Massage for the Masses

David Palmer, Chair Massage, and Zubio

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2006.

"I want to change the world."
These are big words. And though sometimes used precipitously, you know when you're in the presence of someone who embodies the commitment of his passion.

It's that passion and those words that live in the heart of David Palmer, longtime chair massage guru and a man who knows clearly his mission in life--bringing safe touch to the world. For the past 20 years, Palmer has never wavered from this goal, all the while designing and developing the first-ever massage chair in the mid-1980s, founding and running the TouchPro Institute in San Francisco, and teaching chair massage techniques to more than 11,000 practitioners worldwide.

Today, Palmer finds his passion reignited and firmly believes he's come across an idea that will awaken a renaissance in the bodywork profession. Basking in exuberance and excitement, this massage patriarch shared his insights with Massage & Bodyworkabout chair massage, the business of bodywork, and his latest contribution to the profession: Zubio.

Building a Dream -- Part One

He's been heralded as the "father of chair massage," but Palmer will humbly tell you that this moniker is overstated. "Seated massage has been around for centuries. My job was to shine a light on it," he says.

Regardless of official or unofficial honorariums, Palmer is undoubtedly the driving force behind contemporary chair massage. He also deserves bragging rights for not only designing the first massage chair, but for thrusting chair massage into the public eye when he began massaging Apple Computer employees back in 1984 -- a move that brought national media attention to this "new" kind of bodywork.

But why chair massage? Because it's truly massage for the masses, Palmer says. And, because of its accessibility, it's the massage profession's best ambassador.

Palmer began his chair massage journey in 1982 when he stepped into the director's role at The Amma Institute of Traditional Japanese Massage. It forced him to stop and contemplate why his graduates couldn't make a living and why more consumers weren't flocking to this great thing called massage.

"You never know the path you're on except in retrospect," Palmer says. "In retrospect, I realize I felt incredibly responsible in training practitioners. Then, I felt responsible for if they worked or not." It was that dynamic that had Palmer trying to solve the riddle of why more Americans weren't taking advantage of the great benefits being offered by professionally-trained massage therapists.
He remembers looking at it in terms of marketing and realizing that massage wasn't doing a very good job. "Another perspective was called for and it occurred to me that the problem might be more in the packaging, not the product," he wrote in a 1998 article for Positive Health magazine. "I have often noted that if you want to make certain that professional massage never becomes widely accepted in the Western culture, here is how it would be designed: force clients to go into a private room, behind closed doors, take off all of their clothing, lay down on a table, and allow a stranger to rub oil all over their body. With that approach, massage will never make it into the mainstream. There is only one other time when people get prone and naked behind closed doors with another person. Consequently, the subconscious, and sometimes the conscious, connection between table massage and sexuality has been unavoidable."

He says when you combine that misconstrued thought process with the price of table massage, it becomes more clear what massage therapists are fighting against. Palmer says it was this realization that got him motivated behind chair massage. "Defined from this perspective," he says, "the solution was obvious." Allow people to keep their clothes on, make it portable so the massage can be done anywhere, and shorten the length of the massage to make it affordable. And so began contemporary chair massage.

In terms of making safe touch accessible to the greater public, Palmer says he's always believed chair massage was enough. "Chair massage has always been the answer ... I'm not interested in the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but the guard rail at the top, and chair massage is that guard rail." It is from this perspective that Palmer has framed the rest of his career.

It's not a matter of chair massage being better than any other type of bodywork, Palmer says. But its accessibility, on all levels, makes it much more attractive to the uninitiated. Because of that, he believes more U.S. consumers have likely experienced their first massage in a chair, rather than on a table, during the past 10 years. Once the massage-initiated understand what it's all about, Palmer believes they, like the rest of us, move to more sophisticated modalities. "They become the foundation for future table clients," he says.

In 1986, after years of developing the work, Palmer began taking his chair massage protocol out into the world full-fledged under the educational umbrella of the TouchPro Institute. Schools around the country were gobbling it up and within four years, Palmer says virtually every U.S. massage school was at least acquainting its students with chair massage, if not developing comprehensive curriculums.

The future looked bright, and Palmer eagerly watched as his mission began taking hold. Or so he thought.

Building a Dream -- Part Two

Fast-forward to 2004, when 20 years after turning the modern world on to chair massage, Palmer was left wondering what went wrong. Why hadn't the potential been realized?

On a personal business level, Palmer says, "We basically worked ourselves out of a job." As more and more schools began offering their own entry-level and continuing education courses in chair massage, the TouchPro Institute's services weren't being called on in the numbers they had been.

To understand the problem from a more global perspective, Palmer revisited an optimistic prediction he'd made nearly 15 years earlier to see if and where he'd misstepped. "In the early 90s, I wrote a paper on where the industry would be in the decades to come. I predicted that by the year 2000, more people would be giving and receiving chair massage than any other bodywork."

Always thoughtful in his approaches, Palmer had based that prediction on his knowledge of the three chair massage markets: workplace, event, and retail settings. "Workplace massage accounts for 50 percent of what's happening in chair massage," he explains. "Event massage -- one-time weekend stuff, sporting events, conventions -- accounts for 35 to 40 percent of the market. It was that other 15 percent that I thought would explode: the retail market. But that didn't happen."

Palmer remembers back to the early days of chair massage when he and his crew would attend trade shows based on the number of attendees, usually finding that 1 percent of the crowd would venture in for chair massage. Palmer expected that with familiarity and understanding, the next few decades would see that number soar.
The numbers, however, haven't risen above 2 percent to 3 percent, he says, even 20 years later. And why? Palmer believes he underestimated the modesty of the American public. "Most people don't feel comfortable in a fishbowl setting. I'm convinced there's a whole lot of people, even massage afficionados, who would never sit down in public and get a chair massage. It has a high barrier to entry. People don't want to be exposed."

With that understanding, Palmer realized he needed to rethink not only his own business plan, but the reality or futility of his mission as well ... and find a new path.

When Destiny Knocks

When a former student from Singapore e-mailed Palmer a photo and information about a cylindrical kiosk-type structure used by Japanese hairstylists for private sessions in large, public settings, the chair massage steward had a lightbulb moment. The timing was impeccable.

"The simplicity of it really caught my attention," Palmer says. "It was then that I realized what we had developed in the massage chair was a solution for the massage industry that was safe, convenient, and affordable, but we hadn't developed a solution that was approachable." This was the motivation that got Palmer thinking about his future, and in a much bigger context, the future of chair massage.

Welcome to the land of Zubio -- where millions of people are exploring therapeutic touch for the first time, and no one is uptight about being massaged in public. At least that's the vision of Palmer who, after more than a year of planning and design, launched this new business venture in November. His passion and excitement for this project is almost palpable.

"I have not been as excited about anything since developing the first massage chair in 1986," Palmer says. "This will so clearly help to move the massage profession to the next level of acceptance and acceptability that I can't help but be exhilarated. We are providing good employment opportunities for practitioners, cracking open the retail market, and spreading the power of touch. What's not to love?"

And his excitement goes beyond just finding a new, profitable niche. He's truly passionate about touching the world, and he wants desperately for the profession to realize its potential. He thinks Zubio can help do both.

"This is going to revolutionize chair massage," he says matter-of-factly.

Semiprivate Massage

Zubio, created from the word "tsubo," is the vehicle for Palmer's passionate attempt to touch the masses. Designed on the premise of the Japanese kiosk he'd seen earlier, the stand-alone Zubio unit is home to a chair massage practitioner who can work on one client at a time within a semiprivate environment, regardless of setting. Specifically built for placement within retail locations, the Zubio's 100 square feet and three walls provide a solid sense of privacy and enclosure, without it feeling claustrophobic, Palmer says. The height and width of the structure, he says, gives the area around the client's chair a sense of spaciousness.

One practitioner staffs the station at a time; all the while, the exterior of the Zubio explains the chair massage service through running video feeds. Clients pay a bit more than the customary $1/minute because of overhead, Palmer says, but it's still within the accessibility point for consumers.

Noting the modesty factor he had once underestimated, Palmer says this new business is really about finding the right balance for retail chair massage settings. Before Zubio, there were two ways to be in a retail climate, he explains. "One is the expensive storefront, like Great American Backrub, with seven chairs -- paying for top-end space and a lot of practitioners just to have the place open. But there's no guarantee it will work, and this is a poor profession." The other example for retail-based massage is what Palmer calls the "Whole Foods" version: one chair, one practitioner. "That may work where there is an educated clientele, but not in the mall."

Zubio, he says, combines the best of both worlds. For potential clients, chair massage has always been accessible, in terms of affordability and convenience, but Palmer says privacy was a sticking point. "The kiosk is now making it a semiprivate experience." In addition, Zubio customers can count on consistency of service. Palmer says he has always trained people to be highly choreographed, and it will be no different for Zubio practitioners. "No matter what country, it will be the same massage."
Palmer also sees Zubio as a portal -- an entry level for clients and practitioners. For clients, Zubio will be a "safe" way to test-drive massage, with all the barriers -- time, money, privacy, accessibility -- pushed away. Once hooked, Palmer has a referral system in place for clients eager to graduate to the next step of table massage.

For practitioners, Palmer believes Zubio will be a great way to get their feet wet, reminding newbies that the first 2,000 massages are still "practice massages." Training with Zubio will include another 50 hours, post-massage school. At launch, Palmer had 12 practitioners trained and ready to go, but figures he'll need an average of five people staffed per unit.

Zubio's first site, outside of Nordstroms on the first floor of the San Francisco Shopping Centre, has tremendous presence in this high-end mall. Other sites are being chosen for similar high-end traffic patterns, and Palmer says he's not yet sure if Zubio will pursue a franchise or company-owned model.

The company will be in a start-up phase for the next year, Palmer says, all the while demonstrating that this model can make money. By December 2006, Palmer expects to have eight Zubio units up and running. By mid-2006, he hopes a second round of financing will take Zubio outside of the San Francisco market.

European and UK retail settings will also be a target market for Zubio. "Europe is about 10 years behind the United States in its massage growth curve," Palmer says. "They are just hitting the first peak in chair massage popularity. Because they don't have the regulatory/school/association climate that has inhibited the growth of chair massage in the United States, it may well be an easier market to grow Zubio in."

While Palmer concedes there will be competition for Zubio in the years ahead, he's not concerned about those perceived competitors who already exist. He says the vibrating massage chairs found in six-packs at the mall and the aqua massage machines are fads that can never do what Zubio will do: "There is no substitute for human touch. And personal attention," he adds. "You can't replace that."

Work to Do

There's no doubt massage has come a long way in the last decade and chair massage even more so, because of its everyday-type presence in "safe," commonplace settings. But Palmer says we're not all that far removed from what was described by the Wall Street Journal in a 1989 article about chair massage and how some companies were uncomfortable with the nature of the work: "Given such attitudes, some corporate masseurs prefer to go about their business quietly. Russell Borner of Park Ridge, N.J., says he has been working for the past year at a huge chemical and manufacturing company in New York, unbeknownst to the company's executives. He visits the same department every two or three weeks. His massage chair is kept in a closet, and a secretary escorts him past security."

Clandestine it may no longer be, but the attitudes that permeated society then -- that had executives fearful of how they would look to their peers if they submitted to 15 minutes of stress-relieving chair massage -- are still at play, as is the unease with being "vulnerable" in a public setting.

That's part of why Palmer believes he couldn't have started this company even five years ago. "Today, everybody knows what chair massage is, even though they may not have gotten one. They see it in airports, at the finish line of races. All we're going to do is make them stumble over it and make it impossible for them not to get one."
Yet, in the same breath that he contemplates his newest undertaking, Palmer voices concerns with the growth of the bodywork profession. "In 1985, there was a shift from massage to massage therapy," Palmer explains. Things started being defined in the negative: "I have a problem. I need to fix it." He believes it's this new paradigm that has stalled the industry's growth. "It's not growing like it was because our culture has reached its limit as to who thinks they 'need' massage therapy."

Regardless of what recent surveys may have shown, Palmer believes the number of people getting table massage is actually flattening out because of that "need" perception. "I'm interested in the Massage Envy approach," he says of the rapidly-expanding massage franchise. "These folks realized that the primary initial barrier to entry was the cost of it. While people get a massage on vacation or for their birthday, they just can't afford $70 every month."
Massage Envy has also been good about building a brand, "something else that hasn't happened in the profession," Palmer says. He strongly believes that whoever gets branding figured out will turn the profession upside down. "Whoever successfully creates trustworthy brands will be the ones to get massage into the lives of the 90 percent who don't know who to trust when selecting a practitioner."

But none of this means the individual practitioner will fall away. Quite the contrary. "I don't think we're a threat to anyone else doing massage," Palmer says. "What we're going to do is create new clients and customers. We'll be the firm edge of the profession. We'll introduce them to skilled touch; we won't be the end of massage."

Reclaiming Touch

Embarking on this new venture -- pregnant anticipation, labor pains, and all -- Palmer takes a second to put it all in perspective for us, while underscoring the obvious.

"Touch is the orphan sense in our culture," he says. "It's the one sense we've disowned most, and it's time for us to reclaim it. It's the first sense we have in the womb and likely the last sense we experience when we die. Yet, we live in a culture that numbs us from the neck down. When we reclaim that, it will be revolutionary." It's this perspective that motivated Palmer 20 years ago and will undoubtedly see him through his next 20 years in the bodywork community.

"If we got all the touch we wanted (or needed), 75 percent of mental health problems would go away tomorrow," he says. "It would change the individual, it would change their relationships, and it would change the institutions in which they live, work, and play."
Palmer explained it best when, in 1998, he wrote, "The beauty of chair massage is its simple message -- that massage can make you feel better, whatever that means to you, any time you want ... You don't have to be sick or enlightened or wealthy to appreciate its benefits. It's truly massage for the masses."

"After 13 months of pregnant anticipation, the labor pains were intense," says Palmer of the birth of Zubio. While delays in opening the first Zubio site certainly presented its headaches ("I can report that I have become am expert in the building permit process ..."), November's opening day jitters have come and gone and Palmer is now focused on fine-tuning this prototype and watching his dream of "touch for every body" begin to take form.