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Massage Today
May, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 05

The Fourth Element of the Great Spa Conversation: Touch

By Robin Zill, LMT

The 10 Elements of the Spa Experience are designed to teach the consumer and professional about the integrated nature of the spa experience. This is the fifth article in a 12-part series and focuses on the fourth of the 10 elements: Touch.

"We were just givin' love, mon..."

During the annual spa getaway and education month at the Swept Away Resort and Spa in Jamaica, I learned a great lesson.

During a hands-on wrap session, we American massage therapists took a quick break in the adjoining room while the clients were resting. As we were talking and laughing, one of the therapists noticed that all the Jamaican therapists were still with their clients, sitting on the edge of the table, each with one hand gently touching the client. As we re-entered the classroom, one of the American therapists asked, "What were you doing?" The response: "We were just givin' love, mon."

Touch, the soul of universal language, speaks to each of us no matter our age, race, economic class or culture. That sense of soul is perhaps why touch and massage therapy remain among the most popular treatments in the burgeoning spa industry.

In the context of the 10 Elements of the Spa Experience, we define this fourth element as "connectivity and communication embraced through touch, massage and bodywork." With the incredible expansion in scope and skill of talented therapists and visionaries, touch services have penetrated the spa industry in many ways. Treatments now range from traditional touch specialties to hot rocks, watzu and water dance, to adjunctive medical, beauty and sports training sessions. Spa, like massage, has gone mainstream.

Dovetailing with the growth of the spa industry in corporate America, the touch professions have an opportunity to lead by example when it comes to integrating vocation and lifestyle. Massage therapists have set a standard for 21st century, next-level professionalism. What is that next level? It is when professional goals and job requirements balance and support, and enhance a lifestyle choice. As Steven Capellini, author of Massage Therapy Career Guide and contributing columnist for Massage Today, writes:

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we seek out ways to contribute to society, to give back to the family of mankind that supports us and that we are an integral part of. Yet, at the same time, we are forced by economic realities to engage in many occupations that don't give us the sense of giving and joy that comes from working whole-heartedly at a contributive, ethical livelihood.

I believe the spa industry is the perfect home for pursuing such endeavors. But we are not without problems, and we can't do it alone.

It is no secret that any successful spa operation, no matter the type, is dependent on the skills and competencies of the technical staff. The lack of strong educational programs focusing on spa services has made recruiting and educating qualified personnel one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today. Many spas, especially larger destination, resort and day spas choose to actually train therapists themselves. But what does this mean for national or international standards? How do we provide access to improving the quantity and quality of therapists to meet the increasing demand of this sixteen billion dollar industry?

To address this need, the International Spa Assocation (ISPA) set an immediate goal in 2001 to begin the process of establishing core competencies for the spa industry, based on actual feedback of spa owners, spa directors, spa therapists and consumers. Through roundtable feedback from membership, in-depth discussion from our interdisciplinary committee, interviews with selected spas and therapists recommended for their excellence, and an ISPA membership survey, we were able to begin the process of defining what kind of skills are required to become a successful massage therapist in a spa environment. Although spa environments vary greatly from a large, busy resort spa, to a day spa, salon, club spa or medical spa, certain qualities define excellence. Consider the following foundations of this profile.

  1. Define the parameters and personalities best suited for a spa professional.
  2. Create the foundation for new spa curricula that will inspire schools to teach spa programs that are based on the needs and inputs of prospective employers and employees, and consumers.
  3. Create a job profile that can be used by prospective employees as a self-analysis tool to determine their suitability for the profession.

Here is a summary of the characteristics considered critical or important to being a successful therapist in the spa environment:

Personal Traits

  1. possess a soulful, authentic sense of self;
  2. healthy and well-maintained appearance; good grooming;
  3. willingness to learn new skills and systems;
  4. vision with regard to health and wellness;
  5. strive to achieve highest standards through continuing education;
  6. possess excellent verbal communication skills;
  7. understand integration of mind-body-spirit environment;
  8. has adeptness in problem-solving; and
  9. punctuality at staff functions and meetings.

Interaction with Spa and Other Staff

  1. ownership of workspace, keeps space clean;
  2. committed to one's job and the business;
  3. adhere to policies, standards and procedures of spa;
  4. keep treatment products filled and ready for next service;
  5. enjoy being a part of a team;
  6. represent the facility in a positive manner to the community;
  7. flexible, willing to work when needed;
  8. assist in training new spa personnel as necessary;
  9. individual core values aligned with the company; and
  10. contribute ideas to increase profitability and visibility of spa.

Client Interaction

  1. punctuality for appointments;
  2. give consistent level of service to each client;
  3. excellent customer service skills;
  4. empathetic, open heart; intuitive;
  5. inspire well-being verses diagnostic approach;
  6. maintain treatment records for the client, if appropriate; and
  7. assist in marketing and special events as necessary

Professional Training

  1. mastery of professional skills in domain of practice;
  2. actively participate in training and education in regards to optimal customer service;
  3. maintain proper state and national licensing;
  4. knowledge and follow-through of sanitation policies;
  5. mastery of treatments on the service menu;
  6. actively participate in training with regards to therapies on menu;
  7. complete knowledge of products used for service and retail;
  8. full working knowledge of massage/aesthetic services stated in the brochure and treatment manual;
  9. actively seek out continuing education opportunities; and
  10. knowledge and follow-through of first aid policies.

One of the great qualities about the spa industry is its ability to embrace the concept of integration. Aside from the desire for most of us to achieve a greater sense of well being, there is a sincere effort at this point in the spa industry's development to embrace this concept from a business perspective as well. For massage therapists, this means that spa managers and owners usually make genuine efforts to provide an optimal environment for caring touch. After all, if the environment is not beautiful, easy or comfortable to work in, it is not conducive to creating that magic space and feeling that keeps clients coming back. Somehow these intangibles set the tone for the reputation of the spa. Scheduling, compensation, career incentives and many other issues have all become an active part of an enthusiastic spa dialogue between massage therapists and their co-workers. We all must rise to the challenge of creating a soulful workplace.

For me, the spa industry has opened the door to the magic of water, the pleasure of scent and sound, a deeper comfort from touch, and the fineries of taste and the concept of ousia (oo-see-ahh). Ousia is a philosophical system that has helped me understand and integrate the living patterns of nature into my environment and work. The concept of ousia, along with the 10 Elements, helps me explore the multi-dimensional nature of the wellness journey through the senses. There is a word I am exploring that I think you would like, called synethesia. It refers to when all your senses blend together to create one feeling and sense of awe for something greater than yourself. This is what inspires me to connect the foundation I have gathered from massage and bodywork to the multi-faceted nature of the spa experience. I hope you will join me.

Remember, spa is a people's movement. Your voice is important.

Click here for previous articles by Robin Zill, LMT.


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