On-demand apps, providers bring massage, makeup, hairstyling to your door

For The Baltimore Sun
Meet Uber for massage. Or Lyft for makeup. Or ... you get the idea.

Elena Ritter received several massages throughout her life, but she had never received one in her home — until Tuesday.

That's when massage therapist Adrienne Bergthold showed up on her doorstep. Using Soothe, a website and app for on-demand massages that launched in Baltimore this summer, Ritter booked a $99, one-hour, deep-tissue massage in her Baltimore home.

"It was super-easy," Ritter said. "I went online, filled out a profile, put my credit card in and then picked my time and my day. I didn't have to go anywhere, and my 3-year-old was here. And I didn't have to pay a baby sitter."

Within a few moments after arriving, Bergthold set up her massage table in Ritter's spare bedroom. And by 11 a.m., the massage was done.

The best part: "When you're finished, you're already home," Ritter said.

On-demand spa and beauty services are on the rise in and around Baltimore. With apps and websites like Soothe and Veluxe, an on-demand beauty, fitness and wellness service that also launched in Baltimore this summer, customers can get massages, blow-dries and personal yoga instruction within hours of requests, seven days a week.

Soothe and Veluxe debuted in 2013 and 2015, respectively, as part of a national trend that has seen on-demand services like Uber and Lyft launch and grow in major cities throughout the past five years.

These providers are entering a local market where a more low-tech version of on-demand has quietly existed for years — for instance, with hair and makeup artists and massage therapists who come to clients.

Customers and service providers said the on-demand services offer convenience, nontraditional hours and privacy not found in brick-and-mortar businesses. As a result, business is booming.

Here's how it works: Customers download a company's app, go to its website or call a provider directly. With the apps, customers enter the service they want and the time they want it. The app will then match a customer with an available service provider. Payments are made through the app.

Veluxe, started by Washington native Susanna Quinn, has about 60 providers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, so it made sense for the company to extend its operations to Baltimore, she said.

"We had a lot of downloads in ZIPs that we were not servicing in Baltimore," Quinn said. "We could tell people were downloading the app because they wanted the services. We even got emails from people asking, 'When are you coming to Baltimore?'"

The app also operates in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Almost 40 percent of Veluxe customers have booked three different services through the app, Quinn said. Many, like Jaclyn Mason Randall, become regulars. Randall said she uses the app's makeup and blow-dry services in her Bethesda home for galas, nights out with her girlfriends and date nights with her husband.

"It's like beauty on the go," she said. "It's really helpful for those of us who have to fight our way into salon appointments and timeslots."

Soothe operates in 45 cities nationwide. A spokesperson declined to comment on its revenue, but Bloomberg Business Week reported in March that the company was bringing in about $1.2 million monthly. Veluxe did not share its monthly earnings.

To keep customers safe, Soothe and Veluxe perform background checks on all service providers. Soothe also has a "check in" and "check out" feature massage therapists use before and after their appointments to ensure they are accounted for.

In the Baltimore market, these companies are competing with some smaller on-demand services. Hotels, like Hotel Monaco in Baltimore, offer in-room massages and spa treatments. Massage therapists and hair and makeup artists have provided mobile services.

And some, like Takia Ross, have been becoming more innovative in recent years. The Baltimore makeup artist has applied lipstick and lashes in locations that include homes, offices and even parks. The owner of Accessmatized Make-Up Artistry has up to 40 customers a month. Her rates start at $60 an hour for a full face. She takes appointments as early as 5 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. She's also traveled to New York City, North Carolina and even Jamaica to apply makeup for customers.

In July 2015, she added "Pretty Mobile Baltimore" — a 16-passenger shuttle bus transformed into a makeup studio on wheels — to accommodate larger groups like bridal parties.

"A lot of my clients don't want to sit in the middle of a store or salon where people are watching them getting their makeup done," Ross said. "They want to do it in their own homes. They don't want you to see their dark circles or their blemishes."

Jearlean Taylor, a Baltimore author and model, hires Ross for photo shoots and fashion shows. She said she enjoys the convenience and flexibility in-home makeup offers.

"I'm up for an award in the next few months, and a crew came to my house to take photos early in the morning. [Ross] came at 7 o'clock to get me prepared."

Robin Anderson, program director for massage therapy at the Community College of Baltimore County's School of Health Professions, said she's not surprised at the growth of on-demand services in recent years, especially for massage therapy.

"Most of the mobile apps and online services have really only come online in the past five years," she said. "It used to be the old-school massage, where [massage therapists] picked up the phone and made business cards. We don't use the mail system now. Everything is more electronic."

In addition to offering customers convenience and privacy, sites like Soothe help massage therapists with marketing, payment and scheduling, Anderson said. As independent contractors, they get to choose their hours, she said.

"It's totally up to me when I work," said Vondria Walters, a Columbia resident and massage therapist who books all her clients through Soothe. "I have a daughter in middle school, and I want to be accessible for her. This allows me to do that."

Some services may cost more than those found in a traditional spa, but that's usually because of the extra time required to set up, Anderson said.

For example, massages in spas around Baltimore can range from $60 to $150 an hour. An hourlong massage through Soothe costs $99, and the site says the gratuity is "on them." With Veluxe, providers get 75 percent of the fee, while Soothe gives providers 70 percent.

"This is yet another manifestation of the so-called gig economy, one that typically involves people connecting through clever mobile applications," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist and chairman and CEO of the Sage Policy Group.

Established firms in the spa and beauty industry will likely point to potential dangers, he said, questioning whether service providers are familiar with how to use beauty products properly and whether they are insured if something goes wrong.

"Uber of course figured this out through their ratings system and by linking people through their mobile devices, which serves as a form of identification," Basu said. "The presumption is that others in the gig economy will, too."

Still, Anderson said she doesn't expect on-demand spa and beauty services to financially harm the brick-and-mortar businesses.

"There's enough business to go around," she said. "There's always going to be the client who wants to spend the day at the spa. It just gives more options to the client and the practitioner."

Ritter calls the concept genius: "I don't know why someone didn't think of it sooner."

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