woman on a massage table getting temples rubbed

Spa Employee Compensation Plans—How Did We Get Here?

By Lisa Starr

There's good news and bad news about the current compensation plans in spas and wellness centers in the United States.  

The good news is, with 50 sets of state regulations on minimum wage, and entrenched practices that have been followed regionally for many years, America has an extremely wide range of staff compensation strategies in use.  

The bad news is, without a consistent approach, prospective employees never know what to expect, potential business owners don’t know how to plan and forecast, and too few of this vast array of plans keep compensation costs under control. 

A brief history of spa compensation plans 

When salons began to morph into spas, or at least to add facials and massages to their service menus in the mid-’80s, owners opted to pay these new service providers the same way they had always paid their salon staff, in the absence of other models.  

At that time, U.S. salon employees were generally paid straight commission on services, without any guarantees or hourly rates. However, the commissions were quite high; in parts of the country, 50% was standard, and some areas went even higher. 

When the demand began to grow for spa services in salons, it was often just by adding one or two rooms to offer skin and body services and which, while appropriately equipped and furnished, were only a treatment room door away from the hustle and bustle of the salon. 

As these new treatments grew in popularity, it became clear that these types of services benefited from a separation from beauty departments. The facilities became larger, sometimes even with separate check-in desks for salon and spa services. With the focus on the guest experience, other features were added including relaxation lounges, self-help refreshment bars, locker rooms, changing rooms, and sometimes even wet amenities like steam rooms or saunas.  

Keeping up with consumer expectations 

The media coverage of spas became more consistent, both in print and broadcast media, while travelers and business people began to enjoy spa experiences in locales other than their home. Consequently, clients began to expect an elevated experience, including donning a luxurious robe and relaxing in a well-appointed environment, even when visiting their local day spa.  

But all these amenities cost vastly more to deliver, at least in terms of the physical plant, than a haircut or manicure. There was no way to forecast, at the time, the impact of these miscalculations on profit potential in the future. Add this to increasing everyday business costs, as well as additional expenses of maintaining a social media presence and the other digital aspects of managing a business today, and you have the unenviable combination of business costs of 2020 with, in some instances, an operations finance model from 1995. 

Spa employee compensation and your bottom line 

Certainly, costs have increased in every aspect of operating a business. So why focus on the compensation factor? Regardless of location and type of spa, in the United States, the cost of labor is the highest single aspect on the Income Statement. In an industry with narrow margins to begin with, saving even a few percentage points in Cost of Goods and associated labor expenses can have a very positive impact on your bottom line. 

Beyond the financial impact, the broader implications of some of these legacy compensation practices, especially regarding service providers, is that they are not necessarily oriented to long-term growth. Plans that reward the providers individually, without a team or business impact, haven’t been shown to grow sales or other important performance metrics for the business.  

Additionally, compensation for support staff, aside from in the hotel/resort model, is often not tied to sales metrics—and yet these are the staff members who are the first and last point of contact for the guest and can greatly impact the overall satisfaction of the visit. Now we add to the mix the evolution of the spa industry into additional wellness modalities, which may bring practitioners with yet another pay model—or no practitioners at all—which can lead to a lot of confusion.  

In a series of posts on the Mindbody blog in the next month, we’ll dive deeper into each of these aspects of spa and wellness center employee compensation, bringing you some ideas and inspiration on how you can structure your spa compensation plans to deliver optimal results for both your staff members and the business. 

About the author:

Lisa Starr Headshot

Lisa Starr


Wynne Business Consulting

Lisa is the Principal of Wynne Business Consulting & Education, which specializes in spa, wellness and salon businesses. Starr has over 35 years of experience in the beauty and wellness industry, spending the last 18 years as a consultant and educator helping wellness businesses optimize their operations while providing exceptional experiences for their guests. Starr is the Task Force Chair for the Global Wellness Institute’s Consulting Initiative, a Contributing Editor at Dayspa Magazine, a regular contributor to global trade publications, and a highly rated speaker at industry conferences. She also offers live spa management courses both online and around the globe. 

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