The “Death” of On-Site Massage

[This piece was originally published in Massage Therapy Journal Spring issue, 1995. Only a few people will remember that “seated massage” originally burst onto the scene as “on-site massage” when the first massage chair came on the market in 1986. Here is a bit more about the genesis of the early terminology.”

In 1986 I coined the term “On-Site Massage” and, in 1995, I thought perhaps I might kill it.

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly true. While it is true is that I coined the term “on-site massage” it is not exactly true is that I want to kill it. Rather, I am going to suggest that we need to redefine how we use the term. Let me discuss the original rationale for the term “on- site massage” and the current confusion around its use.

Giving massages to people who are seated has been going on for centuries. There are old Japanese woodcuts of people being massaged on low stools, next to their bath. In current times chair massage started with a few creative practitioners in the early 1980’s who were looking for a way to bring massage services into the workplace.

In 1982 I began experimenting with seated massage as a way of creating jobs for graduates from The Amma Institute of Traditional Japanese Massage, a school in San Francisco that I ran from 1982 until 1989.

We had significant success at Apple Computer Corporation and, throughout 1985 and 1986, our work was widely reported in the national media. This was the first time the concept of chair massage entered the broad public consciousness.

The “birth” of On-Site Massage came in May 1986. I coined the term at the same time that we introduced the first custom-designed chair for seated massage, manufactured by Living Earth Crafts. I specifically stayed away from calling the work “chair massage” because, up to that point, it seemed like every time we talked about chair massage, people would immediately try to figure out where they could plug it in.

So I selected “on-site massage” to emphasize the portability and convenience of the work. The term had a corporate feel to it which fit in with what I felt, at that time, was going to be the primary market for chair massage service–the workplace.

At the 1986 American Massage Therapy Association convention, I demonstrated chair massage at a meeting of the Council of Schools and began offering continuing education workshops throughout the country. Nine years later we have taught over 5,000 table practitioners the techniques and marketing strategies of chair massage.

Interest in chair massage has continued to grow. Here’s a quick survey of the evidence that confirms how chair massage has become a significant component of the bodywork industry.

  • Virtually every massage school in the country now includes information about chair massage in their core curriculum.
  • At last count there were at least 15 different massage chairs being sold by manufacturers. My conservative estimate is that over 3,000 chairs a year are currently being sold and that more than 15,000 chairs have already been purchased.
  • The range of markets for chair massage is truly amazing. Massage chairs are being taken to offices, flea markets, airports, taxi stands, bookstores, health food stores, parks, beaches, shopping malls, salons, ski resorts, seminars, convention centers, health fairs, charity events, weddings, film sets, music studios, backstage at concerts, anywhere table massage has traditionally been done, and at dozens of other locations and events limited only by the imagination of the practitioner.
  • Chair massage serves as the front line in our efforts to legitimize bodywork services in the eyes of the general public, elected officials, and the media. Because of its non-threatening nature and high visibility this work is often the first­–but not the last–massage a new client receives.

With all the good news, why then is there a need for changing the terminology? Simply because serious inconsistencies have arisen with usage of the term “on-site massage.”

When chair massage began, most of it was, in fact, “on- site” massage. That is, most of the time practitioners took the chair to the location of the client to do the work. However, as chair massage began growing, clients began coming to the location of the practitioner, as primarily happens with table massage.

Another inconsistency in many people’s minds is that “on- site massage” doesn’t refer exclusively to chair massage anymore. I have seen many examples of bodyworkers referring to “on-site table massage.”

Finally, over the years, the term “on-site massage” is sometimes used synonymously with “workplace massage.” This came about because most of the stories in the mainstream media have described chair massage performed in the office setting.

I suggest it is time to end the confusion. My proposal is simple-let’s tell it like it is.

  • When massage is brought to the location of the client it is clearly “on-site” massage. However, note that a more precise reference would be either “on-site chair massage” or “on-site table massage.”
  • For a generic term to describe massage done on a seated client I propose the obviousÑ”chair massage.”  This juxtaposes it well to “table massage.” Optionally the work could be called “seated massage” but since we don’t use the term “prone massage” for table clients it is not quite as neat.

Fortunately most of the practitioners who have invested time and money in developing business cards, brochures, and other advertising for on-site massage really are doing massage “on-site.” They would only need to add the modifier “chair” to be absolutely clear about what they mean.

For my part, I will no longer generically refer to my work as on-site massage but rather call it “chair massage.” This year I have also renamed my seminar organization from On- Site Enterprises to the Skilled Touch Institute of Chair Massage.

The important thing to remember is that on-site massage–oops! I mean, chair massage, is flourishing. It couldn’t be killed even if someone really wanted to. No matter what we call it, I will continue to be a primary advocate.

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2 Responses to The “Death” of On-Site Massage

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