For most people, a day at the spa means a dip in a whirlpool or aromatherapy bath, a body scrub, or a relaxing therapeutic massage with a facial and chemical peel. But for the employees ensuring your absolute comfort and enjoyment during your stay, your day of relaxation at the spa is just another day at work.
“It’s a very taxing, physical job.”
And there’s a lot of employees out there as the industry is inarguably on the rise. As of May 2012, the United States had over 77 million square feet of land area devoted to spas. As of May 2015, it was estimated that there were nearly 360,000 employees working in U.S. spas nationwide. Nearly half of them were part-time workers. From 2008 to 2016, the spa industry saw a revenue increase of $4 billion in the U.S. alone. This increased interest in spas and the wellness industry is not just an American trend, and it can be attributed to any number of factors.
“I think people are really starting to realize the benefits of spa treatments beyond the purely aesthetic.”
Abi Wright, co-founder and managing director of Spabreaks.com, an online spa booking agency based in the UK, says people are starting to go to spas for more than just aesthetic reasons. “I think people are really starting to realize the benefits of spa treatments beyond the purely aesthetic,” she says. “One of the big trends we’re seeing in spas is the phasing out of 25 minute treatments in favor of 55 minute treatments as standard within packages.” Wright continues, “People and spas alike are realizing the value in investing in a longer treatment, whether it’s a face or body treatment for both physical and psychological wellbeing, and it’s wonderful to see the industry recognized increasingly in the UK for its core function.” This important role—increasing someone’s physical and psychological wellbeing—requires a staff to carry out. Spas are never self-service, and a massage without a massage therapist sort of defeats the purpose. So what is it like taking care of other people’s physical and psychological needs day in and day out? We decided to find out. For this article, we spoke with three industry “insiders” to get the skinny on what it’s like to work in the spa, beauty, and wellness industry. Our three subjects—Scott McKinley, a licensed massage therapist at Riviera Spa in Dallas, Texas; Rebecca Cedilos, an esthetician and makeup artist who has been self-employed for the past five years; and “Kathleen,” a front desk associate at an East Coast Message Envy location (who asked that her real name not be used)—all dished on the behind-the-scenes secrets of spa life you might not have known. Here’s what we learned:
1. Choosing the right spa can be difficult.
Choosing the right spa for you can be a dizzying experience. There are many different kinds out there, and they all offer something different. As a front desk associate for Massage Envy, Kathleen works for the largest massage chain in the country. Massage Envy boasts 1.65 million members in 49 states nationwide, with 1,170 franchised locations.
“You can of course find very talented people working in chain spas, but they may not be there the next time the customer visits.”
Kathleen describes Massage Envy as a “bare bones” operation, offering therapeutic massage and some other basic treatments like chemical peels. “Massage Envy is focused on the bare bones, like if you have a crick in your neck and need it removed,” she says. “Other places emphasize frills they might have.” One of the benefits of offering less fancy treatments, she points out, is that prices are often lower than at private spas. For instance, Massage Envy charges about 50 percent less for chemical peels than many other spas. But McKinley says it can be difficult for chains like Massage Envy to keep its clients. “Massage Envy and other chains like that are often unpredictable due to turnover of therapists because of low pay and long work days. High-end spas typically have better commissions but can sometimes be slow, and might be difficult to build a steady clientele.” Cedilos says, “I’ve never worked for a chain spa, but I imagine that the chains cannot offer as many choices to the guests, and products are possibly not as high quality. From what I’ve seen, it’s a ‘you get what you pay for’ scenario.” The other difference is that those in chains are usually starting out. “You’ll usually find people who are new to the industry working for chain spas,” Cedilos claims. “You can of course find very talented people working in chain spas, but they may not be there the next time the customer visits.”
2. It’s a very personal industry—and people rarely tip enough.
Kathleen points out that the nature of the industry is a very personal one. The entire premise is based around partially exposing yourself to complete strangers so that they can work on your body physically. “It’s a very intimate business,” she says. “People are sharing energies, physical touch, and so on.” Because of this, people often think that what they tip at restaurants and in other service industries is acceptable to tip a massage therapist. But this just isn’t the case. “What you tip in a restaurant is not good for therapy…for someone who can do something that can hurt you,” she says. And the therapists don’t always escape unscathed, either. “I’ve seen [therapists] walking around with arm braces after working the entire day. It’s a very taxing, physical job.” Because of this, Kathleen says, “The appropriate tip range is 15-30 percent of a non-member rate. In actual terms, that’s between $20-$35. If someone’s really strapped for cash, $15 is acceptable too.”
3. Not all treatments are for everyone.
Everyone has their favorite treatments when they go to the spa, and this includes the employees as well. Not every treatment is going to be a good fit for everyone. For instance, Cedilos shares that her favorite treatment is “a full body scrub in a vichy shower, followed by a body wrap with a mini facial given while wrapped in cozy warmth.” That might be someone else’s idea of an awful time. She adds that while fads and the latest “trends” in the industry are something to be aware of, they aren’t necessarily all bad. “I think with fads, they are usually the same treatments already done but with a fresh new name or new focus on a particular ingredient or product used…as long as an unrealistic outcome isn’t promised, most treatments are good.” For his part, given the choice of all the cutting edge spa technology, McKinley prefers to keep it simple. “I typically prefer just good old therapeutic massage,” he says. For her part, Kathleen says, “I don’t like chemical peels. You’re putting chemicals directly on your skin. I don’t see the point of that. But to each their own.” Her preference is for microdermabrasion. “It’s the only thing I’d spend more money on, because it works for me,” she says.
4. It’s a very image-driven industry.
There are other, hidden aspects of the industry as well. “It’s a very female-driven industry,” Kathleen says. “There’s lots of women serving you. To be a guy in the industry, you have to be good looking, which is unfortunate.” Kathleen says that she has seen female clients refuse to work with therapists that don’t fit a certain attractiveness threshold (seriously). If someone doesn’t fit the model of what a male therapist should look like, a client might refuse to go with them. “Anyone who comes in and goes with a male [therapist], people will notice [how they look].”
5. The service provider matters.
Like any other employee at any company, most spa employees are usually there because they believe in the work they do.
“I believe in massage therapy and what it entails.”
Kathleen has a family member who is a massage therapist, and so she grew up believing the benefits of treatment. “I believe in massage therapy and what it entails,” she says. According to Cedilos, this passion, as well as the experience and talent of the service provider, matters. “Not counting medical esthetics, which includes things like Botox and fillers, I think that the quality of the treatment and outcome depends entirely on the talent of the service provider,” she says. “You can have fabulous products and amenities but if your service provider doesn’t communicate with you, or doesn’t follow or understand protocols and contraindications, it can be a mess.”
6. It gets awkward.
Even with such a female-driven industry, the clientele is actually “a good mix” of women and men, Kathleen says. “A lot of the male clients prefer female [therapists],” she says, and the most awkward part of her job is having to explain over the phone that they’re not that kind of massage parlor. When a male client calls in, “They don’t understand what a massage is…that it’s almost like physical therapy,” she says. “They think they’re going to get a happy ending, which is not what we do. I have to educate about that on a weekly basis.” Cedilos has had a few close calls as well, though not of a sexual nature. Hers are mostly negative reactions to treatments. “I have had a few clients not disclose important things like allergies, or that they just had skin sensitizing treatments done somewhere else right before coming to see me,” she says. “That is never good because you end up with reactions, physical and emotional, that you weren’t expecting. Then the service turns into a quick recovery treatment that isn’t what they came in for, but you have to ‘fix’ it quickly. You never want someone with a swollen face leaving the spa!”