Four jars: empty then with a growing number of coins (money) with a growing tree on top of each pile, are shown from left to right.

How much has massage business changed over the past 35 years? Totally.

In the early 1980s, few massage schools included business classes in their curriculum. There were great business books available, but being written with a vocabulary focused on battles, tactics and opponents, they didn’t resonate with massage students.

I started teaching business at a massage school 35 years ago, in 1985. In 1988, I published Business Mastery, a book that contains practical information from a heart-centered base.

No Credits

When I taught workshops at massage conferences in the 1980s, those classes didn’t provide continuing education credits.

The people who attended my classes were definitely committed to improving their business acumen, even when the profession didn’t recognize the importance of it. It took time, surveys and petitions to get business classes approved for continuing education.

Once this happened, shifts occurred throughout the industry. People were given CE credits and schools started to devote more time to this topic. 

The 1990s saw an increase in the number of educators offering business courses at massage schools and conferences, as well as an increase in the breadth of topics offered.

The majority of massage therapists were in private practice through the early 2000s. There were very few jobs available; also, in most instances, even when a massage therapist worked for someone else they were classified as an independent contractor rather than as an employee.

A Surging Industry

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the industry surged as therapists began to view their practices as businesses. Enrollments in schools increased, and many schools extended program hours to accommodate the need for business, ethics and communication courses.

At one point there were more than 1,600 massage programs in the U.S., with more than 75,000 people a year attending those schools. Consumer spending on massage and other wellness services skyrocketed into billions of dollars. Still, many programs were only teaching 10 to 20 hours of business.

Schools have continued to raise the number of business hours offered, up to the current average of 20 to 100 hours.

Another big change is massage therapy is no longer mainly a second or third career choice, as it had been traditionally. For many people, massage is now a first career or even a stepping-stone career for advanced work in health care.

The Growth of Employment

A youthful student body isn’t a bad thing, but it presents additional issues that must be addressed. Since these students don’t necessarily have other job experience, for example, more time needs to be spent on education in employment readiness, communication and business skills. 

Research compiled by IBIS World in its “Massage Services Industry in the U.S. Research Report” reveals that massage therapy was a $15 billion industry in 2018, with 242,000 businesses and 362,000 employees.

The increased visibility and access to massage has created a savvier consumer. Thus, students need to be prepared to educate potential and current clients about the benefits and features of their services and practice. It’s not enough to just be a competent practitioner.

Therapists also have many options for employment now, including destination spas and resorts, day spas, medical practices, chiropractic clinics, wellness centers and franchises.

Although employment opportunities have greatly increased, studies show that the majority of therapists still maintain a part- or full-time private practice. I think this is a testament to the independent spirit of the people attracted to this field.

The long-term success of massage therapists can be attributed to communication skills, the value they place on business and marketing activities, a commitment to lifelong learning, and therapeutic skills.

Author Cherie Sohnen-Moe smiling.

About the Author: Cherie Sohnen-Moe is an author, business coach, international workshop leader and successful business owner since 1978. She has served as a faculty member at a massage school, acupuncture college and holistic health college. Sohnen-Moe is the author of Business Mastery and Present Yourself Powerfully, and co-author of The Ethics of Touch. She is a founding member of and is the past president of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Many Companies Hire Massage Therapists. Here’s the Complete Guide to Finding the Perfect Fit” and “Get More Massage Clients with Targeted Marketing.”