Talking to...Joel Sutton

Pre-holiday beauty is big business. Ask almost any salon owner, and they’ll tell you that beach-ready tans, waxes, brows, and nails are their bread and butter. And in this age of fast beauty, with clients increasingly demanding these finishing touches at their convenience, it’s no surprise that a savvy beauty business owner would put the two together and bring express beauty services to the travelling masses. 

Joel SuttonJoel Sutton, founder of The Cloud pop-up salons, launched his first airport lounge-based nail bar Cloud Nails in June 2013 and in the last 14 months has grown the brand into a four-strong mini chain, with sites in Birmingham Airport, London Luton, and both Terminals 1 and 2 of Manchester Airport. 

“The pop-up spas were going really well. We were at large events where hundreds of thousands of people walk by every day,” Sutton explains of his longer running beauty venture, which celebrates its fifth year in business this month. “But I said to myself, ‘I wish I didn’t have to take the things down after five days,’ so I started thinking about really busy places where a pop-up salon would work permanently, and the obvious idea was airports.” 

Those three airports alone have some 40million people pass through every year, and the big three London airports welcome a further 120m. This makes airport lounges some of the most sought after – and expensive – commercial real estate in the country. So opening a business there is not as simple as setting up a high-street salon. “You have to prove you’ve got the capacity to deal with large numbers of people,” says Sutton. “We got our first opportunity in April 2013 at Manchester, where there was a tender going for a spa. We managed to beat the other competition to get in there.” 

It was his experience managing spa services for large groups of people with The Cloud that helped secure Cloud Nails’ first airport tender. Sutton founded the pop-up salon business in October 2009, offering simple massage treatments, nail services, and make-up at large events, ranging from exhibitions, to music festivals, and even the Conservative Party Conference. He first entered the sector in 2001, working with Energy Clinic spas in London to help the owners attract the corporate market. 

Pass through 
When it came to setting up the current airport nail salons, Sutton was quick to recognise that in a business driven solely by passing trade, it would be crucial to capture clients’ attention. “We thought, if you’re getting so many people walking past, how do you get them to stop and interact with you?” he explains. “We were speaking to all these shop builders, and everyone was coming up with the same kind of chrome and glass idea. We thought, this is just not going to cut it.”

A friend in the film industry recommended that Sutton seek the expertise of a set designer to create the nail bars. The designer he commissioned then created a tree installation and 3D flower artwork. “We gave them a brief of creating a visually arresting installation that makes people stop,” he says. “Using a film set designer really set us apart. [The installations] are pretty expensive, but as a growing brand it is really key we put our mark down. 

“I think this reflects who we are as a company. We are really about beauty and excellence.” Indeed, quality service delivery is crucial for Sutton because there are no second chances with airport customers. “If something goes wrong, or if a client is not happy with their treatment, they can’t come back the next day and ask us to sort it out, so it’s really important to us to get it right the first time,” he explains. 

Problem solving
Express nail services in airports may be a ripe business opportunity, but the concept comes with a unique set of challenges. Sutton is firm in his rule that as long as there are flights departing from the airport, Cloud Nails will be open to serve clients, which at some locations means opening at 4am and not closing until midnight. 

CloudHaving the staff base to cover these anti-social operating hours is no mean feat. Working in an airport departure lounge requires rigorous security checks, which Sutton says can take anything from two to eight weeks to complete, meaning unexpected staff absences need complex contingency plans. In worst-case scenarios, Sutton explains, this can mean shipping a nail tech from Manchester down to London Luton. “We have full-time workers, part-time workers, occasional workers and roaming workers. We have a team that we take around the country and put up in hotels when we need them to cover shifts,” he says. 

Because all treatments need to be perfect first time around, Sutton invests heavily in his staff, only taking on techs with at least three years’ industry experience, and then putting them on OPI brand training (the bars offer both OPI lacquer and GelColour services) and the Cloud Nails house training programme. “The key for us is time,” he says. “We have to make sure that they can really deliver a treatment in 15 or 20 minutes.” 

Sutton has a team of around 40 nail techs and managers and, as getting somebody new into the bar and up to speed is such a time-consuming task, he is keen to look after the staff he’s got. “Without sounding cheesy, we really do see it as our family,” he says. “Because we’re a service industry, the people we have working for us are the company. If you want to make something good, it has to come from good roots, so we really do our best to look after our girls.” 

Flying high 
Even Sutton is impressed with Cloud Nails’ success in just over a year, saying that the business has grown much faster than expected. “I thought we would be doing one or perhaps two, after one year, and we’ve done four,” he says. 

However, that’s not to say he’s slowed down. He has plans to open in a further three UK airports in 2015, specifically eyeing London sites, and has been approached by a number of European airports about the possibility of opening overseas. “We have had enquiries from France, Switzerland, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia, and we’re looking to go into those countries very soon,” he says. 

And as for the sites that are already operating? “We are looking at expanding from being a nail bar to a full beauty service offering,” he says, adding that the company introduced brow services to the Luton site in September. “That will be put through all sites. We are also looking at make-up, blow-dries and massage. In airports though, it’s all about what space you can get.”