Do you have a Massage Envy membership? Between the brand power, discounts, and convenience of multiple locations, massage chains are how many people discover the benefits of regular massage.
But if you’ve been going to a chain for a while, you might have a creeping sense of dissatisfaction with your experience. Maybe you got shorted on time, your favorite therapist quit and disappeared overnight, or you’ve noticed inconsistency in the quality of the massage.
Is a chain really the right choice for you?
Over 40% of massage therapists are self-employed, so there are plenty of private practices you could choose from.
The private practice experience will be very different from the chain experience in 5 major ways. Your choice determines everything in and outside of the session, and it has a big impact on how much you’re paying per minute of massage.
1. The Style of Massage
The biggest advantage of choosing to go to a massage chain is the variety of massage therapists at one location.
If you’re new to massage, this is an excellent way to explore and experience different styles and pressures.
You can find a location that’s convenient for you, set up a membership, and try different therapists to find what’s best for you body.
I don’t recommend chains as a way to find "your" massage therapist though, for the simple reason that there’s a high rate of turn over. When the therapist, quits no one is going to help you find her again.
If you have more experience with massage and know what you want, you will probably have the best experience by seeking out an independent massage therapist who has specialized in that style.
This is especially true if you’re seeking massage for pain relief or rehabilitation after an injury. We’ll expand on this later, but suffice to say the chain employee has been trained to provide a nice experience, not necessarily healthcare with lasting benefits.
If you’re looking for massage for Sciatica, for example, use google to find a massage therapist in your area who’s experienced in treating Sciatica. You will get much better results when you choose a specialist, rather than getting the generic Swedish massage routine from a chain.
2. The Price (and the Real Cost)
Aside from the convenience of multiple locations, most people choose a chain because they like the lower prices. There’s almost always a discount on your first massage, and Massage Envy memberships make monthly massage cheap.
(Pro tip, always check the cancellation policy before you sign on for a membership.)
Private practices might offer a discount on your first massage, but their business model tends to be simpler.
However, you’re paying for more than the price of the massage.
You’ll be expected to tip at a massage chain. Much like a restaurant, the standard is 15-20% for good service, or more for great service. Many chains pay their staff minimum wage or close to it, so your tips are necessary for them to make a living wage.
If you don’t factor in this cost ahead of time, you might walk away having spent more than you expected.
An independent massage therapist sets their own prices based on the needs of their business, so they aren’t dependent on tips like the employees at a chain. Some don’t accept tips at all.
Another factor is add-on fees for complementary therapies like aromatherapy, hot stones, and cupping. These add-ons can be as much as $20 each.
(If you’re offered something during your service, ask about the cost before you accept.)
At my private practice, I offer everything from hot towel treatment to kinesiology tape and I never charge extra. I believe these tools allow me to offer the very best treatment for relaxation and soft tissue recovery, and I want to use them to help you. It’s not an upsell, it’s Upgraded Myofascial Release (that’s my specialty).
Finally, there’s one more factor that makes a major difference in how much you’re truly paying for your massage.
3. The Schedule
On several occasions now, someone has asked me, “Hey, you’re a massage therapist, you should know… I got a massage the other day and I paid for an hour, but I checked the clock before and after and only got 45 minutes… What do I do?”
I always ask, “Where did you get your massage?” If it was a certain famous chain, that wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t the massage therapist being lazy. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.
At a chain, the massage therapist has a client scheduled at 1pm, and another client at 2pm. So if you’re the 1pm client, there’s just no way for you to get your full 60 minutes of massage. The schedule doesn’t allow for it.
The time spent talking with your massage therapist beforehand, the time it takes for you to undress and re-dress, and the time it takes for the massage therapist to change the sheets and sanitize the room before the next client, is all taken out of your massage.
So you can easily be shortchanged of 10 minutes or more.
If you lose 10 minutes of a 60min massage, that’s 17% of your massage that’s missing! You’ll need a 20% discount just to break even on your investment. Then consider the 20% tip, and you’ve spent almost 40% more per minute than you planned on spending.
Math check: What's the better deal?
Let’s say you have two massage options in your town. The chain is $90/hr, the private practice is $110/hr.
$90/hr is $1.50/minute. But you only get 50 minutes of massage at the chain, so it’s really $1.80/minute. Then you tip $20. In the end, you’ve paid $2.20 per minute of massage.
The private practice is $1.83 per minute of massage.
The private practice is a much better deal, even though it seemed more expensive!
The chain’s aggressive schedule cheats the client, and it's hard on the massage therapist who is forced to rush from massage to massage. There’s no chance for the therapist to rest, stretch, or even drink water. Every minute the therapist spends on herself is a minute that’s taken away from your session.
Plus, if a client is slow getting dressed and leaving the room, it creates a chain reaction of subpar and short massages all day, because there’s just no way to make up the time. As a client, you shouldn't have to feel rushed after your relaxation treatment!
For this reason, every private practice owner I know schedules at least 15 minutes between clients, if not more. I always give the full 60/90 minutes of massage on the table (you know, what you paid for), and I allow an extra 10 minutes for talking before and after at no charge.
This is important because I offer therapeutic massage for pain relief, so that initial consultation is essential for designing the treatment plan. I also like having the time afterwards to check in with my client and teach them a helpful stretch, based on the tension I noticed in their muscles. (If you’re using massage as a tool for pain management, read about what defines medical massage and how to get the most out of your sessions.)
Then I give myself extra time before my next client to change the sheets, stretch, breathe, and re-center, so I can give my next client my best work.
Because the scheduling has a direct impact on...
4. The Quality of the Massage
At this point, you probably have an understanding of how even a great massage therapist may struggle to deliver a great service inside the chain environment.
Low pay, tight schedules, and stressful upsell quotas mean an unfortunate number of talented practitioners go through the work day distracted, tired, and worn down.
Think of it this way: you don’t go to McDonald’s for a fine dining experience.
The chain business model is designed to mass produce profit for the shareholders, while appearing to offer a good deal to the public.
At a private practice, you're receiving touch from a professional who's passionate about what she does, who's in the very best environment for her work because she created herself.
5. The Personal Touch
My passion is curing neck/shoulder pain, so my practice is designed for the Seattle desk worker with chronic aches and pains. I perform an assessment beforehand and offer advanced modalities like kinesiology tape and cupping for serious relief. If you’re looking for holistic pain relief, there’s no better choice.
A therapist at Massage Envy might be really interested in kinesiology tape, they might even be trained and certified, but there’s no way for them to offer it without supplies or extra time on the schedule. They’re going to have to make the leap into private practice before they can really start offering their best work.
If you have a question, you can call and you’ll speak to me. If you forgot that stretch I recommended, just send an email over and I’m the one who responds.
For a one-off relaxing experience, Massage Envy is fine. But when you’re ready for a wellness partner, look for an independent massage therapist.
Should You Go to Massage Envy or a Private Practice Massage Therapist?
There’s safety in a known brand, and it’s an easy starting place when you’re new to massage and exploring what you like.
But in terms of cost, quality, and the ethics of supporting local small business, your best choice is a private practice. You will enjoy consistently good massage from a massage therapist who's a specialist in the conditions that matter to you (and they won’t quit and disappear overnight).
No matter where you go, the simple power of human touch will release mood-boosting and muscle-relaxing dopamine and oxytocin. Live your best life: get regular massage!
P.S. Want to get the most out of your massage? Have some lingering questions about what to expect at your first appointment? Learn how to prepare and what to expect!
Jesse Martel is a Licensed Massage Therapist who practices in Seattle, Washington. She has helped many people overcome neck/shoulder injuries and chronic back pain with Upgraded Myofascial Release massage. Treatment includes Aromatherapy, Myofascial Release, Cupping, Lymphatic Drainage, and Kinesiology Tape at one flat rate. Her website is SageBodyworkSeattle.com.