Margo Blue proclaims her business philosophy loud and clear in her greeting to each customer Nail clients get whatever their hearts desire —whether its maximum service in minimum time or leisurely pampering in luxurious surroundings.

The Tuscany Room hosts spa clients who are between services or having lunch or a snack during a day of beauty. In addition to the sculpture and the rolling hills a stone waterfall contributes to the serene atmosphere.

Like her native city of Charlotte, N.C., Margo Blue is a contra­dictory yet refreshing blend of old ways and new ideas. When I visited her new day spa this past spring, the chic 34-year-old didn't stop talking from the moment she picked me up from the hotel, bub­bling over with enthusiastic descrip­tions of her new day spa and her plans for its future. Yet with the courtesy and deference of a true Southerner, Blue's first stop was not The Spa at Margo Blue, but at a day spa across town. "You just have to see it," she ex­claimed, with just a hint of an appeal­ing Southern drawl. "They just re­modeled and it's really gorgeous."

Yet our first stop only highlighted that the difference in spas isn't the ser­vices offered — it's the service itself. When Blue requested a tour of the spa for "the editor of a national magazine for the beauty industry" (make that contributing editor), the salon recep­tionist curtly asked us to wait while she finished checking out a customer. But when the customers were gone and she chose to rearrange a display rather than acknowledge us, 1 asked to move on to the reason for my visit.

Opened in November 1997, The Spa at Margo Blue lies at the southern edge of Charlotte, in an area where new, expensive homes sell as fast as they are built, demonstrating the city's rapid expansion. Located in a small shopping center dominated by med­ical offices, the spa still awaited some final, finishing touches, but the cus­tomer would never notice that a pic­ture was still coming for this wall or a sconce for that wall unless Blue point­ed it out like she did to me. Instead, the marble floors and soft beige walls graced with plaster figurines, gilt-framed artwork, and themed murals relax the eyes, while the ears are soothed by fountains that bubble water down their rock walls.

Upon entering the main reception area, every client is greeted with, "Wel­come to The Spa at Margo Blue, how may we nurture you?" But no answer is required as clients are guided to the spa where they are met by the spa coor­dinator or their service provider, or to the separate salon reception desk where they are checked in and out for salon hair, nail, and makeup services.

The spa is the culmination of all Blue's ideas and dreams, and yet — perfectionist and visionary that she is — she already has plans to change some things and expand others. The nail department, in particular, ranks high on her list for reorganization. With all of the enthusiasm she exudes for the department, it's hard to believe she dropped nails from her first salon in 1987 and didn't bring them back until 1996. Even then, she admits she reintroduced nails as a client convenience, but when client demand neces­sitated doubling, then tripling, then quadrupling the nail department in the first six months, Blue's mindset — and her strategy — quickly shifted.

A Paradigm Shift

"In 1986 we had two nail technicians sharing one table, and they were frus­trated there was no education or train­ing for them," says Blue, who at the time co-owned Carmen. Carmen salon with renowned hairstylist and then husband Carmen Cutrone. "Nails were big in the home market, and pedicures were something dirty. People weren't that in­terested in salon services, and distribu­tors didn't have equipment. There weren't many product lines to choose from, and there were no retail products, so we got out of nails."

When the two divorced in 1994, Blue took over one of the two salons they had owned as partners. She was already look­ing to the future. Margo Blue Hair, Body, and Soul became the vehicle to build capital for the eventual opening of the day spa. Still, nails weren't a factor — yet.

"When the first discount salons opened here in 1994, we were glad they came," she explains. "The concept of no appointment and a 30-minute fill took women by storm. But as these salons began to boom and our customers be­came comfortable with going other places, we got into trouble. We decided nails may not be profitable, but we needed them as a convenience. It was about this time, too, that pedicures started to take off."

By 1996, Blue had added a nail sta­tion to the salon and staffed the department with two part-time nail techni­cians. Even then, she admits, she was afraid to really promote and build the department because of her past experi­ences, and because she knew so little about the industry. However, a chance meeting at a trade show with the owner of a salon changed all that. "She had what I wanted — six nail technicians and clients busting out at the walls," Blue says, noting that the other salon owner felt the same way about her hair department as Blue felt about nails. The two started consulting with each other to help develop each other's weak areas.

At about the same time, Blue noticed that discount nail salons were explod­ing: By 1997, 12 more had opened in her area, and she felt it was time to learn more. She spent an afternoon just sit­ting in the reception area of a nearby discount salon, observing traffic flow and service styles. She was astounded.

"I sat and counted each client who came in, and I listened to the conversations," she remembers. "It's non-service there, like Jiffy Lube. Yet we realized when peo­ple need nail services it must be quick because they don't have the time. The salon did $300 an hour in services."

One Spa, Two Clienteles

With those observations in mind, Blue began noting what was going on in her own business and talking to clients about their needs. "We've learned we have two specific types of client: One is the quick-service guest who wants a nail service while her hair color is processing or a nail polish change during her pedicure," Blue notes. "These are the ones who don't care about the cost or a lack of pamper­ing; they are corporate women or mothers with kids. Both are in a hurry.

Blue's response: Services-to-Go, a con­cept that offers clients the ability to get the full salon experience in a minimum amount of time. "We're able to shorten the service time by booking guests for two or three services at a time," she ex­plains. "A client might be getting a hand massage and a cuticle treatment while her feet soak in the pedicure bath and her face is being steamed. Although it takes half the time, she has two or three peo­ple working on her at once, and we find customers enjoy that."

The Services-to-Go concept also solves another issue for Blue: lack of space. "When we designed the spa we to­tally underestimated the nail depart­ment's potential volume. Right now we're considering things like putting up screens or bringing in portable pedicure units, but what we've also done is move some of the nails into the salon area, where we had some dead space. This has built the volume even more because nail clients see the hair clients and hair clients see the nails." It also dealt with the odor issue of acrylic services, she says.

For that second clientele, who values the experience as highly as the results, nail services are performed in the spa, where there's a nail station in the men's salon area and a separate pedicure room with two whirlpool spas. The pedicure room also has a nail station, but it's used mostly for clients receiving multiple ser­vices because they found the pedicure room became too crowded and noisy when operating at full capacity — which is most of the time these days.

"It kills me now when 1 hear salon owners say they're phasing out nails," Blue exclaims. "There are just so many services clients want. For example, toe waxing is gaining popularity, and I have the nail technicians do it," she says. "Once you make clients aware of the hair on their toes, they want that service. Cuticle treatments, the Gentleman's manicure — these are all services we've developed to serve a need. Once you educate clients about these services and show them what they can do, they want them. And the more tiny services, like toe waxing and cuticle treatments, that you can create, the more apt clients are to buy them as an add-on to, say, a haircut."

Far from resting on her laurels, Blue continues to search for new ideas and ways to promote the spa. Some of her most recent marketing plans include  Spa Lunches, where staff members will  go to local businesses and offer 30-  minute massages, polish changes, and hair consultations.

At the same time, Blue credits her nail technicians for the technical expertise and customer service skills that make new clients regulars. They, on the other hand, laud her eye for detail and her energy.

Together, they answer the question of "How may we nurture you?" before it even is asked. 

“Nail Technician Needed”

When asked about her biggest challenge in the nail department, Margo Blue unequivocally replies: "Find­ing staff"

"When you get into day spa services you at­tract a clientele with high expectations," she adds, "The business has become so competitive, with spa products and services available not only in fine salons but also in depart­ment stores and consumer clinics, that clients need a reason to come."

Blue opened The Spa at Margo Blue with a full staff, which she now says was a mistake. "If I had it to do again I would stagger departments. Work your plans so that you hire one or two technicians to complement each other’s' down times, and then add staff as demand allows. We had several wonderful staff members quit after we trained them because they couldn't hang on long enough until the business was built."

Until recently Blue had a hard time recruiting nail technicians, but the spa's growing reputation, a spe­cific job description, and some flexibility on her part have eased the shortage. "I've had great success putting computer-generat­ed fliers up on distributors' boards," she notes. "Instead of just saying, 'Nail Techni­cian Needed,” I've been very specific about the hours, days, pay, and prod­ucts used. Another thing I've found is to let them know the services I offer and the prices I charge."

With a still somewhat-sporadic volume — busy some days and slow others — Blue says she allows nail technicians to work at other salons as well. "My professional friends have questioned my thinking, but all I care about is that they go through my training, do services to my standards, and commit to certain days and hours," she says.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.