The fuss about membership-based massage

Don Dillon
June 24, 2014
By Don Dillon
Nothing seems to evoke more fear, disgust or dismissal for massage therapists in social media these days than the discussion of membership-based massage businesses. However, with the growth and popularity of these businesses, RMTs would be wise to take a good look and consider how their own way of practice will be influenced by this emerging delivery of service model.
A membership-based massage business (MBMB) offers clients or patients a preferred rate on services when clients become a member. Many of these models are franchise-based, and investors (not typically practitioners themselves) who see opportunity in the market buy into the concept and purchase the brand, operating and promotional systems, equipment and all things necessary to launch the turn-key operation. They employ practitioners, who then represent and provide care on behalf of the business.

MBMBs are attractive to prospective clients/patients looking for quality massage therapy services in a secure environment and at approachable prices.

Many workers have experienced reductions in their employee benefit plans and discretionary income caused by the economic downturn emerging in the early 2000. These clients/patients need to stretch their self-care dollars, and with MBMBs they are rewarded for their loyalty when they enroll as a member and get preferred pricing on services.

What follows are some frequently asked questions by practitioners pertaining to MBMB, and my attempt to provide some insights based on my industry experience and observations.

How can the MBMB offer lower pricing?

Client acquisition and retention costs are lowered for the business, so MBMBs can pass on those savings in the form of lower service fees.

Why would a practitioner consider working for a membership-based massage business?

For the practitioner, MBMBs address a chronic issue in the RMT profession: most practitioners don’t have the resources or know-how to run a business. MBMBs provide the capital and contacts to launch a business, promotional and operational competence to manage a business, and the commitment by management to do whatever it takes in the early days of business start-up. Chronically, practitioners fail in their practices and leave the profession, or suffer for years attempting to build a practice because most don’t possess capital, contacts, business competency and entrepreneurial commitment.

What do membership-based massage businesses offer?

Membership-based massage businesses provide extensive marketing campaigns to help you grow your practice, all necessary equipment, supplies and an attractive workspace, extra training in modalities, flexible schedules, computerized appointment and record-keeping systems, and incentives. Some MBMBs provide electric tables to prevent back strain, and may offer comprehensive health and dental plans. Taxes are deducted at source (no more tax-shock at your tax bill every April). Many MBMBs offer an opportunity to interact with other practitioners, learn and feel supported professionally. Some offer financial bonuses toward the cost of professional development or off-setting their regulatory body fees.

Is it true practitioners are paid poorly?

Practitioners who state they are paid poorly when working at MBMBs most likely haven’t done the math and confuse service fee with actual take-home pay. If you work in a MBMB providing 20 hours direct care/week over 50 weeks, that equates to about $26,000/year take-home pay. Further, you can earn tips and incentives inherent in the spa sector, increasing your income by another 10 to 15 per cent.

Compare MBMB practitioner earnings to contractor or self-employed RMTs. The Registered Massage Therapists’ Association of Ontario (RMTAO) 2009 income survey cites average gross income (before operating expenses) from direct care at $38,500, with their 2013 survey reporting about the same. Considering that 40 to 50 per cent operating expenses are coming off the top, that puts take-home pay at $19,000 to $23,000/year for a contracting or self-employed RMT. There is no incentive structure for the self-employed practitioner nor any of the other tangible benefits I mentioned above.

Can a practitioner maintain standards and a code of ethics working in this model?

The delivery of service model is highly sophisticated compared to private practice, but it doesn’t preclude a practitioner from complying with their standards of practice or code of ethics. Every massage therapist, regardless of what sector (spa, rehab, workplace wellness) they work in or who owns and manages the business, are required to uphold their professionalism.

Can’t a RMT earn more working for her/himself?

Of course an RMT can earn more working for herself/himself, but will she/he? Think of it this way: when you are employed, you are paying someone to broker the promotional campaigns, the space, equipment, operations systems and signage, and established reputation and location for you. “I can make more money working for myself” only has a chance if an RMT can front the capital, cultivate the contacts, practice business competency and stay committed (four Cs) to put in long hours developing a practice. The primary reasons cited in business reports that businesses fail are lack of business competency and insufficient capital to see a business through the start-up stage. For most practitioners MBMBs offer less risk and more opportunity to cultivate a practice than private practice/self-employment.

For some baffling reason, RMTs appear to emerge from their training programs determined to work for themselves, yet many don’t possess the four Cs I mentioned above. These RMTs end up renting space in a rehab centre, chiropractor office or spa, awaiting the primary business to funnel them clients or patients. When a RMT rents space and expects all referrals and business operation and promotion to come from the landlord, this is not self-employment; this is a co-dependent dysfunctional relationship. The RMT eventually leaves because their practice goes nowhere. We see a lot of transience in the profession because the RMT was not properly schooled in business practice, or tested vocationally to determine whether they have entrepreneurial potential or are more suited employed in a properly functioning business.

Why does this “poor wage” perception persist?

Practitioners seem to not understand the extensive costs of running a business. Further, they blame the business for charging rent that’s too high, when the real problem is the practitioner’s service delivery model. Most practitioners, according to U.S. and Canada studies, are limited to a work capacity of 14 to 19 hours/week. That means RMTs are hoping to make full time wages working part-time hours. Practitioners must either work with a select market that can bear higher pricing, or utilize tools, technology and team members to provide more service with less strain on the practitioner.

Practitioners have more agency over their earnings than they realize. By using tools, technology and team members (provided in many of the MBMBs) a practitioner can deliver more services with less strain. MBMBs typically offer incentives and bonuses for high retention/practitioner-requests, and in the spa sector clients may tip for excellent service.  MBMBs typically provide training in modalities that help extend the life and work capacity of a practitioner’s career.

What are some of the membership-based massage businesses?

MBMBs began in the U.S., and there are dozens of models now. In Canada, Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa, Massage Addict, Massage Experts, Massage Heights and LifeMark Physiotherapy are all membership-based massage businesses that offer franchise opportunities to investors. In the U.S., there are hundreds of locations and thousands of practitioners employed. Watch this emerging trend for Canada.

Are membership-based models only in the spa sector?

No. LifeMark Physiotherapy (a division of the enormous Centric Health) offers membership rates for massage therapy in the rehab sector. PhysioMed is another franchise model that offers massage therapy services. GoodLife Fitness, although not offering membership rates, offers a low rate for first time service recipients of massage therapy, similar to the membership-based models. I expect the membership-based massage business model to permeate into workplace wellness/on-site massage, mobile massage and the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) sectors that massage therapists routinely work in.

Don Dillon, RMT is a practitioner, author and speaker on topics of massage therapy practice.  Don has consulted to the massage therapy regulatory body in Ontario, RMT professional associations across Canada, and one of the membership-based massage businesses. Reach him at


+1 #7 ann 2016-12-21 10:45
I have worked for both HS and Massage Addict. And the pay does suck for the amount of effort we do. body work is tiring and the cmto states what a fair and equitable rate is for our profession. So its 90$. its such hard work and the burn out rate is high. the fair and equitable pay is 60/40 split according to ethical standards. the person that comes up with the business model of making massage affordable yet pay well is going to outshine all others. Good news tho!! MAssage matters and body blitz used to pay really crap and elmwood too, and many have changed their fees due to rmts speaking up. we have the power as rmts to change things. One clinic at HS pays 40$ for a 50min treatment. this is good.
+1 #6 Barry 2016-05-28 18:48
The commenters seem threatened by this article. Are they so thin skinned and defensive because they see charging $90 to an elite few who can afford this high price as acceptable. I need RMT therapy, but I can't afford it. Construction workers do heavy Labour and don't make get $90/hour. You are effete snobs. I hope you can come down off your high horses someday.
+2 #5 N. Meyer 2016-05-23 15:59
"Practitioners seem to not understand the extensive costs of running a business" WRONG! The author does not understand the short career lifespan and physical cost that therapists have to deal with. Therefore, practitioners have to maximize their income, while they are physically able to do so. My approach has always been to charge a fair rate for an outstanding massage session, which might even go a few minutes overtime. Mbmbs models do not allow for that, nor for proper compensation to the therapists. A best "add-on selling" therapist board is kept up to date and complimented with rah rah sessions akin to political rallies. Clients however are frustrated with inconsistent service, being up-sold and finally pestered for gratuities post treatment. No bargain here. There is a deep enough pool of new graduates for the mbmbs to stay in business. Competent therapists are better off building a clientele for themselves instead for an ownership that doesn't know their names nor care to.
+1 #4 jason 2016-05-03 14:14
Haha this article is great for a laugh... places like massage addict try to steal the business of real rmt's and the real truth is that mbmb pays maggase therapists.abou t 15 dollars an hour after deductions and fees.
+3 #3 Christina 2016-03-30 22:37
After working at a MBMB and also a non MBMB, I can assure anyone without a deeper knowledge of the politics of this profession that this article is 100% BS! The reality is they do pay poorly, sorry author. If a new therapist does happen to sign on to one of the places, approximately 1 out of 10 will be there over 6 months. High turnover rates and trouble finding therapists in the first place creates the fundamental death trap to any clinic, frustrated clients who commit under the impression that the therapist they like to see will be there throughout the contract term. For a profession that only has an average life span of 10-15 years, paying them half (in some cases less) of an already discounted rate isn't ethical. Especially because they ONLY get paid for treatments performed and taxes, license fees, liability insurance etc. comes out of their own pockets. Oh and actually according to Canadian MT standards, Massage Therapists are NOT encouraged to accept tips. Just Saying.
+6 #2 XIA 2016-01-25 18:42
These MBMB are like factories - get them in and off the production line as soon as possible. If they were so great, why is the turnover level so high and the really good, sensible, treatment-based therapists the ones leaving?
These places underpay and undervalue RMTs. The owners are business people and the focus is not on treatment but the bottom line profit. I've worked at Hands & Stone, Lifemark and Goodlife. $27 an hour and a maybe $5 tip is a waste of precious time!!
+7 #1 Robin 2015-12-10 21:01
So now rmts are reduced to service workers begging fir tips snd trying to upsell treatments. This article is poorly written and reads more like paid advertisement. These membership clinics are more like spas in the way the rmts working there are too behave. There is no such thing as a garunteed wage as many of them advertise. Lets mot forget, that you still have to oay your own income tax on all the earnings plus tips, which are also taxed. The whole concept is a mere wolf in sheeps clothing, and the eolf is using cheap holly oil.

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