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September/October 2014 Issue

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Franchises: Myth vs. Reality

By Rebecca Jones
[Ten for Today]

Myth 1: Franchises destroy the livelihoods of self-employed MTs
On the face of it, the figures don’t look good. How can an independent therapist charging $90 an hour stay in business when there’s a massage franchise down the road that charges $50 an hour?
If cost were the only thing determining who gets business, this would be a valid concern. But clients’ actual decisions show cost is just one factor—and not always the most important one. Day spas, franchises, medical offices, private practices, resort spas, and sports clubs each offer a different experience. And clients have their own individual criteria for selecting one therapist over another. In ABMP’s 2013 National Consumer Survey, more than a quarter of massage clients went to an independent therapist’s office for their most recent massage, and another quarter went to a day spa. Franchises were in third place.
“With the increased public demand for massage therapy services, there is plenty of room for all types of businesses to be successful,” says CG Funk, vice president of industry relations for Massage Envy, the nation’s largest massage therapy franchise. “Franchises are also contributing to our industry by creating more exposure of the work to a wider demographic population, which grows the industry for all of us.”

Myth 2: Therapists working at a franchise earn much less than independent therapists
It’s true that an independent massage therapist, or someone who works at a high-end spa or medical office, usually charges far more than a franchise for each massage. But independent therapists have business expenses that franchise employees don’t bear. A 2011 Massage Envy survey found that the average therapist in private practice nets about $24 an hour, counting tips—slightly less than the $27-an-hour average for franchise employees.
Calculated annually, the differences can be even greater. “You could probably earn more per massage at a resort, but resorts aren’t always busy,” says Mary DiCioccio, lead therapist at a Massage Envy spa in Tucson. “You might earn a bit more during winter, but during summer, the resorts here are really slow. We’ve had many therapists who worked for resorts come to work for us because we’re so busy all the time.”

Myth 3: Franchises wear out their therapists
Any business that works its employees to death won’t stay viable for long. Wearing out therapists by forcing them to work too many hours or give too many massages in a shift leads to costly turnover, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep workloads steady but humane.
“It is our corporate policy to require a break after three consecutive massages,” says Ryan Stracci, spa manager of the Langhorne, Pennsylvania Hand and Stone Massage and Facial Spa, a national chain. “When we interview people, we establish their boundaries immediately. I don’t expect my staff to do anything I wouldn’t want to do.”
Stracci acknowledges that some franchise owners push therapists to do more. “I once worked for a franchise owner who expected me to do six to eight massages in a row, and I had to tell him I just couldn’t do that, but that can happen anywhere,” he says. “I feel like it is becoming more corporate policy now to establish those boundaries.”
At Spavia, a small Colorado franchise that’s preparing to expand nationally, most massage therapists average four to five clients per day. “I’ve never heard anyone say I’ll do eight massages in one day and feel good about it,” says Spavia President Allison Langenderfer. “You want that first service and that last service of the day to be the same.”

Myth 4: Franchises don’t offer good benefits
The more franchises that open, the more competition there is for good therapists. One way franchises attract and keep staff is to offer benefits that are difficult to obtain in private practice.
“There’s a lot of motivation for owners to create better all-around working environments for their staff,” Funk says. “This doesn’t just include health benefits; it also means vacation time, personal days, and sick days.” DiCioccio notes that at her spa, staff members also get discounts on services and products.
Michael Brueckmann, a therapist for the past five years at MassageLuXe in Kirkwood, Missouri, is looking forward to the day he’ll own his own franchise. For every year he works, the chain puts $5,000 into a fund to help underwrite the cost of a franchise. “So after eight years, you have $40,000 in accrued earnings toward buying a franchise,” Brueckmann says.
Langenderfer says opportunities at her small chain are open, and she likes to promote from within. “As we grow, we’re defining roles,” she said. “I have one esthetician who has become our corporate trainer, training the lead esthetician at the new sites. We’ll do the same thing on the massage side. We’ll do it for someone who handles a lot of our software, someone who does our marketing. As we grow, we’ll define new roles as needed. We’re small, but I think we’ll grow rapidly.”

Myth 5: Franchise employees have to do extra work such as cleaning the building
This assignment depends on the franchise owner, but in general, yes, expect to do some light laundry and supply sorting between clients. Janitorial work? Not so much.
“We ask our therapists to maintain their rooms, but nothing that wouldn’t be normal at any place you would work,” Stracci says. “You obviously need to have supplies ready to go for the next client. But our laundry service handles 95 percent of our laundry, and we have a professional cleaner who comes weekly.”

Myth 6: Franchise employees are limited to simple, company-approved, cookie-cutter massages  
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Funk insists. “Franchise owners are very interested in maintaining therapists’ individuality in regard to treatment, just from the vantage point of being able to address a wider demographic of therapeutic needs.”
“Everybody’s massage is different,” says DiCioccio, who does all the hiring and training at her Massage Envy spa. “And we encourage that. We customize the massage to the client’s needs. We don’t just offer Swedish or deep-tissue or trigger point. We always combine styles according to what the client needs—that’s why we have so many clients!”

Myth 7: Tips are smaller at a franchise
Truth is, there will always be clients who leave a miserly tip, no matter where they get a massage.
But, Stracci points out, when clients join as members at a franchise, they get educated about what an appropriate tip is. “We give examples of appropriate tipping,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to do the math after they come off the table, so to simplify, we make suggestions for them. But they leave what they’re comfortable with.”

Myth 8: Franchises attract a lower quality of client
Only if by “lower quality” you mean “more like the rest of us.”
“High-end spa prices are insanely expensive,” Stracci says. “The people who walk through the door at those places are high-end because middle- and lower-income folks can’t afford that. The stereotype is that a lower-income person might not tip as well, or might not look as nice. Some people think at a franchise you get a clientele you won’t want to work on. But I love our clientele. All different types of people come to our spa.”
Amanda Murphy, lead therapist at Elements Massage in Belmont, Massachusetts, says the broader range of humanity she sees at her franchise location is a plus, not a minus. “I’ve seen geriatric clients, youthful clients … I’ve seen it all,” she says. “This is a great way for new therapists to get their feet wet, to figure out what direction they want to go with their career.”

Myth 9: Franchises are mostly training grounds for novice massage therapists
Working at a franchise is a good first job for therapists who want to master the basics of their craft before tackling the nonclinical side of things, like running a business and marketing themselves. It’s also a good way to build clientele.
But most locations have a mix of newer and seasoned therapists. A survey of Massage Envy therapists, for instance, showed that the chain’s average therapist had more than two years of experience in the industry, Funk says.

Myth 10: The public believes franchises offer lower-quality service
Maybe this was true at one time. “But we’ve changed the mind-set of thousands of clients,” Stracci says.
Massage Envy has inspired 1.5 million customers to join. Their therapists give 50,000 treatments every day. “And people who use our services say they’re happy with them,” Funk says. “If we ever hear complaints, it’s usually because of something that happened at the front desk. We almost never hear complaints about what happens in back.”

Rebecca Jones is a tenured Massage & Bodywork freelance writer. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado. Contact her at killarneyrose@comcast.net.

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