by Karen Menehan, Editor in Chief
At The Parkway Mall in Folsom, California, franchises reign. A Jamba Juice does business near a Starbucks Coffee; both share the mall with a Raley’s Supermarket, a Sports Clip Hair Cuts, a Noble Roman’s Pizza & Subs—and a Massage Envy. A person can grab a latte, drop the teenagers off for a submarine sandwich and stop in for a massage before grocery shopping, the type of scenario that franchise corporations promote to the general public every day.
The Parkway Mall is just one of hundreds of retail areas around the country that have become homes to franchised massage-therapy centers, Massage Envy among them. Self-promoters of convenience and affordability, franchises are finding success with consumers and employing thousands of massage therapists.
“Franchises offer a comfortable approach to trying [massage] for the first time,” Massage Envy CEO John Leonesio told MASSAGE Magazine. “We have lots of locations; we’re right next to the grocery store or Borders they go to.”
When a business is franchised, it means that multiple locations consisting of the same brand image—including the name, logo, décor and service protocols—are licensed to franchisees throughout a geographic area. The franchisee benefits from the name recognition and proven operating-model success that comes with running a franchise.
Proponents of massage franchises say they offer consumers safety, convenience, uniformity and low prices. Despite some grumbling within the massage field that franchises create consumer expectations of bland, “cookie-cutter” styles of massage and that their lower prices drive down the price of massage across the board—or, worse, put independent practitioners out of business—franchisors insist their businesses are creating more consumers of massage and opportunities for therapists. Although there hasn’t yet been a study of the economic effect of franchises on individual practitioners, many leaders in the massage field agree with those assertions.
“It seems that franchises might create a good venue for first-time massage clientele,” said Jeff Mann, Mid-Atlantic regional manager of Cortiva Institute, an education company with massage schools throughout the U.S. “If that experience goes well, then we have a fan of massage for life.”
Massage Envy was the first corporation to cash in on the public’s expanding interest in massage therapy, and the company has pioneered franchise success.
Massage Envy provides more than 400,000 massages every month, or 4.8 million sessions per year, and employs 7,500 massage therapists. The company ranks 82nd on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 list for 2008; in 2007 it was number 149. This year it ranks 32nd on Entrepreneur’s list of the fastest growing franchises, up from 54th in 2007.
Since Massage Envy opened the doors of its first location in 2002, franchised massage has mushroomed, with many national and regional massage franchises—including Atlantis, Elements Therapeutic Massage, Hand & Stone, La Vida, Massage Heights, Massagiano, N8 Touch and Zen Massage—popping up. In the six short years since it first emerged, franchised massage has taken firm root in the massage profession and become, along with spas, chiropractors’ offices, hotels, hospitals and clinics, an established employment venue for massage therapists.
Reaching new clients
The reality is, despite massage’s growing popularity, most Americans still have not received a massage session. According to the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2007 consumer survey, just more than one-third (34 percent) of consumers received a massage in the preceding five years. Almost a quarter—23.8 percent—of the customers who walk into a Massage Envy for the first time have never before received a massage, Leonesio said.
Franchises offer what could be perceived as a safe means of experiencing massage, especially for newbie clients¬—safer than, say, visiting an unknown therapist’s home or opening a hotel-room door to a never-before-met outcall practitioner—thereby introducing a greater number of people to massage.
The uniformity of franchises also makes clients feel confident in their massage experience, franchise spokespeople say.
“One of the biggest benefits in a franchise, whether it’s a food franchise or service franchise, is the consumer has an expectation about what’s behind that door based on the sign that’s on the place,” said John Marco, founder and president of Hand & Stone. “The service will be consistent, the product will be consistent. You know what you’re going to get for your money.”
Convenience is another factor driving franchise success. Franchises keep long hours, from around 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., six or seven days a week, and on-the-spot appointments are oftentimes available. Franchise companies also choose locations, as Leonesio noted, next to popular grocery stores or within other retail venues.
“We specialize in only one thing: massage,” said John Hoose, president of La Vida. “A consumer can walk in on a tight schedule—and we all know that consumers across this country have tight schedules.
“High-end spas say, ‘Come in for the day and pamper yourself,’ but the American lifestyle doesn’t afford for that,” he added.
And many American wallets don’t afford for the typical one-hour price of a massage session provided by a solo practitioner, which averages between $60 and $90, or by a therapist at a spa, which can top out at more than $200, according to franchisors. That’s another selling point they push: Prices for a one-hour session at franchises level out at between $39.95 and $49.95.
“Looking at the statistics of the country, being that such a large percentage of people have never received a massage, the biggest thing we want to stress is, ‘Come in for an affordable massage,'” said Hoose.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, where Zen Massage is headquartered, founder Kevin Koonz researched the price of massage locally and found the average to be $60 per hour. “I thought, ‘What if I could cut that in half and make it affordable for anyone?’” he said. “You could be an attorney or businessman who makes hundreds of thousands [of dollars] a year, or you could be a landscaper or someone who waits tables, someone who’s very physical with their body and needs this type of care.” Zen Massage offers a one-hour session for $39.95—not exactly half the local going rate, but about 34 percent lower than what Charlotte’s individual practitioners charge.
Some franchises follow the Massage Envy membership model: Members pay a base rate for one massage per month, which also allows them additional, lower-priced massages. Other franchises charge low prices without memberships.
As consumers become more aware of them, massage franchises are jostling to create their own unique brands, reflected in everything from atmospheric ambience to types of touch to locales.
N8 Touch, for example, has three massage concepts: N8ture’s Therapy centers, with table massage; N8 Touch Relaxst8tion stations, site-specific chair-massage centers in airports, shopping malls and convention centers; and N8 Touch Relaxst8tion2Go, which provides outcall, on-site massage. N8 Touch is different from other franchised massage corporations in that it targets chiropractors to buy its franchises.
“Currently most of our franchises are owned by chiropractors who have either done massage in the past or who have had massage in their practices over the past years,” said Ron Stillwell, president and CEO of N8 Touch.
“The amount of massage franchises that have cropped up have actually hurt chiropractors around the country,” he added. “N8 touch is a brand that can be put inside a chiropractic office, or it can be a stand-alone brand.”
Massagiano sets itself apart with its spa-like atmosphere. “It’s very warm and inviting,” President and Founder Michelle Novak said of Massagiano’s atmosphere. “The furniture and décor is that which you would find in a house, not in a massage clinic or a doctor’s office. We have specially painted paintings that are done specifically for our spa.”
The various franchises also offer unique menus of services and add-on therapies beyond Swedish and deep-tissue massage. Along with various types of bodywork, Massage Heights features a peppermint foot scrub, while Elements features pre-natal and Thai massage, Hand and Stone offers facial massage and Massage Envy clients can receive craniosacral therapy.
Massage therapists who work at franchises are oftentimes expected to sell add-on services, such as foot scrubs, aromatherapy and hot towels, and are compensated for doing so.
Don’t worry, be happy
A key benefit for the individual therapist working at a massage franchise is freedom from the responsibilities and cash outlay—marketing, laundering linens, purchasing equipment and supplies, paying rent on an office and so on—associated with running an individual practice.
“They just make it a lot easier on you—you just show up with a big smile on your face and start your day; everything is provided for you,” said Camille Burks, a massage therapist for 14 years who has worked at five Massage Heights locations in three years. “I’m not the one who has to worry about advertising and getting clients in the door. I don’t have to buy lotions or worry about washing my linens every night.”
Franchises also offer flexible schedules, meaning therapists can work for a franchise part time while cultivating or continuing a private practice. For fresh massage-school graduates, franchises represent a good way to start out in the field, according to massage educators.
“Having graduates move from an entry-level program into a relatively stable employment environment would be a good transition period,” said Sandy Fritz, owner, director and head instructor of the Health Enrichment Center in Lapeer, Michigan. “I would expect that some of the graduates would move on to other career paths over time; however, upon graduation they need to start doing massage, and the franchise system can facilitate that.”
Franchises actively recruit from massage schools, and their harvesting of new graduates keeps many beginning therapists from failing, franchise spokespeople say. They also say the franchise model brings some much-needed honesty to the field, in terms of the claims made by massage schools to potential students.
“Schools and educators are going to be forced to address issues that they’ve never been held accountable to before,” said Scott Wendrych, president of Elements. “No one’s going to enroll in a massage program if they’re told they’re going to make $15 per hour. Instead they’re told, ‘You’re going to work on cruise ships and make $60 or $90 per hour.'”
“The schools need to do a better job of being realistic about what’s really out there [in terms of compensation],” he added.
At the Cortiva Institute in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, franchises are invited to job fairs, and franchise massage jobs are posted on Cortiva’s national job portal, Mann said. “Our career-service department has developed great relationships with a number of massage franchises,” he said. “It is good from the standpoint it offers a ground-level position for the massage graduate to get employment and experience, [and] it’s good for the school from the direction it’s enlarging the job market.”
Beyond the session room
Once employed at a franchise, massage therapists are in line for career advancement. Lead therapist, trainer, lead trainer and manager are some of the positions open to them.
“Massage therapists don’t last for 50 years; they do have a life expectancy on them,” said Hoose. “We want them to know that when they come in and want to become a teacher or [go into] sales or marketing or go to locations and help [other therapists] excel, there are many, many opportunities.”
Massage therapist Kellie Budde has worked for Hand and Stone for three-and-a-half years; now she travels to new franchise locations to train employees in hot-stone massage. “It’s pretty cool to see the country,” she said.
Some massage therapists are making the leap to franchise owner themselves. Colleen O’Connor had been a massage therapist for three years when she began to think about buying a franchise.
“I actually did want to open my own business and looked at a lot of different models that were not massage-related, such as burger joints and ice cream places,” before deciding on an Elements franchise in Louisville, Kentucky, she said. “I wanted someone else’s track record,” she explained. “I didn’t want to recreate something.”
Massage therapist Michele Merhib’s two-location Colorado massage practice was so successful she was approached by the Fitness Together Franchise Corporation, which already had 346 personal-training franchise locations throughout the world. They offered to take her massage-business model national, and she said yes. Today Merhib, the founder of Elements, travels the country as the liaison between corporate headquarters and the larger massage community, among other duties. The company recently expanded into Costa Rica and Ireland.
Other therapists are following Merhib’s path. Janet Mulhall opened her massage practice in 1984. She decided to franchise her business, and in 2006 she was awarded her first franchise. Now with five Atlantis locations open in New York state and seven more on the way, Mulhall said she will franchise only to massage therapists and estheticians.
“I think it’s great we consult with businesspeople all the time, but they’re missing that one ingredient that I think is necessary for this type of business,” Mulhall said. “You have to be a caregiver to understand the needs of the people that give the care and the needs of the people that are coming for the care.”
Here to stay
One thing franchisors and others in the massage field agree on is that franchised massage will not put individual practitioners out of business. An analogy some of them use often is that of restaurants: There are thousands of McDonald’s in the United States, they say, yet there are still plenty of fine-dining establishments.
“There will always be therapists who prefer to work in a private-practice setting and clients who will seek them out,” said Erika Baern, director of education for East West College in Portland, Oregon.
“As in any industry, there is room for everyone,” she added. “From restaurants to accountants to interior decorators to massage therapists—there are franchises, corporations and independently owned and operated businesses.”
As noted earlier, Massage Envy provides almost 5 million massage annually. That might seem like a huge number; however, the total number of massage sessions provided each year is 230 million , according to a fact sheet created by the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), the nation’s largest massage association.
For a massage therapist who wants to work part time, who is a new graduate or returning to the field after an absence, who wants to supplement his or her income from a private practice or who doesn’t want the responsibility of running a business, working for a franchised-massage clinic could be a good fit. The average massage-related income for massage therapists in 2005 (the last year for which figures are available) was $18,950, with a median income of $14,500, according to the ABMP. A massage therapist who performs four massages a day for $15 base wage per massage would earn $15,600 per year—and that’s not including gratuities. (See sidebar, “5 Facts About Franchise Pay Rates for MTs.”)
Therapists who run independent practices could also benefit from the increased awareness franchised massage brings to the profession.
“The bottom line for those in this industry is the value that massage brings to the end consumer,” Novak said, “and [franchises are] reaching more people.”
And if their rapid proliferation and success is any indication, franchises will only claim a more prominent role in the massage profession.
Where does Massage Envy rank on the list of Top 10 New Franchises for 2008? Go to www.massagemag.com/topfranchises to find out.
5 Facts About Franchise Pay Rates for MTs
1. Massage therapists’ base wage rate ranges from $15 to $36 per hour-long massage session. That amount of that base rate varies depending on the franchise corporation, the individual franchise’s geographic location, the type of massage performed, the therapist’s franchise employment history, and decisions made by the individual franchisee.
2. The base wage rates noted above is per massage, not per hour. During times in which massage therapists do not have a client, they are oftentimes paid minimum wage.
3. Massage therapists who work at franchises rely on gratuities to augment their base wage rate. “Tipping is necessary in the restaurant business, and it’s also necessary in this setting,” explained John Marco, founder and president of Hand & Stone. “If there were not gratuities in this setting, the prices for massage would have to be more.”
4. Franchises that sell products usually provide the therapist with a commission on any products they sell.
5. Some franchise locations offer vacation, sick pay and health benefits.