Elliot Walker is a man on a mission: to change the way the UK views massage
Most people don’t think twice about forking out for a monthly gym membership but getting someone to work on the knots in your back is generally seen as a once-in-a-blue-moon indulgence for the majority of Brits. But perhaps not for long, if Elliot Walker, co-founder of The Massage Company, has something to say about it.
Having cut his teeth running skincare brand Murad, Walker is certainly no stranger to the beauty industry. But it was while travelling the world with Murad that he came across a massively popular US concept that had seemingly never been tried in Britain: a membership-based massage service where people pay a set fee for a certain number of treatments. “So many great international brands and ideas start their lives in America that by spending time there you get a sense of what’s successful,” says Walker. “But you can’t just plonk an idea into the UK and hope it will work: you need to consider the differences.”
This idea bubbled away for years in the back of Walker’s mind and when Murad was acquired by Unilever in 2015 he realised the time was right to bring the concept across the pond. “The number of spas in this country had mushroomed and we could see there was massive demand but nobody had quite cracked it yet,” says Walker. So he partnered with Charlie Thompson, chairman of the UK Spa Association and former head of health and beauty at Virgin Active, to form The Massage Company, a membership-based massage destination where people can pop in for a treatment in a purpose-built facility.
The duo is trying to disrupt the standard approach to massage by offering affordable treatments, making it easy to book an appointment at convenient times and encouraging people to view them as a regular habit, much like going to the gym. “There’s a lot more recognition now of the benefits of massage to people’s physical and mental health: we want to make it a more regular part of people’s lives,” says Walker.
Franchising was the obvious route for Walker and his co-founder. “We both knew franchising was the best route when it came to a venture like ours,” he says. After all, the entrepreneurs were well aware of how it could help a business concept blow up: they already each had their ‘ones that got away’. “I remember speaking to Subway right before they became really big, while Charlie’s eye was caught by Big Box Self Storage when it was in its infancy,” says Walker.
After much consideration, the first site in Camberley, opened in March 2016. While many franchises choose to open a pilot in London, Walker wanted to find somewhere that was more representative of the country as a whole. “I lived in London and it would have been so easy to do a roaring trade in Knightsbridge but we needed to prove that the success of our initial outlet would be replicable elsewhere,” he explains. After scouring locations in Milton Keynes and various other spots within the M25, Walker came across premises in Camberley. There was nothing remarkable about it: in fact, it was its very ordinary demographic profile – which matched so many other UK towns – that appealed most.
The first order of the day was making sure that as franchisees were brought on board, they’d be able to take on therapists capable of delivering a consistent and professional service. Just like a McDonald’s Big Mac, which tastes the same whether you order it in Surrey or Shanghai, Walker wants everyone to experience a similar standard of massage. “One of the initial problems we had was that therapists often come with varying – and sometimes only basic – skill levels,” says Walker. “We actually spent a long time just getting the training programme in place to ensure the service standard will remain the same as we grow.” And so massage guru John Holman was brought on board and tasked with devising a plan that would help therapists deliver a superior massage. “We want to professionalise the industry and ensure both men and women feel comfortable,” says Walker.
To further get franchise-ready, Walker has been creating a strong brand identity that franchisees can buy into. Stock images of people with perfect teeth grinning artificially and posing with a therapist are banned: instead, The Massage Company takes original photos to create a sense of authenticity and build trust. An equal amount of thought has gone into the colour scheme chosen for its marketing collateral and the facilities’ interior decor. Walker pored over colour samples with his branding agency trying to find the perfect combination that would convey both warmth and energy, finally settling on pink and orange.
Walker also recognises the importance of having a strong online presence in the UK, so the company has started a blog that helps people get to know the therapists and has created an online booking system with all the bells and whistles. “Unlike in the US, the majority of UK spa bookings are made online,” says Walker. “We’d be dead in the water if we didn’t have robust e-booking technology built in that all franchisees can tap into.”
Another key point of difference is the brand’s lower price point. With consumers being warned of higher prices to come in 2017, Walker is hoping to corner the affordable luxury – but not bargain basement – market segment. “We’re not offering a luxurious, £200 spa day or a questionable back-of-a-beauty-salon job where massage services are strapped onto a host of other treatments,” he says. “We’re somewhere in-between.” But positioning itself above some of the cheaper competitors also means having to invest more in some areas, with staffing perhaps being the biggest outlay. “Things come at a price: we can’t pay our staff the minimum wage and expect them to deliver a good treatment,” he says.
While it’s still early days for the franchise, Walker is feeling confident that the combined marketing experience he has with his co-founder will give them an edge. “We know how to use both traditional and new media to get people into the centres and how to anglicise an American concept for the British market,” he says. “It’s not like we’re newcomers to the industry.”
And Walker has grand ambitions to expand throughout the UK. The company is in talks with interested franchisees and has already identified potential sites. As a vote of confidence in the company’s success to date, the founders have been swooping up a string of awards, including gongs for Best New Business in Surrey at the SME Surrey Business Awards and Best New Business of the Year 2016 at the Collectively Camberley Business Awards 2016. “Eventually I’d like 80% of people in Britain to live within 20 minutes of one of our franchise outlets,” the franchisor concludes. “I want to revolutionise the entire market.”