Every once in awhile, disrupters emerge and offer such innovative solutions that they render the industry forever changed. On-demand massage, enabled by technology and ubiquitous apps, has made booking a treatment nearly instantaneous, allowing clients to confirm massages within seconds—at almost any time of day. Some on-demand companies provide access to a network of therapists who travel to clients’ homes or offices within the hour, while others offer same-day massages at spas. “As technology has grown, consumers do more and more online,” says Michael Tompkins, co-CEO of Palm Health and chairman of the International Spa Association. “Time has become a scarcity in our very busy lives, and having the ability of the provider to come to wherever you are in a short period of time is a gift. It also appeals to younger generations, who are the true drivers of consumption.”
As clients demand more and more convenient ways to receive wellness treatments, companies have responded with easy-to-use apps and sophisticated location technology. “Soothe comes to you,” says Merlin Kauffman, founder and CEO of Soothe, a massage-on-demand service and app launched in Los Angeles in 2013. “We make it super easy for our clients to book a relaxing massage at a location of their choosing, usually in around 60 minutes.” Users can filter by massage type, treatment length, and therapist gender. “Clients use our mobile app or website to schedule an appointment, then we match them with a certified massage therapist in their area,” he says. “We take special care to match therapists with clients. Rather than send out hundreds of requests for the same massage, we have algorithms that match the right four to five therapists—based on location, reviews, modality, and more—to that customer’s massage request. This dramatically increases client satisfaction rates.”
For Refresh Body, an early on-demand innovator founded in 2007 in New York City, the goal from the beginning was to change the industry and the way that practitioners interact with their clients. “We wanted to make it easier for great practitioners to build rapport and consistency with clients who were seeking long-term relationships with true professionals,” says CEO Logan Sugarman. “We find that our major point of distinction is in our curation. Wellness services have a wide range of quality, and when a client finds someone they love, they want to use that person again and again. We curate the best practitioners, and our website and app give the client the ability to seamlessly select the exact provider they want for the exact date and time they need. You can book online or through our app in as few as three clicks, as little as a few hours ahead of time.” Refresh Body has a select network of more than 150 providers in 13 cities. A number of partnerships are in the works with hotel groups, large corporations, and high-end gyms.
Clients are also demanding a variety of wellness services delivered to their doors. Zeel, founded in late 2010 by CEO Samer Hamadeh, strove to make alternative wellness therapies like massage, acupuncture, and yoga more accessible by facilitating bookings with licensed practitioners. “Almost immediately, Zeel was swamped by requests for massage—same-day and often within hours,” says Marcy Lerner, vice president of communications and partnerships. “At that time, the massage industry simply wasn’t set up to give customers what they wanted—on-demand massage. We knew that the best way to deliver on-demand massage would be to send massage therapists to customers where they were—in their homes, hotels, workplaces, or at events.” Massage On Demand became available in December 2012. Clients can schedule services at their location of choice in as little as an hour, or up to a month in advance. Zeel launched its app in April 2013, and currently has more than 5,000 therapists active in its network.
With new partnerships, on-demand massage is taking the industry by storm. American Spa highlighted on-demand massage as a top trend in its 2016 Trend Report, as did Well+Good and Spafinder Wellness. In October 2015, Spafinder Wellness partnered with Zeel as the exclusive provider of in-home massages for the media company’s millions of customers. Through Spafinder.com, customers can book Zeel massages from 8 am until 10:30 pm, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in as little as an hour ahead of time or up to a month in advance. “After watching Zeel launch in different markets, in May 2015, I decided to try the service myself, and it all added up: The quality of the massage was very high, and the product was a great fit for Zeel, Spafinder Wellness 365, and our customers,” says Pete Ellis, chairman and CEO of Spafinder Wellness. “The only bottleneck is that some spa owners in our network will be fearful of the on-demand model. But that will disappear, as spas see the practical benefits of these kinds of services.” According to Spafinder Wellness’ Trends Report, Zeel recently launched Zeel Concierge, which helps hotels and spas fill last-minute appointments with Zeel massage therapists.
In addition to same-day bookings, clients are looking for discounts on last-minute treatments—and spas are adapting. Locality, a price-comparison site for local services, launched MassageNow in December 2014, which lets consumers book same-day massages at nearby luxury spas through the app or website, and often at a deep discount. “Consumers today, and especially our core users who are high-income, busy professionals, want to get things now,” says cofounder and CEO Jay Shek. “This is especially true for men, who represent almost half of our users. For anyone who has tried to book a same-day massage, they know how challenging it can be. First, they have to know what spas to call, then they have to call around to find a spa that has availability. The result? People end up not booking same-day, even if they’d love to get a last-minute massage after a stressful day, a tough workout, or just unexpected downtime. We do the work for people by aggregating same-day openings at top spas near them and, even better, getting them a discount of up to 40 percent off.”
Shek notes that the arrangement is a win-win for clients and spas. “Spas love this because it’s incremental revenue and helps fill up a spot that otherwise would have gone unfilled,” he says. “This means better utilization rates, happier therapists, and also great marketing—new customers who have experienced the spa and can spread positive word-of-mouth. Discounting on same-day appointments is also much more sustainable for our spa partners versus working with traditional deal sites, where the spa runs the risk of having deal customers take up prime spots that may have otherwise gone to full-price-paying customers.”
Last September, Soothe acquired Unwind Me, a Bay Area competitor, expanding its network of licensed and insured massage therapists to 2,800. “Acquiring Unwind Me has cemented our position as the number one on-demand massage service in the San Francisco Bay Area, significantly increasing both our therapist and customer numbers there,” says Kauffman. “We are the biggest on-demand service in the world, by number of monthly bookings and revenue.” Soothe is currently available in 27 cities with more than 4,000 therapists in the U.S., Canada, and the UK, and operates 8 am to midnight, seven days a week. “For therapists, we are finding that this is a great addition to the industry,” says Kauffman. “Our network allows them an incredible amount of flexibility, while earning on average four times the industry standard.”
The leading on-demand companies ensure therapists are fully vetted and clients’ identities are verified, but issues can still arise. “Soothe is the only company in the industry to have a world-class concierge team that can remotely assist our clients and massage therapists in any type of situation,” says Kauffman. “Our team is there to answer questions regarding therapist qualifications and address concerns people may have, however, Soothe has never experienced any safety issues. All of our therapists are hand-picked, licensed, background checked, and insured.” But along with the convenience of on-demand services comes safety and comfort concerns. “Safety certainly will be an issue, and the day will come when a negative experience will happen,” says Tompkins. “Whenever we are displeased with a therapist at a spa, we have the ability to end the service, get up off the table, and be in an environment where other people are around, and educated managers and owners are there to assist. Not having the comfort of that in a personal space or in a hotel room could be daunting to the customer.”
Despite potential drawbacks, on-demand’s benefits far outweigh the costs, and the trend is certain to affect the spa industry’s future. “We foresee spas working with us as collaborators,” says Sugarman. “Instead of expending time and energy training and managing a staff, they can focus more on the guest experience and leave the curation of their team to us. By utilizing our pool of talent, they can reduce costs and improve the overall quality of their workforce. We definitely see ourselves as an agent of change for the spa industry. Our system and structure allow practitioners to better utilize their time and reap a greater share of the income generated by their efforts.” Tompkins adds, “I actually see hotel brands not building spas and instead offering on-demand from the hotel room, where amenities and therapist setups are in the room. For hotels that cannot build spas, this is a great opportunity. The resulting disruption at first will be needing more trained therapists. We already have a shortage in many areas of trained massage staff, but while in the short term it will be a negative for operators, in the long term, it will make professions in our industry an even further draw.”