The fuss about membership-based massage
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.
By Don Dillon
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
Can’t a RMT earn more working for her/himself?
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
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
Why does this “poor wage” perception persist?
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
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?
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?
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.
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