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the challenge

Floating in an isolation tank had its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. Now the meditative practice is back at Float House in Vancouver. Mike Zaremba, left, is co-founder, here with employee Alex Lee.Amanda Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Mike Zaremba wants to turn you on to the virtues of voluntary solitary confinement. With his brother Andy, Mr. Zaremba launched Gastown Float House Center Ltd. last May. The spa-like Vancouver facility features nine isolation or sensory deprivation tanks – lightproof, soundproof tubs, each filled with water warmed to skin temperature and infused with more than 400 kilograms of Epsom salts.

All you have to do is strip down, climb in and float. This meditative activity can help relieve stress and improve sleep, Mr. Zaremba says, comparing it with yoga. Floating is a non-invasive alternative to popping pills, he adds: "We're going to help you sleep better because your biochemistry is in a better state naturally."

Floating is undergoing a resurgence, Mr. Zaremba says. Business has been brisk for Float House, which charges between $40 and $75 for each float of up to 90 minutes.

The company has expanded its original centre, which includes a post-float lounge, and is scheduled to open a second Vancouver location later this month. The Zarembas, who have two business partners and 11 employees, are also working on a location in Victoria. In addition, they are talking to an Edmonton company about creating a franchise model.

"The whole industry has been on this perk-up," Mr. Zaremba says. "Everything that we predicted has happened, but actually it's happened faster than we predicted."

Isolation tanks have been around since the 1950s, but they got a big North American boost from the 1980 Ken Russell film Altered States, in which William Hurt's character experimented with floating. Embraced by celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Robin Williams, the practice enjoyed a boom in the '80s and '90s.

But floating fell out of favour. Mr. Zaremba blames its demise on bad economic times, lack of research funding and ignorance about HIV transmission via water.

Now that it appears to be on the upswing again, Mr. Zaremba wants people to treat it as more than a novelty, and to stick with it like they have done with yoga.

"How do we educate people, how do we inform people to incorporate this into their lives?" he asks. "A float tank is a tool where although you do have a positive experience your first time in there potentially, the real benefits come with regular use.

"How do we get people to adopt this as a form of stress management, pain management, as a meditational tool?"

The Challenge: How can Float House build a long-term business by helping ensure that floating has staying power?


Heather Briggs, principal at the branding and marketing consulting firm Briggs Strategy, Toronto

If people get actual benefits and tangible results from it, it will stick. I think that's what happened with yoga. Yoga had its first thing in the '70s and then faded away and came back in the early 2000s. It stayed because people were talking about it and it was producing benefits that were relevant to the times we live in.

We live in a very sensory-overloaded time. When we're exposed to so much stimulation, to go somewhere that removes that could make it more relevant than it was back in the '80s.

But I do think it's about people talking about it, people actually being able to share their stories. When I looked at Float House's website, I don't think they have much testimonial or storytelling yet. That could add some personal credibility if people are sharing stories about how it's benefiting their lives. It may be interesting to hear people's firsthand experiences versus just a list of "Here's all the things it could help you with."

Saul Colt, principal of the startup incubator Kinetic Café, Toronto

Once you reach the crescendo of your trend, that's when you try to make it something commonplace.

Float House should partner with yoga studios and meditation communities, because this really is an enhanced product for people who are already past the learning curve of meditation. This doesn't have to be household to be a very viable business. This just has to be something where they grow a community of their own and they can service that community and get community members to bring more friends in. But initially you have to build that community, and the best way would be going after like-minded people.

What you want to do is spend time with the people who are going to appreciate it and have them bring over the naysayers.

There will absolutely be staying power if they build a really good community of people who are targeted for this. I know it sounds super simple, but if you look at yoga, it has taken off like crazy, but it's still not something everybody does.

If people are comfortable sharing their tank experiences, that should be part of Float House's marketing campaign. The testimonials shouldn't be how great the tank experience was. It should be the result of being in the tank, and the result was "I need to improve this part of my life" or "I finally figured that I need to perfect this product."

Terry McBride, co-founder and CEO, YYoga, Vancouver

In founding YYoga, I wanted to create a studio that I'd want to be a member of, where the experience would make me want to go back over and over again. I was making a studio for me, which is selfish. But by the same token, there's millions of me.

They need to create something that has people wanting to share it with their friends because it was so great. It gave them that aha moment – it made them go, "Wow, this is so cool. I really want to make this part of my regular life."

Unless everything runs really, really well, and the experience over all is great, just because you build something nice doesn't mean they're going to come back. So it's that culture part. You have to build that in, to make it so people want to come back.

Make it really easy for people to make it part of their lives, by having multiple studios in the area they might travel, and making it so that their schedule didn't have to change to fit it in. To me, it was about removing every barrier of why you shouldn't do it, and promoting the understanding that it's really good for you.


Share the word

Make testimonials about the benefits of floating part of your marketing campaign.

Preach to the converted

Build momentum by targeting people who don't need convincing to float.

Focus on the customer experience

To ensure repeat visits, make each one exceptional and convenient.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.