Spa Directors Take Steps to Create Massage Standards
November – December 2004
Massage Magazine Issue 112
By Karen Kefauver
One hundred thirty-six million Americans paid a visit to a spa last year, according to the 2004 Spa Industry Study conducted by the International Spa Association (ISPA). With an estimated 12,000 spas doing business in the United States – and more growth anticipated – the demand for massage therapists at these facilities is on the rise.
“We can’t feed the need fast enough,” says Edie Moll, director of operations at East West College of the Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. She estimates that close to 50 percent of all massage therapists are now working in spas.
Moll says that although her school’s curriculum is upgraded every quarter, students were graduating unprepared for spa work. What could her school do in order to create the best-possible program, Moll wondered. She decided to get the educational and spa sides together.
In an effort to help massage students better meet the needs of the spa industry and to assist spa directors in filling their requirements of practitioners, in June Moll hosted an inaugural gathering of spa directors in Portland, Oregon. Symposium moderator Peggy Wynne-Borgman, of Preston Wynne Success Systems in Saratoga, California, and about a dozen representatives from spas around the country discussed how to bridge the gap between the training of massage therapists and the needs of spa directors.
“My experience of massage today is that [in] most massage programs, with the exception of some which have added courses, people learn how to do basic Swedish massage,” says Diane Trieste, director of spa and product development at Canyon Ranch Health Resorts (and the former SpaTalk columnist for MASSAGE Magazine). She oversees about 400 massage therapists who work at five Canyon Ranch locations. “There is a disconnect between massage therapy and the spa industry,” she adds. “As a whole, the spa industry offers many more modalities than just Swedish massage. The limitations of professional training is affecting the employment competencies in the spa industry.”
“I have worked in spas for 20 years as a massage therapist and in other capacities,” says Steve Capellini of Royal Treatment Enterprises, Inc., in Miami, Florida, and a massage therapist, spa consultant and author of Massage for Dummies. “There is a disconnect between what spas need and what schools could produce.”
So what exactly do spa employers want from massage therapists who transition to working in spas? According to one of the meeting’s participants, they want a higher level of both customer service and professionalism.
“It’s a different level of customer service,” says Scott Kilbourne, a massage therapist for 12 years. As director at Star Struck, which has locations in Beaver Creek and Vail, Colorado, he works with about 25 therapists. “On the spa side of massage, practitioners need to dress a certain way, greet customers in a certain way. There are hidden aspects that aren’t taught. When interacting with spa clientele who pay $130 an hour for aromatherapy, it’s a different level of service.”
He also thinks therapists could train in more modalities, and recommends that massage schools build a curriculum that offers classes specialized to teach what spas need. “Like with hot-stone massage or aromatherapy, it’s good to know the reasons why you use a certain therapy or product,” he says.
Moll notes that in addition to learning more body treatments and more sophisticated customer service, massage therapists working in spas also need to know how to work in a team environment. “Many massage therapists are extremely independent,” Moll says. “At a spa, they have to work together and need to communicate. One client may be getting five treatments in a day, and teamwork is needed to coordinate.”
There is a mutual interest in addressing the issue. Currently, many spas have been absorbing the cost of providing therapists with additional training.
“Massage therapy is the biggest revenue-generator for the spa industry,” says Trieste. Like other spa directors around the country, she has been sending her employees to receive extra training, an option which is costly to the company.
“As employers, we do not have resources to accurately train massage therapists to do other integrated services,” says Trieste.
“The majority have to do in-house training,” says Moll of the spas. “They demand thousands of new therapists. They can’t do the training fast enough, and it is expensive for them.”
Many at the symposium agreed that cooperation is the solution. “The schools need to learn how to understand how to create a curriculum that addresses spa concerns,” says Trieste. “The spa has no business to set standards to hand to the school. It has to be a mutual educational process between two industries.”
Some meeting participants have opened discussions with massage-industry organizations that provide educational oversight.
“I talked to [the Commission of Massage Therapy Accreditation] about developing standards relating specifically to working in spa environment,” Moll says. “They need to review what direction they can take. They are looking into it and are very positive because they know it is important.”
“We have looked at what spas need and schools could produce,” says Capellini, who is working on the curriculum at East West College. “We are inviting other schools to participate. This is an open discussion to develop a standard.”
While the process to set new standards may be slow, the reaction to the meeting was swift.
“One thing that surprised me the most was how unaware and how glad spa directors were to find out what kind of training was out there and what their options were,” says Moll.
“We had a lot of those ‘a-ha’ moments,” Kilbourne says. “It is just a different focus for massage therapists. We have to train them how to be a spa therapist.”
The group was so enthusiastic about their groundbreaking discussions that they planned to meet again in Las Vegas in November to discuss their future direction. “It is exciting to see the betterment of the massage industry,” said Moll. “With one little step it leads to something bigger.”
Karen Kefauver is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, CA.
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