LOS ANGELES -- The latest fad in the frou-frou world of pampering isn't a new thermal seaweed wrap, mud bath or cucumber-infused mineral water. It's doing away with them.
For years, typical treatments at elite spa establishments could easily run $125 or more for a one-hour massage. The new normal: Less than $50, and sometimes as low as $20. "It's definitely more practical," Prieto, of West Los Angeles, said. "It's not like, 'OK, I'm going to go there and relax.' "
Owners of these inexpensive massage businesses stress that "cheap" doesn't mean "sleazy."
They say their massage therapists are all licensed and many employees split their time between budget boutiques and high-end spas. To get the point across, some, such as Top Thai in Thai Town, which charges $35 for a one-hour massage, post notices on their walls warning customers not to ask for sex.
"The overall perception of a massage establishment has changed," Marylander said, adding that in the past, many people assumed a massage boutique was code for "prostitution place," which made it difficult to get landlords on board.
These days, with commercial real estate widely available, signing a lease isn't a problem. Spa owners say the challenge now is the plethora of new players and deals that have increased competition.
Even high-end spas are taking note.
Burke Williams, the elite chain of day spas, offers monthly specials that it touts on Facebook and in 2009 launched its own membership program. For $79 a month, members receive a 50-minute massage or facial; for $109 a month, they can also use the spa facilities throughout the month.
The economy "does certainly require us to develop programs like our membership program, and that program will stay," said Sandra Miller, Burke Williams' director of marketing. "Had the recession not hit, I suppose we might not have thought of that in the same way."
The International Spa Association said total spa industry revenue fell 4.3 percent to $12.3 billion in 2009 from the previous year, the most recent data available. That year 63 percent of spas introduced discounts and incentives to attract first-time clients and 18 percent introduced membership programs, the association said.
Adding to the competition are new businesses in Korea-town, Thai Town and the San Gabriel Valley that offer Eastern massage treatments at a fraction of the cost of luxury day spas on the Westside, although privacy is often sacrificed.
At massage boutiques in Thai Town, where one-hour massages cost about $40, customers usually lie on mats on the floor and turn their heads to one side instead of resting them in a face cradle. At Wilshire Spa in Koreatown, which expanded in 2009, nude customers receive their massages in the open.
Others say a massage isn't a massage without the pomp.
Kiko Secor, 27, said she felt "not as relaxed" when she tried budget massages and preferred the leisurely, all-day affair at typical day spas such as Burke Williams.
"I feel they take care of all the details (like) refrigerated washcloths and scented oils on it," the marketing manager from Laguna Beach, Calif., said. "I keep going back even though I know it's more expensive."
Although the trend emerged during the economic downturn, many spa owners and experts think the discount massage mind-set is here to stay.
"Consumers just aren't willing to go back in time, even though the economy has picked up," said Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Association. "The mentality has changed. We're not willing to pay full price for anything anymore."