“You can’t call that massage!”
The year was 1984 and the irritated voice on the other end of the phone was the owner of a well known massage school in New York objecting to my description of chair massage. “A massage is something that is done on a table, over the whole body, with oils and lasts for an hour,” she declared emphatically. “That’s a massage!”
She had a point. Although giving shoulder and neck rubs to sitting friends and family is probably a hard-wired instinct (think grooming habits of our primate cousins), up to that point professional massage on seated customers was near non-existent.
I mean, why would you? All things being equal, if you give me the choice between massage on a table and massage on a chair, before you finish reading this sentence I will have shucked my clothes and jumped on your table.
But all things are not equal.
When I became a massage school owner in 1982, I noticed a striking disconnect between professional massage services and the general public, namely that most people did not and would not get a massage. Because I wanted my enthusiastic graduates to be making a living doing work they loved, this fact caused me great concern.
So, I began looking at the problem from a marketing point of view.
While you can make a case that table massage is an “affordable luxury” for vacations, anniversaries, promotions and other special occasions, it is difficult to argue that the average middle-class person can afford table massage on a regular basis.
I believe there are only three groups of people getting regular table massage:
- The very wealthy, who can afford it.
- The very fanatical, who can’t afford it but believe it is critical to maintaining health and well-being. I fall into this category.
- The very desperate, who will pay any amount to relieve their pain and discomfort.
Exactly how frequently are people getting massaged? There are two regular consumers surveys: one done annually by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and the other every two years by the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP). If we give a generous definition of “regular” massage to mean 6 or more massages a year (one every other month) then a rather pitiful 2.9% (AMTA) or 4.2% (ABMP) of U.S. adults average one massage every two months. (See the complete analysis here.)
While this data from 2010 is sobering, I remain as convinced today as I was 30 years ago that most people actually would like to have a massage.
It seems to me that there have always been two primary barriers that have limited the growth of massage: a price point that is too high and a cultural fear of intimacy. From a marketing point of view it was simple. The industry had a packaging problem. Very few people are willing to step into a private room, behind closed doors, lay on a table naked for an hour with a stranger in the room and spend $70 or more for the privilege.
The reality is, there is only one other time in our lives when most people get naked with another person behind closed doors. The unconscious association with bedroom activities is hard to ignore. And, yes, $70 a session is far too expensive for the average person to afford on a regular basis.
The alternative, in 1982, seemed obvious. Let people keep their clothes on, put them in a comfortable seated position out in the open and shorten the massage to lower the price point. That’s how my passion for chair massage was born.
I believe that chair massage is the key to growth not only in the massage services industry but also for educating the general public about the importance of bringing structured touch into their daily lives. And, that is the topic of Part Two. Stay tuned.