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Trends in Spa Employment


Massage therapists seeking work should be very encouraged by a survey conducted last March by the International Spa Association (ISPA). This informal poll of the organization’s members reported: “Overwhelmingly, the No. 1 treatment for both men and women is massage.”

As a result of this demand for massage services, more therapists are being sought. And in many cases, these therapists finally have some choices on where they practice.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy, however. Respect, an intangible quality in the workplace in addition to pay and benefits, continues to be a sticking point for some massage therapists who have made the choice to work at resort spas. In fact, this issue was considered important enough that it merited a special session entitled: “Bridging the Gap Between Spa Directors and Massage Therapists” at the 2001 annual ISPA conference. Ironically, many spa directors who volunteered at that seminar, including most of those interviewed for this report, are professional massage therapists.

For this article, I interviewed several spa owners and managers of first-rate establishments about their employment philosophies. What do they want from a prospective employee? And what do they offer that job candidate in return?

After speaking with these experts, several trends became evident, including the following:

  • As more massage therapists choose employment in the spa industry over private practice, long-held ideals of independence in treating private clients clash with hospitality industry goals of serving spa “guests.”

  • Massage schools are just beginning to accept the change and adapt to a student body composed of a larger number of students bound for employee status in spas. Self-employment in private practice is no longer the goal of most students enrolling in massage school.

  • Massage therapy continues to be the most popular service offered by spas small and large, from city day spas, to hotels, to luxury resorts. Employment opportunities are growing.

  • Massage therapists in spas have the opportunity to do a wide range of new treatments that appeal to widely traveled spa guests who are looking for new and more exotic body therapies that rely more on specially blended beauty and “anti-aging” products.

  • Spas expect therapists to be knowledgeable about the beauty and health products used in the treatments, and to recommend and sell them to guests as a part of their job and part of their pay.

  • There is the beginning of a strong trend to integrate antiaging physicians, dermatologists, plastic surgeons and other medical professionals into hotel and resort spa facilities. This is reminiscent of current policies at European health spas.

  • Spas are luxury facilities, and the massage treatments listed on their “menus” are expensive. However, this does not translate directly into higher commissions to therapists in the way a higher charge would mean higher income to a therapist in private practice. Spas have moved away from commission-based pay as being too costly to the spa owner. The compensation structure most favored by spas is a set amount of money for each treatment performed, no matter how much the client is paying for the service.

  • Spa directors keep abreast of what their competitors are paying therapists, which makes pay scales increasingly uniform, although the compensation may be structured in different ways. The harder-working therapist can achieve greater financial dividends because of financial incentives that reward the number of treatments performed, and also the amount of products sold. Therapists who are knowledgeable and trained in more products and treatments also can expect to earn more and advance faster in a spa.

  • Although a top-earning therapist can be earning $50,000 per year and more, that only comes with working long, hard hours, which can result in injury and burnout for some.

  • Employee policies and working conditions vary a great deal from one spa to the next. In fact, a prospective employee should investigate that aspect of employment as closely as looking at pay and benefits. Employee benefits are a feature of spa employment for therapists who qualify as full-time.

This piece will discuss these trends, and offer suggestions so that those MTJ readers wishing to one day work in a spa environment will know what to expect … and what’s expected of them.

As mentioned before, the numbers about the demand for massage at resorts and spas are staggering. ISPA’s detailed “2001 Spa User Studies,” conducted by Cox Consulting, found that 96 percent of destination spa visitors, 88 percent of resort/hotel spa guests, and 93 percent of day spa patrons mentioned massage. Facial, nail and hair treatments were the next service most frequently mentioned. Body wraps were mentioned by 50 to 60 percent of respondents.

All this demand for massage is a positive development for any massage therapist considering a spa career. “Employment packages in many spas are very good,” observes Margaret Avery Moon, NCTMB, president of the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts, in Tucson, Arizona. Moon is a regular attendee at ISPA’s yearly conferences.  The compensation structure most favored by spas is a set amount of money for each treatment performed.

In spite of this growing employment opportunity for massage therapists, there has been little communication between spas and massage schools. Moon, who was one of only a handful of massage school owners in attendance at ISPA’s 2001 annual conference, says massage schools tend to hold the mistaken belief that spas want only “a minimally educated” graduate.

In fact, some spa people attending the education session at ISPA 2001 complained loudly of too little spa education of massage school graduates, who they want to be fully trained in the latest treatments (cutting the expense of hiring trainers to show employees how to perform the treatments on the job).

Coming to the defense of massage schools, Robert Calvert, one of the massage representatives joining the education discussion, said schools “cannot be expected to be current with the latest in worldwide spa treatments.”

He pointed out that massage schools tend to be conservative when it comes to introducing new classes to their curriculum. This is also true for the state regulatory agencies that oversee massage schools.

Moon serves as a member of the ISPA education committee, which has worked on job profiles and core competencies for spa therapists to encourage more schools to develop spa curriculums. She is pleased with increasing communication between her school and the surrounding spas. And Moon is finding new trends in enrollment at the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts. “There are more younger people and more people who want employee status,” she reports. Something that has not changed, according to Moon, is the typical entering student “who has not received massage frequently in their life and needs to experience what it feels like to be a spa client.”

By contrast, today’s spa client is increasingly a well-traveled individual who has visited a number of spas, is familiar with a range of massage and bodywork styles, and has come to expect the ultimate in service and hospitality. One of the criticisms directed at newly graduated massage therapists, according to Moon, is the lack of a client-centered approach to match the customer service philosophy that prevails in spas. For example, she recalled an experience with a graduate of her own school who specialized in shiatsu massage. His client was a woman suffering a headache, who wanted him to begin his touch at her head. But the therapist wanted to start at her feet to follow the shiatsu protocol he was trained in. Moon had to step in to tell him to take the client-centered approach—that to meet the client’s request to start at the head would not compromise the treatment.

The Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa, in Farmington, Pennsylvania, has a 32,000-square-foot spa. Peggy Wynne Borgman, co-founder of Preston Wynne Day Spa in Saratoga, California, and a national leader in the spa industry, also has been pleased to see that relations between massage schools and spas have taken a turn for the better. “But there was a time when people coming out of massage school were told that to work in a salon or spa was a second-rate career,” she recalls. “Now we are seeing the same schools coming to us wanting to establish connections to place their graduates in spa jobs.”

The Preston Wynne Spa gave birth some years ago to a busy consulting practice, putting Wynne in a position to know a good deal about what it takes to make a spa successful.

One massage business in Palm Springs, California, offers its massage therapists a nice variety of options: They can work in a day spa, a resort hotel spa, a private home or at a massage therapy center. This company, All About Massage, is co-owned by Kelly Yamada, a massage therapist and instructor. Yamada also serves as coordinator for the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs area) Spa Directors Association, affording her an overview of the full range of employment practices across spas in “the desert.”

Yamada and her partner (her husband, Masaru) have developed multiple income streams, and more opportunities for massage therapists, through two related businesses. All About Massage includes the Spa Therapy Center, which offers a full menu of massage, skin care, hand and foot, and spa treatments. Massage is the specialty, and therapists are required to have a minimum of 500 hours schooling plus extra training in any specialty they offer. The center also offers workshops for massage professionals and classes in infant massage and partner massage. The retail store at the center carries massage and spa equipment and supplies; massage and skin-care products; and gift items.

In addition, Desert Massage Associates, the Yamadas’ second company, provides in-home and in-room massage, plus backup massage therapists to cover busy resort spas during Palm Springs’ tourist season.

From her vantage point, Yamada sees employee turnover and burnout as the biggest personnel problem facing spas. On the April weekend we talked, Yamada was supplying back-up massage therapists to five resort hotels that did not have enough available massage therapists on staff to meet the demand. “The typical therapist in our resort community starts work when the season begins after summer, and by March can be too tired or injured to work regularly,” says Yamada. “Because the heavy tourist season continues through mid-May, there is a considerable shortfall of therapists near the end of the season, and spas don’t want to take on new hires with the season just about over.”

Yamada’s therapists are independent contractors when working for Desert Massage Associates. They are paid a flat rate per massage on a scale that recognizes the varying amount of effort required: $37 at a hotel spa, $42 in a residence, and $47 in a hotel room. When working at the Spa Therapy Center, the therapists are employees, and paid $29 for a standard 60-minute massage and $34 for a 60-minute specialty massage.

Yamada sets the massages for a full hour rather than the 50 minutes common in hotel spas, which, she opines, may be compressing time in order to make the most of the tremendous demand for massages in the spas. She also gives therapists at least 15 minutes between massages instead of the 10 minutes favored by corporate-owned spas.

Massage therapists at All About Massage are all seasoned professionals hired at the same pay scale, whereas a corporate-run spa may have four pay schedules and hire therapists with varying amounts of education and experience. Yamada says there are no entry-level positions at the Spa Therapy Center because she is marketing her business “at a higher level of therapy value.”

“A client will come here from an expensive resort hotel because he believes he will get better therapy at a better price,” claims Yamada, adding that many clients will be attracted to higher-quality therapy, while others will look for the most luxurious spa environment.

Retail is part of the job at All About Massage. Yamada’s employees are paid 15 percent commission on skin-care products, and 5 percent on the other products in the center’s store. She expects therapists to be thinking, “How else can I help this client that would benefit them at home?” As examples, Yamada suggests that most clients can use a book or video on stress management, yoga or stretching.

On Yamada’s personnel wish list, in addition to less turnover, is more therapists who want to select just one place of work and build a following, rather than doing massage at several places. “Often, therapists don’t have the business experience to put the whole thing together in figuring out their net earnings from working between several jobs versus staying put,” says Yamada. “We give priority to therapists who work exclusively for us and they earn more here.”

What Works And What Doesn't

Having a mutually beneficial business relationship between spa owners and their therapists takes some give-and-take, as well as communication, according to Peggy Wynne Borgman of Preston Wynne Day Spa and Preston Wynne Success Systems. Here is her advice on four key elements:

On building and retaining the clients of a spa. “Most important is that massage therapists be able to effectively sell themselves and their treatment, not only what they do, but also all of the other treatments in the spa. The more reasons the client has for coming to the spa, the more stable the client is. Cross-selling in the spa anchors the clients to everyone so that, for example, if a massage therapist leaves, her clients won’t peel off to go with her, taking their business away from everyone in the spa—massage therapists, estheticians, manicurists, retail, etc. It is not ‘I am building my clientele, but I am building the spa’s clientele,’ because a stable clientele for the spa means a stable and steady clientele for the therapist.”

On schooling and continuing education. “Ideally, schools will teach students what the world of spas is so they can align themselves with it instead of the world massage therapists sometimes choose to occupy. Some therapists simply choose to limit themselves to a singular vision, to do certain modalities and no others. Some schools emphasize the healer role while suggesting that to recommend products, for example, would be a compromise of integrity. Therapists need to be able to recommend home care knowledgeably. Some massage therapists ‘want to be it,’ and it bothers them to think a product the client will use at home will play a role in the treatment.”

On recommending products. “Culturally, estheticians come out of school knowing they are going to be recommending and selling home products. It’s the face. Skin-care products for the body are now making more of an impact, in part due to the antiaging emphasis health is taking on. From massage therapists I will sometimes hear, ‘There is no way I could sell something I don’t believe in.’ They are setting up restrictions. To work in our spa successfully a person needs to use spa products themselves and enjoy trying new ones. We need someone who wants to learn. They will be backed up with plenty of product information.”

On compensation plans. “At our spa, compensation for treatments is relatively lower than elsewhere, but we pay a dramatically higher commission on retail. We also have incentive pay based on team performance. Since massage therapists are not only money driven, we find that the group reward can often be as important as a system of individual pay incentives. We have 60 employees total, 40 treatment staff, about equally divided between massage therapists and estheticians, 30 full-time and 10 part-time.”

Earnings, respect, fine atmosphere and the best in training can all be yours if you join the massage staff of a world-class resort spa like the Golden Door Spa at the Wyndham Peaks Resort in Telluride, Colorado, or the Woodlands Spa at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa in Farmington, Pennsylvania.

Katie Hurley-Laguna, a massage therapist and spa director at the 32,000-square-foot Woodlands Spa, espouses a teamwork philosophy of management. “The managers have to serve the associates,” asserts Hurley-Laguna, who supervises a staff of 125, 50 of whom are massage therapists. “If not, we are not going to have a satisfied guest because the therapists are going to be tired and unhappy.”

Great care is given to the hiring and training of massage therapists at both of these luxury resort hotel spas. Continuing education for massage therapists is ongoing at the Golden Door at The Peaks, notes Dan Mohr, massage therapist and spa manager, who worked in a clinic setting doing neuromuscular therapy before joining the spa in Telluride. Nationally known trainers, independent consultants and spa product company staff are brought into the spa to show new modalities. If Ayurveda massage is to be added to the menu, for example, a specialist will come in to teach the 45 massage therapists at the Golden Door.

Treatment menus at famous destination spas like the Woodlands and the Golden Door offer more choices and a greater variety of therapies. Guests tend to be well traveled and are looking for a unique spa experience. Listed first on the massage therapy menu at the Woodlands Spa is the 110-minute Woodland Hot Stone Shirodhara, described as “a combination of hot stone massage, Ayurveda, and reiki.”

Clearly, treatments such as this require special on-site training. Therapists at the Woodlands “are given the opportunity to learn all of the treatments on the menu,” says Hurley-Laguna, but “if someone doesn’t resonate with a particular treatment, they don’t have to do it.” For her, training is a win-win situation.

More than just listening to her therapists—they participate in deliberations over what kind of uniforms to order, for example—Hurley-Laguna has everyone fill out a Personal Prosperity form that draws them out on professional goals for the year, including “What talents do you want to share?” and “What talents do you want to learn?” The Woodlands therapists have access to all the spa facilities, and Hurley-Laguna insists they “get work” themselves to prevent injury and relieve stress.

In selecting therapists, Hurley-Laguna maintains she looks first and foremost for “the ability to be present—a therapist who understands about engagement, about touch, rapport.”

Mohr agrees. The Golden Door at The Peaks “is very particular” about whom it hires. The establishment requires massage therapists to be nationally certified, or have their application pending with the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.

Hurley-Laguna and Mohr estimate the highest-earning therapists at their resorts are making in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year. As is the case with most spas today, therapists at the Woodland Spa and the Golden Door receive a base hourly wage plus a flat amount for each treatment they do. Gratuities paid to therapists by clients are recorded as additional compensation.

The base rate at these and other corporate-owned spas ranges from the federal minimum hourly wage for new employees up to $10 for senior therapists. The flat rate paid per treatment is generally keyed to the length of time the treatment takes, not how much the client is paying for the service. Mohr says the flat rate for a 50-minute massage at The Peaks ranges from $20 to $30. The rate is higher for treatments that last 80 or 100 minutes.

Full-time therapists at The Peaks, who work a minimum 30 hours per week, are working five shifts a week and seeing 25 to 30 clients, according to Mohr. Perks include lift passes at this Colorado ski resort. At the Woodlands Spa, where full time is a minimum of 32 hours per week, Hurley-Laguna says the flat rate “across the menu” ranges from $24 to $40 per treatment, with therapists averaging seven to eight massages per day, four or five days per week. Full-time employees at The Peaks and the Woodlands are eligible to participate in company benefits after 90 days of employment. Both spas have therapists who have been with them 10 years or more. 

Case Example: How One Group of Employees Took Action

For more than a year now, massage therapist Deborah Lowry of Spa Claremont in Oakland, California, and her colleagues, have been trying to affiliate with a union to improve their workplace conditions and benefits. (Please see MTJ, Summer 2002, Page 25.) Lowry’s group aims to redress such grievances by putting an end to what Lowry calls the employer’s attitude of “If you don’t like it here, just leave, and we will replace you with someone else.”

In the Claremont case, KSL Recreation Corp., the company that in 1979 took over the historic, much-loved hotel set on the Berkeley/Oakland border, got off to a bad start by asking all spa employees to reapply for their jobs. This led several massage therapists to file and win an age discrimination lawsuit when the new owner denied them reemployment. Spa employees noted that other hotel employees, those represented by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, were not subjected to these indignities. Thus, the seed to organize was planted among normally peace-loving massage therapists, estheticians and hairstylists.

In truth, communication and respect, however defined, emerges from our interviews as more likely to be the difference in working conditions between one spa and another today than is pay. The therapists at the Spa Claremont do not enjoy the highest pay schedule in the business, but it is competitive ($28 for a 50-minute massage, $33 for a 50-minute specialty massage, plus tip). Their charge that the corporation wants to keep them in a “parent-child relationship,” and seems not to listen to them, is a circumstance they could change by moving to a spa with more progressive employee relations. But the Spa Claremont therapists, most of whom also do some massage outside the Claremont, admit a main reason for staying on now is to support the friends they have made through the hard work of labor organizing.

Another observation made by Spa Claremont therapists that is not strictly a pay issue but is a reality of spa work, is that the luxurious atmosphere of the spa is more important than the therapies provided by the hard-working staff. Efforts by large resort spas to develop its “brand” and train everyone in the spa’s “signature” treatments also may reinforce the idea of employee as “cog-in-wheel” for some therapists.

Atmosphere does count with spa patrons—and for the therapists who work on them. Consumer surveys commissioned by ISPA show that the atmosphere of a spa competes neck-and-neck with treatments as most important in consumer choice of spas—with atmosphere and surroundings actually ahead of treatments by a few points for hotel and destination spas. For day spas, treatments edged out the environment by a few points. Even some of the therapists interviewed at the Claremont for this article cited the quality environment of the spa, including the people environment, as a reason they continue to work there.

The Claremont employees mentioned the pressure to stay on a tight schedule and specific guidelines on what to say to clients in the spa as negatives. On the plus side, compared to private practice, “I don’t have to do anything but massage,” was heard more than once in recognition that the spa provides the workspace and the clients.  

A Five-Star Workplace

Ever wonder what it would be like to work in one of the most luxurious hotels in the world? For massage therapist Ela Radu Escalande, it’s not a pipe dream—it’s her job.

Escalande, based in Chicago, works for the Four Seasons Hotel, situated in the heart of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. The facility recently received the highest overall rating for an urban hotel spa in North America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. It also was honored with both the Mobil Travel Guide Five-Star Award and the AAA Five Diamond Award in 2001.

For massage therapists, luxury hotels with such credentials are not necessarily great places in which to work. But that is definitely not the case for Escalande. She loves her job, and her workplace.

“For a therapist, I consider this the best place to work in Chicago,” she says. “It’s a great environment, the employees are well treated, and the customers are great, too.”

The Four Seasons Spa is relatively new; it just opened in August 2001. It is a full-service facility, encompassing 8,000 square feet, and has five treatments rooms for massage. The spa works as a regular health club (with annual local members), but also accepts walk-in clients off the street. Hotel guests have privileges, but must pay for each service rendered. Other services offered include bodywork treatments, facials, manicure, pedicure, swimming pool, whirlpool, sauna, steam room, spa lounge and day beds. Tea and fresh fruit are offered free.

Currently, nine therapists work there; two are full-time (including Escalande), and seven are part-time.

Escalande, 38, is an AMTA member, and has been practicing for 12 years. She specializes in deep-tissue work, such as sports massage, shiatsu and myofascial release. She works six-hour shifts, five days a week; shifts are either 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. On a busy day, Escalande can work up to five one-hour massages, which she does not consider a burdensome workload. “I can handle that because I have good mechanics,” she says. “So far, I haven’t developed any chronic injuries.”

This hotel charges $90 for a 55-minute Swedish massage, and $120 for an 80-minute massage. Escalande and the other therapists are paid a percentage of each massage given, plus tips.

She also gets an excellent benefits package as a full-time Four Seasons employee.
Overall, this is a very good deal, Escalande says. “I much prefer to work in a luxury hotel than a day spa, where I also have worked. For some reason, hotels are better organized.

“I like being busy all the time,” she adds. “In addition, I don’t have to worry about doing any marketing; the hotel sends me clients automatically.”
As for disadvantages, Escalande says that although she is content, someone who has had his or her own business, or is very independent, might have a harder time working for a large hotel chain. “You do have to follow certain protocols, stick to your weekly schedule, etc.,” she says.

Besides being well paid and getting good benefits, Escalande enjoys a perk that makes her the envy of most of her peers: As a full-time Four Seasons employee, she can stay at any Four Seasons hotel in the world for free!

If it is beginning to appear that a top-notch therapist has just about the same opportunity to do well financially at one corporate-run spa as another, it is because spa managers are in the habit of keeping track of what their competitors are paying, and do not want to be caught out paying significantly more or less than the going rate. The overriding objective of today’s compensation plans, no matter how they are structured by spa employers, is to limit the cost of sales to below 30 percent of gross revenue, says Hurley-Laguna, who has extensive management experience. (She was a spa director at major resorts in Florida and Michigan before joining the Woodlands Spa.)

Not surprisingly, the 50 percent commission often paid independent contractor therapists in a salon makes no sense to financial managers who have the costs of debt on spa construction, laundry, receptionists, spa attendants, employee benefits, utilities, advertising and maintenance.

The whole era of independent contractors paid on commission may be nearing an end, even in salons and day spas. Compensation consultant Neil Ducoff used his session at ISPA’s 2001 annual conference to show salon owners how to convert all employees, including massage therapists, from commission pay to compensation he calls Team-Based Pay. The program puts emphasis on individual and team bonus incentives that reward employees who meet or exceed stated goals for service and retail volume. Ducoff argues that this system, which includes a base hourly wage, motivates employees to work as a team to build the salon’s business, whereas commission pay rewards independent contractors who come in to build their own following and are out the door “on a break” anytime they don’t have a client. Ducoff offers coaching to owners who want to try his system.

While restructuring compensation plans hits home for both massage therapists and spa managers, the larger new trend of interest to both is the merging of alternative therapies and spas. Although some pioneering alternative medicine doctors have owned spas in the United States for some time (see MTJ, Winter 1999, for a look at Deepak Chopra’s Center for Well Being in Carlsbad, California), the “anti-aging” boom now has leaders in the spa industry proclaiming that the merger is inevitable. In fact, Hurley-Laguna wrote on just that topic for the October 2001 issue of Medical Spas magazine.

Hannelore Leavy, executive director of the New York-based Day Spa Association, sees in the trend a reflection of European spas where “everything is medically based.” Leavy also views the trend to full-time employees in U.S. spas as consistent with European spas. With independent contractor therapists, “You can’t control the consistency” of the treatments, asserts Leavy, who advocates massage therapists taking every bit of training available throughout their careers. She expects product knowledge will become even more useful to therapists as the new “anti-aging” physicians, dermatologists and plastic surgeons merge their treatments into spas.

Brian Coughlan, a massage therapist and freelance writer, is based in Mendocino, California.

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