Beauty Fly-buys Take Off

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.

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.”

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