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Massage Today
August, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 08

Is a Spa Right for You?

By Ann Brown, LMT

Here's what I find inspiring about massage therapists: Many of them enter massage school because they want something unique. They want to live a life that goes beyond cookie-cutter America.

They can pick a specialty, learn it and get good at something that resonates with them. They can even tweak their craft a bit, make it theirs and then share what they can do with rest of the world -- on their terms. Many of them want to set their own hours and be accountable to themselves.

Graduating from massage school, they are ready to take on the world and do it their way. So why would a massage therapist go to work in a spa when they can be their own boss? Fast-forward five months after graduation. The therapist is now licensed, has gone through some national testing and is ready to work. They look around and see the other MTs they graduated with entering into private practice in the same market, plus they start counting up the number of established LMT practices.

The Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals estimates 293,531 trained therapists provide massage and bodywork in the United States. According to the ABMP web site, some 50,000 therapists leave the profession each year – a desire for more clients is one of the top three factors they identify as contributing to that attrition.

In the face of competition, a massage therapist might start to wonder if they will make a decent living, so they look at job openings in the local paper and online. A spa is hiring and they think, "Is this what I want?" In my experience, most LMTs who haven't previously worked in a spa will walk into an interview with the same questions and fears:

  • Will I have to work Saturdays?
  • Will I have to market to my own clients?
  • Will I have to do my own laundry?
  • What will I get paid?
  • Will I get benefits?
  • Will I get to make my own hours?

massage - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark As you can see, the list is long ... Massage therapists know what they want and they don't want to have to compromise. A lot of therapists carry around pre-conceived notions about working in spas. The spa industry has been stigmatized because it is a business and MTs are afraid of time management constraints and that corporate management will kill what they set out to do in this business – be free to make a difference in the lives of their clients. However, spas are in the same business of wellness that a general massage practice is. The end goal is the same: to positively impact the health and wellbeing of their clients.

One of the things that most LMTs don't know walking into an interview is what they can gain from the support of a spa. As a spa director, I have seen how LMTs can blossom in the right spa setting. One of the main keys to a successful spa career is just that – finding the right setting. Before you even go to your first interview, you should familiarize yourself with the different types of spas, because the benefits and procedures of each can vary greatly.

According to the International Spa Association, the number of spas in the United States totals 20,600 – a number that keeps growing every year. ISPA details seven different kinds of spas: club, cruise ship, day, destination, medical, mineral springs and resort/hotel. Check out the ISPA web site for the basic definitions. Each of these spa types has its own identity that a therapist might connect with. For example, if you have a particular passion for fitness, the club spa may hold an attraction for you. Or maybe a medical setting best fits your experience and expertise. Beyond surface descriptions, however, you should also consider the extra perks that each type offers.

For example, working at a small, privately owned day spa might allow you to keep some of your autonomy, but you are not likely to receive any benefits. At a resort/hotel spa, benefits such as sick days, vacation pay and health insurance are most often included in a full-time employment package, as the spa usually draws upon the HR strength of the larger organization behind it.

With that corporate strength usually comes a few more rules when compared to a small business. At a resort/hotel spa, you will likely be expected to adhere to policies regarding uniforms, non-compete clauses and appearances. You also might be asked to follow specific protocol for each treatment you perform.

Do these rules mean you have sacrificed your ideals and entered into the cookie-cutter massage business? The rules aren't in place because spas want to stifle you. They are there because a specific treatment protocol means the guests know what to expect each time they visit and the spa can more easily maintain standards of quality. Guests don't want to be surprised on the massage table and they are more likely to return to the spa when they are confident they are receiving the same treatment they signed up for every time they visit.

Just because you follow protocol, however, doesn't mean the spa wants you to mindlessly administer a massage. Intent is still the most important factor in making the difference between a so-so massage and a great one – that doesn't change if you are a self-employed operator or a massage therapist at a Ritz-Carlton.

In fact, one of the most notable benefits of working in a spa might be the opportunity you find to improve upon your talents. At a spa, you may be provided with advanced knowledge of specialized modalities that even better equips you to change guests' lives. According to the 2010 ISPA U.S. Spa Industry Study, 52 percent of spas provide paid education/training for their staff. While vendors often provide training, more and more spas are realizing the value of turning to independent organizations for advanced, professional education, and therapists working in a spa setting might find themselves learning from nationally recognized leaders in specific modalities – a level of training an independent massage therapist might find cost-prohibitive.

Spa Montage at The Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California, is proof of the power of advanced education. Spa Montage therapists participate in a year-long American Spa Education and Certification Council training program to make them among the best in the industry. The proof? The ASTECC education has contributed to Spa Montage's earning Mobil's prestigious Five-Star rating for five consecutive years. If you are a massage therapist who wants to continue to learn and grow, post-graduate educational opportunities might be an important perk in your benefits package.

In addition to the obvious benefit of learning new skills, top-level education through a spa employer is often conducted in a group environment, illustrating the value of a spa's internal support network. By learning hands-on in a group, you are able to see colleagues at work, thereby opening up your perspective and leading to trading for services. Trading between therapists adds to proficiency as you receive good, qualified feedback regarding the modality you have learned from others on your team who are also working at perfecting the treatment.

If you are wondering if a spa is right for you, I encourage you to do your homework. Browse around Research a spa you might be interested in, and talk with the spa director. Spa directors want you to bring the same passion for massage therapy that you would bring to private practice, and while you might have to make some compromises, you might find that, in the right setting, the support of a spa can help you succeed beyond what you might be able to do on your own. Great partnerships are mutually beneficial!

Ann Brown, a licensed massage therapist, is a member of the International Spa Association's board of directors and serves as spa director at Spa Shiki at The Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo. She also provides management consulting services through Spa Insight Consulting.


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