How I wrote my own happy ending
by Harriet Lanka
How do you know when it’s the right time to take a leap in your life or your business? Are the signs going to be clear that it’s a learning moment and you need to lean in, or will the moment be quietly transformational?
I believe they can be both, and for me it was.
And for those who don’t know me, my name is Harriet McEntire Lanka and I am the owner of “Align”, a collection of healing businesses in Park City, Utah and Playa Potrero, Costa Rica and this story goes back to May 2002 when I was first starting out as a massage therapist.
There was a new day spa in my hometown of Park City, Utah and I was a new massage therapist, fresh out of school looking for a job. Let’s say the owner’s name was Seth and his spa space was hip, expensive and had a sense of luxury to it that felt like it absorbed you the moment you walked through the front door. It felt like you were in an exclusive, VIP new universe and anything was possible. The space felt like it was serving a purpose and someone knew what that purpose was, and nailed it in the decor.
In addition to the luxury spa, the space was a boutique hotel and the entrance to the spa was behind the hotel’s front desk. Down the hall from the front desk was the elevator up to 4 penthouse suites. There was a cozy dimly lit lounge and appetizer bar off to the left of the front desk, and the staff room and office tucked away to the right. The spa was intended for hotel guests, investors and friends of the owner. It felt like a stretch being so new out of school to even put in my resume, because on their job listing they required a minimum of 1 year of experience and I had less than that; I was an old soul newbie, meaning I felt like I’d been practicing massage for life times before, and just remembering the language. But that’s tough to express on a resume, so I knew I could show them in my hands on interview.
So I applied.
What I loved most about the spa and noticed immediately was the check-in ritual. When you arrived, you were given a fancy robe and slippers and asked if you wanted water with lemon. Yes please. It felt like you were entering a sanctuary. Even the basket that held your robe and slippers was gorgeous and the robes felt so soft and luxurious, you couldn’t wait to bundle up in them. Once robed, you could either go to the dry sauna or jacuzzi to wait for your appointment, or you could go to the tea lounge where there were fruit and tinctures waiting that you could add to your drink.
It felt like I was in another world when I was there, and from the day I submitted my resume to when I was finally hired, it took about 3 months and I was jumping up and down when I got the phone call asking me to come in for a second hands on interview with the owner Seth. I’d been working out of my private office at the Canyons Resort for a few months which was a little lonely, and I was also at a chiropractor’s office in Salt Lake City, a 30 min commute from my house. I liked what I was doing but I wasn’t really meeting any new people so I was open to adding something that felt more fun and social.
The treatment rooms at the luxury spa were above and beyond and they had rich colors, soft linens, electric treatment tables and radio stations for each room. They didn’t seem to miss a detail, but I was new to the massage world and barely knew anything about working in spas, so I took it all in and memorized the details. I was instructed to wear all black and I had a name tag to wear and I loved that it made me feel like I was part of something bigger.
However, this job at the gorgeous spa didn’t last long and ended very abruptly on a crisp evening with sprinkles of spring snow. But how the job ended taught me everything I needed to know about myself and my future.
I saw and felt that the spa had overlooked some crucial etiquette details, and it was not only how I saw their customers treating the staff (with expectation and disrespect), it was also in the unstated expectations in the job and how feedback was handled with management.
For instance, on what would unexpectedly be my last day on the job, I’d been asked to give a massage to one of the owner’s business partners and best friends, something that felt like an honor to do because he’d requested me specifically for the session. I’d hoped the request was based on the reviews I was receiving from my work, so I felt excited with a touch of nervousness about our session.
It began as all my massages do, sacredly and professionally, but 30 minutes into our 50 minute experience together, just after I’d asked him to turn over, I saw the top sheet over his groin area begin to rise and he’d “pitched a tent” as we call it in massage school, meaning he got an erection. This was my first time with this scenario, so it was startling, but I immediately took the next step my teacher suggested in school, which was to quietly put a heavy towel over his midline to gently communicate (with the weight of the towel) that it was time to relax everything. But when I placed the towel over his tent it didn’t collapse, instead he swept the towel off to the side and asked, “aren’t you going to finish me off?” Like it was a line item on the spa menu that he’d already paid for and I was supposed to provide the service. But the worst part about it was that it felt like he’d made this request before, like it rolled right off his tongue and he knew what he liked and how he liked it, which meant this sort of thing was normal here. But not this time, not with me.
His words stopped me in my tracks and I saw a version of my future flash before my eyes. I could be that girl who is just another one giving happy endings for extra cash, or I could be that girl that says no and is off to write her own happy ending rather than give it to someone else. I chose the latter with my next move.
A few seconds of quiet passed between me and his comment and I politely asked him to repeat himself, just to be sure I wasn’t misunderstanding him; he then rolled his eyes at me and said, “So I take it you don’t give happy endings”, and I knew it was time to end this.
I turned up the lights, told him his massage was over and I walked out of the treatment room into what felt like a new life. I’d just stood up for something I believed in, and said no to what I didn’t believe in. It felt powerful. I looked around the fancy spa space, feeling gratitude for the good memories and I looked down at my name tag, which said my name with “licensed massage therapist,” but with their logo.
This wasn’t me. And the funky energy I now felt reflected that difference, and the spa instantly lost its charm and allure to me.
I proceeded into the office to tell a manager that I’d just ended a massage because of this disrespectful request, and I was relieved to see Seth in the office, because he was seldom there. It was usually just a stack of unpaid bills on his desk that always left a weird taste in my mouth.
I told him what happened, expecting him to empathize, be furious with his friend, and storm out and give him a firm talking to, but instead he calmly and creepily looked me in the eye and replied, “you know some of the girls are making a lot of extra cash doing that, you should try it…”
And with his words seeping into my skin, I felt a stab and growing heat in my chest. A fire in me had just been lit by this conversation.
It was not time to educate Seth on my perspective about happy endings, so I showed him my truth by grabbing my coat and bag and walking out the front door giving the middle finger overhead as I left. When I reached the parking lot out front I saw a client who I’d really grown to like on his way in; he was my next session. He was a private chef and his wife was a mural artist and she painted a lot of the interior of the spa for trade, and he’d come in for massages with me and would tip me generously.
I told him I had just quit and he asked me how he could get massages from me in the future because he loved my work and I smiled and brushed some snow off the camper window of my truck, revealing a sticker on the back that had my name and contact info.
“Here’s how to find me.”
We hugged and parted ways and he ended up becoming a friend and introducing me to some of my best clients I’ve ever known.
I drove away that night from that fancy boutique spa thinking to myself how different it was on the inside from what I thought it was on the outside. And it felt confusing that such a beautiful space could feel so out of alignment with me and what I wanted to offer the world. But I was proud of myself for my choice and I wanted to tell someone what I’d just said no to, so I called my dad.
His next words changed me forever…
“Harriet why don’t you just open your own spa? That way you could do it your own way…”
And I was stunned by his comment; I was 24, not in a stable place in any part of my life, so opening a spa was almost laughable. And I certainly didn’t think it was a good time to start a business, which is a lot like birthing and raising a child. But I knew I had something powerful to offer and hold space for, and this was a doorway, so I walked through it confidently and never looked back.
I agreed with my dad that I should have my own spa.
Very little of my decision made sense at the time. I had little experience in business or spas and I thought about the long list of reasons why my dad’s question about me opening my own place sounded illogical:
1. I didn’t know how to run or own a spa
2. I was new to massage
3. I don’t know how to hire people
4. I didn’t have any money to build a spa
The list of why nots seemed insurmountable but what also grew in me was my desire to have a place to share my gift of massage in a big way, and a knowingness that I could create a beautiful space, inside and out.
The thought of having my own spa was exciting and inspiring and I didn’t have a clue as to how it could or would happen, but I wanted it with a passion I could feel in my bones.
A few days after my conversation with my dad about me having my own spa, he called me back and told me there was a guy he knew with an empty condominium inside the Shadow Ridge Hotel at the base of Park City Mountain Ski Resort; and the space was empty and had been used as an office. He asked if I would like to see it for a possible spa space and he could help arrange a meeting. Wow. He wanted this for me as well.
Umm, “Yes please.”
And a few hours later I walked around the corner of the first floor at the Shadow Ridge Hotel and I saw the front door to what would soon be my first spa home for Align Spa. I knew it when I walked through the double glass doors and came face to face with a gorgeous stone wall with an inset globe-shaped fish tank that was waiting to be filled. These were both elements I’d seen in a dream years before about my first healing space, long before I went to massage school. It was all coming together and making more sense now.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to do this, or what to do, but I was going to go for it anyway, and give it my all and figure it out along the way, day-by-day. And I’ve been being bold, authentic, magical, grateful and free, and learning and growing from all my past experiences, so that’s the energy I put into the Align Spa each day.
The life I live is the message I teach, and since Align was born that summer of 2002, she’s been growing from those core roots ever since. And you can feel this energy in the physical space, the staff, the clients, our services and even in the air. It’s a sacred space.
And now we are the oldest running day spa in Park City, Utah and we’ve been voted the best spa in town by the locals. Align Spa is so much bigger than me now, and now I’m a part of her team and still do my best to support her growth.
Some of the original spa staff are still together and I remember the moments when each of them came into my professional life because I knew we were all in this together. Now as our 14th year of business is on the horizon, we are building a new vision for Align Spa together, and are excited to share that we’ve been listening to feedback from our clients and team over the last 10 years in this location, and we are going to expand to serve you better.
I am dreaming bigger than I ever have, and I have a wonderful support system to help me navigate this growth; we’re in the phase of imagining what our future could look like if everything were possible for Align . But what’s even better is that we don’t need to go anywhere, we’re just adding the space next door and doubling our size! It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
Never could I have imagined that saying no to a happy ending request 14 years ago at my first spa job would set me up for such success and give me such a passion for what I’m here to create today. Never underestimate the little choices and decisions you make in the moment, because that’s where the magic is and what can pave the way to your freedom and YOUR happy ending.
Thanks for being here and sharing in a piece of my story; and I’m excited to share more of what’s coming for Align Spa, so if we haven’t met yet or you want to know more about me, here’s a great place to start.
Much Love, Harriet McEntire Lanka
Owner of Align, Inc, a business with heart & flow