With the tagline “Raising Safety Standards in the Massage and Spa Industry,” five major massage franchisees have banded together to form the National Spa Franchise Association.
Hand & Stone, Elements Massage, Massage Heights, Woodhouse and Spavia, with more than 1,000 locations, are founding members. MassageLuxe, which has more than 75 units, and Zen Massage, a brand with nine locations in five states, are also on board.
A key feature of membership is access to the Employment Verification System, a program that serves as an additional screening tool for individual franchisees when hiring a therapist, said Cindy Meiskin, Hand & Stone’s chief experience officer and association president. It was the lack of such a system that could serve as a resource across different massage brands that led Meiskin to connect with other industry leaders and form NASF.
Meskin “started to get frustrated,” she said, because a provider who was terminated for violating safety protocols could show up at another spa. States have different regulations for massage therapists, and there is a “definite lag time” between filing a complaint or opening an investigation and marking the therapist’s license.
EVS is powered by Crimcheck, a comprehensive employment background screening solution. Brands and their franchisees can screen candidates and conduct background checks, leveraging the association’s ever-growing database of member companies. Each brand has an agreement with Crimcheck, and once they join, their franchisees can conduct unlimited EVS checks.
The system goes live in July 2022, and there have been 12 “hits,” or people flagged for violating safety protocols who applied at another massage place, and “we prevented them from being hired,” Meiskin said.
Kristen Pechacek, chief growth officer at MassageLuxe, said joining NASF was a “no-brainer.” MassageLuxe owns 100% of the franchises and has its own similar database at the brand level, which can now be combined with data from other franchises through EVS. She noted that the response from franchisees after the company shared engagement was “overwhelming happiness. It will make us all stronger.”
Zen Massage CEO Keith Larson said he learned about the National Spa Franchise Association from Massage Heights President and CEO Susan Boresow. The pair worked together at McDonald’s in the ’90s, he said, “We both understand very well what trust and confidence means to a brand.”
Larson sees joining the association as an opportunity to help build consumer confidence in the massage and spa category. “Anyone of our customers wants to trust the industry,” he said. “Bad actors in our profession are a tiny fraction of therapists. But the reality is that the disruption caused by even one bad actor is disproportionately large.”
Horowitz Law attorney Adam Horowitz said his firm has handled “more than 100 cases” involving sexual assault allegations involving all major massage brands. “I think it’s a good start,” he said of the association and its employment verification system. “Any kind of information sharing would help.”
Typically, complaints are filed at the franchisee level, without the franchisor being implicated, Horowitz said. That wasn’t the case for Massage Heights Franchising in 2021, when a state district court jury in Houston found the company liable for a sexual assault by a customer and awarded damages. The accused massage therapist, Mario Rubio, was convicted of sexual assault in 2018 and is serving 18 years in prison.
MH Franchising appealed the judgment in March 2022 on the grounds that Rubio’s “convicted willful conduct was an alternate cause of plaintiff’s injury,” according to the lawsuit listed in Item 3 of Massage Heights’ franchise disclosure document. That appeal is pending.
Massage Heights declined to comment for this story.
Horowitz, who was not involved in the Massage Heights case, said he would like to see uniformity in how franchisees handle complaints and what constitutes a breach of safety protocols. “If there’s a dangling violation and someone is exposed, not touched but their genitals are exposed, is that a violation?” he asked. “Compared to whether there is uniform standards, there is some element of self-regulation here.”
“It’s a welcome addition,” Horowitz continued of the NASF formation. “It would be great if they could get Massage Envy on board. The more brands they can get, the better.”
Massage Envy, the largest massage parlor chain in the United States, which is not a member of NASF, issued the following statement: “Massage Envy is an independently owned and operated franchise dedicated to providing a safe, professional, and comfortable environment for approximately 1,100 members and service providers locations. We are proud of our security practices and will continue to evaluate ways to further enhance or support our policies.”
Meiskin noted that many franchises, including Hand & Stone, have taken other steps to address safety concerns, such as adding an alarm button to each treatment room. “I’m a big believer in the attention button,” she said. “It’s a huge deterrent. It’s also for the safety of our massage therapists.”
In addition to improving safety procedures, Meskin said the association plans to discuss massage therapy education and curriculum reforms, as well as the industry-wide shortage of massage therapists, with the goal of raising awareness of career opportunities in franchising.