Surviving These Economic Times

By Phyllis Hanlon
[Business Side]

While escalating costs can send the most sensible businessperson into a tailspin, financial experts offer some practical tips to maneuver this fiscal maze. Stan Lewczyk, CEO of an advisory board at SCORE—the federal program that offers free advice to small businesses and entrepreneurs—indicates that small businesses, like those run by massage therapists, often have fewer resources to tide them over during tough economic times.

He recommends focusing on two basic principles: do everything you can to maximize your revenue and do everything you can to minimize expenses. “Review programs that worked in the past,” Lewczyk says. “What will draw customers in? Don’t be daring and try expensive new programs. That can cause big problems.”

Collaboration with other professionals in similar businesses can ease your expenses and might result in increased income, Lewczyk adds. He recommends brainstorming sessions with friends and associates. “Come up with new ideas to drive business,” he says. Concentrate on a specific geographic area and enter joint advertising agreements to maximize your dollar.

Nonprofit organizations, like SCORE, can help write a business plan and draw attention to other details related to running a business. This all-volunteer organization with 389 chapters across the United States draws on the expertise of its members who are retired business individuals with a variety of strengths. SCORE ( serves businesses of all types and sizes and is affiliated with the United States Small Business Administration. 

Alan Klayman, CEO and founder of the program, echoes Lewcyzk’s recommendations and says small businesses should create an annual budget to avoid any surprises. He also suggests getting on a billing cycle with utility companies and putting away the plastic. When you must use a credit card, pay on time and pay the entire balance, if possible, to avoid fees and interest charges, he says.

For mobile massage therapists, he recommends combining appointments with necessary shopping trips. “Schedule one day a week on the road and keep a set schedule. Instead of going from one side of the city to the other, make all appointments in the same geographic region,” he says. “Do your shopping on these trips. A separate trip will cost more in gas.”

When it comes to office equipment, Klayman urges massage therapists to take inventory and prioritize. “Instead of having a separate fax line, look into e-fax,” he says. Virtual voice mail and auto attendants can free you up but still keep you in touch with clients and is cheaper than paying for a separate business line.

relationship building

Massage businesses with multiple locations typically have larger budgets than solo practitioners, but escalating costs and fewer clients can still impact the bottom line. Bruce Schoenberg, owner of three Oasis Day Spa locations in New York City, says that larger businesses, like spas, must be vigilant when it comes to the economic pulse of the country. “You have to figure out how to survive, understand the heartbeat of the economy … and deal somewhat from your strengths,” he says.

Regardless of size, Schoenberg promotes relationship-building as a top priority when it comes to business survival. “Work on relationships with everyone you do business with,” he says. “I want vendors to know me. I’m not a tax ID number. I want vendors to be on the sidelines cheering me on.”

By having a solid relationship in place before trouble brews, you are more likely to escape relatively unscathed, Schoenberg asserts. When income trickles in and bills pile up, try to make a deal, he suggests. “Be honest with people you’re in business with. Tell them you need a different structure. The landlord doesn’t want to lose you if you’ve been a good tenant. Offer what you can, negotiate,” he says. “Landlords, vendors, suppliers have a vested interest in your business not going Chapter 7 [bankruptcy].”

Becca Fink, cofounder of Palaquin Massage, a corporate chair massage business in Portland, Oregon, wrote a business plan before graduating from school and initially focused on chair massage. She expanded to table massage and added products to boost her bottom line. But from the beginning, she has kept overhead to a minimum, only growing when the client base has increased. “In less than six months, we rented an office to do table massage,” she says. Her business now employs six other massage therapists and its location in a medical center gives her instant access to chiropractors, dental assistants, doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals. “I’ve learned along the way and asked questions,” she says.

Erin Humphreys, president and owner of Passport Travel, notes that her massage business at Indianapolis International Airport is “somewhat protected from recession, considering clients are business travelers and typically have disposable incomes.” However, she has noticed signs of belt-tightening.

To combat the drop in business, Humphreys has reevaluated exactly what her business can offer travelers and is “closely watching the bottom line, including labor, cutting out shifts based on demand for services, etc.” She also takes note of the busiest arrival and departure times to maximize opportunities.

While some travelers still take advantage of the 20- to 30-minute chair massage, many keep their spare cash to spend at their destination. “While doing massage, we’ll offer a longer treatment,” she says. “If they’re in the chair, it’s easier to sell a longer session. We’ll offer a manicure or pedicure.” Passport also offers products and other options for self-care to boost income.

East Versus West

It’s no secret that the economy varies in different areas of the country. Mark Richards opened his private practice, Natural Healing by Mark, in October 2000, in Fort Lauderdale, in a region that has suffered from the slumping economy. “Many tourists have not returned in the last couple of years to South Florida. Additionally, the housing market here is going through a rough transition. Many of my clients were realtors in the area,” he says. “Unfortunately, they are not able to afford massages like they used to. Add to that the cost of living increases and people are cutting out what they feel are luxuries such as massage.”

Richards believes that diversity is the key to operating a successful business. “Spreading your clients among different economic and business backgrounds is the best,” he says. “Also, try to align with either a chiropractor, a doctor’s office, or an organization like Medicaid to insure a regular income during tougher economic times when your more casual client may have difficulty receiving massages on a regular basis.” Above all, he encourages therapists to learn new modalities and take business courses to enhance entrepreneurial skills.

At The Bodywork Center in Hingham, Massachusetts, business in April dropped approximately 30 percent, according to owner Yael Friedmann. Although this reflects an annual trend, she has found ways to cut expenses year-round. She carefully considers her advertising venues before investing. “If I’ll only get a 1–2 percent return, I won’t do it. I want to send out a specific message reaching into my client base,” she says.

Credit card processing can eat into a budget, so Friedmann purchased her terminal and cut rental fees by $175 a month. She also canceled her Yellow Pages ad, saving another $125 per month.

Although some therapists might balk at the idea of “going retail,” Friedmann has found the approach relatively successful. She carries the same line of products as Canyon Ranch, Four Seasons, and other high-end spas and added body treatments to her portfolio of services recently, which have drawn in more clients.

To increase her business’ visibility, Friedmann has formed partnerships with other local businesses and takes part regularly in bike challenges, health fairs, road races, and walks.

On the opposite side of the country, Jessica Gumkowski of Boulder, Colorado, enjoys a schedule so busy she is unable to accept new clients. Athletes abound in this holistic mecca and place a high priority on self-care. She says, “They need a consistent schedule of massage to continue to be at the top of their performance.”

Gumkowski immerses herself into her audience. “If you want to work with athletes, become an athlete,” she says. Her participation in triathlons has made a huge difference in her understanding of what her clients need when they are on the table and has resulted in repeat business.

Relationship Building Via Technology

Gumkowski heralds the Internet as one of her most valuable resources for getting new business and keeping existing clients. “My biggest tool is my monthly newsletter,” she says. This electronic missive provides updates on coupons, educational articles, package deals, promotions, and services. She includes health information that relates to everyday life and writes a blog about her other passion: participating in triathlons. “This lets my clients know that my life is not just soft music and low lights. I try to give them a glimpse that I’m a person. This helps to cultivate relationships with clients,” she says, although she is careful to maintain boundaries.

Christine Vander Bloomen, owner of Great Lakes Relaxation Center in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, agrees that technology has enhanced her business significantly. She notes that an eye-catching website is absolutely critical to her success. “This is a no-brainer. It’s one of my best marketing tools. It is a preview of what new clients can expect from my practice, so I take care of it and update it on a regular basis,” she says.

Vander Bloomen feels the same about her computer in general. “It makes my charting paperless. I book appointments on it. I design my pricing brochure on it. I check in with other practitioners around the country,” she says.

According to Julie Onofrio of Seattle, using the Internet as a promotional tool yields innumerable benefits. Her two websites, which she created four years ago, hold the key to her success. One site explores the theory and practice of massage and bodywork. “It’s everything I learned through the years as a massage therapist,” she says. The other site provides an outlet for her writing as well as information on making the decision to become a massage therapist and how to choose a school.

In addition to her massage practice, her technological efforts help stave off financial woes. “You can do it on your own time and build extra income from doing simple things,” she says. “Through my website, I sell books through Amazon. It provides a second source of income and is a regular resource for clients.” She notes that in two decades she has not cut expenses, but looks to ways she can grow her bank account.

Back to Basics

Other massage therapists use old-fashioned networking and pavement pounding to keep the cash flowing. Climbing gas prices in Baltimore, Maryland, have cut into Sharon Long’s business. Long, director/owner of Senior Touch, says many of her clients live on fixed incomes and massage falls low on the priority list.

Long proactively seeks speaking engagements that promote massage and her business. She consults hospitals and asks to be placed on their ancillary lists. “Offer to give talks and join the speakers’ bureaus at hospitals and corporations,” she says.

Long contacts support groups for every imaginable illness and condition, from arthritis and cancer groups to menopause and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She also aligns herself with adoption agencies, dieticians, nurses, mental health counselors, personal trainers, and physical therapists, all of whom provide many referrals. “Get yourself out there and make your presence known. Wherever you have big exposure, even if you don’t get clients, you’re promoting the field of massage, particularly the clinical aspect.”

Information about Long’s business appears on bulletin boards at baby specialty shops, health food and sports equipment stores, and in local medical centers. “You can’t just try one thing to promote yourself,” she says. “You have to try many.”

A strong believer in the power of exposure, Fink participates in many events from radiothons to street fairs. In addition to getting your name in the public eye, she says contributing to or sponsoring various events shows the community your altruistic side. Raising awareness is a side benefit. “In Portland, 60 percent of the population doesn’t have massage as part of their wellness regimen. We want to educate the public, so we do lots of events,” she says.

Fink points out that when marketing efforts seem fruitless, don’t be discouraged. “We’ve had events and seemingly nothing happens. Six months later we get a call,” she says. “So promote as best you can. As soon as you stop marketing, you will stop getting clients.”

Future Outlook

According to the 2008–2009 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, created by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities for massage therapists will grow faster than average over the 2006–2016 period, as more individuals learn about the benefits of massage therapy. Growing awareness and acceptance of alternative medicine and holistic therapies will add to the demand for more massage therapists. Even health insurance companies are beginning to recognize the value in proactive treatment.

Cyclical changes should be expected in the massage industry, just as in any profession. But by monitoring expenses, combining innovative new marketing strategies with tried-and-true methods, and creating strong business and client relationships, your massage business might emerge from the clouds with a healthy glow.

 Phyllis Hanlon is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and writing instructor whose articles have appeared in numerous regional and national health-related publications. She can be reached at