By Darren Buford
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2001.
Two paths diverged in an airport. One followed a traditional route: Arrive early, wait in a long line, pray your flight doesn’t get cancelled, make the trek to the gate, then patiently kill time as the stress ebbs from your body.
The atypical alternative: Arrive early, check in luggage and get a massage.
I was recently in the throes of airport chaos when I made a trip from Denver, Colo., to Memphis, Tenn. As I arrived at the airport, I recognized the familiar feeling of travel anxiety: Did I remember to pack everything? Did I feed the pets? Will I make my connecting flight? Did I book the correct hotel? I felt the typical stresses until I remembered I had an appointment with one of Denver International Airport’s (DIA) many amenities. Located on the sixth level of the main west terminal, A Massage Inc. provided the pre-flight relaxation the doctor ordered.
As I entered the establishment, I was greeted by amiable practitioners wearing matching blue shirts with the phrase “Follow me to a massage” embroidered on the back. And, so, I did.
The Airport Mall
In case you haven’t visited a major airport recently, a quiet revolution has been taking place. Around the country, airports have been receiving facelifts. In the past 5–10 years, millions of dollars in airport renovation has been done to try and recreate a mall-like atmosphere to better accommodate angry and frustrated travelers. Today we find better food, stores and merchandise, complete with name-brand recognition. Gone are the days of the cafeteria with $10 hamburgers. Now, there’s not only a McDonald’s in every terminal, there are “real” eateries like Chili’s and T.G.I. Fridays, not to mention booksellers, candy makers and, yes, massage businesses.
The airline industry simply became smarter, realizing they were sitting on a gold mine. Now, airport officials are in a frenzy to cater to the airline passenger stuck in the airport with nothing to do. Since the increase in delays, not only has the federal government stepped in, but so have smart, savvy airport officials who realize the space inside the airport is premium real estate, and the smart, savvy entrepreneurs who know a good thing when they see it.
Before 1997, Anita Zimmerman’s mind was certainly not on airports, nor massage for that matter. “I was working in corporate America, but I was making a lot of life changes,” she said. Zimmerman happened to see massage being done at a woman’s expo, was interested, and realized she wanted to learn more.
After graduating from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in 1991, there were only a few places in which Zimmerman could work in the Denver area. At the time, massage was not yet readily accepted by the public. In fact, once Zimmerman did get a job, the proprietor was very strict about when and on whom she could work. “They would only allow women to work on women and men to work on men,” she said. To make matters worse, women were only allowed to work two days of the week. “It was crazy,” said Zimmerman. “I thought there should be a job where one could go, receive a paycheck and not have to face such awkwardness.”
Soon afterward, the long-awaited DIA opened, and it seemed like a natural location to establish a business. But the road was not easy. It would take 21/2 years from her initial proposal until Zimmerman was able to open A Massage Inc. in March 1997. The new business owner wasn’t prepared for the amount of work, and, like many massage therapists, didn’t possess all the applicable business knowledge. “I certainly didn’t know where I was going and I was scrambling for anyone who could give me any kind of information,” she said. She also was not ready for the bureaucracy or airport legislation that would soon ensue. “It was horrid,” she said. “I believe I’d rather walk on coals than to begin a business in an airport again.” According to Zimmerman, a business operating in DIA must work both with the city and the airport, both of which have stringent requirements. Everything from signage to sound is controlled by the airport administration. “It’s the closest thing to ‘Big Brother’ I’ve ever seen,” she sighed.
Among those regulations, A Massage Inc. must be open seven days a week, every single day of the year, 14 hours a day. “Obviously, we’re not busy all 14 hours, because planes don’t depart and arrive constantly,” said Zimmerman. Instead, she must plan her staff accordingly to the waves of scheduled flights, which is not always a predictable matter. “It’s interesting, if people land in the afternoon, after 4 p.m., they will come and get a massage before they go home,” she added. “But if it’s in the morning, like 10 a.m., they won’t because they often will go straight to work.” Because A Massage Inc. has now been open for more than four years, Zimmerman has learned the peak times of the year are March and August, while September and October are the slowest for the airport.
Another airport restriction is clientele must be able to hear any paging in the airport. Certainly, this isn’t the quiet, tranquil, spa-like atmosphere taught by massage schools around the nation. “We can’t practice like normal practitioners,” said Zimmerman. “We try to relax them but we don’t guarantee the serenity others can. It’s difficult to mesh a healing, touching, warm kind of service with this atmosphere.” Zimmerman makes it clear her customers are not here to receive a massage. They are here to travel. “We do incorporate some music, though,” she said. “But it’s light, background noise.” A Massage Inc. has the privilege of being near one of DIA’s massive fountains in the open-air Jeppesen terminal. It deadens the surrounding shuffle, and helps one forget about the upcoming flight, especially for those who don’t like to travel by air, like myself.
Aptly named after the location in which it operates, A Massage Inc. offers the following services to weary travelers: an Economy session is a 15-minute seated massage for $20; First Class is 20 minutes of seated massage for $26.50. Layover is a 30-minute table session for $38; and Stand-by is a one hour table session for $75. The last two services are unique to an airport massage setting, where catering to people on the go usually means seated massage. “I believe we are the only ones in the world that have massage tables in the airport,” Zimmerman proclaimed.
A Massage Inc. has three locations inside DIA, with a combined total of 2,370 square feet. The original location is in the main terminal and offers both seated and table massage, as well as reflexology. The second site, A Massage Too, offers massage, both seated and table, and manicures and pedicures. The third location, Haircut Plus is a barber shop and offers manicure, pedicure and chair massage. The second and third location are both located in Concourse B, the hub for United Airlines.
Being in the busiest hub and in the main terminal of DIA is beneficial when it comes to attracting customers, said Zimmerman. “I don’t have to coax them in. Those who travel a lot know their airports and they know how much time it takes to get wherever they are going. The traveler has to deal with a lot of stress. So to relieve that, they walk around, get a little exercise and come see us.”
Sometimes Zimmerman’s clientele become too entranced in all today’s airport has to offer, forgetting their flight altogether. She recounts one such instance when a customer missed her flight because she was late arriving to the airport, proceeded to then miss another because she received a massage and forgot about the time.
While travel angst wouldn’t ever allow me to miss a departure time, A Massage Inc. helped ease my overwrought concerns. As I boarded my plane to return back to Denver, like most people I was excited to be returning home, but I also was excited because I knew upon landing I was going to receive another massage. In fact, I’m traveling to the airport today to pick up some friends arriving in town for the weekend. Not only do I think I’ll introduce them to A Massage Inc., I might stop by for a teaser myself. A Massage Inc. offers an oasis in a chaotic desert. In the airport, there are two paths to take. One leads to anxiety and high-blood pressure and the other to relaxation and personal time. I chose the latter, and it has made all the difference.