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Spa Controversy

The spa industry has expanded in new and exciting directions over the last two decades. While the image of the local day spa remains most familiar, spas have also become common vacation destinations and are desirable amenities at resorts, in luxury hotels and on cruise ships.

Dental and medical offices are including spa treatments to make their procedures more pleasant and attractive to their patients. Many spas have expanded their scope from simply furnishing beauty services to offering healthcare services. Estheticians, massage therapists, aromatherapists, acupuncturists, reflexologists, yoga teachers, nutritional consultants and energy practitioners are commonly found in these spa settings.

As public demand has grown, even the image of the local day spa is growing and changing with corporations like the Red Door Spas and franchise systems like Massage Envy Spa, Elements, and Massage Heights getting involved in promoting day spas at the national level.

Online forum chats overflow with comments about the good, bad and ugly aspects of working for spas. Franchise organizations seem to bear the brunt of the negative remarks. Practitioners complain of the poor working conditions and the low wages. The people posting in these forums often claim these companies are making it difficult for independent therapists to survive. I have to question that. Because of these companies, many people are now receiving massage that wouldn't have even considered it in the past, and probably weren't aware of the benefits even a year earlier. These companies provide thousands of employment opportunities for massage therapists, as well as tremendous visibility at the national level. For example, in 2012, Massage Envy Spa provided 14.5 million services to 1.17 million members and 2.6 million guests. In 2013, they provided 56,000 services per day. And that is only one of the many national franchise organizations today. I see this as being analogous to the hair styling industry. Yes, there are many franchises such as Supercuts, where you can receive a haircut for about $15. Yet, many people still go to other salons where they pay closer to $60 for a haircut.

Do the Math!

Most people working at a franchised day spa earn more than $25 per hour, including tips. So, if you are working 25 hours per week, that's about $30,000 per year. Plus, many of these companies offer benefits such as health care, paid time off and educational opportunities. That is much better than the average worker receives. Also, while some therapists have a college degree and extensive training, others enter into this field with a mere 500 hours of schooling. This is a good return on investment.

Part of the problem comes in when people think about how they could charge between $50 to $60 per hour (even more in some cities). Worse, they fail to consider the cost of building and maintaining a business. That $30,000 salary starts looking better when you factor in rent, utilities, equipment, linens, supplies, front desk staff, marketing, taxes and insurance. Just the cost per session (e.g., linens and lubricants) is between $2 to $6. Even the bare bones minimum cost to operate a small practice is about $12,000. And that amount doesn't include taxes, staffing, health insurance, continuing education or other benefits. Finally, this number includes a barely existing marketing budget—which needs to be dramatically increased when building a practice.

As an independent practitioner if you want to work an equivalent of the 25 hours per week at a franchise spa, you really will only have time for 15 clients per week, as you will need at least 10 hours per week (and a lot more in the building phase) to manage and market your practice. Let's say you charge $50 per hour and work 50 weeks per year, seeing 15 clients per week. Your gross revenue would be $37,500. Then deduct the $12,000 for the base operating expenses and you are now making $25,500 per year. Realistically, your net profit will most likely be closer to $20,000—and you have to bear all of the risks.

Of course, you can change those numbers by working more hours, charging higher fees and selling products. Yet, many people don't have the desire or personality to run their own business. According to CG Funk, Vice President of Industry Relations and Product Development for Massage Envy Spa, working for a franchise spa may be a good option for practitioners who are new graduates, those that want to supplement their private practice income, those that don't want the responsibility of operating their own business or those who simply want to work part time.

Overall Success Strategies

Working in a spa requires conforming to a corporate image and structuring your treatments to align with the company's schedule, treatment protocol, policies and philosophy. Marketing is another area that is often a source of conflict. In a spa, you don't have to do marketing or schedule clients, but there's no guarantee your work hours are filled. Many practitioners discover to their dismay that to increase the client flow they need to market their services themselves (this is more so in a local day spa than a destination spa).

To be successful in these environments, a practitioner needs to understand employer expectations and understand the rationale behind the policies and procedures set by the employer. Certainly these measures are set up to protect the client and the company; very often they are set to protect the practitioner as well.

Good communication skills are vital in this environment. In addition to client interactions, practitioners need to communicate well with the front desk staff, management and co-workers.

The Work Environment

Creating an ethical working environment is, of course, the mutual responsibility of spa management and employees. Ideally, spa management acts diligently to protect and serve the rights of both employees and clients. On their side, spa employees ideally commit themselves to quality work at all times and in all circumstances and express loyalty to the organization by cooperating with policies and procedures and avoiding conflicts of interest. Difficulties arise not just with actual lapses in these ideals, they also arise when suspicion and distrust surface within the organization. Both management and employees, therefore, need to practice transparency, honesty and integrity in communications with one another.

On one hand, the relationship between spa management and employees boils down to a question of autonomy. In most spas, practitioners don't have a choice about how many clients to see in a day, which clients they'll work with or even what type of work is to be performed. Serving the customer is the spa's priority. Management expects employees to work to an assigned schedule, to expand their therapeutic repertoire by learning spa treatments outside their specialty and to conform to the corporate image. On the other hand, spa management may offer the employee numerous benefits such as compensation based on seniority, commissions on product sales, health insurance, paid vacations, paid sick days, pension plans, profit sharing and reimbursement for continuing education.

Perhaps the most serious ethical concerns in the spa environment surround issues of inappropriate touch and sexual misconduct. Management usually has a zero tolerance policy, meaning that if a client complains of sexual misconduct on the part of a practitioner, that practitioner is terminated without recourse. A similar policy might exist regarding practitioner complaints against clients who sexualize a session. Management needs to examine whether their policies disempower practitioners in these situations, while employees should know the limits of their legal rights.

The next sections highlight some of the ethical considerations shared by spa management and spa employees to create an atmosphere where cooperation and ethical behavior are encouraged and supported.

Ethical Guidelines for Spa Employees

  • Spa employees know the goals, mission and standards of the spa; understand what actions on their part support those standards; and express their loyalty to the business through such supportive action.
  • Employees insist on the correct classification of their relationship with the spa, whether that is independent contractor or employee, so they legally meet IRS requirements.
  • Employees clearly communicate with management concerning the treatments they're willing to do and the additional training they're willing to undertake.
  • Employees are willing to conform to the corporate image to represent business success and unity to clients.
  • Employees know the scope of practice parameters and contraindications to treatment and maintain professional standards at all times.
  • Employees maintain awareness of boundary issues and be diligent in avoiding dual relationships with management, peers and clients.
  • Employees are very familiar with HIPAA requirements and confidentiality measures taken by the spa management to ensure client confidentiality.
  • Employees know and utilize the established means of communications to inform management of any ethical concerns that arise and should be aware of their obligations, both legal and ethical, if management doesn't respond appropriately to their concerns.
  • If sales are expected, employees base their sales pitches on honest evaluations of products or services they feel support their modalities and client wellness.
  • Employees are willing to research and create ethical marketing techniques to increase the visibility of their modality within the spa setting.

Ethical Guidelines for Spa Management

  • Spa management is responsible for creating clear written codes of conduct and policy and procedure manuals and for ensuring that employees receive training that reviews these expectations.
  • Management formulates employee contracts that clearly spell out all aspects of financial agreements, methods of compensation and benefits.
  • Management ensures that front desk and other support staff are educated regarding the types of treatments offered, they understand the ethical principles behind scope of practice considerations and they're aware of basic contraindications to the treatments offered by the spa.
  • Management does its best to design and decorate the spa environment in a way that doesn't elicit a confusing or sexual ambience.
  • Management clarifies the types and means of communication that are appropriate among practitioners, as well as between practitioners and clients, and between practitioners and management.
  • Management invests not just in modality training for its employees, but in continued education in communication, interpersonal skills, HIPAA and confidentiality regulations, and avoidance of sexual misconduct and harassment charges.

In conclusion

Destination spas and day spas are here to stay. The growth rate continues to be strong for these companies. The question really isn't, “Are these companies good for the profession?” The question is, “Are these companies good for you?” Evaluate your goals, style and personality before you decide to work for a spa on a part-time or full-time basis. Then evaluate each specific company to see if you mesh well with their corporate culture. Find out if they follow the above guidelines. Keep in mind that even though a company might be part of a larger corporation, every manager or owner has their own style and may run that specific location differently than others.