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A Balanced Approach to Spa Success: Right Place, Right Time

At an Age When Some Look To Retire, This Entrepreneur Launched A Brand New Venture

Article by Cheryl Rice
Photos by Shana Sureck

Bonnie Barrow (center), Alexia Bonillo (left) and Letisha Matias (right)Bonnie Barrow has always had an eclectic assortment of talents and passions. She spent the first part of her career in mortgage banking, where she built a foundation of knowledge about real estate, finance, and business management, but she was keen to do something more. “I was always independent and kind of entrepreneurial,” she said. “I went as far as I felt like I could in mortgage banking. It wasn’t ideal.”

One day, her husband gave her a gift certificate for a few massages at a nearby massage school. When she went for the first one, she had a thought, “Wouldn’t this be fun to do?” By her second massage, she was sold. She signed up for admission to the school and was taking massage classes by the next month. “I never looked back,” she said.

Bonnie Barrow owns Balancing Bodies, a small business located in Rocky Hill, CT.Barrow loves to teach, so soon after she became a massage therapist she also started working as an instructor at the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. Thus began a new phase of her career; she continues to enjoy teaching after more than 20 years.

In order to build her private practice, she connected with the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center and Women’s Business Center. “It was so useful to go and take a free workshop and learn about aspects of business that I didn’t know about,” she recalled. “Over the years, I’ve taken some classes two or three times, because they always make sure to keep them updated with the best information. I’ll usually learn something new.”

Barrow is a cheerleader for the Center with her massage therapy school students, too. Her classes now focus on the business aspects of the massage industry and she makes sure the students know about the information available to them at the Center. “You can learn how to finance your business, how to market it—it’s a valuable resource!”

After more than two decades as an independent massage therapist and teacher, and at 60 years of age, what made Barrow decide that she was ready to take the leap and open a spa? The answer harkens back to her days in real estate—location, location, location.

Balancing Bodies offers massage and other spa services.She had her eye on a spa location for several years, one in which she’d worked as an independent contractor. It had changed hands a number of times, but the timing had never worked out. Each new owner had tried different strategies, but each had failed for one reason or another. Still, Barrow knew the location was perfect—it just needed the right person with the right plan to make it successful.

In November of 2016, another spa at the location closed suddenly—and she knew the time was right for her to step in. “I had talked to Lacey Banks McGill at the Women’s Business Center about putting together a business plan,” she said. “She was so resourceful! She had templates and everything else I needed. She made it easy for me.”

Barrow also talked to the Center’s Milena Erwin about financing and she attended a financing workshop. She succeeded in getting the capital she needed and finally the “perfect space” was hers. Balancing Bodies Spa in Rocky Hill opened in February 2017.

The business was growing slower than Barrow had hoped for over the first few months. “I thought at least some of the clients and therapists from the former spa would come back, but that didn’t happen.” She recognizes that’s probably because that spa had a very different business philosophy—especially with regard to deep discounting. “That kind of thing forces you to do a lot of work for little return,” she said. “It’s not what Balancing Bodies is going to be about.”

To remedy this she has turned to two sources of help that she knows she can trust, her family and the Women’s Business Center. The Center has assisted her with marketing coaching and has connected her with a consultant, and her family has stepped up to help build the business. “My niece and nephew are working on our website and social media and my marketing manager is my husband,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a family affair for sure.”

She sees social media as a primary driver for new business now. “I have to look at new ways of doing things. Gone are the days when you could put a print ad in the newspaper to find new clients.” Balancing Bodies is on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter, and is building a presence on Yelp and others. They are also doing workshops and expanding services to include essential oils, meditation, and other aspects of natural healing and well-being.

As an encore entrepreneur, Barrow is one of the Entrepreneurial Center and Women Business Center’s biggest fans. “I couldn’t live without them,” she said. “They are an awesome resource. I sing their praises in my classes, and I’ve been doing that for years.” She has even brought her entire massage therapy school business class to a Center workshop.  

“I believe in helping new business people,” she continued. “I’m available for people to come and learn from me, because I want to build a community of support. I feel that at the Center and I live that myself.”