Why I do Chair Massage – Part One

“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!”

Gorillas grooming

Hard-wired touch at the Wilhelma Stuttgart. Photo by Herrmann Vollmer.

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:

  1. The very wealthy, who can afford it.
  2. The very fanatical, who can’t afford it but believe it is critical to maintaining health and well-being. I fall into this category.
  3. 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.

In touch,

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9 Responses to Why I do Chair Massage – Part One

  1. Daniel says:

    Prezado David,
    Concordo plenamente com tudo o que você colocou aqui, como explicação para o titulo porque faço quick massage?.
    É muito bom, ver você pessoalmente se ocupar do blog, e escrever o que pensa e sente sobre nossa maravilhosa profissão. Á maioria dos problemas que encontro ao longo de 10 anos como terapeuta de massage, e como professor de quick massage, é o alto índice de alunos que sai do mercado da quick massagem depois de 3 ou 4 anos depois de ter feito o curso. Á grande maioria menciona seus problemas de estratégia de marketing, falta de dinheiro para investimento etc. Teriamos que sentar e beber um cafe para lhe poder passar todas as experiencias ao longo destes 10 anos.
    Um grande abraço
    Daniel Villarruel
    OBS: Using online translator of Portuguese-English

  2. Mary Cheers says:

    I am stunned. I had no idea there were so few people receiving massage on a regular basis. I had only seen the statistics about the number of people who had ever had a massage. Silly me. I guess I just assumed that if they had one, they would want to reschedule on a regular basis. Of course, I, too, fall into group 2 above..

  3. judi calvert says:

    Hi david, I have some old pics of massage chairs from the 1880’s if you want one from my history collection.
    Judi calvedrft

  4. David says:

    Love them, Judi. Are they the one’s from Robert’s book? Those are awesome. Thanks and trust you are well.

  5. “The only person I get naked for is my wife,” Dr. Hugh Smith, a specialist in Vital Hematology @ Biocytonics, retorted back when I offered him a massage. However, the notion that with Anma massage, or other Asian modalities, you can keep your clothing on, was more inviting.

    Granted, I believe this and the price point together represent a large percentage of why people don’t receive regular massage, but I think in this article you miss another important issue as to why people do not seek out regular massage….Results!

    Although we’ve discussed this before over the phone, I want to offer this small contribution of which I have no blanket solution. In my private practice, I have lost count how many clients have shared with me their almost futile journey to find a practitioner who can make a real difference with what they are dealing with.

    Here in San Diego, there are two companies who specifically market the services of the spa and wellness industry. For $99, customers receive five certificates good for services at any of the 150+ providers in the network. A wonderful product that allows people to sample a wide variety of treatments from massage to acupuncture to yoga and life coaching.

    Working with clients who use these companies’ resources has given me a deeper perspective on what the general public deals with. For myself, I’ve always told myself one of the main reasons I haven’t always received regular massage is, “I don’t want to spend $80 and walk out feeling like I needed more.” Too many times I’ve walked out of a massage feeling unsatisfied and thinking, “Could I have just spent that money on something more useful?” It’s a crap shoot when you’re looking for a good practitioner, whether in massage or any profession for that matter.

    My clients have shared things like:
    “I’ve tried 5 other massage practitioners and none of them really helped my (blank).”
    “I walk out of a massage and feel great, but a day later I’m back to having tense muscles and pain.”
    “I’ve seen doctors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, etc and no one has been able to help me.”
    “I take two different drugs, had botox injections in my neck, go to physical therapy and still have debilitating migraines.”

    How is it there are all these health care “experts” and people are still not finding the help they need? There’s something missing or something in the way or both. What’s is it?

    Help us Obiwan Kenobi. You’re our only hope!

    • David says:

      You are right, Eric. After the fear of hanky panky and the price point issues have been overcome and someone actually gets a massage, the next issue on the table (so to speak) is quality control, what you call “results.” How do customers know ahead of time whether their expectations will be met? That will be the subject of a future blog post.

  6. Thanks for sharing this David! AMEN!!

  7. Pingback: Why I Do Chair Massage – Part Two | |

  8. Pingback: Is it time for massage to embrace touch? | |

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