As I listen to Gemma Holt, owner of Lily’s Beauty Salon in Whitchurch, tell me the story of how she made it to be crowned Professional Beauty’s Boutique Salon of the Year 2021, it dawns on me that she is a perfect example of how you can turn your life around when it seems like everything is stacked against you.
Holt began her career as an apprentice at industry expert Sara Shoemark’s salon, which was then called Beauty with Sara [now Glow], in Chester, and stayed on as a therapist before taking on a spa therapy role in 2004 at the new spa at The Chester Grosvenor Hotel.
“It was an amazing opportunity as it was a brand-new spa that was being built, and back then, these kinds of projects weren’t as common as they are now,” she says.
Unfortunately, after three years she had to leave the position, and the industry altogether, due to an ongoing injury. “I kept dislocating my knee and every time I thought it was healed and I went back to doing massage, it kept happening and I really struggled. In those days, you couldn’t stay on as a beauty therapist unless you could do every service so unfortunately I had to leave.”
It was a crushing blow for Holt, who then changed careers and worked in various admin and accounting roles for the next seven years, before having an epiphany that would change her career. “I always wanted to come back to the beauty industry, but I realised the only way I would be able to do that was if I opened my own place and only did the services I could do, such as nails, lashes and waxing,” she says.
“Yet, if I hadn’t done the accounting and admin roles then I would have struggled to take the leap and open my own place because these jobs gave me the skills needed to run a business.” Using £50,000 of her own savings, Holt opened Lily’s Beauty Salon in Whitchurch in 2014, risking everything to follow her dream of opening her own business. “My parents thought I had lost my marbles as I didn’t own my own home and was gambling all my life savings on opening a salon,” she explains. “I picked Whitchurch because the outskirts are quite central – on the border of Wales and close to Chester – and it’s an affluent area. I wanted to make the salon luxury. I knew we were never going to be the cheapest, we were always going to be the dearest.”
Finding a niche
Over the next seven years, Holt built the business up to be one of the most successful in the UK. Not only did she grow the salon and move premises from Green End to a more prominent spot on the high street during this time, but she also built up a reputation for delivering impeccable treatments and customer service in a traditional-style salon.
1999 Works as an apprentice for Beauty with Sara in Chester
2004 Becomes senior spa therapist at The Chester Grosvenor Hotel
2007 Stops working in the industry due to knee injury, taking on various admin and accounting roles instead
2014 Opens her own business, Lily’s Beauty Salon in Green End, Whitchurch
2019 Moves Lily’s Beauty Salon to the high street in Whitchurch
2020 Scoops professional brand Comfort Zone’s Salon of the Year Award
2021 Wins Professional Beauty’s Boutique Salon of the Year 2021 Award
She even expanded the menu to offer more bespoke holistic services such as reiki, reflexology, hopi ear candle and sports massage – tapping into the resurgence of these alternative rituals.
“The salon is very traditional – it’s not all singing gadgets and the latest trends – and I think we’re successful because there’s so many people who just want to visit a place like us,” she says. “Plus, we’re known in the area for our holistic therapies, and these are very popular as people are investing more in their wellness and self-care. There’s nowhere else around that has a dedicated sports massage therapist so that gives us an edge – she’s always booked up.”
The salon’s success is also down to Holt’s understanding of who her core client base is and what they want from a visit – an experience with the personal touch. “Our client base is mainly middle-aged – on average 50 years old – and I targeted it that way as it’s that generation who have more disposable income,” she says.
“Our service also sets us apart from competitors because we focus on the small things. For example, we walk clients to the car and put their seatbelt on for them if they’ve just had their nails done or put more money on their parking if the meter is running out.
“We also always have somebody on reception to help as there’s nothing worse than going into a salon and having to wait. Clients remember this attention to detail – it sets you apart.”
After years of hard work building up the business, Holt tells me she knew she had truly made it when she was crowned Boutique Salon of the Year at the 2021 Professional Beauty Awards in London in October. “I’ve waited more than 20 years for this moment. I have been shortlisted so many times but never won, and I just kept dreaming it would happen,” she explains.
Taking home the gold
“When I was 17, I set myself some life goals –I wanted to own my own salon, drive a Range Rover and win a Professional Beauty Award as Sara [Shoemark] had drummed it into me that you’re only the best if you win a PB Award. I had achieved my other two goals, so when I won Professional Beauty’s award it was just amazing.”
The ripple effects of winning the award have already started, with Holt saying business has been busier with new clients, as well as existing customers who hadn’t visited the salon in a while, now returning. Nationally, her profile has been raised too, with Woman of the World magazine asking Holt to do an interview with them. It’s been a real journey and now Holt’s looking to the future to further grow the business.
“In 2022, I want to take on somebody in-house two-to-three days per week to do the salon’s marketing and social media. Our online retail has gone through the roof, and we make a huge profit margin out of that, so I want to keep it up,” she explains. “I know what content I want to create but I’m not clued up on how to put it on social, which hashtags to use, and so on. It’s the biggest development area for the business.”
Traditionally, getting retail sales up to the same level as treatment revenue is notoriously difficult, which is why Holt is focusing on this area in her plans. She tells me that her retail sales in the past quarter are 40% better than they were during the entire coronavirus pandemic, “which is insane”, she adds. “Retail and treatment sales are nearly running on a par with each other and that doesn’t usually happen.”
The reasons for the impressive growth include the popularity of the online shop and the team’s focus on selling retail post-treatment, being given more time in each appointment slot to talk about a full skincare routine; and a focus on being more selective about the retail products stocked. “I took on a new sustainable brand in October called Bath House. The products are refillable, via pouches customers can buy, and the packaging is made from recycled aluminium and plastic,” explains Holt. “I was looking for companies based in the UK that are small, niche and create sustainable products, as clients want this – to refill something rather than keep buying plastic pots. I’ve spent £5,5000 with them and I’ve just done another order as it’s selling well.”
Interestingly, although Bath House is now one of the biggest retail sellers in the salon, it doesn’t sell as well online “as people can’t touch and smell it there”, whereas the salon’s other core brand Comfort Zone is its biggest online seller “as nobody around here stocks the brand so it’s more exclusive to us”, says Holt.
Finding the right therapists
The other big focus for Holt is going to be retaining her team “as there’s a massive shortage of good therapists out there, especially those who specialise in holistic therapy. I see the business moving to be even more sustainable and holistic, and to do so I need a good team,” she says. “You used to advertise a job and get a flood of CVs, now you’re lucky if you get two or three that are really good. Covid-19 has made the recruitment issue worse as people have realised they can go it alone, open a shed in the garden, and earn just as much money.”
She also believes the college standard needs to change to help address the issue. “I believe that some of those coming from college just aren’t that interested in the industry – you can’t get away with doing a half-hearted treatment, you need to put your heart and soul into it,” adds Holt. “To overcome the issue, I think colleges need to make the way they assess students stricter so it is harder for them to pass. Those who are really interested will keep going with it.”
Reflecting on how far she’s come, I ask Holt what her biggest business lesson has been. “It’s about quality over quantity, always. When I moved the salon from the bottom of town to the top of the high street in 2019, I moved into a smaller premises,” she says. “I always thought that to earn as much money as possible you needed to be as big as you could, but the truth is, you don’t.
“I earn more money now with fewer therapists than when we were at the bigger premises and it’s because I’ve kept more of the personal touch. When the business was bigger that ‘touch’ got lost because you have so much to keep on top off. So, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all to be big anymore, it’s about the quality when clients come through the door.”