Massage Franchises: The Inside Story

A few years ago, Massage Therapy Journal published an article, "Get Ready For Massage Envy!" The article, based on interviews with the founders of the franchise, painted a glowing picture of a business where happy massage therapists had 401K plans, were paid for empty appointments during their shift, and were well compensated for their work. I couldn't help but feel, though, that there was a slightly ominous warning in the title. How could a franchise offer all this to the therapist and only charge $39 for an hour massage?

Not long afterwards, the first six massage franchises opened in the St. Louis area, with four more soon to follow, each with ten or twelve massage rooms. I was curious about what it was like to work in such a place and eventually had the opportunity to find out from an experienced therapist who took a job in a franchise for about a year.

First, let's get one thing clear: for $39 you get a fifty minute massage, not a one hour massage. Still, it sounds like a good deal, right? But is it really as good a deal as it appears?

Clients who get massages in salons, spas, and massage franchises are expected to tip and the customary tip in such a situation is usually $10. So, that brings the price of a 50 minute massage up to $49, essentially a dollar a minute. It's still less than what most independent massage therapists in my neck of the woods charge, around $70 for a full sixty minute massage. However, it's not that much less and the $39 introductory price is for one time only. After that, the price jumps to $69 for a 50 minute massage. At that point, you are actually paying more than you'd pay an independent therapist.

The franchise will try to convince you to become a "member" for $59/month. This membership entitles you to one massage per month. As a member, you'll also get the $59 rate for any other massages you book. You will be charged whether you get a massage that month or not. At $59 for a 50 minute massage, you are actually paying more, per minute, than you would be paying an independent therapist at $70 for a full 60 minute massage, and that's before you add the tip. If you don't get a massage, you will still be charged $59. You can defer the unused massage so that if you don't get a massage one month, you can use it the next month and have two that month. However, many members end up dropping their memberships when they find they are not using their massages, so they end up paying for massages they never get. It ends up not being nearly as good a deal as it first appears.

Meanwhile, let's look at the therapists. Solicitations I've received from a popular franchise promise competitive compensation, 401K plans, and compensation for unfilled appointments. However, in talking both with a representative for the franchise who called me, looking to hire a therapist, and the observations of my friend, the picture is not so rosy. Therapists earn $15 per massage, less than half of what the business charges their customers. After deducting taxes, the therapist gets closer to $10. Although many patrons tip, many do not. As for 401k plans, few therapists stay long enough to qualify. After six months, my friend was the only therapist in her location who had been there over three months.

The overwhelming majority of therapists staffing massage franchises have just recently graduated from massage school and are willing to work for minimal compensation in order to get some experience. Even so, few of them stay more than three months. While they are theoretically paid $8.50 for unfilled appointments in their schedule, in reality they rarely receive it since any appointments that are booked that week are charged against their idle time. The therapist is still required to be present during their shift and is not allowed to leave, whether they have appointments or not. Even young, inexperienced therapists soon decide they are getting a bad deal and look elsewhere for employment.

How does compensation at the massage franchise compare to working at other places of employment? Hair salons and chiropractors' offices typically pay the massage therapist 70% of what the client is charged. Spas typically give the therapist 50% but since they often charge more, the therapist is kept busy, and the clients tip, the therapist is still compensated fairly for their work. One local day spa charges between $73 - $98 for an hour massage, depending on the type of massage and the level of experience and skill of the therapist. The therapist earns a minimum of $36 for their work. At $15 per massage, the franchise is giving the therapist less than 40% of what the client pays and less than half of what the therapist would be paid elsewhere. At the full price of $69, the therapist is given barely over 20% of what the client pays the franchise owner.

Being a massage therapist is rewarding work but also physically demanding work. There is a limit to the number of massages most therapists can do in a week. Dropout rate in the profession is high and one of the significant factors is the physical demands it places on the therapist, especially those who are doing deep tissue work. It is no wonder that even young, inexperienced therapists quickly leave the franchises when they are compensated so poorly for physically demanding work.

I've had a few clients who have had a massage or two at one of the franchises. A client who is accustomed to massage from an experienced therapist can tell immediately when their therapist is inexperienced. They adjust their expectations accordingly. Still, one told me of an incident that left her shaking her head. Her massage therapist was doing a fair enough job but when she got to the client's feet, the client could tell she was massaging with only one hand, which was not the norm. When this continued, the client, who was face down, lifted her head to see what was going on. The young therapist was massaging her foot with one hand and text messaging with the other. After what I know about working in a massage franchise, I'm not surprised that the therapist lacked attention and dedication to her work.

I suppose there are some advantages to the massage franchises. If you are someone who waits until the last minute to book an appointment, there is probably someone at the franchise sitting around who can take you immediately. They will probably be someone inexperienced, disgruntled, who is just filling in time until they can get a better job elsewhere. You might as well plan ahead a little and patronize an independent therapist who is experienced and dedicated to her work and her clients. You'll get a better massage and you'll feel better knowing your therapist is being compensated fairly.