Massage Therapy Meets Corporate America: The Business of Franchising
By Rebecca J. Razo
There was a time when massage was considered a luxury that only the wealthy could afford.
These days, health-conscious consumers from all walks of life are increasingly drawn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatment options, including massage therapy, which, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), ranked among the top 10 CAM therapies used by Americans in 2002.1
The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) notes that the number of American adults who received a massage over the previous 12 months jumped from 8 percent in 1997 to 21 percent in 2003. Additionally, the combined number of massage therapists and massage therapy students in the U.S. increased from roughly 120,000 to 260,000 in 2002.2,3
Inasmuch as this growth has helped validate massage as a therapeutic treatment option and dissolved many previously held misconceptions about the profession, some therapists have found it increasingly difficult to expand their businesses and stay competitive in the ever-growing market.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
But resourcefulness and ingenuity has led some massage therapists and businesspeople to embark on a trend that is sure to change the way consumers see massage now and in the future: commercializing the business of massage through franchising, brand-naming and expansion.
Take Arizona-based Massage Envy, for example. Since its inception two years ago, the company, which was founded by John Leonesio, a veteran health club and wellness executive, has grown to 14 locations: 12 in Arizona, one in Texas, and one in Oregon, with many more in development. Operated like a standard health club, clients pay a monthly membership fee for one "free" massage and reduced rates for each massage thereafter during the month.
Phyllis Schwartz, a massage therapist for over 15 years, had maintained a thriving practice in Minnesota, christened Keep in Touch, for several years when a combination of business growth and personal tragedy motivated her to take her practice to the next level.
She began by creating a reception area akin to a cozy living room -- complete with fireplace and stuffed easy chairs -- that would later become the standard design for all Keep in Touch locations. In 2002, her son Chris suggested franchising the business.
Still operated by the Schwartz family, Keep in Touch Massage Therapy Centers, Inc. opened its first franchise in 2002 and now has six locations throughout the greater Minneapolis area.4,5
The Schwartz family would like to expand to other areas eventually, but for the time being they are comfortable letting the business grow at its own pace. "We're in [the business] because of massage, not to make 'a billion' dollars. Our family believes strongly in massage. So, it's important to us to make sure we do this right," said Chris, the company's president and CEO, who also indicated the family wants Keep in Touch "running as efficiently as we can before going national."6
Though owning a massage franchise may not be for everyone, Colleen Steigerwald-Holloway, owner of Success Beyond Work, a business-consulting firm for the massage therapy profession, notes that franchising is an option that can open doors not usually available to massage therapists.
"One advantage of franchising is that part of the fee includes training on how to open and operate a massage business," she said. "Many massage therapists don't get this information as part of their formal education, so it can increase their chances of having a successful business. Another advantage is the marketing plan is in place... therapists are not often knowledgeable in this area."7
But even Chris Schwartz affirms that there can be a downside to franchised establishments if owners aren't careful, noting that there exists a risk of losing some of the more personal aspects of massage in a large center that is trying to build clientele.
According to Schwartz, part of the recipe for success is paying attention to quality over quantity; he also believes that those who want to own a massage franchise must do so "for the right reasons."
Though beneficial in many regards, franchising is not the only high-profile massage game in town. Some massage businesses have been profitable enough to incorporate, offer entrepreneurial partnerships, or open multiple locations, such as the wildly successful Massage Bar with several locations -- primarily in airport terminals -- throughout the country; the Ultimate Backrub with two locations in Chicago, which offers massage therapy, retail products and ergonomic office furniture; and the Great Metropolitan Backrub with two locations in Minneapolis.
Annette Rondano, owner of the Great Metropolitan Backrub, believes that aggressive marketing and concentration on the business side of massage is one way to reach a larger market of consumers.8
"No matter how hard you try, it is still hard to make a good living [doing massage]," she said. This is one of the reasons Rondano devoted herself to building a brand-name massage business: to upgrade her own position as a therapist, as well as provide job opportunities to other therapists.
"My company offers massage therapy by the minute," she continued. "So if all a person wants is five minutes, they can get five minutes...what we do is kind of utilitarian -- it appeals to the broadest spectrum of people."
Spa Franchises Abound
One of the biggest spa franchises in the country is The Woodhouse Day Spa®, with 16 spas throughout the country and 10 more scheduled to open this year. The first Woodhouse Day Spa opened in 2001 and became a franchise operation in the spring of 2003. The spa offers over 70 treatments and carries retail, private label and specialty products in every store. Woodhouse also offers a fully inclusive franchise program that includes in-depth training and company support.9
Other spa franchises include Radiance Medspa based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and mobileSPA, a national entrepreneurial buy-in that offers a full range of spa services to clients in their homes and businesses.
Radiance Medspa is one of the first spa franchises to focus on the medical spa industry and it is poised for expansive growth. "We have an aggressive strategic growth plan in place and anticipate seeing approximately 100 new facilities opne within the next 12 months and 400 within the next five years," said Jim Palmer, executive vice-president for Radiance, in a press release.10
Irrespective of the business approach individual therapists choose, there is little doubt that as commercial massage businesses continue to grow, the practice of massage therapy -- as well as spa treatments -- will become more accepted as a necessity and less considered a luxury.
Rondano for one believes that without the continued growth of more commercial massage-business endeavors, "the industry will not elevate; it will remain an 'in-your-living-room' kind of venture. This is a way of upgrading the industry."
- Survey Shows CAM Use on the Rise. Massage Today. Aug. 2004. www.massagetoday.com/archives/2004/08/01.html.
- 2003 Massage Therapy Consumer Survey Fact Sheet. The American Massage Therapy Association. www.amtamassage.org.
- Demand for Massage Therapy: Use and Acceptance Increasing. The American Massage Therapy Association. 2002. www.amtamassage.org.
- Berland, Theodore. Minnesota's million-dollar massage franchiser. Massage Therapy Journal. Winter 2003. pp. 78-85.
- Keep in Touch® Massage Therapy Centers Web site. www.keepintouchmassagetherapy.com.
- Phone interview with Chris Schwartz. July 29, 2004.
- E-mail interview with Colleen (Steigerwald) Holloway. Nov. 20, 2003.
- Phone interview with Annette Rondano. Aug. 3, 2004.
- The Woodhouse Day Spa franchise Web site. www.woodhousefranchises.com/default.asp.
- Radiance Med Spas, the Next Big Trend in Franchising. Press Release. Nov. 19, 2004.
For information on the other companies mentioned in this article, visit the following Web sites:
Editor's note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Sept. 2004 issue of Massage Today (www.massagetoday.com/archives/2004/09/02.html).