Massage Therapy Employers Reflect on the Impact of COVID-19
May 3, 2021
Massage Therapy Employers Reflect on the Impact of COVID-19
May 3, 2021
Change is constant. That was especially true this past year with COVID-19 affecting the entire world, including the massage therapy profession.
To get a better idea of how some of the massage therapy profession’s largest employers are handling not only the pandemic but the changes—some likely long-term—that resulted, we reached out to several to talk about how they’re managing. They reflected on safety changes that were made, the resilience of their clients and massage therapists, and what they see for the future of the massage therapy profession.
Checking in With Employers: From the Start
Eric Stephenson, chief wellness officer for Elements Massage, remembers how uncertain the start of the pandemic felt before there was accurate information available. “There was so much confusion and uncertainty,” he says. “But as more and more information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and government agencies became available, many Elements Massage studios closed for the safety of clients and their team members.”
At the time, temporary location closures and general business disruption also meant teams had to collaborate faster and more efficiently. “We faced business challenges unlike any we have ever seen,” explains Mark Otter, CEO of MassageLuXe. “Our team has worked quickly alongside our franchisees to ensure our stability.”
Nathan Nordstrom, director of massage therapy training at Hand & Stone Corporation, explains how the challenges were accompanied by clients still needing—and wanting—massage therapy at the time. “At the beginning, we created the first reopening protocol and shared it with the industry in as many ways as possible,” he remembers. “Our corporate leadership reached out to most state governing bodies to inform them of what safety protocols we were taking and why we believed therapists could safely practice with essential protocols and procedures in place.”
Beth Stiller, CEO of Massage Envy franchises, remembers the start of the pandemic as challenging, too. “The pandemic forced the closure of the entire Massage Envy network for several weeks last year, and we saw extended closures in California, so it has been a challenging time, but our franchisees are seeing growing consumer demand for body care and skin care services,” she explains.
Rethinking Safety Protocols and Communication
Within a span of a few weeks, virtually every business across the nation was adopting and implementing safety protocols. “Like everyone, we had a setback in 2020, but the need for massage is noticeably still in effect,” says Nordstrom. “We have the vast majority of our spas open and working effectively with personal protective equipment (PPE) and clients requesting services. We are focusing on the safety of the clients and the therapists.”
Like safety, communication was, and continues to be, key. “Communication and training were challenging since there are over 245 independently owned and operated Elements Massage studios nationwide,” explains Stephenson. “It required the brand to observe detailed protocols, communicate constantly, and hold each other accountable to the highest standards of practice.”
All of the employers we spoke with devised protocols around various forms of PPE. They quickly shifted focus to the safety of both their massage therapists and massage therapy clients while developing protocols around state and federal guidelines.
“The focus was to examine all the touch points that a massage therapist or team member at an Elements Massage studio would have with a client,” Stephenson explains. “Because states had different requirements around safety practices, the approach was to design and evaluate optimal safety and sanitation guidelines and implement them nationwide across all studios for a consistent client experience.”
Otter describes the daily phone and video calls that began in the early days of the pandemic. “The [MassageLuXe] corporate team met consistently over the phone or on video calls every day from the start of the pandemic to ensure that we understood the rapidly changing CDC and state guidelines,” he says. “When we weren’t meeting with each other, we were researching, communicating and learning from the experts. It was important for us to stay on top of the latest news so that we could help our franchisees pivot.”
Additionally, employers were busy making sure their franchisees and independent business owners were able to manage overhead. “We waived significant amounts owed by franchisees and deferred the collection of others,” explains Stiller. “We made available various third-party resources and communicated regularly regarding pertinent updates.” Stiller also explains how they worked with their ownership group to establish a relief fund for franchisees’ employees to help them pay rent, buy food, and other essentials.
Health and Wellness Take Center Stage
The pandemic forced everyone to adapt, both personally and professionally. Throughout the past year, however, one thing became very clear: people were recommitting to their own health and wellness. “We are positively impacting our customers’ health and wellness and the drive that they have to routinely visit the spa,” says Otter. “For us to see the demand for massage services when our spas reopened really solidified the belief in our services and benefits.”
As doors started to reopen, the emotional toll the pandemic was having on both massage therapists and their clients, as well as the real value and benefit of massage therapy, became clear. “For many massage therapists, their passion is to help and heal their clients. At a time when they knew their members and guests needed help more than ever before, they were unable to provide it,” Stiller recalls. She also points out how inspiring it was to hear stories of massage therapists working at Massage Envy franchises across the country reuniting with their clients when locations reopened. “People need massage now more than ever, and a good portion of locations are seeing appointment levels similar to pre-coronavirus rates,” she adds.
“Many studios have since reopened with safety in mind,” Stephenson explains. “And since May of 2020, business has been encouraging.”
Nordstrom sees the pandemic as a way for the massage profession to reset the commitments and goals of integrative health care, noting how challenges can sometimes bring out the best in people. “The ability to give, share, help, and unify has been shown in many of our communities,” he says. “Teams shared, prayed, and gave supportive advice. I hope we can continue to see that generosity in the future.”
Believing in a Better Future
What many employers see as an increased and reinvigorated interest in and commitment to massage therapy also means employment options for massage therapists in many locations.
“Long-term, I see the massage therapy profession expanding,” explains Stephenson. “It is an attractive career option for those looking for meaning and purpose within their work. For practitioners in practice, I do think that it has invited a lot of us in the massage therapy profession to be more present, to be more empathetic, to be even more compassionate, and to be better listeners. This focus on the therapeutic relationship is paramount.”
“We can do it together,” says Nordstrom, who encourages those looking for a new career path to consider becoming a massage therapist. “If you have friends who are out of work, ask them if they have thought of having a job that genuinely brings relief and joy to the people with whom they work. The world is about to change, and we need to be ready to bring the next wave of compassion to the masses.”
As the massage therapy profession continues to look to the future, employers are hoping the importance of integrative health therapies, which include massage therapy, stay at the forefront. For many, a proactive commitment to safety is central to that vision. “Another long-term aspect is consumer expectations around a heightened awareness and appreciation for the safety measures being implemented across all kinds of establishments,” says Stiller. “I think that’s something that is likely to stay with them, and I think we will continue to see consumers choosing establishments who they believe are demonstrating a commitment to keeping their customers’ safety at the forefront.”
For Otter, safety will always be at the top of the list. “While we have always prided ourselves on immaculately maintained spas, this is something that will be at the forefront of every conversation,” Otter says. “We will also continue to educate that massage isn’t an occasional luxury, but rather, an alternate form of healing.”
Stephenson hopes for more understanding as it relates to massage therapy. “[I hope] the public, as well as the profession, will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of massage therapy benefits,” he says. “As the effects of social distancing, isolation, and pandemic-induced anxiety/depression are evaluated, massage therapy and the profession will expand as a meaningful intervention. I am also hopeful there will be a focus on quality massage therapy research going forward so practitioners can make evidence-based claims about the benefits of massage therapy.”
When it comes to relationships, Stiller points out how those within the profession help to develop and build a stronger future. “Because we understand how important massage therapists
are to the success of our franchisees, the brand continues its long standing relationship with the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the largest nonprofit, professional association serving massage therapists, students, and schools. This includes aligning with AMTA’s goal to develop programs to encourage more students to enter massage schools, to get more through to graduation and to provide career pathways for them.”
Otter only sees the massage profession growing with more dedicated and caring massage therapists. “Through a career in massage therapy, you have the ability to help people become the best versions of themselves,” he explains.
Key Takeaways from The Past Year
Lessons learned from the past year have not been lost and continue to be top-of-mind as employers look ahead to the future. “The absence of touch has enabled us to truly see its effects on our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual selves,” says Stephenson. “Perhaps we are at a defining moment in our lifetime—one where we will all begin to prioritize our self-care and well-being; developing practices which include regular therapeutic massage therapy and others which are proven to help us manage our health, our stress and anxiety. This moment could define our future in the massage therapy profession. It is a chance for a whole new conversation.”
For Stiller, the key takeaway is remaining resilient. “In times of uncertainty and crisis, resilient industries and business will survive and succeed,” she says. “It’s been amazing to watch how resilient this industry and our franchisees are. They are wellness professionals who believe in the power of their service providers to impact peoples’ lives for the better. That dedication, commitment and pride in serving their communities are extremely inspiring to me.”
Otter points out a takeaway for him this past year is how hard work and dedication will always overcome adversity. “Our team of corporate staff, our franchisees and their employees have rallied together to continue our mission,” he says. “We could not be more proud of what we have built.”
We also asked if they had any advice for massage therapy employers or small business owners as they continue to navigate this time.
Stiller mentions the importance of being a good listener, to both the massage therapists and the clients. “Consumers are judging brands by what those brands are doing to promote health and safety,” she says. “Tangible actions like updating brand standards, taking advantage of technology (contactless check-in), and social distancing, help alleviate customer concerns and help maintain customer loyalty.”
Stephenson encourages making people feel heard and investing in your employees. “Remember, one of the pillars of a successful business is continually investing in your people,” he says. “Human connection is so important right now and ultimately, people want to be listened to and appreciated. They want to know they have a voice, and it matters. This includes discussing what is happening within the business, what any safety protocols put in place will look like, and how it will keep them and clients safe.”
Otter continues to keep the client front and center of both mind and business. “[For us] the customer is your north star,” he says. “And your employees have a purpose to improve their health and wellness. When making business decisions, don’t lose sight of the importance of that.”
But, as Nordstrom notes, remember the importance of basic business practices, like taking inventory and keeping materials up-to-date. “Create the standard and be ready to build upon it when the need arises,” he explains. “[Taking inventory] helps when there is a rush for products you may need to open your doors, (like plastic table covers).”
For more information on any of the employers mentioned above, visit their websites:
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