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Chair Massage and Exposure

Why you don’t want to start your relationship with a therapist this way.

This article is written with a bit of gest and sarcasm because the best way to approach frustrating conversations is to make a point with humor and exaggeration.

Many people reach out to me as a massage therapist really excited about their events, music festivals, 5K runs, cycling races, fundraisers, etc. They love emailing me all about this great event and who is coming before they ask me if I want to participate, at no cost, to them. Its an email all about the great ’opportunity’ to get customers and ‘exposure’.

“I have attended a few runs in the area in the past and they frequently have a massage therapist there who does 5-10 minute chair massages for the attendees for no cost. Is this something you offer or would be interested in”

“We have vendors set up by the registration table under the tree to participate we usually ask that you offer 5 min for free. Then you can offer your information to them so they can contact you. This would be of no charge to you.”

“Wow how exciting!” They want me to say. However the reality of how this email lands is quite different. It lands like a load of bricks I didn’t order from a store that wont take them back. In that first email what a therapist hears is “your work does not hold value to me, but I want to look good by offering it to others.”

This kind of request makes me count to 10 before responding because sometimes people are uneducated that this kind of work is in fact business and not marketing. Some of these organizers just need to be given a pay scale to understand that the massage at the other event wasn’t actually free but sponsored (ie. paid for) by the event board itself. Some companies only perform chair massage at events for revenue, that’s the whole business. What these events are asking for is free unpaid labor. And it may be naivety about the field of massage but sometimes it is intentional ignorance. Large companies see new therapists starting out and see a way to get a product for free and disguise it as a favor they are doing the therapist. It is not appreciated, and they are not doing the therapist a favor.

Chair Massage Is a Full Service

Chair massage is hard work. When a therapist is giving a chair massage the body mechanics are different from working over a table but that does not make it easier. Massage is energy intensive for therapists, our whole body is used to do work and while it looks easy it isn’t. Chair massage is not MassageLite™, it’s not a sample of our work. It is our whole job and doing massage usually outside in hot weather, in a location we had to drive to, for multiple hours, with set-up and break-down, is also not advertising. Advertising would be me handing out a pamphlet, or discount cards.

The lie (misconception) that is so often used is that chair massage at events is exposure for what you ‘actually’ do. It’s not. It’s giving away work for free like giving away free finished product. If you think of massage as the product I sell, these kinds of propositions come off different. Lets re-word it and see how it feels.

Lets ask a footwear store:

“I have attended a few runs in the area in the past and they frequently have Free high performance shoes for the attendees for no cost. Is this something you offer or would be interested in”

How about a nail salon:

“We have vendors set up by the registration table under the tree to participate we usually ask that you offer manicures and pedicures for free. Then you can offer your information to them so they can contact you. This would be of no charge to you.”

I know, a Food Truck:

“I have attended a few runs in the area in the past and they frequently have free lunches for the attendees for no cost. Is this something you offer or would be interested in”

Do you feel weird reading those? Kind of like someone is trying to scam you? Yeah we do too.

Chair massage is not a marketing tool, it’s not a form of advertising, and exposure is not a form of currency accepted by my grocery store or mortgage company. I checked. Chair massage is work, it is a full service, and it does have an opportunity cost.

The Actual Cost

So what is Opportunity Cost? Thanks for asking! Opportunity Cost is the potential positive and negative costs of any given opportunity. This means that for every yes or no you are choosing a path that blocks other opportunities. With massage this works with potential appointments. If I say yes to your event, say all day Monday, that means that no one else can book Monday which includes paying clients. If I go to your event and no one sits in my chair, pays me, or books an appointment and I had to turn down a clients who would otherwise have paid me $120 for one hour (for up to 4 hrs) the opportunity cost I paid was $480 and 8 hours of time. If instead I take that client the opportunity cost is 8 hours but I gain $120 for every client I take and up to $480 if my schedule is full and I still save 4 hours. It is possible I could turn down the event and not get booked at all but that would be the opportunity cost of leaving the calendar open to clients. If you want to present this as a marketing opportunity your opportunity cost has to outweigh the potential of my business and you have to present me with statistics of the Return On Investment.

Marketing (ROI)

Whenever you are proposing a marketing opportunity to someone you need to have numbers for their Return On Investment (ROI). If you don’t have a ROI that you are tracking you aren’t actually offering a marketing opportunity as you aren’t presenting any statistics on the effectiveness of that business investment. When I talk to a marketing team they tell me what they charge and usually they will show actual numbers from other businesses that used their services and how much revenue came in to those businesses during the campaigns. They have proof of conversion. Marketing isn’t just getting in front of people it’s getting them to pay you money and if you are not making income it is wasting money. You are proposing that your event would provide a marketing opportunity or ‘exposure’ you need to ensure you are following up with statistics that back that statement.


Don’t forget that when a company does an event this does have a cost. It costs the printing of pamphlets, specialized equipment, driving time and gas, and possibly also employee pay. That’s a lot if you break it down. Printing is expensive for events as you often have multiple pieces of paper with different information about your business which can cost upwards of $50 an event per print. Time and effort can cost the paycheck of an employee which in the massage world is $15 and up and averages around $30 if you factor in chain spas, employees, IC, and Self-employed. Events depending on how many staff members have to attend can cost $120 all the way up to $480 in wages plus gas or driving time. Don’t forget the equipment since massage chairs and cost anywhere from $100 up to $700 and a table is usually in the range of $500-$5000. While you aren’t charging for a booth this is still expensive to attend regardless of employees. There is also the small cost of materials like face cradle covers lotion sanitizer and any other small items that are taken to events which are minimal for each individual event but add up over time.

Psychology of Value

In American culture we have created a buying psychology around perceived value. Many people shop based on coupons and deals where they are ‘saving’ money or offered discounts. The issue with this in reference to free massage for exposure is that if someone receives something for free they often will not value that item or service as having value they will pay money for in the future. This is why the cycle of asking for free massage is so rampant. Someone at some point experienced chair massage at an event or health fair for free. They got in mind that it was worth the value of exposure or $0 and that it was a “sample” not a full time job people do for a living.

Now overall it’s great that people want us at their events and health fairs but independent therapist often don’t have free time to offer at no cost since our time is our product. The cycle of chair massage as a sample is more common in large chain establishments. They have 20 therapists who work back to back hours and are paid minimally for their time creating large profit margins that can take larger hits. Chains can do things like taking opportunity cost because to them they get to say yes to your event and the paying client at the same time and the cost is just the employee pay and materials that they have mass printed in storage. Chains also have the advantage of being able to work with larger companies and schedule across state lines for more than one location and taking large bids for corporate events after those fairs where as a single therapist is local and can’t provide services all over the nation meaning the contracts they get are much smaller. So below is some information for both therapists and businesses looking for therapists to build healthier connections

Ways to reply to people seeking free services (especially those that think they are doing you a favor)

Therapists, know your worth. When an event says free massage they look great, you are giving them a gift of being a hero to the attendees. They are gaining a service and benefit and may not know it costs or are trying not spend on benefits but still get the service and its positive effects. Especially in office settings things like chair massage may be part of a job benefit package and if you aren’t charging for it they are getting free labor and ‘product’ from you that they are presenting as a paid or value holding benefit to their employees. You are giving them free money essentially. Your work is valuable find out what it is worth in your area and tell people what you charge. Do your market research to know your competitors and present your prices when asked to work with someone.

If a therapist contacts an event

  • Read their email to understand what they are offering and ask what their pay structure looks like. understand they may require breaks for long events and usually will work with you on details around timing, session length, set up location, etc.

  • If you can’t afford to pay them that’s fine but tell the therapist that first. If we offer discounts or trade we can work with you but please don’t assume we work for free

  • If this is not a good event for them to participate in, say so. If you have other events in similar area that would be better feel free to counter offer those dates!

  • If the therapist is offering free massage, volunteering their time, or backing your charity, that’s wonderful! I am so glad they feel a civic duty to their neighbors and want to gift massage to others. But it’s great when the therapist offers first.

If an event contacts a therapist

  • Ask them what they charge for this service, if you cant afford their prices you can ask if they are up for a trade, make clear what the value of the trade is to the therapist (your things have value and sentiment to you, share that information)

  • Not looking to pay them? Make that clear up front

  • Erase the word exposure from your diction

  • If this is an investment to gain clients please have a Return On Investment analysis drawn up as marketing requires a return for input to be justified.

  • Vending is different from partnership and a ‘free’ booth is not always a helpful trade. It is often not considered a trade if the event asks for free massage during that time instead of letting the therapist set their usual vending price structure for participants.

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