On the Side of Angels

There is a successful company in Australia, 3-Minute Angels, that started in 2002 providing 3-minute chair massages in pubs and clubs for free. Customers would pay whatever they thought the service was worth. Today the business has grown into a more conventional chair massage provider with hundreds of practitioners offering 5- to 15-minute massages at events and in the workplace.

A similar company in Europe, Ibiza Angels, has trained 200+ massage practitioners to perform 7-minute massages in exclusive night clubs and at high-end entertainment and sporting events.

What both of these companies of “angels” have in common is that most of their practitioners never went to massage school. Indeed, the initial massage training for both businesses is accomplished in about one day.

I can almost hear the outraged grinding of teeth in American massage schools, associations and businesses where the current standard in most localities requires that practitioners go through a minimum of 500 hours of table massage training before they can make a living doing chair massage.

“One day of training? These practitioners are a danger to the general public. In pubs and clubs? This will only lower the status of massage professionals and undercut the ability of massage “therapists” to make a living.”

We have seen the enemy and he is us. – Walt Kelly

I recently returned from two weeks working in Paris and London where, once again, I was struck with how out-of-sync North America chair massage training is with much of the rest of world.

In both England and France, people routinely take one day courses in chair massage and begin to work professionally. In fact, for the vast majority of countries in the world short courses in chair massage (under 100 hours) is the rule, not the exception. Some of the training is done by businesses training potential workers, such as Ibiza Angels. Other courses are offered by private trainers or schools. Consequently, chair massage is thriving.

Why is North America so different? I would argue that the problem stems primarily from the decision to define all “massage” as “massage therapy.” I have discussed the background of that decision extensively in other articles, but essentially, when you opt to define a profession such as massage as primarily a health care service, you automatically raise the training bar to a high level. After all, virtually all health care professions require a college degree plus some form of post-graduate training.

As I watched both Presidential contenders extol the wonders of a free market economy during the debate last night, it occurred to me that our industry could benefit substantially from that approach.

It’s not that chair massage was over-regulated in North America, its more that chair massage simply got swept up by the regulations that were already in place for table massage. There is currently no separate regulation for chair massage and there needs to be.

The idea that you must learn 500-hours of table massage before you can learn chair massage is patently absurd. The reverse makes far more sense. All practitioners should be required to learn chair massage before they learn table massage. It is chair massage that is entry-level for both practitioners and customers, not massage therapy. Learning chair massage first would be a lot less expensive way for students to determine whether they should invest thousands of dollars learning table massage.

In countries where there is little or no regulation of massage, most massage is inexpensive chair or foot massage. That is what the public wants and that is what they can afford. The reason that less than 5% of the U.S. population get regular massage is to a great extent because the regulation of chair massage is conflated with the regulation of table massage. Chair massage needs to be regulated separately to meet the pent up market demand for convenient and affordable professional touch. Better yet, let’s just exempt chair massage from all regulation. Here’s how.

To extract chair massage from table massage, you have to define it. Here is my definition:

Chair massage is non-remedial massage done on seated, fully clothed customers, performed on the upper body above the waist or on the lower legs (from the knees down), in an open, public space.

Note that this definition also includes foot massage as long as the customer is seated and it eliminates the problem of prostitution because it does not allow massage behind closed doors in private rooms. Note also that this excludes massage therapy/treatment from the chair. Only  massage with a wellness, prevention, or relaxation intention is allowed.

If this exemption was amended to every current massage law in the United States and Canada, our industry would explode with new businesses providing services to millions of new customers who would get in the habit of including a massage in their health lifestyle. A good portion of these new customers would then graduate to table massage and massage therapy ensuring our professional growth for decades to come.

Change is not easy

I understand that what I am proposing is not easy, but I do believe it is the only sensible course if we want to make massage truly accessible to everyone. The only reason we have massage regulation is to distinguish therapeutic massage from adult entertainment massage. But a clear and simple definition of chair massage eliminates that concern. Nobody mistakes chair massage for prostitution.

The only other rationale for regulating massage—that it is potentially dangerous—has never been demonstrated. To the contrary, the insurance companies who track these risks would never offer $4 million annual professional liability policies for less than $100 wholesale if there was a significant potential of harm to the customer.

Personally, I am not a fan of one-day training courses in chair massage. However, if a business can provide a chair massage service that people will buy, then why not let them? Just don’t let them call it massage therapy.

Unshackle chair massage and let it grow as it has in the rest of the world. The marketplace wants safe, convenient and affordable massage. Let’s finally let them have it.

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4 Responses to On the Side of Angels

  1. Russell Borner says:

    Well, gol dang it!…..its about time that you have returned to the field of battle, my friend!….why, I have the same sense of excitement I had that day in Seattle in ’86 at the AMTA convention, when I heard you comment on the place chair massage should play in the world…..it was controversial then, and 26 years later it is still controversial…..this time I think there will be more folk willing to listen…..the employment situation alone, will give the impetus to your argument immediately!

    Glad you were able to get the international exposure in Europe to get you in top gear!

    Best regards,

    Russ

  2. Great idea. I have done chair massage for over 7 years and more and more companies are requiring massage therapists rather than massage practitioners. Yet those who do chair massage specialize in stress relief and relaxation!!

    Keep up the battle.

  3. Rick Rosen says:

    David, you make a compelling argument here. Chair massage is a different level of service, and it does not require the same training as a full-scope massage therapist whose work may range from the relaxational to the rehabilitative.

    Here in my own state of North Carolina, the Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy has been unable to shut down the chair massage kiosks that operate in many shopping malls. These are generally staffed by Chinese practitioners who are unlicensed. While this activity is illegal under our state massage law, the Board has not found a way to get law enforcement to be willing to arrest and prosecute, since it does not appear that people are being harmed.

    A question for you: if chair massage was to be separated out and exempted from massage therapy licensure laws, how would you address the problem of full-scope massage practitioners using the “chair massage” designation to avoid the cost and oversight of being licensed?

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comments and question, Rick. What I am proposing is that anybody who exclusively does chair massage should be exempted from table massage regulations. That way schools could develop programs that teach entry level programs for people who want to begin their massage careers with chair massage. If and when these people become qualified in table massage, they would be subject to all of the current professional massage regulations in North Carolina and elsewhere while they are pursuing their table massage practice.

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