It took several years of persuasive arguments and consumer research, but airport salons and spas are taking off. And the sky’s the limit as to the opportunities with on-the-go clients seeking convenience and speed.
But the best place to reach consumers, they all agree, is at the point of purchase. “It’s what you present in the front of the store that brings them in,” says Mairs. “We’ve got signage on services and products to communicate that we carry lotions, polishes, travel kits, and other items travelers need.”
Everything else aside, the biggest difference between airport salons and spas and all others is time. “We are open 365 days a year, 12-15 hours a day,” Rhine says. “It’s lough to staff all of those hours because no one wants to work until 10 p.m. And Pittsburgh is a hub, which means there are dramatic swings in activity. Every few hours when the planes come in we are swamped, then we’re dead when the planes go back out. You have to staff to your peaks because that’s when you generate all of your income.” All agree that full cosmetologists and dual licensees provide the most versatility, although these owners take care to emphasize quality, rather than quantity, when it comes to a provider’s service repertoire. And everyone must specialize in sales.”If the massage therapist isn’t with a client, she’s helping people select merchandise,” Rhine comments. “And the makeup artist isn’t just showing new colors, she’s talking to clients about a manicure with polish to match.”
While clients are open to suggestions, they have an inflexible time budget. Even with the trend toward earlier check-ins, there’s not a minute to spare. As part of their business plans, these salons and spas scrutinized every step of services and space, measuring time-saving opportunities in seconds.
All embrace waterless manicures, and Polished has a patented dry-as-you-go nail bar design — as soon as the top coat is applied, the client slips her hands into the nail dryer neatly built into the tabletop. D_parture and Nailport offer 10-minute manicures — and mean it. for example, D_parture’s therapists work with one eye on the stopwatch and the other on the client’s boarding time. And Polished promises a 20-minute manicure from start-to-dry.
For those with more time — early arrivals or long layovers — shorter services often translate to additional sales. “We have services that range from 10 minutes to three hours, so we plan in terms of how much time they have and what staff we have and how they’re already booked,” Stern says.
After the Fall
The months following the events of September 11, 2001, proved highly turbulent for these fledgling businesses. Not only were U.S. airports completely shutdown for days, but airline passenger volume was still below the historical average a year later. However, everyone we spoke to survived the downturn, even reporting that sales rebounded more quickly than they had anticipated.
“The day after we returned to normal business hours we had survivors who came in for services on their way home,” Stern remembers. “I asked why, having just gone through this horrible time, were/they were coming to us. One woman said to me, ‘If not now, then when?’“
Still, business has changed. Tighter security means fewer potential clients as what Stern calls “meeters and greeters” are restricted from passing through security. “On the other hand, the average passenger wait time has increased by 45 minutes to an hour,” she adds. “I think the two balance each other out.”
Those located on the other side of checkpoints say they have the opposite problem: They can service everyone, but many travelers want to clear security before committing spare lime to services and shopping. “People used to check in and then come to the spa,” explains Letourneau. “Hut the security lines are getting shorter and we find people aren’t as nervous now.”
And staffing, never easy, is even more challenging. “It takes longer to recruit now,” says Mairs.
The Sky’s the Limit
While airports large enough to support salon and spa concepts are numbered in the United States, these entrepreneurs view the sky as their only limit. For the immediate future, airports still offer tremendous growth potential, and each successful opening provides additional proof-of-concept. “I recently spoke at a conference on reinventing airport retail and [airport] consultants were saying that this is the way to go,” Letourneau says.
Nor are airports necessarily these entrepreneurs’ final destinations. “The concept is to address beauty needs where they’re most needed,” affirms Rhine. Even as Polished continues to expand airport locations, Rhine also has started working with hotels to provide travel-size nail kits for guests. And Nailport’s Mair, who called Wal-Mart on a whim after a blitz of publicity, now has 20 salons in Wal-Mart stores in Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.