Massage Envy: What They Have That You Don't Have

Jaime Windon for Whereapy (Leigh working on Henken)

Creating a solid business model for a massage therapy practice can be a daunting task.

Let's look at Massage Envy* as a single case study to determine what they do and how it works. While creating a therapy franchise is the least appealing business model for an independent therapist, there are a few key elements that can be incorporated to strengthen your plan.

Create a Focus

Massage Envy has a business model that targets people who might not normally seek out massage therapy. Their potential clients have a lower income and few indulgences; they're not the kind of people who take off a Tuesday to go to the spa.

So Massage Envy caters to this demographic by offering a stripped-down version.

No seaweed wraps, no fancy hot and cold packs, no incense, no crystals, no Lomi Lomi. It's just massage - deep tissue, Swedish and maybe some hot stone. This creates a much criticized, but efficient, assembly line approach.

What can you learn from this?

For your practice, consider the people you most want to reach, and create a business model that caters just to them. Don't worry about alienating another type of client. You can't offer all things to all people.

Create efficiency by choosing the clients you want and create offerings that specifically cater to their needs… and nothing more.

Know Your Unique Business Proposition (USP)

Massage Envy is considered affordable massage for the masses - but that's not their unique selling proposition.

Massage Envy carved out a unique niche by selling an idea of a luxurious experience to people who don't normally indulge in luxuries. Their clients are proud to be able to afford a luxury normally associated with the wealthy.

Now that's a USP: A luxury even the masses can afford. Live like the wealthy do for a day.

You should have just as unique a USP as Massage Envy... but different.

Let's say you specialize in Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome – an audience which is often misunderstood and mistreated. You could:

  • Use your knowledge to speak only to them in your marketing materials.
  • Tell them all about your pre-heated tables.
  • Let them see testimonials on your website from other Fibromyalgia clients.
  • Offer uncommon, experimental treatments. Explore new treatments together -- Fibro clients know they walk in uncharted territory, and if you help them build a personalized map for feeling better, they will spread the word.

Put Some Skin in the Game

At Massage Envy, their broad target market can make payment more problematic. To solve that problem, the company enforces an iron-clad membership contract that encourages visits on a regular basis and discourages no-shows.

Their clients are charged regularly and they must keep their appointment - or forfeit the amount of the service without receiving it.

Seems a little harsh, but for the demographic they serve, no-shows are common and could quickly make the business non-viable. Do they receive complaints? Absolutely. But, Massage Envy is large enough that they don't worry too much about those complaints.

So what can you do? Your practice can't afford to be quite this strict with your clients - after all, you don't have hundreds of other clients waiting to take their place. But no-shows are a big financial pain in the butt.

If you charge clients after the fact, it feels like you're punishing them - and that doesn't make for a happy client and will likely result in bad word-of-mouth.

If you create pre-payment plans and get payment when your client books, clients are less likely to feel resentful because the money was already spent by the time they miss the appointment.

This becomes an ethical question; how will you build behavioral rewards and punishments in your therapy business model? Should you? Almost every business does but can you do it without compromising your ethical obligations?

In the case of a small private practice I'd suggest going with the pre-payment incentive to the more painful missed appointment punishment.

Pay Your Sales Team (You!)

Massage Envy and similar therapy chains are notorious for lower than industry average therapist pay and high employee turnover. Massage Envy separates their labor force by task like a fast-food chain. They need desk staff to sell new clients on those lucrative long term contracts. Therapists just do massage.

The lessons of Taylorism and Fordism show us, that when you separate labor like cogs in a machine, you may increase productivity for a short time but workers suffer greatly for it.  

No one likes low pay and I'm not suggesting you take a lower wage. No, no, no - just the opposite. I'm saying you need to do every task well when you're a one person show. When you work for yourself, the risk is higher and so are the payoffs. Those payoffs are: purpose, mastery and and higher pay.

Here is where you can do better than Massage Envy.

  • Build efficiency and scalability in mind but maintain personability
  • Define your USP and deliver a custom service
  • Run your practice with mastery & purpose

How's that sound? Can you do it?

Your Turn: What business model(s) work best for you? How much thought did you put into your business plan?



I really like the idea of targeting a niche market; it seems that in all types of therapy, there are so many of us peddling our wares, so to speak. I hope to 'specialize' in that sense, when I get started: my hope is to feel that I'll be able to offer something that is somewhat unique.
The charge for missed appointments seems sticky, further to previous posts about the already awkward discussion topic of money. I know a lot of folks who are pretty strict about it though- I've often seen it dealt with as a part of the initial counselling contract- in addition to information about confidentiality, fee structure and session length, the missed appointment thing is laid out at the outset, and the client signs if she agrees. This doesn't mean she'll necessarily remember that rule, down the road, but at least it's out there to begin with. I also like the idea of pre-payment; it seems like the more proactive we can be about this stuff, the more straightforward it will seem to clients. Which can only be a good thing, I think.

leigh's picture

It's standard practice to charge for a missed appointment - but it's never an appreciated practice and more than a few therapists have a hard time making good on that "threat."

I once had a therapist that I just started seeing and I wasn't sure it was going to work so I said, "Hey, let's hold off on next week - I'll have to call you when I'm free next." Well, he called up next week and said that I had missed an appointment and that I owed him $150. Uh... no, I don't think so. Talk about having trust issues, who needs to be gaslighted by their therapist?

Again with the relevancy! I suffer from Fibromyalgia (for nearly 17 years) and a whole host of other syndromes, too - some co-morbid; some not. So the personal approach - absolutely the way to go. Hint - I would gladly hand over another $10 a session for pre-heated tables; and yet another $5-10 if the therapist was thoughtful enough warm his or her own hands first, too! FMS patients can not afford to get cold - any time; this is something that massage and bodywork therapists who specialize in FMS/CFS know and accommodate. On the other hand - I have friends, who while I am shivering to death - they are roasting to death - in the same room! They, too, need to be accommodated. Again - personalize your therapy. I'd rather have one good session once a month - and tell 10 friends how wonderful it is - than 4 mediocre sessions in a month; and not be inspired to share at all - or worse; actually feel the need to "bad-mouth" a therapist or a practice (I try not to do that if at all possible - but sometimes, when the "therapy" could compromise rather than help the client's health, it is necessary to warn others. I have to be honest about something else here, too. As a client, I am not real fond of the pre-payment system. For two main reasons. One - I am as insecure about my money or lack thereof as the next person, and I don't want to feel like I am paying for something and getting only "a promise" in return. Two - once I have already paid you well in advance - do you REALLY have the same incentive to give me the best possible treatment for me as you would if I just this minute handed over the check/cash/debit card? I suspect most therapists would say yes, because they are ethically bound - and I believe that 99% of them would indeed attempt to give the same service. However, therapists are human too. Rewards/Consequences goes both ways. I like Heather's idea of having all new clients (even if it's likely to be just a one-time shot) sign a short "waiver of understanding" which includes the missed appointment policy (24hr notice or charged? 48hr notice or charged?) and then, yes, follow through - even if you need to do so by mail at a later date - to make every reasonable effort to collect that money. It was your time you set aside; you still lost that time - you should still get paid. And in case anyone is wondering; yes - twice in my life I have paid the "missed appointment" fee - even though I had a great excuse; I never thought twice about using it. I booked someone's time - I couldn't use it; I paid for it. End of story. And yes, I still see one of those practitioners on occasion, when necessary. No hard feelings either way. No awkward service interruption. Life happens; clients need to be prepared for that, too. Now someone ask me how I feel when a therapist calls me less than 24 hours before my scheduled appointment to say they can't keep it..........