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The Business of Looking Good 

Dozens of day spas have established themselves in the New Orleans area over the past 20 years, offering everything from facials and manicures to full-body wraps and floral and mineral baths. Beauty salons also have expanded their menus to include spa services as well as hair, makeup and nail maintenance. With all the choices for consumers and stiff competition in the marketplace, business owners have to devise methods to make themselves stand out in order to survive and thrive.

The simple answer, of course, is give the people what they want. Smart business owners, however, give it to them with a touch of personality and a luxurious feeling that makes them look forward to the next visit even as they're walking out the door.

The 20,000-square-foot spa at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans in the French Quarter emphasizes luxury at its year-old facility, from its beautiful decor to its litany of special services, massages and baths inspired by the great royal courts of France. Napoleon's Royal Massage, for instance, begins with a hydrotherapy bath that includes sliced rounds of citrus, followed by a eau de cologne-infused stimulating tonic used in a Swedish massage. The four-handed massage is rumored to have been a favorite of Marie Antoinette during Louis XIV's Versailles days. The spa provides a full range of services, all delivered with the intent of providing an experience along with the facial or massage.

Smaller local spas have established a following with less grandiose surroundings and menus by focusing on delivering an intensely pleasing personal experience as well as providing customers with knowledge and products that will allow them to relive the experience at home. Karen Adjmi, who opened Earthsavers with partner Jackie Palumbo 12 years ago, attributes a major part of her company's expansion to eight stores to the quality and consistency of her staff.

"Our quality of service is tremendous," she says. "That gives you a following (with customers). We put a lot of emphasis on training so that the quality of service a customer receives is consistent" regardless of which therapist they see. "Even therapists we hire with a lot of experience have to go through the training." Earthsavers employees also attend regular in-store training and informational sessions to stay abreast of procedures and products. "They're constantly learning, always growing and have knowledge to share with customers," Adjmi says

Kim Dudek, who opened Belladonna Day Spa on St. Charles Avenue in 1989 and later moved it to Magazine Street, agrees that service, knowledge and rapport is what keeps customers returning.

"We have a very loyal customer base," she says. "I'm doing grandchildren of my original customers now. I remember when they were just born and now we're doing their facials.

"We have pretty strenuous hiring procedures, so we have really good therapists. I have a loyal staff and the team we've developed over the years ... help maintain a familiar feeling for the clients."

For some, drawing in regular customers means focusing on a specialty or a hard-to-find service and delivering it better or more personally than anyone else. This is the tack followed by Dora Ochoa, owner of the 4-year-old Body Sugaring USA Day Spa in Madisonville, who provides not only sugaring hair removal, but also cosmotherapy -- a procedure that stimulates all five senses -- hot stone massages and other services.

"The focus of my business is the sugaring," Ochoa says. "I have regular clients from all over: the West Bank and New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Denham Springs, even Houston." Her clients are drawn by her gentle, no-heat system that not only removes hair for the time being, but the hair that replaces it is lighter and softer. Eventually, she says, the hair won't grow back.

"The beauty schools don't teach the method of body sugaring that I use," Ochoa says. "Unlike waxing, the paste I use has no chemicals -- it's sugar, lemon and water. We don't use any electricity. This is much more gentle than other methods. I apply it with my hand and remove it with my hand instead of a strip of cloth or cotton, which rips off the top layer of skin and hair."

It's a method used for hundreds of years, she says, especially by women in parts of the Arab world who traditionally remove all their body hair before their wedding. Ochoa's clientele includes men, women and children.

At JKL Colourcutting Salon in Metairie, owner Ken Laprairie says he maintains a loyal customer base by staying on the cutting edge of total hair design and care. His latest addition is a Japanese thermal conditioning hair straightening system that he says "reforms the bonds of the hair so you can position it to be perfectly straight."

"We haven't even started marketing the procedure yet -- we just started doing it -- and already I have five lined up this week," says Laprairie, whose staff had to attend a special training school and certification process in New York in order to use the system. The Japanese company that makes the thermal hair relaxer system brought it to the United States about a year ago, and JKL is the only salon in the area certified to perform the procedure.

"It takes about five hours," he says. "You get eight to 10 months before you actually have to straighten the new growth. You will get the silky straight hair, plus you also have the integrity of the hair. It's not damaging; it's actually reforming the bonds."

Overall, he says, his salon stays abreast of trends, procedures and products for their customers. "We opened 12 years ago as color specialists and design specialists for the hair and now thermal conditioning specialists." The salon also offers makeup application and combining those services was named one of three best makeover salons in North America.

Male Salon for Men in Harahan capitalized on expertise in cutting men's hair as well as catering to their manicure, pedicure, massage, hair removal and other spa service needs -- all in a manly atmosphere.

"We're doing great," says Elizabeth Graffagnini, who opened the contemporary salon with her mother, Cynthia Richmond, last August. "Our business has more than doubled since we opened." The spa sports television sets for customers to watch at hair-cutting stations, sporting events are broadcast over speakers and some special events include a happy hour.

Hair cuts are the main fare, Graffagnini says, but services such as back waxing, massages and manicures also are gaining popularity, especially because of the privacy and lack of female clientele.

"One man came in to get his back waxed and said he had put it off before because, 'I didn't want to run into one of my wife's friends (at a salon) and have to tell them what I was there for.'"

Stardust is a Magazine Street salon that offers a full range of hair services as well as facials, massages, nail care, microdermabrasion and a non-invasive liposuction procedure called Synergie, a patented therapy that uses vacuum massage to restructure the way fat cells are situated in the body.

"It smoothes and tightens," says Stardust Manager Brandi Morris. "It feels a little like a massage, but it's not painful at all." It's more comfortable than other, more dramatic cellulite reduction therapies, she says, and takes several sessions to achieve desired results.

Making new customers into regulars is the goal of all salons and spas, and the key often turns on the aesthetic qualities customers perceive and those they walk away with.

"The staff is key, because they're giving personal services, dealing with people from different places," says Belladonna's Dudek, whose spa also offers a range of skin and body products and unique gifts. "You want people to go away feeling better and happier. We stay on top of what is new and we're redeveloping our basic menu ... and developing new packages to stay in tune with what's going on."

Dudek has seen a lot of changes since she opened the spa 13 years ago. "There were other people who were doing some of the services back then, precursors to the day spa but with much more of a medical chrome feel," she says. "I was probably one of the first ones that made it more comfortable and a place to get skin care problems analyzed and their muscles worked on. Back then (those services were) still a luxury; people didn't really know what massage was. Now everything is available around the world; it makes it a lot more fun."

Adjmi says opening Earthsavers more than a decade ago without the benefit of a blueprint from similar established businesses helped solidify what the company has become. "Because of the fact that we had such a head start -- before it was a trend -- we have a concrete philosophy of who we are. We're not trendy. We have the best service consistently, and we have a very therapeutic approach to service. For every step other people do, we do four steps. Even with a manicure and pedicure, you also get hand and foot reflexology."

The numbers of men and women seeking spa services is increasing exponentially, making the marketplace explode with new ventures and offerings. "When we opened, there were 13 'day spas' in the country," Adjmi says. "By 2000, there were 7,000, and there were 14,000 in 2001."

Dudek says she's enjoyed watching the transition in customer base to get more of a mixture of backgrounds as well as more men.

"In the beginning, men wouldn't step foot in the spa," she says. "Now they come in all the time. That's something I really wanted to see. It's a lot of fun when you start getting a mixture of people and see how they interact with each other."

The trick is providing an atmosphere where customers feel free to relax and visit with others or take a peaceful and private respite, have some fun, drain stresses, correct problems and shop.

"We work very hard at what we do, but we feel good about it," Adjmi says. "There is a feeling of peacefulness (when you walk in an Earthsavers), we hear that a lot. It is that your senses are stimulated, but it's also attitude. The employees are happy. They spend their days making people feel good."

click to enlarge Facials, massages and other body rejuvenating therapies have become commonplace for the general public.
  • Facials, massages and other body rejuvenating therapies have become commonplace for the general public.
click to enlarge Elizabeth Graffagnini opened Male Salon in Harahan to cater to a men-only clientele with hair and salon services.
  • Elizabeth Graffagnini opened Male Salon in Harahan to cater to a men-only clientele with hair and salon services.
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