A few short months ago, Van Council was hoping to spend the last week of April traveling leisurely down the coast of California, enjoying a few days between industry commitments on his way to a gathering of friends and colleagues he had long been looking forward to joining, the ISBN Conference originally scheduled to start May 3 on Coronado Island.
Instead, he spent April hunkered down closer to home near Atlanta, getting ready to mentor and lead the industry and eight Van Michael Salon locations in a new and unexpected way.
Georgia was one of the first states to reopen for business after the COVID-19 shutdown. After having helped shape the state’s expectations and procedures for salons (Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp is a client of Van Michael’s flagship salon, so Council reached out and Kemp ended up recruiting him to join the state’s board of cosmetology), Council and his leadership team and staff opened their doors and a whole new world of salon experiences on April 24.
Throughout the pioneering process, Council has been sharing his plans, pivots and strategies freely with salon industry peers, including the ISBN community. In early May he told Vogue magazine, “I probably have had 200 salon owners send me texts or messages through Instagram or Facebook over the last few days, asking ‘Where do we get shields? Where did we get hand sanitizer?’” he said. He confirmed with ISBN that, like many committed to helping the salon industry they care about so much move forward, he has since logged about 10 hours a day on Zoom meetings, conference calls and personal calls from a vast network of salon relationships, all devoted to formal and informal conversations, problem solving and idea sharing on how to protect and sustain business.
Knowing industry eyes and interest are still focused on early opening salons and their benchmarks, Council generously shares these insights and metrics from Day 1 of reopening the Van Michael Salon locations.
ISBN: When did you reopen and how did you manage staffing and booking?
Council: Van Michael Salons reopened on April 24, 2020, with limited staff on a volunteer, optional basis. All staff were required to return back by May 11. According to distancing and capacity mandates, we operate at 50% of capacity and split shifts and staff into two alternating schedules with extended hours. Staff work two days in the salon and 2 days off, Monday through Saturday, with Sunday as a “pick up” day (never exceeding 50% at any one location). We are leaving one chair empty between every service provider for six feet of distance. Due to the fact that every service provider’s schedule changed, we opened the phones two days prior (April 22) and started rescheduling appointments for April 24 and onward.
ISBN: How many locations did you open on day one?
Council: Van Michael opened all seven original locations on April 24, then opened our new Virginia Highands location on May 1, for eight salons total. All are in the greater Atlanta area.
ISBN: How many clients returned the first day, how has traffic scaled and how does it compare to pre-COVID guest visits?
Council: Company-wide, at 50 percent staff and using every other station in the salon, we saw:
- April 24 = 243 clients
- May 11 = 554 clients
- Pre-COVID = 974 – 1066 clients per day
ISBN: How are retail sales performing?
Council: We moved to a flat 15% commission on retail sales for all service providers and after two weeks, we were at about 60% of pre-COVID numbers.
ISBN: The question on every ISBN member’s mind, and most salon industry leaders, is most likely this one: how are your revenue numbers overall, company-wide?
Council: In the first week, with 50 percent capacity and staff per location, and extended hours, we were at about 30-40% of our previous daily revenues. Two weeks in, we were at about 70% of our previous daily revenues.
ISBN: What services and products are most in demand?
Council: So far, it seems about even between color vs. cut, with maybe a slight advantage toward hair color. Women do not seem happy about their pandemic roots.
ISBN: How is rebooking working?
Council: We are allowing rebooking, as needed, on the new two days on, two days off schedule through June. We are unsure of what the landscape will look like after that, but we continue to monitor the situation daily.
ISBN: Did you offer any special promotions to drive return business?
Council: At this time, Van Michael Salons are not offering any incentives or discounts, nor have we implemented a COVID/PPE upcharge. We have spent thousands of dollars on PPE in order to create the safest environment and clearly, the cost analysis has to be considered. Right now, we have not had to implement any special pricing.
ISBN: What is your PPE policy?
Council: Van Michael has a thorough, thoughtful policy to keep staff and clients safe:
- All Van Michael staff and clients must wear masks. We can provide one mask to each employee per day and one to clients if they don’t have their own. We also decided to provide a mask to all color clients as we don’t want to damage or ruin their personal mask in any way.
- Face shields must be worn for any shampooing and we are only shampooing to rinse color. Face shields must be worn for any bang trims or face to face service interaction. We have suspended makeup services but hope to start next week with new sanitation measures.
- We have suspended blowdrying at this time.
- Temperatures are taken with touchless thermometers for all staff and clients when they enter the building.
- Every client is asked to use hand sanitizer prior to the service.
- Every service area is sanitized after each client.
- All instruments are sanitized after each client.
- All clients must sign a service waiver prior to service.
ISBN: What went better than expected on that first day?
Council: The attitude of the clients and the staff was just so positive. Although there was a cautious, serious tone, everyone was really grateful to be there. Clients were thanking us and also tipping their service providers extra.
ISBN: Did you come up with more effective solutions or protocols to replace ones you had originally put in place?
Council: At Van Michael Salons we deliver our service through practicing a performance wheel, where we are committed to hitting all of the marks on the wheel to deliver the best possible service. We had to redesign that performance wheel to incorporate our new sanitation practices and most notably, the absence of a blow dry.
A quick pivot was the realization that we needed to supply masks to all color clients. We had planned to provide a mask to any client that didn’t have one, with the expectation that because they had been informed previously that we require it, that they would show up with one. We were correct in that prediction, but what we didn’t anticipate was the need to supply for color clients. We had to make that adjustment on day one, then we obviously needed to increase our supply of masks.
ISBN: What were the highs and lows of that first day or first week? What is encouraging? What are the red flags?
Council: One of the most difficult aspects was just managing public criticism. Given that we were the first state to be allowed to open, everyone had to say something about it. Additionally, just gathering the PPE and needed sanitation products was a multifaceted and complicated effort, and one that continues to be challenging. But now, we are getting such positive feedback from our employees and our clients that it makes it worth it. Their wellbeing has always been our number one priority.
ISBN: What is the most important advice you would give ISBN members and other other multi-location leaders of salons, spas and barbershops?
Council: Three things are top of mind:
- Order more than you think you need of all of your supplies and access as many suppliers as you can. We ordered supplies before we even had the date of the reopening and we received none of those supplies. Trying to gather the needed supplies to maintain these new practices continue to be a massive effort.
- Be prepared for varying degrees of fear and comfort from your staff. Some will be completely comfortable with all that you are doing and some will not be satisfied with any aspect. Despite the fact that everyone’s feelings are coming from a place of fear, it tends to present itself as anger. Try not to take anything personally and also try to manage angry outburst between staff members with consistent rules and practices.
- Stick to your own policies and timeline, for clients and team. You can make the return to work optional in the beginning, for instance, but eventually you have to have a deadline for when staff must return, otherwise your business will suffer.
ISBN: Where did you find unexpected help and resources?
Council: Our biggest asset has been our team. It has taken an “all hands on deck” approach at the corporate and managerial level. Our CEO communicates daily with the managers on their needs both on the normal service front and on the new normal sanitation supplies and PPE.
ISBN: What do you need from the professional beauty community and ISBN? What would help Van Michael salons as well as your peers?
Council: We need more reliable sources for PPE supplies, from legitimate sources that will come through with your product. But overall, just continue to support fellow salon industry friends and community members, with no judgment. That’s really what we all need most.