What Should a Massage or Bodywork Session Cost?

By Les Sweeney, NCMT, and Kristin Coverly, RMT
[Business Side]

Welcome to Massage & Bodywork’s 2013 Business Side column. We’re Kristin Coverly and Les Sweeney, and we’ll be your tour guides through the exciting and mysterious world of successful practice—from growing to maintaining, reenergizing to marketing, winding down or selling, working for someone else or going it alone. 

Developing a successful career comprises all of these, and dare we say is the most important subject in massage school (though not treated as such!). We’re not here to make people like us; we’re here to help people have successful practices. Having said that, we hope you like this column.

Kristin is an all-star performer in the field of massage and bodywork, and, despite her youthful appearance, has a wealth of experience in the field, ranging from private practice and teaching to career services. She currently heads the ABMP BizFit program, teaching workshops on developing professional success. In addition, she conducts ABMP’s Instructors on the Front Lines workshops, pens this column, and is a valued contributor to improving the ABMP member experience. She also has education and experience in marketing and business development. Les is ABMP’s president, and therefore had to be included.

If you have comments, suggestions, or questions, feel free to direct them to bizfit@abmp.com. Enjoy!


Kristin Coverly: First, let me point out that Les wrote that introduction. For the record, he’s not just the president of ABMP, he also happens to have an MBA, he’s a fantastic boss, an incredibly entertaining speaker, the lead singer of a rock band, and is running the Boston Marathon to raise money for the Massage Therapy Foundation. And hopefully to lose weight [Editor’s Note: Les added that part].

Let’s flip the question “What should a massage or bodywork session cost,” and instead ask, “What should a therapist charge for a massage or bodywork session?” since, as small business owners, we have the power to set that rate ourselves. To do that, start by determining what price the market will bear. The going rate for a massage varies by location and cost of living. Let’s face it: you’re able to charge more for the same session in Los Angeles, California, than you can in Los Angeles, Texas. Using the “Competitive Analysis Form” in the Business Management section of www.abmp.com, do an analysis of your area; what are other therapists charging for the same type of session? Set your own rates accordingly. Do you have advanced training or experience? That justifies a bump in your rate. Clients will get on board for a great session at a fair and competitive price.

Les Sweeney: This question is too simplistic to provide a decent answer. What is this, the presidential debate? Who thought of this question? Oh, right, I did. OK, given that—as little as you can charge to ensure more frequent business.

I have a hypothesis, and until I am presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I am going to believe it is true—on balance, massage and bodywork sessions are not priced appropriately. Now, before legions of therapists descend upon Colorado with pitchforks, allow me to elaborate.

KC: You better. I think they’re starting to gather outside
the castle. 

LS: Right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon. 

I do not necessarily mean priced too high, although I would suggest that many therapists start out too high, rather than building demand and then adjusting price accordingly. We all agree that massage and bodywork is unique in many ways and building an independent practice can be a challenge. But we must also remember that millions of hours have been spent studying the behaviors of that unique animal known as the American Consumer. And that creature just happens to be the audience from which we attract our clients. Which means, by the transitive property, the behaviors of the American Consumer can be reasonably expected to be exhibited by the American Massage and Bodywork Consumer. Which means massage and bodywork professionals need to be willing to appeal to the motivators that attract these people—value, rewards, a feeling of understanding and importance, and, of course, fast cars.

Massage and bodywork is an investment; there is immediate return, certainly (“Wow, I just slept on the table for 45 minutes, but I am relaxed and feel great”), but we as professionals know that the magic of regular therapy is the “regular” part. So, as professionals who like what we do, seek to continue doing it, and enjoy being paid for our talents and our time, our entire objective should be regular sessions. Business 101 tells us repeat customers are the most profitable. As card-carrying American capitalists, we like profit, especially since it can be achieved through serving others. I can profit by helping others? Sign me up!

So, where was I? Oh, right—I think one of the most impressive things that Apple has done over the past few years has been price management. Apple controls the price of its products like no other consumer product company. It has creatively kept its prices its own: there are limited distribution outlets, and those outlets are restricted in their ability to mark down the products. At the same time, Apple has improved the quality and capacity of its products while maintaining price. My first iPod in 2002 cost more than the iPhone 4S I own today (I know, part of that is efficiency for sure). For a very long time, every song on the iTunes Store was 99 cents. Its simplistic approach to pricing has made the experience of buying its products easier (and that, my friends, is all you need to know about business—make it easy for someone to give you money. You’re welcome. Drive safely.).

So if I were to write an advice column for massage
and bodywork professionals about business (hey, wait a minute), I would start with the suggestion, “Price your
service to maximize volume, and don’t worry if you’re
lower than others.”

KC: Interesting theory, but what about those of us who are crazy enough to actually want to pay rent or buy food with our massage income? The increased number of sessions resulting from the reduced rate would need to make up for the decrease in hourly income. If a therapist charges $10 less per hour-long session and sees 10 clients a week, that’s a potential loss of $100 per week. Will the reduced rate be so enticing that it brings in the right number of new or repeat clients needed to make up for the loss and make her more profitable than if she hadn’t reduced her rate? Maybe a therapist would be happier doing two fewer sessions per week and making the same profit margin. What’s that old slogan, “Work smarter, not harder?” Seems to fit pretty darn well here.

Another consideration we need to factor in is the psychology of the consumer, our potential client, the really important person who makes or breaks our practice. Ever see something in the bargain bin at the drugstore and think, “I wonder what’s wrong with it?” Do you want to be seen as the bargain bin of massage in your community? If so, slash your rates. In the mind of the consumer, significantly lower rates than the average for the area tend to be viewed as suspicious and are equated with poor quality. If you do want to work with clients in lower income brackets who have less disposable income, offer them a special discount on your regular competitive rate—don’t just lower your regular rate. 

My opinion? Set a fair and competitive rate that works for you and your clients (and allows you to eat when you want to).

LS: All very good points, my friend. But any therapist out there can set a goal of being the busiest therapist in town. I am convinced any therapist who has a “full” practice (as defined by their expectations) will be able to economically sustain their practice. My concern with your approach is that you are espousing a long-held, therapist-centric view that I have heard in many schools—namely, “Do not undersell yourself; you are worth more.”

And here, townspeople, is where I overwhelm you with math—                        15 x $60 = $900, but 20 x $50 = $1,000.

KC: Good sir, on behalf of all the townspeople, we are not overwhelmed, but curious; keep talking.

LS: Well, let me explain. Therapists—especially new ones—must concern themselves with the total number of hours and total amount of weekly income that they seek, rather than getting caught up in the “I am worth more per session” belief. Someone told me a long time ago that you’re worth what someone is willing to pay you. I would modify that further for massage and bodywork and say you are worth what X people are willing to pay you each week, where X is the number of clients you are willing to serve. In my equation, if you are seeking 20 sessions per week, then your goal should be to perform 20 sessions per week, not make a pre-set notion per session. If you have a full client load, it gets easier to raise your fees. Let’s say you get those 20 at $50 per session. Then you can move them to $55 or $60 per session, and even if you lose a couple, you’ll be ahead of the game.

The therapist has to set her session goal or capacity first, her desired income second, and determine if those two numbers can make a reasonable hourly rate. If I say I want to perform 20 sessions per week, and need $3,000 per week of income, well, there is only one Mariah Carey out there paying $1,500 for one massage, so I may be out of luck. But if I say I can/will do 20 sessions per week, and I’d like $1,000 per week for starters, then I know I need to average $50 per hour. What many therapists miss is the number of hours/sessions per week part. Most people know how much they need/want to make, but don’t plug in the other variable to make the math work.

KC: I understand the point you’re making with all of that compelling math, but as a therapist who has actually experienced living solely on the income of a private practice, I can tell you that I would much rather spend my energy marketing my practice and educating potential clients about the value of what I do than giving extra sessions at a lower rate each week to meet the same revenue figure. It’s not an “I am worth more” complex; it’s a “This is the fair market price for the service I offer” reality. I do agree that it’s a smart idea for new therapists to offer a short-term introductory rate as a special discount off of their established rate to entice new clients to try their work, but established therapists should be able to charge the going rate for their area and still have a full and successful practice. Maybe what they need is to sharpen their (SPOILER ALERT for future columns!) marketing skills to bring in new clients and keep current clients coming back.

I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. As with all things having to do with running a small business, practitioners need to evaluate their options and make a personal decision about what works for them and their practice. (Don’t worry, readers, we won’t always be so argumentative.) 

LS: Until next time practitioners, have fun storming
the castle! 

Contact Les Sweeney at les@abmp.com and Kristin Coverly at kristin@abmp.com.