Spa Etiquette for the Massage Therapist
What to Expect When Entering the Spa Business

By Charles W. Wiltsie III

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, August/September 2003.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

More massage therapists are seeking employment in the spa industry than ever before. There are a variety of reasons why this is occurring, including genuine interest in personal care services, the opportunity to make more money and the ability to receive better benefits (401(k)s, paid vacation, health insurance and training) than their counterparts in health services.

But to enter the personal care field, massage therapists must first understand what destination and day spas do and how they function on a daily basis. The practitioner must also understand the etiquette associated with the spa industry.

We commonly define etiquette as a conventional code of social behavior. So how does this relate to the business of spa? Let's explore this question by investigating the industry's culture more thoroughly.

An Effective Employee
Talk to Patricia Airo, spa director of Parisian Salon and Day Spa in Cromwell, Conn., and it's immediately obvious she has the customer in mind at all times. She says the first guideline to having a successful spa, as it relates to etiquette, is fairly old-fashioned: The spa and all of its employees should be set on the satisfaction of their guests, 110 percent. Accomplishing this goal begins with appropriate language. For example, at Parisian, the word "client" is never used when referring to a customer; instead, visitors are only referred to as "guests."

In top destination and day spas, the attitude is enthusiastically polite, with the therapist providing the highest level of customer service possible. To be polite is to respect another person, to serve them, to acknowledge that person's needs as a priority. Unfortunately, etiquette has been lost in our hustle and bustle society. The proper attitude within the spa world, however, can make all of its treatments that much more therapeutic. The environment is sophisticated and, as Airo says, her practitioners "sincerely love what they do." She says they are always interested in, and can't wait to serve, their guests.

What makes a massage therapist an effective employee at a destination or day spa is an attitude of etiquette similar to that of the old English butler, combined with a gentle, sincere sort of all-American friendliness. With that in mind, one will find the basic greeting at the spa clear, comfortable and calm. Spa staff should be up-to-date on all treatments offered in the facility and therefore fully qualified to explain, in detail, services and products to the guest.

The therapist should be prepared to work within the environment created by spa management. For example, staff therapists should dress in a way that complements the ambiance established by ownership. If the spa has a Sicilian flare to it, wearing an Irish step-dancing outfit would be inappropriate. Spa ownership will usually be quite clear about how you are to present yourself, sometimes requiring uniforms. The spa presents an image and the massage therapist's look and behavior are part of that image.

Also, the therapist is likely to be trained in the body products used by the spa and is expected to use these in the massage room. Most good spas go through a process when they bring new products into the facility, seeking input from the staff. But unless you're told otherwise, use what is provided.

Draping can be different from spa to spa. Use the draping required by the facility in which you are working. Some spas, when doing wet treatments, will not use any draping, while others will encourage the guest to wear a bathing suit or provide the guest with disposable panties and bras. Other spas may have requirements that are different for male and female massage therapists. This means some spas do not allow their male practitioners to do wraps on female clients. These policies are those of the spa and the massage therapist must always follow them.

Many spas provide continuing education in various spa modalities such as hot stone therapy, cellulite services, aromatherapy treatments, wraps, etc. But in addition to what the spa provides in continuing education, it is expected that the massage therapist will enthusiastically keep up on trends in the business. The reasoning for this is so she is knowledgeable enough to make recommendations and able to answer questions after each session. Recommendations are always made after treatments to encourage guests in self-care when they return home. This advice is usually tied to product sold by the spa.

After the session is over, the massage therapist may be required to help guests collect their belongings. Many of the guests in a spa move from station to station during their visit. When they arrive, they may be directed to a locker room to remove their clothes and don a robe and slippers. From there, the guest might move from pedicure to nails, from nails to hair, from hair to facial treatments and then to a massage. At the end of the day, the practitioner may have to direct the guest back to the locker room and assist them with their jacket, sweater or coat as they depart.

When your guests leave the premises, it might be appropriate to write them a thank-you note. And if you write it, mean it. In most spas there is a tip envelope at the receptionist's desk. If you do a good job, tips can be anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent. Earn the tips. Write the cards.

Creating Atmosphere
Spa owners try to provide fantastic service within a pristine atmosphere. Peggy Wynne Borgman, owner of Preston Wynne Spa in Saratoga, Calif., adorns her business with her own paintings. I saw another California spa owner stare at the front door of his day spa for more than an hour, trying to imagine how he might improve the look of the entrance. Attitude, atmosphere and education are everything to the spa owner and therefore everything to the spa's guests.

Extra things are expected in successful spas. Again, these extras are therapeutic. The spa should be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It must also be pleasing to the ear. Often the spa will control all music and sound. The staff will be required to speak in quiet, reassuring tones. Scent is also a key environmental element which involves the use of aromatherapy candles, natural and electric diffusers, flower petals or essences, and sometimes incense.

The overall atmosphere should be relaxed. Staff should guide the guest through each service from the time they walk in the door, to the locker room, to when they leave. It is also not uncommon for a destination or day spa to provide a healthy lunch serving juices, water, fruits and vegetables, beautifully presented with a formal place setting. Spa assistants and staff will also be able to answer questions and make recommendations prior to and during the guest's stay at the facility. The staff can help the guest know what to expect during the day of treatment.

Unacceptable Behavior
Creating a relaxing and ultimately therapeutic experience with respect and polite behavior is what is expected of the massage therapist in the spa. Of course, there are unacceptable behaviors that are never tolerated. They include:

- Abstain from sexual behavior of any kind.

- Be prepared to work on all clients, without discriminating against anyone because of race, gender, weight or handicap.

- Never ask for a tip.

- Avoid manipulating the schedule. If you realize you have two appointments scheduled in the morning and one in the afternoon, don't try to get the concierge to move the clients closer together. This is not customer-friendly and is disrespectful of the guest and the management. There is no place for self-absorbed massage therapists in the spa business.

- Practice good hygiene. Be as clean as possible and avoid wearing excessive fragrance or jewelry.

- Make sure your smile sparkles and don't smoke. Non-smokers can tell, even if you haven't smoked for hours.

- Never speak about other staff, guests or management problems, especially in front of a guest.

- Use products and tools appropriately so you're not wasteful. Massage students often slather their first clients with oil, but as they gain experience they use less and less.

Depending upon degree and frequency, issues involving any of these above points are reasons for termination of employment in most spas.

Create More
A long time ago, I wasn't making enough money to survive. I was obsessed by it. One day I was going on and on to my mother and she finally said to me, "Stop thinking about the money. Do the job, do it well and then you'll get paid." I believe this statement is basically true.

There is a universal thought that carries through most religions that the highest state of spirituality comes from creating more than you consume. Massage therapists in the spa business do exactly that. They work to satisfy the customer, to give that person a positive, healthy, relaxing experience.

Borgman's award-winning combination at Preston Wynne Spa stems from her belief that the spa first needs to promise excellent service -- it's the technician's job to exceed the guest's expectation. That, in a nutshell, is the etiquette or conventional code of social behavior alive within most destination and day spas. And it is this mentality that makes working in the spa industry so potentially profitable for the massage therapist.

Charles W. Wiltsie III is a frequent lecturer, instructor and writer on the spa industry and practitioner etiquette. His work has been published in The Day Spa Bible, Day Spa, Les Nouvelles Esthetic, American Spa, Hers Muscle and Fitness, and Good Medicine magazines.

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