Cryotherapy Franchises Are Hot. Can They Last?
It’s late summer in Austin, Texas, and it’s infernally hot inside the city’s newest cryotherapy center. The 3,500-square-foot facility is still weeks from opening, so sawdust is flying and workers are dripping sweat as they put the finishing touches on the drywall. Walking the site, owner Jeff Mobley describes a vision that’s still taking shape. That empty patch of floor there? That’s where two cryotherapy chambers will sit.
This is the latest outpost for iCryo, a Texas-based franchise with 42 units open or under construction. If you don’t know what cryotherapy is, then you’re probably just not paying close enough attention to wellness trends. There are roughly 20 cryo centers in Austin alone, and one of those is just half a mile from Mobley’s. For $9.95, first-time customers can be blasted with nitrogen-cooled air to -166°F for three minutes. This chill, cryo advocates say, will trigger the body’s flight-or-fight response and flood the body with feel-good hormones. It can (allegedly) cure any number of ailments.
What sets iCryo apart from its competitors is the ease of access. In some cryo facilities, people lie down in a clamshell chamber. “With these, though, you’ll be able to walk right into them,” says Mobley’s son, Ty, who will manage the shop. “It’s gonna be pretty cool.”
Cryotherapy took a long time to become this cool, though. In the 1970s, the technology was developed in Japan as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. By the late 1990s, physical therapists in Poland and the U.K. began using it for rehab, and by 2010, Nike coach Alberto Salazar adopted whole-body cryo as a recovery aid for his pro athletes. With their heavy and expensive equipment, cryo seemed like a performance edge available only to the kind of athletes that train under coaches like Salazar. This led the average athlete -- and then the average wellness consumer -- to want what the pros had. So when the therapy was made available to the masses, people jumped. Across the U.S. today, you’ll find more than 700 cryo facilities battling to freeze the most customers and grab the biggest share of the $4.5 trillion wellness market.
Cryo is, of course, competing with other franchised wellness movements, like float tanks and salt rooms. But with more than a dozen cryo brands now offering franchising, the trend is uniquely poised to represent the uncertain arc of a wellness boomlet. Which is to say: The business is moving a lot faster than the science is.
While fitness franchises like Planet Fitness and Gold’s Gym can cite long-standing physiological science on the benefits of exercise, newer wellness movements like cryo aren’t so fortunate. In 2016, the FDA released a consumer update calling cryotherapy a “ ‘cool’ trend that lacks evidence.” While some cryo research has shown modest benefits, a 2018 study from the London Sports Institute found that it was no more effective than a placebo for improving functional recovery among 31 marathon runners. (And its famous advocate just fell from grace: Nike coach Salazar was recently suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for multiple violations, though none were related to cryo.)
“Whole-body cryo can probably help some athletes recover faster,” says Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., a Manhattan dermatologist who has treated patients with blisters and burns from cryotherapy. “But I wish [cryotherapy practitioners] would walk back some of these outrageous claims. Cryo bars have grown quickly -- and so has the misinformation.”
To entice customers without attracting regulators, iCryo and its competitors are often forced to rely on vague claims. “It gives your body that natural reboot it needs from time to time, like shutting down and restarting a computer or cellphone,” says Kyle Jones, cofounder and COO of iCryo. “We’re shocking the central nervous system.” On its website, US Cryotherapy, a competing franchise, claims it can “systematically reduce pain, inflammation, and muscle soreness,” while Orange Cryo, another franchisor, offers “rejuvenation of the body at the cellular level.”
Oftentimes, it may not matter how much of this is scientifically verifiable. Wellness fads tend to run on belief. For as little as $10 or as much as $50, people can book cryo sessions at salons and strip malls around the country -- and if they walk out feeling healthier, they’re happy. Meanwhile, business owners expect science to eventually catch up. “It took eight to 12 years before massage became mainstream and people started to understand its benefits,” says Jones.
But will these kinds of businesses last eight to 12 years? That’s really the multimillion-dollar question. And there’s no way to know the answer.
“It’s tough to tell,” says John Hayes, Ph.D., a professor of franchise leadership at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “You’re taking a risk when you buy into a franchise that doesn’t serve an established behavior or deliver a service that people require on a regular basis.”
But, he says, there’s another way to look at it, too. “iCryo franchises are appealing because they’re affordable and easy to operate,” says Hayes. “Get in at the right time and you can make your investment back in a matter of a couple of years.” In five years, you might be able to roll your money right into the next boomlet.
Wellness and fitness trends are, of course, notoriously fickle. In recent years, health-seeking consumers have fallen for and then promptly forgotten both oxygen bars and colonics studios. In 2009, the year the first cryotherapy machine landed in the U.S., the country boasted more than 18,000 tanning salons. A decade later, that number had fallen below 8,000. Before CrossFit, we had Buns of Steel. Before SoulCycle, we had Jazzercise. We had Zumba. We had Sweatin’ to the Oldies. And now we have cryotherapy.
To open his iCryo, Mobley is spending more than half a million dollars. It’s money he earned by selling his industrial-painting company. And if his projections pan out, he’ll have that money back in 18 months to two years.
But he says he’s not doing this just for the quick buck. Until recently, his wife, Paula, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. “She was doing cryo for almost a year, and then she went into complete remission,” he says. “She was able to stop all medication, everything.” Paula’s doctors were astonished. “This is incredible!” said one. “Whatever you did, keep doing it.” And that’s when Mobley started shopping for an iCryo franchise.
So, no, he doesn’t believe he’s found a fad. The way he sees it, he’s investing in an important new treatment technology that’s in the early stages of awareness. “I think it’s going to be a game changer,” he says.