Talking to...Gina Conway

The salon chain owner tells Lucy Douglas why staff are the key to business success and why the time is right for luxury mobile beauty.

Gina Conway, salon chain owner

Everyone in this industry wants a slice of the high-end market, the top 1% clients for whom skincare products that cost three figures and weekly facials are routine. Marketing your business to capture this discerning customer is another matter. But that’s exactly what Gina Conway is setting out to do with her new mobile spa business, Privé.

Already owner of an eponymous four-strong salon mini-chain in wealthy West London, Conway launched Privé in November, aiming to bring the same luxury experience that she offers in her prime-postcode salons into the homes of high-rolling clients.

“I am so busy, I don’t have time to get a massage – and I own four spas,” says Conway, when I ask why she decided to launch the venture. “There’s going to be a market out there of people who want a massage after work but don’t have time to get to the salon. I think there’s also more wealth around nowadays.” Clients will be able to book everything from a leg wax or lash tint, to massages and facials, and hair services. Further down the line, Conway plans to introduce services such as Pilates, acupuncture and “We’re working with concierge companies and top wedding planners,” she explains. “The private clients will be the mainstay, but we have to build the brand up a bit, and develop a reputation so we can say, ‘Look at who we work with’.”

Gina Conway salon

Staff strategy

In staffing Privé, Conway has set herself a tough task. “It’s hard finding the calibre of people that we need. That’s my biggest challenge,” she says. No doubt, London has a deep pool of talented therapists and stylists with the level of skill that Conway wants Privé to be known for. But how do you attract the crème de la crème of the industry to come and work for you, as opposed to working for themselves?

“We offer training and development,” answers Conway, “whereas people who are working on their own don’t have any support.” The Privé team will be able to take advantage of the training infrastructure that Conway has already built in her salon business. “Although these people will be self-employed they will be part of something bigger and better,” she explains. “They will have a career path, and not just feel like they’re stuck out there on their own. It gives them an opportunity to grow.”

Gina Conway salon, Westbourne Grove

Educating and supporting her staff is at the core of Conway’s business – she invested £100,000 in training her salon teams last year. In-house programmes include her “InSpaRation” initiative, where experienced team members percentage of my clients that are interested, but I’ve priced it in such a way that even if they weren’t coming into my salon, the income would be offset by Privé,” she explains.

She is also fiercely ambitious – she already has plans to take Privé transatlantic. “I’m going to do a year in Londonmentor apprentice-level therapists, and the Ambassadors programme, a year-long course for every staff member that teaches them to be ambassadors for the industry.

She identified early that thriving staff would lead to a strong bottom line. “If I created a company where people wanted to be there, they were going to deliver amazing service, and I wasn’t going to be fighting an uphill battle all the time,” she says.

Originally from California, Conway has noticed a stark difference in the attitude towards a career in beauty between Americans and Brits. “In the States, there’s more of a career-mindedness about it, but here, it’s often the job you go to if you can’t do anything else. I’m like, ‘What? No way!’ This is an amazing job. You get to heal people. You make them look and feel amazing.”

She is more interested in the attitude of a new recruit than their ability. “I hire people for their personality; I can train them for skill,” she says. “Half of what makes clients happy is experience, so we don’t just focus on the technical aspect of training. We nurture and develop people in the other 50% as well.”

Mobile moment

Gina Conway salon interior, Westbourne Grove

She’s not the only one to spot the potential boom of mobile beauty; autumn 2014 saw a spate of mobile business launches, including franchise opportunities from West Country-based A Brush With Beauty, and web platforms Priv and Prettly.

But Conway doesn’t seem too concerned about the competition. “My target market is a very high-end clientele, and we’re seeing a lot of competition in the middle range,” she says.

Her confidence is not unfounded – it’s underlined by her shrewd business decision making. She is not concerned that Privé might draw clients away from her salon in favour of having their treatments at home. “There might be a to build the brand reputation, and then I’m thinking in one year’s time, I will have one or two more locations,” she says, adding that Monaco, New York, and Los Angeles are likely options. “I’ll be looking for partners to open up in different parts of the world, who have the same kind of leadership and education as I do, so they can offer the support system in those countries.”

It was that ambitious streak that led Conway to quit her job as a stylist in John Freida’s salon just nine months after she’d moved to the UK from San Francisco in 2000. “At the time, [John Freida] was the best salon in London, but I felt customer service and creating a space where people wanted to come to work was not happening. I thought, if John Freida isn’t doing it the way it ought to be done, there’s an opportunity for me. So I opened my first little salon on the Fulham Road with one other hairdresser and a receptionist.”

Gina Conway salon, Chelsea

Business wasn’t always plain sailing. Conway’s salon originally stocked selected products from niche, natural brands, but she says the approach didn’t work. “Before Space NK was what is now, I wanted to have only handpicked, hero products from a few awesome lines. I had some fabulous products, but they didn’t sell,” she explains.

She later took on Aveda, which has remained the staple skin and haircare brand for her salon business ever since. She will also use it as the main product house for Privé, and is in talks with a second skincare brand to offer more results-driven facials. Essie will be used for nail treatments.

She is now considering investing in lightweight, compact machinery, to offer advanced, machine-based treatments. Further down the line, she talks about the possibility of launching aesthetic treatments into the Privé portfolio. “I’m still looking into how I can control the environment to offer anything stronger, like peels,” she explains. “It would be amazing if I can. I know that people don’t want to walk outside after they’ve had a peel, when their skin’s all red and there’s so much pollution around.” PB

Key Dates

2000: Moves to London begins working at John Freida salon
2001: Opens the first Gina Conway salon in Fulham
2002: Introduces beauty treatments into the salon
2005: Opens second salon in Notthing Hill
2009: Opens third salon in Wimbledon
2011: Opens fourth site on King's Road, Chelsea
2014: Launches Privé mobile beauty service