All's well in the massage industry as stress becomes big business


Where once massage was simply a complementary service offered by beauty salons and health clubs, huge demand has created what is now called the "wellness industry".

A phrase coined in the US, the wellness sector is an umbrella industry of sorts, where the various services and treatments share one theme: a holistic approach to treatment, looking at the whole person including all aspects of his/her being - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social.

While the economic boom is one of the key factors behind the growth, industry figures are convinced that it is not just a temporary spin-off of the Celtic Tiger.

Increased stress levels, the advent of professional sports and changing attitudes in Irish society have contributed to the growth.

Brenda Doherty of the Odyssey Healing Centre on Wicklow Street in Dublin says that five years ago such centres would have been described in rather dubious terms, but that has now changed.

She said the image of the centres had improved through strategies such as carefully choosing business names that explain the services provided and distance the centres from the sex industry.

Established almost four years ago, The Odyssey Centre has customers from all walks of life. Many have been recommended by doctors to heal injuries such as chronic back pain. Others come purely to relax their bodies and ease stress levels.

Temple Bar Natural Healing Centre, based in a modern building on Temple Lane, offered just one yoga class a week three years ago. The centre now runs 14 weekly classes and employs six yoga teachers. Many customers use both the yoga classes and various massage treatments.

Michelle McGill, proprietor of the centre, said it was a great time for professionals and customers to be involved in the industry. "There is definitely a greater public awareness of health issues and the alternative treatments that have emerged," she said.

Professional and amateur sports organisation have for decades relied on massage treatments to boost performance.

The same kind of thinking has now entered the workplace. As stress levels among Irish workers grow, many companies have recognised that providing massages for employees can improve the working environment.

Stressbusters, is a UK company, brings a massage service to business premises and offers courses to tense executives. The concept is slowly gaining favour with Irish companies. Many of the leading massage centres have been approached by the business sector.

From a commercial angle, wellness, and massage in particular, is peculiar in that the service/ product the public is buying - the relaxation and healing powers of the masseuse's hands - is intangible.

Success in this business comes from the reputation of the masseuse, the strength of the clientbase and the environment created for customers.

Much of the commercial property on the market is not suitable for this type of business. A common feature of such premises is a feeling of space and privacy, which helps clients relax and "destress".

High standards of hygiene are obviously essential. Proprietors also require property that will allow their business to expand as needed.

Most centres offer a range of massage instruction courses to the public, which have proved very popular and account for a high percentage of annual revenues.

The regulation of complementary health practices is a pressing issue in the EU, with calls for the introduction of legislation to protect the consumer.

The president of the Irish Health Culture Association, Martin Ford, a naturopath and osteopath who has run Walmer House in Raheny since 1986, prefers the laissez-faire attitude that exists in the UK and Ireland.

"We have a very strict self-imposed regime, where the majority of practitioners have formed their own self-regulated association, for insurance purposes," he said.

"If regulation were to be introduced, then the whole concept we embrace would have to be watered down to satisfy bureaucrats."

He said the Consumer Protection Act and the criminal law provide adequate protection for the client, and also act as a deterrent for any rogue traders.

The IHCA's national registry lists about 300 names.