The concept of massage is very much at the core of some cultures. In others, it is frowned upon. While massage is obviously not the only component of a spa, it is a significant one. A lack of understanding of the cultural and or religious sensitivities around massage specifically and spas in general can lead to embarrassing situations. In this article, we will explore some of these issues and how you can avoid potential minefields around religion, culture and spa.
The specific issues you need to be aware of depends on the customers at your spa. In some Scandinavian spas, nudity, even between male and female, would be acceptable. If the spa is in Japan, where bathing has long been a part of their culture, nudity within the same sex is generally okay, but across sexes is not. When it comes to massage in any of these cultures, it generally does not matter if the therapist is male or female. A male customer is fine to be massaged by either a male or a female therapist. And vice versa. It is merely a matter of the preference of the client.
Understanding of the Muslim culture when it comes to spas and massage is critical if your spa is ever likely to have Muslim guests. As with most religions and cultures, there are some individuals who prefer to adhere strictly to the more traditional interpretations and also those who take a more modern approach. Regardless, when it comes to Muslim cultures, the best rule of thumb is always Man-on-Man, Woman-on-Woman and never the twain shall meet. In other words, a man should only ever be given a massage by a male therapist, never a female. And even more importantly, a woman should never receive a massage from a male therapist. To avoid any potential risk of a woman being seen in a less-than-fully clothed state by a man other than her husband, the spa should have totally separate male and female areas. This means no communal steams, saunas, jacuzzis, pools, etc.
The separation of male and female treatment areas is actually a worthwhile thing to consider, even if your spa does not cater specifically to a Muslim clientele. I think it is fair to assume that most women in most cultures would prefer to not be exposed to male strangers when they are in a spa environment involving a state of less-than-complete dress. And there are probably quite a few men that would prefer a similar level of privacy. Where this can become an issue is couple’s treatments. Whether as part of a honeymoon, or for a romantic getaway, couple’s treatments, where partners share simultaneous treatments in the same room, are a favourite of the hotel spa.
Spa Layout and Design
With a little extra thought on design, it is possible to both respect male-female separation and also offer couple’s treatments at the spa. It is simply a case of having the male and female treatment areas joined, but still separated by a door that can only be accessed by staff. While this could solve the problem in practical terms, in some Muslim countries in particular, such creative construction solutions may be a breach of the building code for a spa.
Aside from the design and construction considerations in such a scenario, there are more practical operational questions, such as how many male therapists do you need in your spa? Some men prefer a male therapist to a female. When it comes to a massage, some believe the male therapist will be able to deliver a stronger treatment. Having said that, I recently had the strongest massage I have every received from a 4ft 11inches Balinese lady in a spa in Miri, East Malaysia!
Some men prefer a male therapist because they think it removes the risk of becoming aroused during the massage. But the irony is that there is still a risk that they might become aroused while receiving a massage from a man, which can in fact increase the embarrassment factor. But overall, in my experience, the vast majority of male guests prefer to have a female therapist.
So, what happens if you have hired a male therapist to service the few Middle Eastern male clients you have in your spa? Let us say you have five of these clients who all come for a weekly massage. That is just five hours of work per week. What do they do for the other 35 hours per week? The challenge is, if most of your other male clients and most of your female clients prefer having a female therapist, your male therapist is now going to be severely under-utilised.
Religion, Culture and Spa Marketing
These cultural and religious perspectives are also important when it comes to the marketing of your spa. Many spa images tend to contain lots of bare skin. For Muslim clients, this just does not work. Around the world, many people associate Thailand with spas. They also associate Thailand with images of Buddha. Both are accurate, but that does not mean they should be used together. Today, Buddha images in spas especially have become quite commonplace. Unfortunately, the people displaying these images are often ignorant of the religious sensitivity that a Buddhist will have to the way such images are used.
Spas need to be aware of these issues when they are selecting their preferred skincare brand too. If your brand is from Europe and you are spa in Asia, you may well find conflicts when it comes to getting promotional images from the brand. The ones that they have might be too risky for your more conservative local market. If so, you will need to find other images or possibly even shoot your own. All of this comes at a cost. And what if the hero shot of your skincare brand globally cannot be used in your spa? Effectively, this impacts your spa’s ability to leverage the power of the brand.
A Question of Balance
Cultural issues can also come into play with the skincare products on your retail shelves. Halal-certified products, for example, are important to a Muslim market. But in reverse, a Christian guest may be offended by the Halal products. Religion is a powerful trigger.
The challenge for spas is finding the balance. Going all-in, one way or the other, may alienate some customers. Maybe separate male and female areas only during the Muslim holiday periods to cater for those specific guests would work? But be careful. This might also be seen as a half-measure by those who follow the religion more strictly.
It is true that if you try to be everything to everyone, you will end up being nothing to no-one. But maybe not when it comes to religion and culture in spas. Perhaps here it’s best to find a balance that least offends most of the viewpoints.