As Spa Industry Rebounds from COVID-19, Staffing Shortage Looms

The spa industry is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic—but it’s now faced with not enough employees to meet an increased demand for spa services.

This is according to a presentation by the International Spa Association (ISPA), in which ISPA’s research advisors with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Colin McIlheney and Russell Donaldson, provided an overview of the 2021 ISPA U.S. Spa Industry Study findings.

The Effect of 2020 on U.S. Spas

The spa industry has suffered the loss of 870 U.S. spa locations, a 35% fall in visits and a 36% drop in revenue, from $19.1 billion to $12.1 billion, in 2020. Beginning in March 2020, 73% of U.S. spas closed, remaining so through April of that year. As the pandemic’s second wave crested and fell in the fall of 2020, by December just 6% of spas remained closed, according to a final report on the study, which was provided to MASSAGE Magazine.

“Resort/hotel spas were especially hard hit by the pandemic. On average, they were closed for 3.4 months of 2020 and fully open, with no restrictions, for a little under three months,” noted the report. Day spas fared somewhat better. On average, day spas were fully closed for 2.6 months and fully operational for 3.8 months.

“The other spa category includes club spas, medical spas, destination spas and mineral springs spas. Collectively, the other spa category was least affected by the pandemic, with the average spa closed for 1.5 months in 2020 and fully open, without restrictions, for 4.2 months,” the reported noted.

• Day spas: 79% of all spa establishments

• Resort/hotel spas: 9.4% of all spa establishments

• Medical spas: 8.4% of all spa establishments

Consumer Demand is Up; Staffing is Down

Despite the decrease in locations and income, in 2020 there were 124 million visits to U.S. spas—down from 192 million in 2019—and as consumers come out of isolation, they are focused on wellbeing and personal health, both of which are key components of the spa lifestyle.

“Society is realizing that healthier and better living conditions need to be a focus going forward,” said Mark Otter, president and CEO of MassageLuXe, a spa franchise with 250 U.S. locations, who spoke with MASSAGE Magazine following the ISPA presentation.

“I think that people are recognizing that massage can be such an amazing thing because of what it can do for people,” said Otter. “People know that massage can really help in so many ways other than just stress relief, other than just feeling like it’s a luxury to go out and be pampered. It truly has so many benefits [for] sleep disorders, mental health, post-COVID-19. I think that’s only going to grow.”

Otter said the number of guests who booked sessions with MassageLuXe in July 2021 surpassed such numbers in July 2019, which had been the company’s biggest year.

“Even though there are still concerns [about] the Delta variant—of course, we have to monitor, we have to really make sure of what’s going on with it and keep all of the practices and protocols in place for safety—in regard to the demand for the services, it’s never been higher,” he said.

Additionally, spa directors can no longer ask, “Who is my typical consumer?” because a huge swath of the general public is now more interested in health, self-care and wellness, all of which are key components of the spa experience, the ISPA presenters said. In 2020, spas experienced an increase in visits from local clientele. “On average, in 2020, almost three in four spa customers (74%) were local residents or walk-in guests, with out-of-town guests comprising the remaining 26%,” the study noted.

Spas met the challenges of the pandemic in creative ways, including:

• The development of new spa menus (42%)

•Outdoor or curbside treatments (40%)

•Touchless treatments (21%)

Still, lower profits and COVID-19-mandated closures resulted in spas reducing their workforces in 2020.

This means the increased demand for spa services is being met head-on by a lack of people to provide those services: There are more than 36,000 service provider vacancies at spas—although the seed of short staffing took root before the pandemic began. Massage therapy positions making up more than half that figure. There are also more than 2,000 manager and director vacancies, so there’s a lot of opportunity for people who want to work in a leadership position, Donaldson said.

According to the study:

• The number of full-time employees is estimated to have fallen by -36,500 (-20.6%), dropping to 141,000 by January 2021. Part-time employment fell by almost 30,000 (-16.7%), to 149,000 in January 2021.

• Employment of independent contractors almost halved, falling from 27,800 to 15,200, a drop of 12,600 (-45.3%).

• Resort/hotel spas registered the largest percentage fall in workforce numbers, down by -32.1% compared with -18.9% for day spas and -10.6% in the other spa category.

• Across the industry as a whole, the number employed per spa location dropped from 17.1 in January 2020 to 14.1 in January 2021.

Staffing solutions floated in the presentation included offering benefits to part-time employees and looking outside usual funnels for new workers.

 “Diversification would be opening one’s thinking to demographic grounds that haven’t been represented before in the workforce—reaching out into communities, locations, demographic groups and somehow attracting those people,” McIlheney said.

ISPA President Lynne McNees, in an ISPA press release, added, “As expected, this year’s study reveals the scope of the challenge spas have faced throughout the pandemic, but it also illustrates the industry’s resourcefulness and innovative spirit. Spas have worked tirelessly to continue safely serving guests, and recent indications of exceptionally high demand leave us confident in a strong recovery throughout 2021 and beyond.”

Massage therapists who might wonder what it’s like to work in a spa should consider that spas handle marketing for massage, will create a work schedule based on employees’ needs, and offer a sense of teamwork, said Otter. “When you’re around like-minded people, you learn, you grow, you have synergies,” he said, “and I think that that can be tremendously rewarding.”

About the Author:

Covid19, Industry, Looms, Rebounds, Shortage, Spa, Staffing ⋆ As Spa Industry Rebounds from COVID-19, Staffing Shortage Looms

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor-in-chief, print and digital. Her recent articles include “Improve Your Sleep by Syncing Up with Circadian Rhythm” and “The Massage Magazine Interview: Benny Vaughn.”


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