Americans have learned a lot from COVID-19. They’ve learned how fragile their health is, for example, and how much they value loved ones. They’ve learned in quarantine what it means to be resilient, and in line to get vaccinated what it means to be hopeful. And thanks to remote working, distance learning, telehealth and e-commerce—all of which have flourished during the pandemic—they’ve learned that in the 21st century, almost anything can be done from almost anywhere.
That includes massage. According to AMTA’s 2020 Loyalty Survey, 40 percent of massage therapists who responded indicated they travel to either a client’s home or workplace.
Although there isn’t empirical data to prove it, many massage therapists say demand for mobile massage therapy has remained strong during the pandemic as consumers have become more comfortable with the stay-at-home economy.
“Business has definitely slowed down, but things have actually been pretty good still,” says mobile massage therapist Aaron Harris, CMT, of Kansas City, Missouri. “Because of the pandemic, people are changing their habits. They’re getting food and groceries delivered, so now they’re asking themselves, ‘What else can show up at my door?’ Instead of running down the street to a nearby massage therapy location, they’re jumping online and looking for massage therapists who will come to their home.”
Echoes Alyssa Enriquez, LMT, founder of Massage On Wheels, which provides outcall massage therapy in Asheville, North Carolina, “When COVID happened, I honestly thought my business was over. We had to shut down for a while, but when we reopened, I could see that people absolutely still wanted massage. Humans need touch, and the fact that we could come to them and provide a relaxing, enjoyable massage while taking all the necessary precautions made a lot of people feel comfortable.”
Practitioners like Harris and Enriquez think outcalls will endure as more people realize the benefits of massage and the convenience of receiving it at home. If they’re right, now might be a good time to start a mobile massage practice, the virtues of which can be advantageous not only to massage therapists, but also to myriad clients who may benefit from massage therapy—if only they had easier access to it.
The Merits of Mobile
When she became a massage therapist in 2001, Ann Janca, LMT, BCTMB, wanted to untether herself from the traditional workday. Although she began her career working onsite at a chiropractor’s office, she eventually found what she was seeking in mobile instead of on-site massage.
“I had a regular job and was doing mobile massage on the side to supplement my income. Eventually, I stopped to look at my ‘why’—why I got into massage in the first place—and realized it was because I wanted more freedom and flexibility,” says Janca, founder of Massage Traveler, a mobile massage practice in Seattle, Washington.
“I love to travel, so I wanted to create a job for myself where I had the flexibility to travel more. That’s when I started doing more mobile massage.”
If you’re considering your own foray into mobile massage, freedom and flexibility are major selling points. Another is the relatively low start-up costs.
“You can start by spending $500 or $700 a month for space when you don’t have clients yet to fill it, or you can start by going to your clients and using their spaces,” Enriquez says.
“I started out doing mobile because it’s the easiest, most cost-effective way to get started in this profession without signing a contract to lease a space you can’t afford.”
The low overhead can be attractive to veteran massage therapists, too. Although you have to pay for gas and automobile maintenance, the ongoing savings from rent and utilities can be significant—especially during challenging times when your customer base might shrink. Without a physical location, you can more easily scale your business up or down in response to the economy.
Plus, you may be able to charge more even as you’re spending less, suggests massage therapist Dan Melmed, LMT, founder and owner of Body Well, which provides mobile massage across the state of Florida, as well as in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “Mobile massage isn’t always as consistent as going to an office and working set hours, but a lot of therapists can make more money working fewer hours,” explains Melmed, who says mobile therapists often can charge a premium because of the time and travel it requires.
Look Before You Leap
The potential merits are clear. Before you go all-in on outcalls, however, there are some things you should know about practicing mobile massage. Among the most pressing items are the following considerations:
Licensing. Generally speaking, you don’t need a separate license or permit to provide mobile massage. But there are exceptions. Melmed, for instance, recalls an arcane ordinance in Alexandria, Virginia. Although he helped convince lawmakers to repeal it, it once required massage therapists who wished to provide in-home services to pay $75 in fees, to register and meet with the police department’s narcotics division and to share a list of client addresses.
Harris also has confronted licensing hurdles. When he was based in Los Angeles, he could work across the entire state. Now that he’s in Kansas City, however, he has to be more judicious due to varying license requirements.
Comfort and safety. Melmed says mobile massage requires an adventurous and adaptable personality. “It takes a certain kind of person to be comfortable doing mobile massage. Because when you go to a stranger’s home, you never know who’s going to open the door or what it’s going to be like inside,” he points out. “It’s almost like going on a blind date—and not everyone is comfortable going on blind dates.”
One concern is the environment—you have no way of knowing if a person’s home will be spacious or cramped, quiet or noisy, messy or tidy—but another is the client, according to Enriquez. To protect her therapists from unscrupulous clients, she requires a full name, phone number, email address and credit card upon booking. “We collect payment in full by credit card from every single client, and we don’t accept cash unless it’s for gratuity,” Enriquez says.
Harris doesn’t require advance payment, but he does require an extensive intake form. “It’s a good way to weed out people who are not serious,” he says.
Logistics. When you have a studio, everything is set up and ready to go. Not so when you’re mobile. “It’s not as easy as just throwing a new sheet on the table,” Melmed says. “Every time you visit a client, you have to lug your table with you, and set it up and take it down.”
For that reason, a lightweight massage table is critical. “I use a mobile massage table that has aluminum legs instead of wood, which makes it a lot lighter than a traditional table,” Enriquez says. “I also recommend a heavy-duty massage table bag that’s thicker on the bottom ... A normal bag will start to deteriorate and rip within months.”
A massage table cart also can be useful. “That way, you can roll your table with you anywhere you go—on elevators, down long hallways or through big parking lots,” Enriquez continues. “Massage already is physically demanding; if you don’t conserve your energy, you can easily burn out.”
You’ll also have to lug linens, oils and creams, sanitizing supplies and other items, like a Bluetooth speaker if you wish to play music for clients. Janca keeps all of that in a go bag that she can throw over her shoulder, and keeps extra supplies in a large tub in the backseat of her car. “You have to be organized when you’re doing mobile massage,” she says.
Another logistical concern is scheduling. In a studio, you can book clients back-to-back. On the road, however, you have to leave time for travel and setup. While most online booking tools allow you to schedule a pre-determined buffer between appointments, you must be vigilant about time management.
Also, you should be aware that many clients are attracted to mobile massage because they can receive services outside of traditional business hours—at night after the kids go to bed, for example, or on the weekends when they don’t have to work. If that suits you, you’ll love mobile massage; if it doesn’t, you might not. “One of the benefits of being a mobile massage therapist is that you can set your own schedule—but you’re going to stay busier and do more business if you’re prepared and ready to go at pretty much any time,” Melmed says.
Rates. You may be able to charge more for outcalls, but you have to be mindful of how you structure your rates. Melmed and Janca, for example, charge a flat fee that encompasses travel and parking. “I try to keep it simple, so I set my fee higher—knowing that everything will be included,” Janca says.
Enriquez, on the other hand, charges a flat rate within a 10-mile radius and an upcharge for every additional 10 miles beyond that.
Harris, meanwhile, levies a flat $10 upcharge for all outcalls within his 50-mile service radius. “Be sure to keep track of your mileage,” he says. “That’s a tax write-off.”
Clearly, outcalls have their challenges. But those often pale in comparison to the rewards, insist mobile practitioners, many of whom cite the positive impact they have on clients as the No. 1 reason they love mobile massage. Here are just a few of the client demographics for whom mobile massage can be particularly beneficial:
Senior citizens. A 2018 study in the Journals of Gerontology concluded that integrative health approaches like massage therapy confer numerous benefits and “may play a crucial role in improving health status among older adults.”1 Unfortunately, many seniors lack mobility, so mobile massage may be particularly beneficial to them.
“I love working with older folks,” says Janca, who typically gets business not from seniors themselves, but rather from activities directors at retirement homes, assisted-living facilities and other senior communities. Although they have been closed to massage therapists and other visitors during the pandemic, she points out, such facilities can be a rich and rewarding source of business when it’s safe to work inside them. “Seniors often need a caring touch, but also a caring presence. If you can bring that kind of mindset, you can have a big impact.”
The chronically ill. Massage may help people who are dealing with symptoms and treatment side effects for chronic diseases like cancer. A 2017 study in the Journal of Oncology Practice, for example, observed a significant decrease in self-reported anxiety, nausea, pain and fatigue among breast cancer patients who received massage at the hospital while undergoing chemotherapy.2 Having massage available at the hospital, the study observed, helped patients overcome barriers like time and travel. “Lymphatic drainage massage is great for oncology patients because it relieves a lot of pain,” observes Harris, who often does outcalls for clients with cancer.
Hospice patients. Although research is limited, a 2020 pilot study in the Journal of Palliative Care suggested that massage therapy can improve quality of life for end-of-life patients by helping to ease pain, depression and anxiety.3
“I’m personally working with a terminally-ill client right now, and that’s something I’ve done throughout my career,” Enriquez says. “Our job is solely to provide comfort until we’re no longer needed. It’s a special job, but it’s very rewarding to know that you were there at the end of someone’s life to make them more comfortable.”
Disabled individuals. Like seniors, disabled clients often have mobility challenges. Outcalls can be ideal for providing them with access to the benefits of massage. A 2017 study in The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, for example, found that massage can be an effective treatment for spasticity in children with cerebral palsy.4 Meanwhile, a 2020 study in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork found that massage can reduce fatigue and edema in people with multiple sclerosis.5
“Personally, I’ve worked with a lot of clients who have ALS, many of whom have limited ability to move and function outside their home,” Harris says. “Having me help them with their range of motion where they’ve lost some motor function has been super advantageous for them.”
Accident victims. Every year, approximately 3 million people are injured in motor vehicle crashes in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Often, those injuries affect the neck and back, pain that might be helped by massage therapy. A 2016 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, for example, concluded that massage can be an effective treatment for neck pain and whiplash-associated disorders.6 A 2016 study in The Spine Journal concluded the same.7
“We do a lot of work with injuries—including car accidents and workers’ compensation claimants,” says Melmed, who cautions that massage therapists working in this realm must be prepared for a lot of administration and paperwork. “Billing and insurance can be a lot of work to figure out, but these clients are often a very consistent source of business because they have been prescribed massage by a doctor.”
Athletes. Though research is ongoing, there’s reason to think that massage therapy can help athletes perform better and recover faster. A 2018 study of elite paracylists, for example, found qualitative and quantitative evidence that massage helps athletes “train harder, rest better and possibly perform better.”8
That resonates with Enriquez, whose therapists often work with athletes. “Before COVID, we used to go to the university and set up a table in the locker room for the girls soccer team. A therapist would give each athlete a mini-massage, working for 10 to 15 minutes on their legs,” she says. “Even now, with COVID, athletes could be a big opportunity, because if the weather’s nice you could set up outside, in compliance with state guidance, on an athletic field.”
Travelers and tourists (in a non-COVID environment). A 2014 survey by Wahl Therapeutic Massagers found that 92 percent of adults experience pain while traveling. Meanwhile, 70 percent of travelers say access to spa treatments is important, according to a 2018 survey by the Wellness Travel Association.
Enriquez taps into travelers’ appetite for massage by partnering with hotels, bed and breakfasts, and even a local tour operator who specializes in wellness-themed tours. She also collaborates with owners of vacation rentals, including Airbnb hosts, whose guests have been a good source of business during the pandemic.
“People still want to travel, and they’re figuring out safe ways to do so. But when they get to their destination there isn’t always a lot to do because many businesses are shut down,” Enriquez says of COVID-era travelers. “So, a lot of tourists are booking massages at their hotel or Airbnb because it’s relaxing and it’s something to do.”
Don’t forget business travelers and airline personnel, including pilots and flight attendants. “Most of them are jet-lagged and want massages at the end of the day, whether they’ve just flown in from overseas or have been working all day,” Janca says.
New and expectant mothers. Having a baby is stressful, and massage may be able to help. A 2017 study in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, for example, concluded that massage could “significantly decrease stress and enhance immune function in pregnant women.”9
“Mobile massage is great for pregnant women because a lot of them just don’t feel like traveling to a massage therapy location, and they often are more comfortable using their own linens and pillows,” says Harris, who sees both pre- and postnatal clients in their homes. “With postnatal, self-care is very important because you’re carrying a baby around all day and probably not getting enough sleep and exercise. But you’ve got a newborn at home, and that can make it hard to get out for a massage. If I can come to you while the baby’s down for a nap, that’s very helpful.”
Office workers. Although they have flatlined during the pandemic because of office closures and remote working, chair massages for office workers are a staple for mobile massage therapists. In fact, a 2016 study in the Journal Ortopedia Traumatologia Rehabilitacja concluded that chair massage in the workplace can be “effective in relieving musculoskeletal overload and discomfort of the spine and upper limbs.”10
“I find chair massage very gratifying because in a corporate environment, I might have four or five clients in an hour, and I get to make every one of them smile. It allows me to have a positive impact on a lot of people in a short amount of time,” says Melmed, who stresses the importance of self-care for massage therapists who practice chair massage in corporate and other settings. “It requires a lot of endurance, and you need to be very careful with your body mechanics so you don’t burn out your thumbs.”
To maximize opportunities in the business world, be creative, advises Janca, who says chair massages can be performed in factories, warehouses and all manner of offices. “It could be a dental office, a law office or a CPA office at tax time,” she suggests. “Another huge opportunity right now is tech workers who are working from home. Or you could go to schools for Teacher Appreciation Week. You just have to think outside the box.”
Events. Outside-the-box thinking also is important when it comes to another lucrative opportunity—events. Although large gatherings have been verboten during the pandemic, they can be a fruitful source of business when it’s safe to congregate, according to Janca, who suggests providing massage for meetings and conventions, holiday parties, wedding showers, girls’ nights, baby showers, pool parties and golf tournaments. “I love events just because of the variety of locations and venues,” she says. “There are so many different opportunities out there. You just have to keep your mind open to what is out there.”
It’s true: Having an open mind is just as important to mobile massage as having a reliable vehicle and a flexible schedule. With broad horizons, you can make a positive difference for others—and for yourself.
“With COVID, my business changed overnight. Luckily, I was diversified. As a mobile massage therapist, I serve many different types of clients—and that has kept me afloat,” Janca says.
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1. Rhee T, Marottoli R, Van Ness P, Tinetti M. "Patterns and Perceived Benefits of Utilizing Seven Major Complementary Health Approaches in U.S. Older Adults." The Journals of Gerontology, Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. 2018.
2. Mao J, Wagner K, Seluzicki C, Hugo A, Galindez L, Sheaffer H, Fox K. "Integrating Oncology Massage Into Chemoinfusion Suites: A Program Evaluation." Journal of Oncology Practice. 2017.
3. Havyer R, Lapid M, Dockter T, McCue S, Stelpflug A, Bigelow M, Robsahm M, Elwood T, Strand J, Bauer B, Cutshall S, Sloan J, Walton M, Whitford K. "Impact of Massage Therapy on the Quality of Life of Hospice Patients and Their Caregivers: A Pilot Study." Journal of Palliative Care. 2020.
4. Rasool F, Memon A, Kiyani M, Sajjad A. "The effect of deep cross friction massage on spasticity of children with cerebral palsy: A double-blind randomised controlled trial." The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association. 2017.
5. Frost-Hunt A. "Effects of Massage Therapy on Multiple Sclerosis: a Case Report." International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. 2020.
6. Bussières A, Stewart G, Al-Zoubi F, Decina P, Descarreaux M, Hayden J, Hendrickson B, Hincapié C, Pagé I, Passmore S, Srbely J, Stupar M, Weisberg J, Ornelas J. "The Treatment of Neck Pain-Associated Disorders and Whiplash-Associated Disorders: A Clinical Practice Guideline." Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2016.
7. Wong J, Shearer H, Mior S, Jacobs C, Côté P, Randhawa K, Yu H, Southerst D, Varatharajan S, Sutton D, van der Velde G, Carroll L, Ameis A, Ammendolia C, Brison R, Nordin M, Stupar M, Taylor- Vaisey A. "Are manual therapies, passive physical modalities, or acupuncture effective for the management of patients with whiplash-associated disorders or neck pain and associated disorders? An update of the Bone and Joint Decade Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders by the OPTIMa collaboration." The Spine Journal. 2016.
8. Kennedy A, Patil N, Trilk J. "Recover quicker, train harder, and increase flexibility: massage therapy for elite paracyclists, a mixed-methods study." BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 2018.
9. Chen P, Chou C, Yang L, Tsai Y, Chang Y, Liaw J. "Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Pregnant Women’s Stress and Immune Function: A Longitudinal, Prospective, Randomized Controlled Trial." Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2017.
10. Cabak A, Kotynia P, Banasiński M, Obmiński Z, Tomaszewski W. "The Concept of ‘Chair Massage’ in the Workplace as Prevention of Musculoskeletal Overload and Pain." Ortopedia Traumatologia Rehabilitacja. 2016.