In a recent article on www.futureLMT.com, I talked about what I should have paid attention to in massage school but didn't (read "5 Things I Wish I Would Have Paid Attention to in Massage School"). I asked approximately 20 massage therapists for their input and came up with a list of the five most-often talked about.
But in those discussions, I also got a lot of ideas about what massage school should have emphasized more. Interestingly, most of these are about the business of massage; for example, spa ethics and interpersonal relationships. I'll expand on this in another article.
Here's what seemed to be on most people's minds.
1. The truth about wages.
This was the number-one issue for every massage therapist I talked with. I think massage schools sometimes exaggerate how much money a massage therapist can really make.
Here's an idea about what several massage therapists were told:
- "You'll make at least $60 per massage."
- "Clients will be knocking at your door."
- "Be sure to know other massage therapists, so you can refer your overflow to them."
- "Most spas pay their massage therapists 40 to 50 percent of the treatment price."
Here's the reality.
I know of only two massage therapists who work only for themselves. Both of these have a spouse who also supports them. Those who work for themselves also work for someone else---a spa, a clinic, a chiropractor's office--and have their own personal clients who come to their office. This is true for both newly licensed massage therapists and those who have been in the profession for years.
Most clinics and spas offer a flat rate per service. This usually is 25 to 35 percent of the price of a one-hour massage, and ranges from $15 to $35 per massage. They usually do provide sheets, oils, clients, etc., but you only get paid for the number of clients you see. And there's often a catch: Your pay rate stays the same even if the service you provide costs the client more. For example, one spa charges $70 per one-hour massage, and the therapist gets $25 of this. But if the client has a one-hour hot-stone massage, she pays $85 and the therapist still gets only $25.
If you do have your own office, $60 may be the going rate for a one-hour massage. But take out the cost of advertising, rent, laundry, supplies, etc., and you'll only be making $15 a massage. And this doesn't include any promotions you have for free or discounted services.
Also, the average "preferred" number of massages per week is between 15 to 20, with the maximum of four per day. If you're working for someone else, say the spa that pays $25 per massage, that's $375 per week. That's about $9.40 an hour for a regular 40-hour week job. I made twice this much as a retail manager, and had great benefits on top of this.
Yes, being a massage therapist isn't about the money. But it's a big part of it.
2. Marketing: Getting and keeping clients
My school spent a lot of time on the business of massage. Unfortunately, most of the focus was on working for spas, clinics and other places where they do the marketing for you. This was great; it included resume writing, interviewing and other items that every massage therapist should know before they start their career.
What we didn't get was a lot of information about starting our own business.
Most massage therapists that I know have worked for at least one established company while they were building their own client base. There are several massage therapists I know who I think of as "journeymen"---they book with whoever calls them first: a spa, a personal client or a B&B.
I don't know any massage therapists who say they have too many personal clients. In fact, this topic seems to be a big concern for many massage therapists, including those who have been practicing for several years.
3. Lotions, creams and oils
Maybe it was a personal bias, but my massage school only used oils for practice sessions. We did have one teacher who mentioned she used a lotion because she could "load" her arm with product and use it when she needed it, but this was all.
Because I've had the opportunity to work at several spas and clinics, I've been exposed to a lot of different massage creams, lotions and oils and I've got to play around with them, finding out that I like using a gel for hairy clients, but prefer using a cream overall.
This may not sound like a big deal. But getting massage oil out of clothes and sheets can be an ongoing battle. Now that I've found products which I'm comfortable with, I feel I'm a better massage therapist, able to focus more on my clients than wondering why this product isn't working how I want it to. And I get a lot of repeat clients because they don't feel greasy when they leave. What surprises me is that several massage-supply companies I talked with offer sample packs for just a few bucks, a simple way to try out both different brands and different formulas. As a student, I would have gladly paid an extra fee to be able to experience how each product works.
4. Negotiating prices
How much should you charge for your services, even if you're just out of school? Yes, they're a relative, but do they get a discount? Should you work for a day spa for $30 a massage with no guarantee of income, or for $15 an hour and any tips you get? Do you offer referral programs, package deals or other discount plans?
While estimating startup and maintenance costs was taught to many massage therapists I met with, little was discussed on how to negotiate for services. Do you offer to trade a massage for having your office painted? How about getting bulk discounts from your local printer?
Also never talked about was when and how to ask for a raise. This includes raising your fees or convincing your supervisor at work that you deserve more money.
5. When to cut the strings and start your own business
Again, several massage therapists I talked with thought they'd be able to start their own business right out of school. Most learned quickly that getting some experience and building up your clientele is an important part of creating your business. The process tended to be gradual, with massage therapists often setting up their office in their home. One massage therapist I talked with suggested writing a business plan, which included opening an office (my massage school spent about five classroom hours talking about this). After five years, he was able to rent a space and now has an established client base. However, he is still on a call list for all the spas and resorts he worked for in the past. This alone is about 30 percent of his business.
Those are the five top suggestions for things we wish we would have learned more about in massage school. Be sure to check out my next column on Spa Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships.