These days, owning a business is as much a part of the American dream as owning a home. It often seems that with a little optimism and a lot of grit, anything is possible, despite the risks involved. For those who succeed, the benefits — autonomy, creative freedom, profits — make the trials worthwhile.

As with any business, salon employees and booth renters are subject to another’s vision. Choices of décor, salon structure, products, and the like fall on the salon owner. And most likely, there are countless elements that a nail technician or a hairstylist would change, if only it were her own salon. Yet to go out on one’s own presents many obstacles, namely cost. With salons on every street corner and in every strip mall, from the upscale spa to the walk-in franchise, competition is fierce.

Many technicians choose booth renting as a means for more control. Financial responsibilities, as well as rewards, fall on the renter. Yet even as a booth renter, true freedom remains at arm’s length.

Turn-Key Operations

Salon suites, or beauty malls, just might offer a new solution. Faced with the prohibitive costs of starting a business mixed with a desire for independence, upwardly mobile salon techs may find salon suites the perfect stepping stone between employee and salon owner. And they appear to be a popular option. As Maureen Biles of Total Envy Salon in Phoenix says, “There are 150 professionals waiting to rent space in Monogram Salon Suites.”

Salon suites often house as many as 30 different spaces, from hair and nail salons to massage studios, with individual health and beauty professionals leasing each individual suite. Many include boutiques and small cafes. In most cases, each private salon is entered through a door off a hallway. The only outside entrance is for the entire structure. As Scott Wright, owner of Jakette Salon Suites franchise in

Atlanta describes, “The best way to look at it is as a small nail salon located within a larger salon.”

These turn-key operations are outfitted for specific purposes. Readymade nail salons come equipped with manicure tables and pedicure chairs and hair salons with shampoo stations and styling chairs. In most cases, all utilities except for telephone are covered by the lease. Suite owners maintain the structure and the surrounding grounds and most offer laundry facilities and lounge areas with kitchens.

From one company to the next, these benefits are fairly standard. An additional perk is 24-hour access to the building, allowing renters to keep their own hours and meet the flexible needs of their clients. As Barbara Goudelock of The Nail Box, a salon at Salon Industry Suites in Atlanta, laughs, “If one of my clients chips a nail at a night club, she can call me and I can meet her there — even if it is two in the morning.”

The relationship between owner and salon manager is not strictly one of landlord and tenant. In most cases, suite owners claim an interest in the salon profession — many owners are salon professionals themselves and maintain a working space in the suite — and in creating business opportunities for other professionals. And many owners provide education and guidance in regards to the organizational aspects of starting a business.

Salon Industry Suites’ website offers the following, “As part of our package of information, you will be educated on the step-by-step process of obtaining a business license, securing a tax identification number, getting your own retail tax license, getting general and professional liability insurance, telephone set-up, and more.” What “more” means varies from one franchise to the next from additional marketing support to just keeping the lights on, so to speak.

How Much Freedom?

Salon suite-style environments offer many perks that booth renting does not, from the opportunity to create personalized decor to the chance to facilitate all aspects of a business. In most cases, suite renters decorate their spaces as they wish, from installing hardwood or tiled floors to building cabinetry to hanging pictures. However most plans must be approved by owners and absolute creative control is not guaranteed.

Biles described the variety of styles at the Monogram Salon Suites: “Some of the rooms have walls that are faux finished, mine is done in torn paper that looks like leather pieces, but it is done in raspberry, green, terra cotta, grape, and copper. There is even a room done in bright orange with an Asian-inspired decor.”

At some salon suites, however, stricter rules are imposed. For example at Salon Suites in Lewisville, Texas, in order to maintain uniformity and a sense of professionalism, owners require that the walls remain white and that all pictures must be framed.

This freedom to decorate allows the personality and style of each nail tech, hairstylist, or massage therapist to come through and it is this independence that draws the most raves. As Goudelock describes, “When I first saw the salon suite it was just a shell of a building, but as I walked around with DeShawn Bullard (Salon Industry Suites founder), I saw the space and I said ‘That is mine.’ I had the vision of what it could be.” Testimonials like this appear to be the norm.

Personal expression also comes through in the business decisions that must be made. Suite renters must ask, “Should I have retail? What hours should I keep?” Renters are fully responsible for the display and sale of all retail items. Selecting the lines that one likes and experimenting with new ones presents another avenue for creating one’s own unique space. Goudelock sells T-shirts and perfumes in addition to polishes and manicure and pedicure products and plans to launch her own line of hand and foot scrubs.

Higher Rent Is Worth It

Choosing your own wallpaper is great but is the move to a salon suite worth the money? Of all of the technicians and stylists we spoke to the answer was a resounding yes and the perceived sense of ownership offered more than enough motivation to take the leap. After initial start-up expenses — a deposit which averages two weeks’ rent, licensing fees, stocking a full inventory and telephone hook-up — monthly expenses are not terribly high. Suite rental exceeds booth rental but the difference is not outrageous — although this too varies from one franchise to the next. Although rent depends on several elements — size, location within the suites, windows, running water — the average weekly rental among suite renters we spoke to is $150-$160 for nail techs. Hair salon suites run higher with a weekly average of $225.

Many technicians feel that despite higher rents, the salon suites, with the potential increase in clientele and retail business, pay for themselves. As Goudelock describes, “My weekly rent for a booth was $100 and my weekly rent for a suite with large windows facing the street is only $150. The increase in profits makes up for the difference in rent.”

For Biles, retail sales provide an additional boost. “My rent is double what I have paid in any salon. However, I make up the difference and more in my retail sales. It is nice to be able to buy the retail I know the clients will buy. The best part is not having to give a percentage to anyone else. Bottom line, I pay more, I am busier, and my retail usually ends up covering my rent.”

How do costs add up for the owners? None were willing to give specifics in terms of exact costs and profits, some were in fact guarded, but all were quick to say that it has been a profitable venture. An owner’s involvement in a salon suite ranges from salon operator and mentor to simply landlord.

Who Takes Care of What?

The technicians we spoke to offered little criticism except to cite a lack of exposure. Given the layout of a typical salon suite — with a corporate sign over the entryway and access to the individual suites inside — the suites have no immediate street presence. The percentage of walk-in clients varies from one business to the next but averages at about 15% per month. Suite renters must rely on other means — advertising, word of mouth, or their own client base — to generate customers.

For the most part, suite renters are responsible for all advertising and marketing. In some instances, Monogram Salon Suites is an example, the owners play an active role in promotion. As Biles describes, the owners occasionally sponsor television advertisements that focus on six to eight suites. This February, an advertisement that featured Biles’ pedicure station and retail items generated a Valentine’s Day rush. At Salon Industry Suites in Atlanta, the company helps its renters build websites and provides links from the company site.

This level of support however, is the exception to the norm. At Salon Suites (a Jakette Salon Suite) in Atlanta, the corporation provides fliers for new renters to distribute to their clients to announce their move. After that, advertising falls on the renter. Most salon suites provide little assistance in terms of marketing.

Marketing tactics employed by suite renters range from listings in local directories to coupons to websites. However, advertising is money and the majority of renters rely on referrals from their clients for business. The unique suite layout may not pull in as many walk-in clients but it does generate a higher number of referrals for a salon operator as suitemates frequently trade clients, often making personal introductions.

As Biles states, “It is basically one-stop shopping. Clients can come in, get their nails and hair done, have a massage, buy a new outfit, eat lunch, and buy a gift.” What distinguishes this from a regular spa or salon is that all of these services exist under one roof but with increased privacy. This intimacy seems to keep clients coming back.

Although referrals bring new customers through the doors, what echoed was that a pre-existing clientele base is crucial when moving to a salon suite setting. This is not for the first-time salon worker. To succeed, one needs to bring an established group of steady customers to the new location. The dependability of regular appointments allows a nail tech to develop her business. Having guaranteed customers from the start more readily covers costs and more immediately generates profits.

Pamela Thomas runs Tips and Toes at Salon Suites in Lewisville, Texas. She had been working at a full-service salon since 1991 and in July 2003 decided to “go for broke,” moving into Salon Suites with no client base. She has relied on her reputation to fuel her business and has been successful, yet she still keeps part-time hours as she works another job. The salon suite owners are supportive. They record the number of customers coming through the doors and make note of what services they solicit and whether they are walk-ins or not. As a result, rent rates are flexible for those — like Thomas — who only keep part-time hours.

Thomas’s case represents a potential trap of salon suite renting. It seems possible that a tech might find herself only able to cover existing appointments and not have sufficient time to generate new ones (a common complaint among salon owners who maintain a full book themselves). The freedom and flexibility of maintaining your own hours, while definitely a necessity for some, is also a weakness. In order to truly benefit from other salons’ clients, techs need to maintain regular hours.

So who really benefits from a salon suite set up? Those who have a steady base of clients and can create a flexible schedule around them and those with entrepreneurial spirits who are ready to take on the responsibilities of business ownership but are not yet ready to be saddled with upfront costs. In the case of the latter, given the need for advertising, and the varied support in this area, salon suite renting works best for someone with either a bit of marketing savvy or sheer pluck — someone willing to walk the streets, fliers in hand.

In reality, each salon suite system is different from the next, from the cost of rentals to the level of support from the owners. However, for those ready and willing to treat this as a business, there is plenty of room to succeed and prosper.

Emily Smith is a freelance writer based in Charlottesville, Va.

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