Spotlight on: Aquavie Boutique Spa, Tonbridge, Kent

When Elizabeth Caroline took over Aquavie in Kent, she nearly lost everything. Amanda Pauley learns how she blended technology with holistics to turn a failing salon into a success.

Aquavie at a glance:
1,399sq ft
Treatment rooms: six
Treatment prices:
ranging from £30–£110
double manicure and pedicure suite, sauna, showers
four full-time therapists and two part-time, one receptionist
A-Lift, Aquavie Organics, Dermaquest, Dermatude, Elizabeth Caroline London

Elizabeth Caroline has made quite a name for herself in the beauty industry. She’s not only a successful salon owner but also a celebrity facialist, with high-profile clients including singer Ellie Goulding and Millie Mackintosh, star of E4’s Made in Chelsea. But things haven’t always been smooth sailing for the entrepreneur.

Starting her beauty career in 2008, Caroline left the Metropolitan Police Force after 13 years of service to buy Aquavie Boutique Spa in Tonbridge, Kent. “My husband had a heart attack and it sounds a bit corny but it was a life-changing moment for me. I had been training and working as a mobile therapist while employed by the Met but always had dreams of running my own business. After a long talk, my husband and I decided now was the time to do it,” says Caroline.

With dreams of turning it into a profitable Far Easternthemed day-spa-style salon, things were good until they discovered the previous owner hadn’t told them the whole story when it came to the finances. “It wasn’t until we had been in there a couple of months that we realised she hadn’t been honest about how the business was actually doing. We had been given accounts showing the business was in profit but we soon found out it was actually losing around £30,000 a year,” explains Caroline.

“We had gone in completely naive with a business plan based on the incorrect figures we’d been given. Even though we had a very good commercial lawyer, the previous owner jetted off to Spain so we couldn’t pursue her regarding her dishonesty. We had to hit the ground running with a spa that was haemorrhaging money, and to make matters worse, the global recession hit. It was a horrendous time.”

Not only was the business losing money, it didn’t have a loyal client base, and many of the facilities needed updating. “Aesthetically it needed a lot of TLC but we couldn’t make any changes because it wasn’t making money,” she says. During this time, Caroline didn’t take a salary “because to grow we had to reinvest every single penny,” she says, surviving on her husband’s salary and sometimes sleeping at the salon to save money on petrol. “It was a culture shock,” explains Caroline, “but as an entrepreneur you just have to keep going.”

Image: One of the treatment rooms at Aquavie

Making a comeback
After four years of hard work, things slowly started to turn around, with customers visiting the salon for therapies that focus on boosting their wellbeing, such as Reiki and meditation. “We managed to establish ourselves as a reputable spa with a USP, plus people were becoming more confident in the financial climate so were treating themselves again,” says Caroline. “We were very open with customers about what happened to us and I think they appreciated the honesty. We didn’t do much advertising because we didn’t have the money, so most of our clients came from word of mouth. It was about building up that trust and loyalty,” she adds.

Having done 13 years’ one-on-one studies with a Buddhist master in her early twenties, Caroline decided to incorporate this mindfulness approach into the spa’s services, which she thinks helped turned the business around. “My therapies are about supporting clients on their path of growth and happiness, taking care of them inside and out,” she says.

Trained in massage, Reiki, and Ayurvedic and Eastern therapies, Caroline mixed holistic methods with technology as a way to make her spa stand out: “People love it because they’re getting the best of both worlds – that spa feeling while knowing a machine is working at a deeper level to give anti-ageing results.”

Image: The nail stations at Aquavie

Perfect blend
One of the spa’s most popular treatments is the Elizabeth Caroline A-Lift Facial, a treatment that combines electrical facial A-Lift – which distributor Nouveau Skin Therapy describes as using microcurrent and nanocurrent technology to combat ageing at a cellular level – with massage and healing techniques, such as crystals or Tibetan bells. “We get a lot of repeat custom with the treatment. It has put us on the map in Tonbridge as skin experts. Some people shy away from machines because they want that spa feeling but with A-Lift you can combine a results-driven treatment with the more traditional elements of spa,” she says.

And introducing A-Lift had a massive effect on the business, increasing facial revenue and boosting course bookings. “I wanted a results-specific machine that was state-of-the-art but also relaxing for the client. Before, I had an oxygen machine but it was noisy and not very portable – I needed something I could take to events and high-profile clients’ houses. A-Lift was perfect for my needs.”

Caroline was also impressed with the science behind Dermatude Meta Therapy – a dual-action treatment that uses the body’s own healing response, along with active natural ingredients, to rejuvenate the skin – and invested in it shortly after buying the A-Lift.

“When dermal rollering launched years before I was interested in it but never took it on as I was worried about the risk factor of accidentally being too harsh with it,” says Caroline. “However, Dermatude has a guard so you can’t physically push it deeper than 0.5mm into the skin and I liked that; it’s what drew me to it.”

Image: Owner Elizabeth Caroline

Bright future
Now, nine years on, the spa has more than 9,500 clients and the business’s turnover was up 23% year on year in 2016. This year, the plan is to update two of the treatment rooms. “They will have a wooden theme with a very earthy feel to it, as our interior design is from Southeast Asia. We import all our furniture from Thailand and Indonesia,” explains Caroline.

In the latter part of last year, Caroline also extended the spa’s own product range, Aquavie Organics, to include a body section and launched a candle and reed diffuser line under the name Elizabeth Caroline London, which she hopes to expand in the future. “The big spa brands are putting a greater focus on how treatments can benefit a client’s mood as well as their skin, which is what I’ve tapped into. I think this trend will be the big focus for the industry this year,” she says.