With a flight delay of six hours one Thanksgiving weekend, Gina Stern and her husband found themselves at loose ends at the airport. They grabbed a bite to eat, perused the bookstore, stopped at the bar. The hours stretched out before them ...

Traveling with her four-year-old daughter, Kimberly Mairs deliberately arrived early at the airport. She had envisioned a little quality “mom-and-daughter” time — perhaps a manicure for herself and a polish application for her daughter. But no such services were available ...

Not long after entering Harvard Business School to work on her MBA, Kristin Rhyne planned a trip with her mother. Delayed at the airport, her mother offhandedly commented that it would be wonderful to gel a manicure. Rhyne agreed — and quickly concluded she and her mother couldn’t be the only ones who desired such services while waiting for a flight ...

For most of us, these would be fleeting thoughts. For these entrepreneurial spirits, they were a need crying to he filled — and an exciting business opportunity. So began months of consumer research and years of business planning.

Starting from different departure points, each of the women visualized a similar destination for airport personnel and travelers. And others were headed to the same place — salon and spa services and products geared to the sometimes-stressed and almost-always time-pressed traveler.

Ready for Take-Off

Since 1999, no fewer than 10 companies have launched airport salon and spa concepts across the country. Boston’s Logan Airport has proved a beautiful destination, hosting Rhyne’s Polished in Terminal C and Mails’ Nailport in Terminal B. Nailport recently opened a second location in nearby T.F. Green Airport (Rhode Island), while Stern’s D_parture Spa has locations in two terminals at New Jersey’s Newark Airport.

Airport property managers are getting the message: After years of disinterested brush-offs, Tracy Nixon, CEO of Passport Travel Spa, received calls from other airports within days of opening its first location at Indianapolis International Airport. Suzanne Letourneau, president of 02raOxygen, agrees. The spa’s flagship Calgary International location is now joined by one at Detroit International and a third soon to open at Amsterdam International (Belgium). And Rhyne says Polished (which already has opened a second location at Pittsburgh International) will open three additional airport spa boutiques by March.

These women, all armed with comprehensive market research and detailed business plans, are ready for the calls. “In approaching the port authority [that manages Newark], we forecasted consumer demand outside, then looked at the traffic and flow inside the airport,” says Stern, recalling the legwork she and her husband did after that Thanksgiving weekend. “Then we did polls of airport customers as far as who would use it and what they would want.”

Distinctly Different

Their confidence stems in part from their distinct identities — there are no cookie-cutter concepts here. Each of the airport salons and spas we spoke to has distinctly different personalities and physical presentations. And while all are drawing from the same pool of potential clients, they have a surprisingly varied clientele. For example, flight crews comprise 40% of D_parture’s clientele, with another 35%-40% coming from female business travelers. “The balance comes from male travelers, who aren’t shy about crossover in services. When men come in, it’s about spending time, not money, so they go through the menu to see what they can get in, say, an hour and a half,” she says.

Polished, on the other hand, has its eye on what Rhyne describes as “upper-professional women” who are both frequent travelers and avid beauty consumers.

“We focus on upscale merchandise and prestige cosmetics,” she comments. She chose Polished’s retail lines — which include Bumble and Bumble, L’Occitane, Peter Thomas Roth, and Somme Institute — for their appeal to department store consumers.

In the terminal next to Polished, the average Joe and Jane find welcome harbor at Nailport. “We get everyone from business people to college students to young children,” says Mairs, who battles high costs with small space: Nailport’s patented, free-standing kiosk is just 91 square feet of fully enclosed, self-sufficient space.

With a portable water tank incorporated into the design, Nailport requires just eight hours to set up and an electrical connection. “We designed the kiosk so that we could easily fit at most airport gates,” Mairs explains. (In comparison, Passport measures in at a luxurious 834 square feet.)

For all of their differences, retail plays a strong role for each — at Polished, it adds up to 50% of sales. Additionally, all have proved themselves flexible and responsive to clients’ needs. Departure, for example, added hair color services to meet the needs of airport personnel and is phasing artificial nails off of the service menu due to a lack of client demand that negates the specialized skills and training necessary to deliver a 30-minute full-set. And Polished redesigned its store layout for Pittsburgh to make services more visible (while using fixtures to provide privacy).

Still a Bumpy Ride

With limited real estate and high operating costs, airport spaces tend to be small and costly. And many airports are still being run by government agencies and the airlines themselves, neither of which has much experience in retail management.

Just getting through the gate proved an almost-insurmountable barrier: Nixon, Rhyne, and Mails say it took about 18 months to convince airport management that they had viable propositions.

The tide is changing, however. According to Stern, a mall management company recently took over the reins at Newark, which she thinks will help her to grow her business both in her current locations and, as the trend spreads, in future locations in other airports.

Similarly, Mail’s says she’s benefited from a recent change in management. “They have a lot of retail experience and are working hard on helping us with marketing and communications,” she says. “They also have a newsletter we’re using to promote the salon to airport personnel.”


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.”

Time Flies

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.


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