy.

Retention vs. Detention

I know you might have trouble convincing the spa ownership to invest in furthering the education of their therapists. The first thing you're likely to hear is something along the lines of, "Why should we pay for them to get more training, when then they might just take off and work for a competitor? We'll end up paying for their education and another spa will swoop in and pay them slightly more per treatment, thereby receiving all the benefits of our generosity."

That is a viable concern on the part of your spa management and owners, but guess what? There are countermeasures the spa can employ to minimize worries of this kind.

First of all, certain spa managers and owners need an attitude adjustment. Specifically, they need to alter their concept of the phrase "employee retention." For many managers and human resources departments, retention means something more like "detention." Due to the high costs of hiring and training new people, they will do anything they can to keep the employees they already have, but instead of coming up with inventive ways to make their employees want to stay, they try instead to instill in them a fear of leaving. "What if you loose your insurance?" they say. Or "That other spa might fire you within the trial period. You'd better stay here where you have security." Employees can end up operating out of fear rather than motivation. They feel trapped rather than inspired - detained rather than retained.

Spa management can get around this problem by encouraging their therapists to learn new skills that would make them valuable to competitors. Yes, that's right. It's counter-intuitive, but it works. And the way it works is through incentives and recognition.

Incentives and Recognition

As you well know, Lou, what massage people want most, in addition to good pay and the satisfaction of helping people one-on-one, is some recognition from the people with whom we work. We want our skills and abilities recognized and appreciated.

Some spas offer to assist their therapists with the expense of continuing education, and then when they come back to the spa to use their new skills, they are given special recognition as they move toward becoming "advanced therapists." An advanced therapist is someone who can perform most or all of the modalities offered by the spa and who has been with the spa for a certain period of time. Someone who can perform Swedish, neuromuscular, stone massage, reiki, reflexology and Lomi-Lomi, for example, will help the spa by being available to cover many guest requests during all possible shifts. This person becomes highly valuable and deserves to be considered an advanced therapist, as long as her skill levels are satisfactory in each modality.

That's the recognition part.

The incentive part has to do with pay, of course. Once a therapist reaches the "advanced" level, he or she is paid a little more per treatment, which makes sense because the spa usually charges more for these services as well. In addition, if the spa helps out with the tuition for the classes taken, that adds another incentive to stay with the same company. Imagine working for people who actually want to help you become more qualified so you can earn more! This is the situation at some spas, and the therapist turnover rate in these facilities tends to be much lower than the average.

How Much Is Enough?

There are differing thoughts on the matter of how much is enough when it comes time for a spa to actually shell out money for their therapists' education. Many spas opt to pay for a trainer to come on site and offer classes to the entire staff, which is often more cost-effective than subsidizing therapists' individual classes. However, those that do offer a form of "scholarship" usually give a certain percentage, not the entire amount of the class. A 50/50 split is typical. Sometimes the spa only pays a quarter of the class fee, or a flat rate, such as one hundred dollars per class.

Really, any amount, even just a $50 voucher toward a class, is enough, as long as it demonstrates management's commitment to furthering the skills of their staff.

You also need to be realistic when it comes to what the spa will be willing to provide. You can't expect the moon. I can think of no spa that would offer their therapists a full ride to the Rolf Institute, for example. Financial help is only given for classes and workshops that will give therapists skills they can put to use in the spa immediately after training. If a therapist wants to learn Thai Massage, but it's not on the spa menu, it wouldn't make sense for the spa to subsidize part of the training. However, if several therapists are interested in a new technique, that may be a good opportunity to expand the menu at the spa and add the new modality.

Recognition of Specialists

Of course, some therapists want to stick with what they know best. Becoming an advanced therapist who knows several techniques is of no interest to them. They'd rather hone their skills in one area or technique. In this case, the spa can provide some assistance and incentive for the therapist to take advanced courses within the modality, becoming an advanced practitioner in one specific technique. Often, therapists who get proficient enough in a certain modality end up leaving their place of employment to set up their own studio or clinic, and that too should be encouraged!

Put the Money Where It Matters

Do you see where I'm heading? In my last letter, I told you that therapists need a refresher course on the bottom line of spa operations so they don't get unrealistic expectations about their salaries. I believe therapists, especially newer ones, should be happy to receive a reasonable wage even a little lower than what they might expect. Then at the same time the spa can offer some incentives and recognitions for those therapists who improve and help the spa over the long haul, nurturing those who are willing to commit to the growth and success of the overall enterprise. The cost of subsidizing some training will be lower than trying to keep therapists on board with higher salaries, and it will foster an environment of loyalty.

Even if therapists eventually leaves you to open their own business, you'll have created such good will that they will probably have someone to recommend to you to take their place.

My advice is to tell your spa owners it's smarter to put the money where it matters, in recognition and incentives, rather than an ill-advised raising of pay to try and "detain" a team of therapists.

Talk to you later,

Steve Capellini, LMT

Click here for previous articles by Steve Capellini, LMT.


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