The reception area at Jose Luis Salon in Austin sets the tone for the luxury experience.
The reception area at Jose Luis Salon in Austin sets the tone for the luxury experience.

The word luxury conjures up lots of images—a gleaming Rolls Royce parked in front of an opulent mansion; champagne frothing over an expensive crystal glass; and fine leather handbags stitched by hand.

Luxury can also be applied to places—Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s and the Ritz Carlton all have a reputation as the very finest.

But most importantly, luxury is an experience. For a busy mom, it might be a long, uninterrupted bubble bath. For a multi-millionaire who travels the world, it might be a European cruise with friends on a private yacht.

Salon owners are recognizing their clients’ need for an indulgent experience and raising standards to meet expectations.

“A luxury consumer lives in a world full of options. Sometimes, the details, no matter how small, will set your salon apart from a potential alternative,” says Todd Hildum, executive vice president of sales for Luxury Brand Partners.

 José Luis Buitron, owner of two José Luis Salons, knows that an attention to detail has helped his business emerge as a premiere beauty destination in Austin, Texas. “The luxury market exists everywhere, even in small towns,” he says. “There will be one restaurant everyone goes to and one salon—there’s always a spot at the top. A salon of any caliber can make itself luxury in its market.”

The owners of Harper Salon in Los Angeles—Carla Gentile, Nikki Pittam and Nicole Hartmann—might be used to a clientele filled with celebrities and trendsetters, but they also realize the luxury market is relative to where your salon is located.

“You target the luxury market to raise the bar of professionalism and elevate the beauty industry,” Gentile says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re located—stylists can all receive the same training. It’s all about raising the bar and getting everyone to the same level.”

In Atlanta, Jeffrey McQuithy, owner of Vis-á-Vis the Salon in the exclusive Buckhead area, believes a luxury client exists in every market, whether it’s the judge’s wife or an A-list celebrity. }}

But at his salons, all clients are treated like millionaires.

“If you psychologically create that luxury experience for everyone, they will find a way to buy your services and products and come see you no matter what you charge,” he says.

While everything costs more in the exclusive neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta, Jeffrey McQuithy, owner of Vis-a-Vis the Salon, knew the location was key for attracting the luxury client. (Photo by Jamie Hopper for Modern Luxury.)

Tapping into Comfort and Prosperity

Once you’ve established your salon as a place to receive an upscale, pampered experience, it’s time to define your clientele. Knowing exactly who you’re servicing will allow you to refine the luxury experience for them and communicate their preferences to your staff.

McQuithy’s clients are mostly women ages 37-50. “They have money and are mostly not professional. They are usually philanthropic housewives who are willing to spend money on their hair and the service we provide beyond the hairstyle,” he says. “An extreme example is a client who comes in every 16 days for two-process color, which is about $300, and she also has extensions done monthly.”

At Harper Salon, many high-profile clients come in every three weeks for color touch-ups, extensions and a blowout.

“They have no problem spending $500-700 per visit on services alone,” Pittam says. “Other clients who may make  TV or online appearances come in two or three times a week for blowouts.”

Gentile says maintenance means different things to different clients, but all of them are willing to spend the money because they’re receiving an experience in addition to the service.

“Luxury clients may be coming from different worlds, but they’re looking for the same thing—a feeling,” she says.

At José Luis Salon, Buitron is grappling with major change as an influx of affluence has changed the dynamics of the city in recent years.

“Everything is evolving, and we have to change with it,” Buitron says. “Who are these people coming into our city that will be our clients? There’s a lot of money coming from San Francisco, New York—all over—and these clients are looking for that same type of luxury experience they were used to in other cities.

“We’ve discovered that client is going to spend $80-150 for a haircut and not blink an eye. Personally, I’m jumping up to $175 for all new clients and feel very comfortable charging that and still attracting new customers.

“You’ve got to think luxury and project luxury to attract the luxury market. You have to act the part, and your environment plays a role, too. You can’t charge the prices without backing it up,” he says.

Buitron’s clientele range in age from late 20s to 50s, working with disposable incomes. They want to look good and feel good, but they don’t all want to spend big bucks. Even though Buitron is charging $175, haircuts start at $55 in his salon.

“Some clients want to spend a more moderate amount to have the luxury experience, but won’t spend $175 on a haircut. But the client who spends $55 should feel like they’re spending $175—we don’t distinguish. Everyone gets the same service and stylists all get the same training.”

The owners of Harper subscribe to the same belief.

“We’re giving the same experience to everyone who walks in the door,” Gentile says. “Our tagline is to ‘Expect something extra,’ and we give that to everyone.

“And this experience draws those types of people into our salon—they are looking for that something extra.”

Harper Salon is located on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, just a few doors down from Reformation, a well-known, trendy boutique. Harper's owners wisely offered to keep the Reformation staff well-styled in exchange for referrals.

First-rate Customer Service and Experience

The lavish customer service at Harper starts the minute a client walks in the door. From how robes are displayed in dressing rooms stocked with lint brushes, to the warm, professional greeting from the front desk, no detail is overlooked.

“We wanted to focus on how to set ourselves apart,” Pittam says. “From our past experiences, we knew how all the little things could be improved upon.”

One extra the owners honed in on was beverages. Harper clients are offered water, coffee, hot tea, iced tea and sparkling water, in glasses—never paper cups.

“Our ice cubes are small, square cubes with raspberry, lemon and cucumbers frozen in them,” Pittam says. “We put one of each in the water we serve. And if you want coffee, we have almond milk, regular milk, brown and white sugar, and agave. Everything is presented on a gold tray with a napkin folded in the shape of a diamond.”

A second napkin with a spoon and carafe for the milk, and a bowl with fresh sugars complete the presentation. And if you’re having hot tea, a wide variety is offered. Those who choose iced tea can
opt for the hibiscus flavor. Mimosas are also on the menu.

Once a client has been greeted, changed into a robe, offered a beverage and seated, she’s treated to a thoughtful consultation and given a massage-oriented, relaxing shampoo with chairs that kick up at the feet, and special attention given to the scalp and pressure points at temples.

Post-service, the stylist will talk about the products used and why, the client will place her robe in a beautiful basket, and the receptionist will finish the transaction and ask how the service was.

McQuithy finds it’s tough to keep topping himself when his clients get used to a certain level of luxury at Vis-á-Vis.

“They always want to see the next best thing,” he says. “Every two years, I do a fluff up or update to the salon space—change all the furniture around or get new stuff. We change the original artwork yearly, too.”

Vis-á-Vis clients also enjoy complimentary valet service, massages with haircuts and a Japanese tea service that features 10 different teas with a pot, chocolate and mints on the side.

“It’s something so simple, but it leaves an impression,” McQuithy says of the beverage service, which also features coffee and water with fresh lemon.

The salon also has a catering service that comes through at lunchtime and provides lunch for clients who want it.

“We have some people who make their appointments based on that time of day,” he says. “We cater it in for whoever is there, and also rope off a little area for private parties.”

At José Luis, clients can choose from beer, wine and champagne (also in glasses) in addition to non-alcoholic beverages.

“But we’re not building our reputation on serving wine,” Buitron says. “We want a great reputation because we’re good at what we do. What makes us special is how we treat our clients.”

He likens the experience to visiting a great restaurant or designer boutique. 

“People are trying to put a ribbon on everything and saying it’s luxury, and it’s not the ribbon that makes it luxury. Luxury is very hard to do—it means excellence. If I’m buying Christian Dior, I’m expecting much more than a non-descript purse. And when you walk up to the Dior counter in the department store, it’s a store within a store—it evokes a completely different emotion, which is a big part of the luxury experience.”

"People are trying to put a ribbon on everything and saying it's luxury, and it's not the ribbon that makes it luxury. Luxury is very hard to do--it means exclusive," Jose Luis Buitron, owner of Jose Luis in Austin, Texas.

A Lavish Retail Experience

Along with a beautiful space, a polished staff and a pampering service, luxury-loving clients expect something else from their salon—high-end products that match the environment.

“It’s a big decision for a salon owner,” says Buitron, who carries the full Luxury Brand Partners’ line, including Oribe, R+Co, V76 and Smith & Cult. “You have to fit the image of your salon to the product. For me, Oribe was a good fit because there is actually a person behind the product. Clients could see magazines with Oribe’s work, which is meaningful to them.”

Harper Salon also carries the full Luxury Brand Partners portfolio—a decision the owners made based on the company’s reputation. “There are a lot of salons in our surrounding area,” Pittam says. “Knowing we have a little bit of exclusivity is important.”

The culture at Vis-á-Vis requires stylists to start talking about products when they begin the blowdry. “It’s a super-soft sell,” McQuithy says. “We only put the products we are using at the time out in front of the client. Then they are put up at the front desk so if the client wants them, they can take them. We put out three to five products in hopes they will buy one to three and average about 22-percent retail yearly.”

Marketing to the Affluent

Just like Christian Dior creates a certain image to reach its clientele, salon owners are doing the same.

“I’m not big on advertising,” Buitron says. “What I am big on is image. Sometimes we do spend big bucks to put an ad out that portrays our image, but we’re mindful about the content and where it’s placed.”

When the José Luis Salon does photoshoots they are representative of their work—nothing too trendy or avant garde.

“That’s not us,” Buitron says. “We put the finished images as ads only in two of Austin’s top magazines—their demographics are our clients.

“You have to think like your client: ‘Would I eat there? Would I buy that?’ Luxury is a frame of mind—an emotion that evokes you to do or be part of something. Salons project their own form of luxury.”

However, it was only after quite a few years in business that Buitron fully understood his salon’s specific brand of luxury.

“When we decided we were going to make a change, we spent $600,000 to gut the salon and give it a new image,” he says. “After we did that, I said we’re going to change how we do everything. I even had to change the way I was managing. I quit micromanaging and hired someone else to do it for me. They took care of details while I worked on the next fashion show, education or development of the salon.

“Once I changed my role as a salon owner, everything changed. We went from a good salon in Austin to one of the best in less than five years. I changed our complete image down to how we trained the staff.”

Nicole Hartmann, Carla Gentile and Nikki Pittam, the trio behind Harper Salon in Los Angeles.

Location, Location, Location

When Buitron opened his second salon, he understood his brand and where he wanted to take it. Location played a major role.

The salon’s first location is in an office building. For the second location, Buitron made the decision to go into a mega retail environment surrounded by stores such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and specialty boutiques.

“Our second location is on a street with only high-end local businesses—we had to be invited to come in,” he says.

As the only salon in this hot retail area with hotels in walking distance, Buitron is figuring out how to lure hotel guests into the salon along with regular clients.

“Discounts and/or gifts with purchase are important in luxury,” he says. “Department store makeup brands like Estée Lauder and Lancome give a gift with purchase, and it’s very successful. We tried it once with gift certificates and sold many more with a gift-with-purchase promotion. Clients feel if they are going to spend money, they deserve something extra.”

His location among so many unique boutiques made Buitron re-strategize his own retail area to attract more clients.

“We knew we couldn’t just be a salon in a retail environment,” he says. “We had to become retail, too.”

So Buitron dedicated one-third of his square footage (1,000 square feet) to retail space—not just hair products, though. Jewelry, private-label makeup, gifts, perfume and more tempt his clientele.

“We wanted to make our hair products feel like they were in a boutique,” he says. “This was the next level for us—it attracts a whole different clientele in who is coming to shop. And when they are here, they can get their hair done, too.”

Vis-á-Vis is located in Buckhead, Atlanta’s most elite neighborhood—a spot carefully chosen by McQuithy.

“Before opening my salon, I had worked in Buckhead and also worked in an area about 15 miles away,” he says. “I considered going to an up-and-coming area and a realtor told me that would be like everyone in Manhattan saying they were going to go to New Jersey.

“Buckhead is consistent—it’s the center of all luxury in Atlanta. Everything is more expensive to operate there, but to me, it’s the only place to be.

Vis-á-Vis stylists give complimentary blowouts and the occasional free service to sales people in surrounding high-end boutiques to keep their cuts and color high-profile as well.

“We target like-minded businesses within our demographic,” he says. “We want potential clients to ask someone where they got their hair done rather than just seeing it in a magazine.”

Location was key for Harper’s owners, as well. In fact, it was the number-one criteria when the trio searched for their salon space.

“We never looked further than the area we are in (Melrose in LA),” Gentile says. “It’s high-end but also up-and-coming. It draws a hip clientele from Beverly Hills but also from the west side—it’s a meeting place for all worlds. The area draws like-minded businesses and people who care about personal style and luxury treatment.”

The salon uses valet service, which is typical for LA, but Harper maintains a friendly, neighborhood vibe.

 Another big draw for the Harper owners was the proximity of their salon to Reformation, a hugely popular, environmentally friendly, hip boutique on Melrose that just happens to be practically next door.

“If you tell anyone in LA you’re two doors down from Reformation, they know where you are,” Pittam says. “They’re not a super-expensive line of clothing—they’re all about repurposed materials. They bring in a luxury clientele because of what they stand for, which was in line with our values, too. 

“When we opened, we told everyone who worked at Reformation that we would do their hair for free. They recommend us because we’re a like-minded business and we keep them looking good, so they partner with us.”

Partner for Marketing and Giving Back

Partnering with other like-minded businesses has become one of Harper’s key marketing techniques.

When the salon opened in October 2014, the owners had planned to do a boutique area as part of their retail.

“But all of a sudden, it was November, and we were in full swing and hadn’t done anything,” Gentile says. “So we thought, ‘Maybe a boutique that already exists could partner with us so we don’t have to worry about curating it.’”

Harper’s first pop-up partner was Alchemy Works, an artsy store in downtown LA that offers creative home decor, accessories and retro clothing. 

Since this first pop-up, Harper owners have embraced the concept and feel it gives their clients a little something extra while allowing them to do business with brands that share similar values.

“We do a different pop-up every two or three months—it’s a great way to reach a bigger demographic of people,” Pittam says. “But we’ve tried to be specific about who we choose for our partners. Our brand stands for what we believe in, so our partners must be in line with that.”

Currently, the salon has a partnership with Tom’s—the trendy, comfortable shoe brand.

“They are affiliated with so many organizations trying to better the world while being environmentally conscious, which fits with us,” Gentile says.

Clients love the exposure to various brands and area boutiques, but the owners remain vigilant in their criteria for partners. Recently, a client who is an executive for TopShop saw a pop-up in Harper and inquired about bringing in the TopShop brand.

“When she approached us, we weren’t sure,” Pittam says. “We had been more about shopping small and showcasing boutique stores in LA.”

But after they got TopShop to agree to give a portion of profits to a special charity, they agreed to the partnership.

“Also, these bigger companies have great reach in getting the word out and promoting through social media,” Gentile says. “We find the luxury client is looking to get involved and be part of giving back. And once you’ve drawn them in that way, when they experience your services and professionalism, they become a client.”

McQuithy also strongly believes in giving back. In fact, his involvement with local charities is how he markets to his target clients.

“I want good buzz,” he says. “I do fashion events to raise money for breast cancer and AIDS research in Atlanta. It gets people naturally talking about your business versus seeing your ad in a magazine.”


Polishing Your Staff

Servicing affluent clients with a lot of experience shopping in top retail environments can be intimidating to a young staff. And an unrefined stylist can be a big turnoff to a sophisticated client, which is why the hiring process is key.

“When you hire people, you have to let them know what your image is—that’s critical,” Buitron says. “If you bring someone on board who doesn’t share your image, how will it affect the rest of your salon?”

Buitron isn’t looking for stylists wearing Gucci. He wants them clean, dressed nicely and neat—not necessarily expensive. “I want someone who cares,” he says.

He also recommends looking around the salon to see who’s doing the talking.

“If it’s the stylists, there’s something wrong,” he says. “We always ask questions to create a conversation but then let the client do the talking. I tell them to start with topics that aren’t too personal or prying—‘Are you from Austin?, or ‘Where are you from?’”

Sometimes, clients don’t feel like talking. And for those clients, Buitron tells stylists to just do the work, smile and make sure the clients are happy along the way.

“Stylists have to figure out the client personality they’re working with,” he says.

Gentile agrees that a hair service is not a robotic experience.

“We’ve trained everyone equally and have manuals at the front desk, but at the same time, you want it to be an authentic experience,” she says. “We have protocol and procedures for every training, but there’s a default button. When things are hectic in the salon—and it will happen—our default setting is so high that the client will always get a great experience. 

“And we as owners demonstrate through our actions what we expect from staff. We have regular meetings and discussions as well as keep clients and staff up-to-date on everything going on in the salon through newsletters.”

In a competitive market like LA, all these details are important to stylists, many of whom have worked in other salons.

“We have to set the bar for the customer and staff experience that we guarantee, but they have to participate,” Pittam says.

Potential new hires do a trial
interview where they spend a day in the salon shadowing one or two assistants.

“We may have them shampoo a few clients to get a good feel for how they interact with clients and make sure they understand how we run the salon,” Pittam says.

For young stylists without a lot of experience, the owners also train them on proper procedure—how you stand, how a client sits—and what kind of conversations to have with clients.

“When you first start out, you need to know how to build a relationship with a client, what lines not to cross in conversation, etc.,” Gentile says. “We’re not putting anyone on the floor before they’re ready, and we have open communication between staff members—a stylist can ask someone more seasoned for advice.”

After 15 years in business, McQuithy can spot a good hire practically before they’ve handed over their resume.

“I have a new assistant who’s very young—only about 21,” he says. “He came in for his interview in a suit and tie and had a certain way of holding himself and asking questions. I don’t just hire bodies—I try to hire the right people from the very beginning. I listen to their core values and see how they treat others—you can’t teach that.”

There is a shadow period for new hires at Vis-á-Vis as well as bootcamp training where McQuithy observes to see how they handle themselves and how they react to a high-caliber client.

Deliver Consistently

Today’s clients are savvy consumers who have luxury experiences at their fingertips if they desire them. Salon owners who want to tap into clients who crave a deluxe service must be prepared to deliver consistently.

“Luxury will get watered down if we’re not careful,” Buitron says.

Creating ultra-high standards and sticking to your core values isn’t easy, but ultimately, it’s what will set your salon apart from the competition and draw in the clientele you desire.


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