Cultivating and Harnessing CreativityInnovative ideas that build your staff-and your brand.

LET'S FACE IT, sometimes when guests come in asking for "just a trim," your uber-creative and forward-thinking styling staff lose it a little bit, at least internally while they continue smiling into the mirror. It's not that they don't want to make clients happy-in this economy, who can afford not to give a client what they want-but doing the same basic cuts day after day can defeat artistic imaginations.

Even if they can't regularly explore their talents on clients, other innovative outlets await. To get your creative juices flowing, we've tapped seven different salons, sharing their strategies for inspiring creativity and their tips for bolstering business while keeping their stylists' brilliance on the cutting edge.

Performing Virtual Makeovers

Guests might be wary of anything called a "makeover," but visual aids can help put their minds at ease. Paul Kenneth Salon and Spa in Woburn, Massachusetts, utilizes a makeover website during consultations to review cut and color ideas with clients and discuss any concerns before the service begins. Jackie Maniaci, who co-owns the salon with Paul Kenneth, says having a tool to show clients their potential results has been a boon for business-and creativity.

The site,, is free and easy to use. Simply upload a clear headshot of your client, or select from the roster of "real woman" models, then digitally style the photo from a menu of hair styles and colors. Not only can clients "try out" a dramatic color or cut risk-free in the salon, they can even test looks on the site from their own home. To access, they just follow the link on the Paul Kenneth website and enter a user ID and password as supplied by the salon.

Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
"Makeover technology helps improve communication and open up new service opportunities," says Maniaci, co-owner of Paul Kenneth Salon and Spa.

Though Maniaci initially wanted to create her own makeover site, it proved too costly., though fairly basic, easily interfaces with the salon's website and has proven its value. "It's great for clients who come in here bored and wanting a change, but they don't know what they want. Their stylist will pull up the site and say, ‘Let's look.' Many times, what they see on the screen may be too big a change, but they'll end up with something close to it." Previously, wishywashy clients posed a problem as they occasionally ended up dissatisfied with their new looks. "Before, they might say, ‘I didn't think it would look like this!' With the site, we've definitely gotten more satisfied clients, as well as reduced re-dos."

The salon has been so happy with the results that they incentivize stylists to make virtual makeovers part of every appointment. The first team member who uses the site 10 times in a month gets a monetary reward. "It absolutely increases client and stylist creativity," reports Maniaci. "We're constantly promoting it."

Hosting a Photo Shoot Competition

There's nothing wrong with a little friendly competition among staff, believes Melany Beirne, owner of Ohana Salon in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has her staff team up and challenges them to create avant garde photo shoots around a theme-then posts the photos so clients can vote on their favorite look. The prize for the winning team? Bragging rights around the salon, which is enough to encourage every stylist to push herself and constantly "think outside the box."

"Most of our shoots are inspired by editorial work that we love, or by ideas from staff that push outside our comfort zone and daily activity," says Beirne. "It's a great opportunity to try that amazing style you saw in W magazine, or just simply revisit skills that we don't necessarily use on a daily basis."

Her key to getting staff excited and enthusiastic about each challenge is to include them in the process every step of the way.

Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
"For our ERA photo shoot, each team drew an era and had to create a photo that looked like
it was originally taken at that time," says Beirne, owner of Ohana Salon. Here is a shot for the 30s/ 40s era.

The timeline is a strict one: Three months prior to a shoot, staff get together to outline its purpose: Is it directed toward clients? Is it for inspirational purposes? Two months prior, teams are assembled for hair, make-up and wardrobe, and each collaborates on creating storyboards with inspirational images or materials they plan to use. A model call is also announced at that time, and model selection begins. One month prior, a dress rehearsal/practice is scheduled for a full run-through to ensure everything is in place on the day of the shoot.

Not only do these shoots draw new business, it's expanded career opportunities for staff, who now have the experience and connections to get jobs doing editorial work for local magazines. And it will only grow from there, says Beirne. "Recently we submitted photos for a competition being held by a publication with Nick Arrojo, and we are looking forward to entering Goldwell Color Zoom in 2011.

Watch out, NAHA, because you're next on our list!"

Celebrating with the Community

Halloween is a favorite holiday at Phia Salon in Columbus, Ohio. But rather than pass out candy, stylists joined their small business association, Short North Business Association (SNBA), for HighBall Halloween, a huge street party reminiscent of Mardi Gras. There they created over-the-top hair styles for the main event of the evening, a runway show featuring outrageous couture fashions from 10 local designers.

Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
Creating outlandish hair for a local Halloween celebration lets stylists "be creative in a way they don't get to be in a salon," says lead stylist Sunshine Stricker of Phia Salon.

Though community-based, the event was a big undertaking for the salon, says Elizabeth Bella, who owns Phia with her husband, Mike. Lead stylist Sunshine Stricker was the salon liaison responsible for most of the coordination with SNBA. Eight to 10 stylists also brainstormed ideas with the designers, who were open to their suggestions, no matter how outlandish. Ultimately, says Bella, the planning enforced the camaraderie of the team and, in particular, boosted the confidence level of new stylists.

"Everyone was really excited for the event," agrees Stricker. "We were creative in a way you don't get to be in a salon." It was also an unqualified success, with the fashion designers thanking the salon team for taking their designs to the next level. The neighborhood loved it, too. "It got a big group of people interested in the salon and let them know what we're about," says Stricker. Not only did the salon help raise $40,000 for the SNBA, it also secured 42 new clients with a $31 average ticket on their first visit.

But the biggest benefits, like bringing the community together, were intangible. "The event is ideal for growing business, but more than bringing me new clients, it's made my current clients excited to see me," says Stricker. "They see our name around and say, ‘Hey, that's my salon.' I'm really proud of our whole team."

Staging Style Interventions

Seek out potential clients who are already undergoing personal transformations, recommends Kendirian, co-owner of Atelier
SAV. "They are trying to change themselves already, so they are open to you."

Though Atelier SAV in Glendale, California, is a relatively new salon, staff have already been involved with editorial work, TV and hair shows, reports Shoushan Kendirian, who co-owns the salon with partners Ani Baburyan and Virginia Martirosyan.

But still, stylists continuously sought out creative outlets. "Doing clients every day is one thing-they always want one inch off," laments Kendirian. "It's hard to explore your creativity, since clients keep you in a box."

Fortunately, the salon came up with a novel solution to exercise their creative muscle-they grab members from their local gym for spontaneous style interventions.

"We randomly choose someone, or the gym recommends people to us," says Kendirian. "A trainer might suggest someone when that person has come a long way. We want people who are working on themselves. We don't take a fl awless 10 since she doesn't need us!" The lucky candidate then gets brought to the salon for a full style makeover-including hair, make-up and even counseling on self-esteem.

Since the salon selects people who are already in the process of change, the creative element becomes truly transformative. "People are more open because they've neglected themselves and are not sure what to do. They listen to us," says Kendirian. And it shows in their final results, which are anything but boring: "When they lose the weight, they may go for that bold red."

The salon performs the interventions completely free of charge, but they do get a return on their investment. "The guests are a walking advertisement for us. They come back and bring ten people with them!" But that's not the greatest reward for her stylists, adds Kendirian. "We love the whole transformation process-and we love seeing happy people."

Working with High Fashion

José Luis Salon in Austin, Texas, knows the power of fashion. José Buitron, who co-owns the salon with Bill Pitts, says their work with local fashion designers and bigger names like Richie Rich has inspired his team to dream big. "This is high fashion, it goes above and beyond the chair," he says. It even goes to Paris: That's where Buitron worked with the Oribe team last July on the Giorgio Armani Privé collection shows.

Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
José Luis stylists work on models backstage with Oribe at the Armani Privé show.
"I don't see how anyone could not be involved in fashion shows," says co-owner Buitron.

When prepping for a fashion show, Buitron's core team first meets with the designer to study the clothing. They then conceive two or three looks that are presented to the designer-whichever look they ultimately agree upon is selected for the show. The next step? Practice, practice, practice, says Buitron. "The look should become quick and easy to do. The more prepared you are, the easier it is. Without preparation, it's total chaos."

Preparation is so critical that April Lyn Graffeo has developed an entire system around it. At Indra Salon and City Spa in Andover, Massachusetts, which she co-owns with José Batistine, aspiring editorial and runway professionals undergo an "honors seminar" that includes extra education in styling techniques, training in event preparation, and marketing and branding education such as utilizing Facebook as a promotional tool.

To keep them organized, stylists receive prearranged binders with information on all their upcoming editorial and fashion shows. They are also required to carry a digital camera to document their work; later, these photographs will be edited for use on Facebook and in their personal portfolios. After six months, successful trainees have the necessary experience to do national runway work and earned a resume title of "Editorial and Runway Professional."

Needless to stay, stylists love the combination of hair and fashion. "It's a release of creativity that we all need to have," says Buitron. "It's not always there with clients, but it's definitely there for fashion shows."

Creating Your Own Marketing Collateral

Cultivating and Harnessing Creativity
Stylists collaborate on photo shoots at Bell Tower, reports owner Carolyn Helms, from concept and photographer coordination to styling hair, make-up and clothes.

Every year at Bell Tower Salon, Medi-Spa & Store in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Carolyn Helms and her staff organize two photo shoots that provide images for all their advertising including postcard mailers, billboards and digital marketing, as well as the salon website and Facebook page. Handson involvement keeps the stylists current with trends, but more importantly, it helps take their career to the next level.

"I encourage constant photo shoots for stylists on an individual level for their own portfolios, image and brand building," explains Helms. The entire process, including brainstorming ideas, photographer coordination and execution, takes about three months, and is a team effort guided by Helms. Additionally, the salon often stages smaller, impromptu photo shoots in two-week time frames for one to two stylists at a time.

Staff calls these shoots the "ultimate reward" for providing a superior guest experience every day, says Helms. What makes them so great? "It's being able to do whatever you want without limitations. It's about experimenting and expressing yourself." And her staff is now ready to express themselves to a larger audience. Though they already participate in contests for and Intercoiffure, their big-picture goal for 2011 is to enter NAHA.

Nurturing a creative project can be challenging for owners who are not stylists, admits Helms, so partnering up with a working stylist is critical to helping the process move forward. It's not always easy, but the time she spends studying and working with her team is worth it: "They are always excited to do it again."

13 Tips to Get Started
As you explore your own creative idea, consider these words of inspiration wisdom.

  1. Plan your creative schedule at the beginning of the year so you can determine what fi ts your budget. While virtual makeovers or style interventions require minimal investment, large events can be costly and demand hours of commitment- meaning your staff has less time for paying clients.
  2. Begin coordination for a big runway show at least six months to a year in advance, says April Lyn Graffeo of Indra Salon and City Spa. Producing an in-salon photo shoot can take up to two to three months.
  3. Before signing on for any event, make sure your staff is on board. "We ask staff for their buy-in," says Elizabeth Bella of Phia Salon. "If they're not willing to commit, we turn down the opportunity."
  4. For shows or photo shoots, designate a lead stylist or coordinator to take charge of planning. She will meet with other event organizers, secure scheduling, communicate the look you'll be creating, and keep management and staff up to date as details are set.
  5. If you're partnering with a fashion designer, creating a "lookbook" is key, explains Graffeo. This is an inspiration or storyboard that will outline the hair styles you plan to create, so you can all make sure hair and clothes complement each other.
  6. Make preparation part of training: Hold classes on the looks you will be creating, and have apprentices work on headpieces or wigs as part of their program.
  7. Plan ahead. "If a model doesn't have good hair, you better have extra clip-on hair," says José Buitron of José Luis Salon. And streamline your toolbox: "Bring only the products you need-anything else will just get in the way."
  8. Have faith in your team. "I had three staff members frightened of updos," reports Bella. "Doing them at events allowed them to get over their fear, and two of them have found that updos are actually their strength now."
  9. Don't forget to include your current clients in your creative ideas. Inviting them to shows or having them judge shoots not only enhances your reputation as a style powerhouse, but gets them excited to keep coming back to your salon.
  10. As a general rule, stay current on your clients' lives so you know when they are most likely to be open to dramatic style changes-think recent grads, career-changers or those jumping back in the dating pool.
  11. Encourage new or timid stylists in particular to join in the fun, as creative events "trick them into networking," explains Bella. "They don't even feel like they're marketing themselves."
  12. Don't underestimate the power of team-based accomplishments. "Camaraderie is so important," adds Bella. "There is a real feeling of professionalism, of working together."
  13. Whatever your creative route, document it with lots of pictures! And show them off on your website, Facebook page, Twitter, around the salon, and in staff portfolios.

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