Rubbed the Right Way : Massage Salons Have Begun to Provide the Privacy and Security That Women Demand

HAVE-TABLE-will-travel masseurs and masseuses are making house calls all over Southern California. Trendy beauty shops and skin-care centers in Los Angeles and Orange counties report that massage appointments have tripled during the last year. But the most affordable places to soothe stressed-out muscles and minds are the oldest: massage salons.

More people in need of a rubdown are heading for salons such as Massage Therapy Center, Burke Williams Massage Centre and Beverly Hot Springs in Los Angeles; the American Spa in San Diego; Nice to Be Kneaded in Burbank, and Massage Masters in Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks. The reasons vary: Licensed masseurs and masseuses offer 60- to 90-minute treatments in clean, private rooms. Salon massages average $40 to $60 for a one-hour massage, about 40% less than home or office massages. Most salons offer a full menu of rubdowns, including Swedish, Shiatsu, sports and medical massage for injuries.

For many people, the quiet environment these facilities provide is the No. 1 draw. "Most clients are looking for a way to escape the pressures of their home or workplace," says Ahmos Netanel, who owns and operates Massage Therapy Center. "They want to be away from the phones, the kids, their responsibilities--even if just for an hour." Some facilities, such as Burke Williams, have "quiet rooms," small sanctums designed to provide more relaxation after a treatment. In others, clients can nap in quiet rooms after treatment. "The goal is to extend the stress-free period for the client so he or she gets the most out of a massage," Netanel says.

One West Hollywood woman who lives alone says, "I enjoy a weekly massage, but I never felt safe having someone come into my home. Until I found a massage salon, I didn't realize that there was an acceptable alternative. Now I go to a salon and feel totally relaxed." Like many men and women who want a relaxing massage, she complains that health-club massages aren't tranquil enough, that beauty salons and skin-care centers aren't open late enough and that physical therapists' offices are too clinical. "I want to feel pampered," she admits.

In the past, the options were limited. Although legitimate massage salons have been around for years, they've been difficult to find, especially if one used local telephone business directories. Many of the ads devoted to massage services look like call-girl listings, making it difficult to distinguish the therapeutic massage centers from illicit establishments that are fronts for prostitution rings.

Despite the onslaught of new, legitimate massage businesses, finding the right salon is still tricky. "If an establishment discourages female clients, think twice," Netanel cautions. He says the most reliable method is to get a personal referral from a friend or health professional or to telephone the California Massage Therapy Assn., (408) 365-7401, for the name of a member salon.

Traditionally, the massage-salon business has been male-dominated. Men become accustomed to rubdowns after sports and exercise workouts. Brooks Baths on Beverly Boulevard, for instance, has been catering to male executives for the last 35 years. But now owners of salons throughout Southern California are reporting that more women are recognizing the therapeutic values of massage. Many salons, such as San Diego's American Spa, offer treatments designed for women.

"Women--especially those who are not comfortable with their body image--are often inhibited about disrobing, even if they are working with a female massage therapist," says Judy Dean, owner of American Spa. To meet these clients' needs, Dean uses techniques that render undressing unnecessary.

At Massage Therapy Center, Netanel's 40 therapists are trained to give pregnant women massages that relieve back strain. Dean says that in less than three years, her percentage of male clients has shrunk from 90% to 60%. "Women are finally feeling that it's safe and acceptable to go to a salon," Dean says.

At Burke Williams, the majority of clients are women, including Hollywood celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Margot Kidder and Michelle Phillips. A spa-like environment with facials and "aromatherapy" treatments is obviously geared to a female clientele, says co-owner Bill Armour. "Women understand spas and view them as a luxury," he says, "so it's a nice way to ease them into the idea of weekly massages."

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