Thinking ‘big’ in a small town: Exploring the benefits and obstacles of practising in a rural area
By Jules Torti
For shiny new graduates and massage veterans alike, where to work can be an ever-shifting decision. For a lucky few, the choice is immediate, fulfilling and lifelong. For others, a temporary bounce to bigger cities makes sense: jobs are flush and there are endless opportunities for side hustles within the industry.
Family, geography, finances, commuting, home ownership and market saturation are complex considerations in choosing where to establish as a massage therapist. The pros and cons of working in a smaller community versus an urban centre is a universal debate.
Maybe you want to specialize and dedicate your practice to a niche clientele like runners. Smaller populations may limit your pursuits or present unexpected opportunities. Regardless of where you unfold your career, your clients will choose you before you choose them.
Over the course of 17 years, I worked in small towns, smaller towns, British Columbia’s suburbs and downtown Toronto. I was employed at five-star hotels, boutique spas, a chair massage company, chiropractic office and multidisciplinary practice that shared space with a dental business. I worked from home, as a mobile therapist and in locum positions.
Once Upon a Time, In a Small Southwestern Ontario Town
In 1999, the day I received my official “pass” in the mail from the CMTO, the only massage therapist in Dunnville, ON fractured her wrist. My lucky break was at the expense of another MT’s unfortunate break (scaphoid) – but she was relieved to earn some income by hiring me to keep her clientele satisfied while she recovered. In true small world fashion, my friend who worked in accounting at the hospital was besties with the x-ray technician who casually told her about the massage therapist’s broken wrist. I received the hushed call from “Accounts Receivable” before the MT probably received her x-ray results!
In 1999, Dunnville’s population hovered around 5,000 and massage therapy was still associated with “ladies of the evening” (as I was once referenced in broad daylight) and a bit of quackery. Dr. Inch, the local chiropractor (also battling quackery), was a quick alliance and we built a natural relationship based on joint referrals. Dunnville was a one-stoplight town with three chicken wing joints, two pizza places, a dill pickle factory and a festival celebrating the catfish. And one massage therapist.
Taking over a seasoned therapist’s steady clientele was a greenhorn bonus – my first six months of navigating the massage industry were uncomplicated. In the end, the therapist didn’t return to the profession and opted out of her lease. She let me know in advance and I made quick work of finding my next landing spot. Again, thanks to small town connections, I learned that a local, reputable hair salon on the main street was eager to expand their services. A room in the stately heritage house was readily available for rent. I opened my own space, “The Upper Hand,” with barely a hiccup.
My treatment room was directly across from a tanning bed. In the humid waft of coconut lotion, above the constant din of chatter and humming hairdryers below, I put all my feelers out. Partnering with a hair salon enabled me to introduce massage therapy to the uninitiated and in turn, the hairstylists landed new clients, too. Tanning bed customers dreamily walked out of their sessions, bronzed and dewy, crossing paths with massage clients who were equally drowsy and well-oiled from their treatment. People chatted over coffee and whether it was pure curiosity from a wayward customer looking for the upstairs bathroom, or a woman who could hardly endure her highlights application due to sciatica, there was open dialogue and convenience between the two floors of the business.
Operating out of my rural home would have been convenient but a big ask for clients. I had two playful cats and nobody could find my house with success the first time. “I’m stuck on the mud road,” was a predictable refrain from friends and family who turned right too soon and came to a dead stop on the unmaintained road.
Lesson: geography is paramount. Short of having a billboard in a cattle field, if you can’t be seen, you won’t be found. The hair salon made sense for me. If you have the opportunity to piggyback with another like-minded business like a yoga studio or cafe, the shared space will build your businesses two-fold.
Be Visible and Put it in Writing
Being visible was a key element of early business development for me. I contacted the local newspaper and asked if I could write a bi-weekly column about common conditions like tennis elbow or bursitis. The platform provided learning opportunities for readers and encouraged visits from new clients unaware that massage could be helpful for jaw pain, shin split recovery or pregnancy. The column surreptitiously served as free advertising!
The foundation of a small town is familiarity. Businesses and customers are tightly knit and word-of-mouth referrals are trusted. Setting up a clinic in Dunnville also meant that my rent was a fraction of what a similar space in a bigger city would be. I didn’t have to pay for advertising as I was part of the salon’s team and their holiday marketing.
Continually pursue avenues that will reach new potential clientele. In a small town, being involved in annual local charity initiatives will demonstrate your commitment to the community at large. Donating gift certificates to fundraising events puts your name and business in bigger, unexpected circles.
Small Talk with Small Town Therapists
Andrea Zepf, MT, Holstein, ON
Andrea Zepf graduated in 2006 from the Canadian Therapeutic College in Burlington with diplomas in Massage Therapy and Sports Injury Therapy. She lives north of Mount Forest, Ontario and works in Holstein which has a population of just under 7,200. Zepf believes “the biggest advantage to having a clinic in a small town would be the sense of community that comes natural to everyone. Referrals come faster from friends and family.” On the flip side, Zepf noted, “the biggest disadvantage is the small population, so the number of possible clients is lower. She commented that in her area, “many residents have small businesses and self-made companies. They have no benefits for their family to cover the cost for massages.”
The takeaway: While ‘competition’ with other therapists can be slim (or nil) in small towns, competing as a non-essential expenditure in a family’s budget can be a bigger challenge. Attracting clientele without extended health coverage will require thoughtful promotion and education.
Glenda Barber, MT, Lion’s Head, ON
Glenda Barber has been practicing for over 20 years at Lion’s Head Massage Therapy. When asked about small-town perks she confessed, “having a clinic here suits my choices and desires for ideal living. It’s where I feel most alive and happy. So, it’s a choice of where I want to live and work comes second. That is my biggest advantage, which is not for everyone.” Barber is busy enough with the local year-round population of 600 residents. “It allows me to be booked out sufficiently so that I can easily meet the needs of local people and myself, but unfortunately, not easily book someone last minute.” Her established presence in Lion’s Head “also makes for a more stable, predictable schedule.”
The takeaway: If you’re considering a small-town practice, it’s essential to be honest with your lifestyle and habits. If you like to travel for extended periods, your clientele might not be so thrilled with the gaps in your availability – especially if you’re the only massage therapist in town.
If you choose to go small, just remember, you can still think big!
Jules Torti is the editor-in-chief of Harrowsmith magazine and author of Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement. In fall 2021, her second memoir, Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago, will be published by Rocky Mountain Books.