When Stevie Ehmer gave up her big-bucks tourist industry job to open a day spa/salon, she was really looking to go home again to relationships, familiar faces, and the comfort of community.
Visualize a soothing, peaceful room where the emerald green surroundings float and shimmer before your eyes. Slide down into the folds of a thick, cushy sofa, prop up your feet, and slowly inhale the gentle waft of jasmine in the air. Now, add a chorus of angels that glide along the ivory-soft walls, enveloping you. You’ve just entered Stevie Euro Spa, as she always envisioned it would be.
“I chose an angel-and-cupid theme because it’s soft, pleasant, and calming,” says Stevie Ehmer, whose Kissimmee, Fla., salon is nearing its first birthday. “So is the color green, which threatens no one. I care how people feel and I want them to feel accepted—part of the salon. As soon as clients walk in, they see, smell, and feel relaxation.”
Ehmer, who once owned a successful company that catered to tourists, had something else in mind in creating her salon. “I was making a lot of money booking tours and resorts, but I truly didn’t like it,” she says. “There was no art or expression, no feeling of accomplishment. People came and went; tourists don’t form long-lasting relationships. It got so I dreaded going to work. I wanted to be part of a community to which I could contribute.
“Because I was always good at art, I chose a career in nails to do nail art. There’s nothing like being able to sit in front of someone you like and talk to that person while you deliver a service. You get to listen and be compassionate. You have to be compatible with people, or the client won’t return. Having relationships like this keeps me in touch with reality; it reminds me what being part of a community is really all about.”
Putting others first makes Ehmer seem like a bit of an angel herself. But luckily, she’s got the devil in her corner, too. How else could a woman right out of nail school undertake a full-service spa/salon and survive to tell about it?
“Stevie’s too nice when it comes to managing the staff and dealing with salespeople, so I play the devil,” jokes business partner Michael Teaster. “I’ll be the one to tell advertising salespeople to leave materials for me to review and that I’ll call them if I’m interested. All sorts of salespeople try to pressure you. My best advice? Never make a quick decision.”
Another devilish problem Ehmer ironed out herself was how to start and nourish a business that was partly based on services not within her realm of expertise. “I looked at the salons in the area from a client’s point of view and didn’t find what I’d want in a salon,” she explains “I knew that I couldn’t make it on nail services only because there were already plenty of exclusive nail and nail-and-hair salons in the area that were well-established. I needed something new. Also, I knew that if I offered other services, they would all feed each other. When it’s a slow day for nails, I still make money on tanning or hair services or massage. If I hadn’t diversified, I wouldn’t be making it.”
KNOWLEDGE IS DIVINE
After graduating from nail school, Ehmer researched the industry at tradeshows, scrutinizing equipment, investigating product and attending every class she could. She read voraciously to update her nail education and learn all she could about hair, skin, and body services. Distributors and other vendors rounded out her education.
Once she was ready, Ehmer took the money from the business she had sold and leased a space in a strip mall adjacent to a grocery store. Her reasoning: Everyone has to buy groceries: therefore, the location would be convenient, and one which people were accustomed to and comfortable with visiting. Still, she ended up paying rent for eight months before she was able to open her doors. “We’re less than a year old now and I realize that even though I thought I’d researched everything, there was still plenty to learn the hard way about opening a new salon,” she recalls.
The lessons that stand out in Ehmer’s and Teaster’s minds are indicative of the particular strengths they bring to the business.
“In less than a year, I’ve gone through half a dozen nail technicians and five or six hairstyles,” Ehmer says with a sigh. “When you’re new, it’s hard to get and keep good people. The first tow hairstylists I had were doing great and then they left, taking their clients with them. That really hurt. Even though I have control over the salon and have to advertise for it, the staff can take the clients when they leave. When it’s slow, they tell me I have to get more clients, then they take them. It’s real dilemma.
“It was a shock to me a first, but then I asked myself, what did I do when I was a client? I followed my hairstylist. It was like, they, wake up here.”
Ehmer’s advice to anyone opening a business involves no less vexing a problem, simply a more practical one. “Make certain you have enough working capital,” she stresses. “A salon is a tremendous investment initially and you still need working capital to keep going for the first six months to a year. We were able to keep going, but it was tough for a while. There are payroll taxes. You think you have all the equipment you need and a stylist or esthetician says she has to have something in order to work properly and you can’t say no because it’s hard enough to staff a new salon.
“Also, leasing computer equipment sounds great, but it’s a mistake. The salesperson will tell you it’s a tax write-off and that he will service the equipment, but once you sign a lease, he’s gone. When you purchase, you get a substantial warranty, and the depreciation is a tax write-off. Also, you don’t get old, used equipment. Leasing companies make their money on the service contracts. Be careful and be tough!”
HEAVEN ON EARTH
To meet the needs of most anyone seeking a refuge from the hustle and bustle, the 1,600-square foot salon holds five nail stations; two separate, deluxe pedicure areas; two enclosed tanning beds; four hair stations, positioned two by two around semi-private towers; and a separate massage room that completes the celestial theme with life-size, hand- painted angels on the walls and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. The tanning beds are tucked in the back because they turned out to be a surprisingly powerful draw. It is best to use them to expose clients to all the other services, reasons Ehmer.
To capitalize on the services strength, Ehmer offers tanning packages that include a year’s worth of tanning for $350. This gives clients unlimited, once-a-day access.
“I also offer two weeks of tanning services for free with the purchase of a tan accelerator worth $25 or more,” she adds. “Of course, tanning is included in our ‘Day of Beauty’ package, which includes a pedicure, tanning session, buff and polish or manicure, facial and massage, cut and style, makeup application with a color analysis, and spa lunch. We offer customized packages for anywhere from $35 to $180 and certificates for clients who wish to select their own services.
“If someone purchases a beauty package as a gift, a local florist will send our gift certificate along with flowers. The person buying the package can charge everything on a credit card with a single call to the florist.”
Ehmer says she keeps her prices below the competition’s because she’s still building her business. Although she could get $45, she charges $30 for a set of acrylics and says she won’t raise prices until the appointment books are full. Fills are $18; overlays, $25; fiberglass, $35; French gels (pink and white) and silk wraps, $50; repairs, $3; manicures, $10; French manicures, $13. Acrylic tips for toes are $45 a set or $6 a toe.
“Clients who wear heels every day shouldn’t get acrylic tips on their toes, but they’re great in Florida where women wear sandals a lot,” adds Ehmer.
Teaster says the business is growing as word-of-month referrals an increasing. To help them along he continues to pass out flyers, $5 off coupons, and service menus door-to-door, because there are always new potential clients in what is on of the fastest-growing communities in Florida. A full-page and in the Year low Pages is the most successful form of conventional advertising Ehmer has used to date.
Her staff turnover has calmed and every day new clients are delighted to discover a day spa in their own backyard. Typically salon-shy make clients seem more at hours when they find the tall, muscular Teaster at the reception desk and they, too, are increasing in number.
EARNING HER WINGS
“For now, we just want to build the business, but eventually, I want to offer employee benefits like health insurance and paid education,” says Ehmer. “I also want to eventually relocate to a place where I own the building. Then, I won’t have to answer to a landlord and I’ll be able to offer more services. Ideally, I’d like to be next to an aerobics studio or a gym.”
Before she can continue here wish list, a state board examiner arrives for a surprise visit. The examiner looks for licenses and properly located fire extinguishers. He noses around the massage room, noting its cleanliness. He wants evidence that tools are being disinfected between clients. He doesn’t ask to see MSDS binders, which a prepared Teaster has on hand.
The salon passes with flying colors and after 20 minutes, the examiner wishes the co-owners luck and goes on his way. The twin cherubs behind Ehmer’s station and those that adorn the salon’s Gothic columns seem to be smiling.