Specialty Spa Aims To Float Visitors To Sensory-Deprived Relaxation

By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


The pods have arrived.

Soon, people will inhabit them, floating silently, weightlessly, as if in a warm, giant womb, free of outside sensory input, and emerging …

Relaxed, and maybe more.

That, at least, is Andy Larson’s plan.

Just a few months ago, he was an accountant working in the tax department of a heavy machinery manufacturer.

Today, he’s a budding entrepreneur who’s about to help Milwaukee join the resurgent national interest in experiencing sensory deprivation while floating atop water saltier than the Dead Sea, in this case inside egg-shaped, fiberglass chambers the size of a Smart car.

Larson, a pleasant 35-year-old with an easygoing manner and a CPA’s attention to detail, will soon open Float Milwaukee, fitted with three floatation tanks, room to expand and a strong belief that his venture is hitting the right time and place.

“Every time you turn around there’s a new yoga studio somewhere,” he said amid the ongoing build-out of his 2,500-square-foot space.

“It seems like it’s just kind of at this point now where this really fits in with what people are looking for with the wellness, the mindfulness, just trying to take better care of themselves.”

The idea of inducing sensory deprivation by floating in a soundproof chamber, in saltwater warmed to skin temperature, was pioneered in the 1950s by the late neuroscientist and human-consciousness researcher John C. Lilly, who also explored hallucinogenic drugs and was known for his efforts to establish human-dolphin communication.

Use of isolation chambers built on Lilly’s model flourished for a few years in the late ’70s and ’80s, then all but disappeared, with the decline attributed to fears generated by the AIDS epidemic.

But floating, with increasingly sophisticated equipment, is back. The number of “float centers” like Larson’s place has grown rapidly across the United States over the last five or six years and now stands at more than 200, said Graham Talley, co-owner of a center in Portland, Ore., that helps train others in the business.

Four years ago, Talley and his partner staged their first “Float Conference,” drawing 165 attendees. They expect this year’s conference to attract 450 to 500.

Floating is booming in places such as Seattle, Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay area and Austin, Texas, Talley said. His center in Portland, Float On, is running about 1,300 floats a month, he said. The standard price: $65 for 90 minutes.

Now Wisconsin is jumping in.

In Madison, engineer Owen Gwynne and dietitian Maria Welch are close to opening The Float Factor. Another floatation entrepreneur, Greg Griffin, has secured a loan from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. and hopes to open Float Madison in October.

Mother and daughter team June and Cayla Zahn also have gotten WWBIC financing for their planned float center, A Better Me, in suburban Milwaukee. They’ve begun converting space in a strip mall into three “float rooms”, chambers larger than the pods.

And James Howe, a mortgage servicing banker at Wells Fargo, is hoping with two partners to open a spot they plan to call Float Life.

Larson and others credit the renewed interest in floating in part to Joe Rogan, comedian, former host of “Fear Factor,” martial-arts enthusiast, host of a popular podcast and major advocate of sensory deprivation.

Also at play, Larson said, is the increasingly frantic nature of life in an age of constant digital connection.

“It’s a place to go where you are literally away from everything,” he said. “There’s no gravity, there’s no sound, there’s no lights. There’s no feeling of temperature, really, because the water’s the same temperature as your skin, so you don’t feel your body.”

Backers of floating say the practice yields many benefits. Larson’s website, for example, cites relief from pain and stress, deeper focus, enhanced learning ability, greater creativity and, of course, relaxation.

There have been dozens of studies on isolation floating, with many finding positive effects. A 2005 meta-analysis that distilled the results of 27 studies concluded that floatation therapy had value as a stress management tool, lowering blood pressure and the levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, and enhancing well-being and performance.

Larson, who is financing his startup with personal funds and a business loan from Chase Bank, bought his pods from Superior Float Tanks LLC.

The Norfolk, Va., firm started manufacturing two years ago and says it has sold more than $1 million worth of pods, at about $25,000 each. Customers, said manager James Ramsey, have included the U.S. military and “both Super Bowl teams.”

Larson hopes to open Float Milwaukee this month. His basic rate will be $75 for a one-hour float, with specials and packages available.

Customers entering the shop will change into sandals and be escorted to a room with a shower, for use before and after floating, and a pod. Silicone ear plugs, Q-tips, makeup remover and inflatable neck pillows will be available. Radiant heat panels in the ceiling will keep the room warm.

Water in the pods is 10 inches deep, loaded with dissolved Epsom salt and heated to 93.5 degrees, skin temperature.

You won’t sink if you fall asleep, Larson said. Worst case, he said, is your head turns and you get salt water in your eye, along with an awakening jolt.

The water will be changed three or four times between each session, and be treated with ultraviolet light, ozone and hydrogen peroxide for disinfection, Larson said.

The pods are entered through a hatch that also can be opened from inside. Buttons inside let floaters access a two-way intercom, and, if they want, turn on music and spacey-colored lights.

“I like it dark,” Larson said, “but some people are going to be not quite sure they can jump right into that, so that’s a way for people to kind of ease into it.”

His wife, Laura Baker, an attorney with Johnson Controls Inc., wasn’t any too easy about floating.

“When she first looked at it, she was like, ‘There’s not a chance I’m ever going to get in that thing,'” Larson said.
But she did, and liked it, and has found it eases jet lag symptoms on business trips.

“Whenever she travels, she looks for a place to float,” Larson said. “She’s floated in Singapore, Spain, the UK. … She’s even more of an advocate for it than me now.”

Larson wouldn’t say how much he’s investing in Float Milwaukee, but it’s been more than he initially expected. And the process has been marked by surprises _ he spent weeks meeting Wisconsin’s requirements for float tanks only to see the state reverse course and drop its regulations _ and the inevitable delays of launching a business.

Moving through his still-under-construction space in sandals, cargo shorts and a Float Milwaukee T-shirt, Larson is a fit-looking guy with a ready laugh.

But, he acknowledged with understatement, “the last couple months have been a little stressful.”

Sounds like he could use a good float.

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