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Spa Business
2012 issue 1

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Leisure Management - Cynthia Chua


Cynthia Chua

The Singaporean behind the internationally renowned Ministry of Waxing and Browhaus stores talks about the resurgence in waxing and the art of eyebrow grooming and how spas could integrate such services

Katie Barnes, Spa Business
Cynthia Chua
The first Ministry of Waxing (MOW) salon – launched in Singapore in 2001 – focused on full body waxing within a quirky environment featuring funky décor and a playful menu
Funky décor and a playful menu
It’s important to have fun – waxing doesn’t have to be carried out in a sterile room
Beauty Emporium includes six Brownhaus stations and five MOW treatment rooms
Selfridges department store in London is taking an interest in the Beauty Emporium concept
MOW facilities are operated as franchises, or joint ventures if Chua has a vested interest
Beauty Emporium showcases all the products in the Spa Esprit Group’s portfolio
MOW has expanded internationally with 33 branches in major cities, such as New York
The next big thing at Browhaus is fashion eyebrows – using different colours to match make-up and dressing them with accessories

Two million Brazilian waxes, 33 dedicated waxing salons and 25 outlets focused on eyebrow services in nine cities worldwide. It’s fair to say that Cynthia Chua, the woman behind all of this, is well-known in personal grooming circles.

The 40-year-old from Singapore prides herself on creating innovative businesses. After a brief spell in banking and marketing, she made her foray into beauty by setting up Spa Esprit – a fashionable day spa with six treatment rooms – in the city in 1996. She says that back then “it was quite rare to have a boutique spa and it was one of the first places of relaxation for women”.

For six years she introduced new therapies such as hot stone massage and designed her own product lines including a 20-strong range of aromatherapy oils. Ready for her next challenge, Chua then branched out into waxing, followed by eyebrow grooming, under the Spa Esprit Group banner. Today her businesses turnover sg$50m (us$39m, €29.9m, £24.9m) a year.

The first Ministry of Waxing (MOW) salon launched in Singapore in 2001. “We were already offering Brazilian waxing in our day spa but because the focus was on relaxation it was seen as an ancillary service,” says Chua. “When I travelled to London and New York, I realised there was a lot of potential to do it in Asia, as there wasn’t somewhere I could have a proper Brazilian wax with good hygiene and safety standards.”

What she created was a salon dedicated to full body waxing where the talking point became the Brazilian wax. Her focus was on less painful and embarrassing Brazilian waxing methods along with a mantra of HSQ – hygiene, speed and quality. MOW was one of the first to introduce the no double dipping technique – where the spatula is discarded after every use – as well as offering a sealed personal hygiene pack containing gloves, cotton pads, wet wipes and spatulas per customer. In addition, she got the service time down to a speedy 30 minutes.

All of this was packaged in a quirky style with playful marketing and menus (see p44) executed by ‘waxperts’ and funky décor to fit the target clientele aged between 18-40, with the majority being in their 20s. “It’s an extension of my personality,” she says. “I think it’s important to have fun in what you do.

Just because it’s waxing, it doesn’t mean it has to be sterile and carried out in a white lab coat. Brazilian waxing is a very intimate treatment, so our light-hearted, friendly approach is designed to make the customer feel more comfortable.”

As such services were practically unheard of by the conservative Singaporean people, Chua admits that it’s been as much about educating people about Brazilian waxing as it has been about setting up a business. “Being a pioneer means you’ll always have to educate the market. The first step was to teach the media what Brazilian waxing is and how the trend was lacking in Singapore. Luckily, many of them agreed that grooming habits needed to improve and were able to write stories about this and their experiences at Ministry of Waxing.

“When I first opened, everyone told me that my market would be ex-pats, but I gave myself a personal challenge of reaching out to Asian girls. Eighty per cent of my customers are now Asian and the trend has taken off so much that waxing salons are everywhere – so I’ve talked a whole nation into improving their grooming habits!”

Since 2006, MOW has expanded internationally and there are now 33 branches in major cities such as New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila. The facilities are operated as franchises, or as joint ventures in areas where Chua has a personal interest. The strategy when entering a new market is to undercut competitor prices – such as Bliss – by 10-20 per cent (see p44).

“I had a lot of fun with MOW as a brand and realised that it was particularly easy to market something dedicated to one thing. So then I started to feel that there was a gap in the market for going to a place that focuses just on eyebrows,” says Chua in explanation of why she launched Browhaus in 2004.

The concept she created was based on the removal of unwanted hair on the face and the enhancement of eyebrows and eyelashes. She reintroduced techniques such as threading – where thread is used to remove hair strands in a row – which can be done on its own or combined with tweezing.

Yet the signature service is a semi-permanent patented treatment called Brow Resurrection, involving a vegetable dye being applied with a multi-pin to replicate intricate brow strands. “I saw people in New York charging us$70 (€54, £45) for brow shaping, so I came back to Singapore and tweaked the model, dropping the price point (see p44) so I could extend it to the masses.”

The style of the facilities was, once again, trendy and different – the name Browhaus was inspired by the Bauhaus design movement that combines crafts and fine art. And Chua affectionately compares her business to the building industry where she specialises in demolition (waxing) and construction (brow resurrection). Today there are 25 Browhaus stores around the world.

So, out of the day spa, MOW and Browhaus businesses, which one does Chua feel is the most successful? All do well, she says, with each returning a profit margin of 20 per cent. While the day spa, with customers aged around 30-50, only attracts around 600 clients per month compared with MOW and Browhaus’ 2,000 customers per outlet, its prices are higher (see p44).

“It’s a lot faster paced environment at MOW and Browhaus,” adds Chua. “We’re run at 70-80 per cent capacity and people think of the services as a necessity, so about 50 per cent of our customers are members and the other 30 per cent are regulars. As the spa is still seen as a luxury the numbers are lower – about 25 per cent are members and around 30 per cent are return guests.

Ultimately, however, she sees success as brand equity and in that sense says the winner is MOW, followed closely by Browhaus and the day spa a poor third. “It’s also about scaleability and how quickly you can grow that brand based on yearly turnover,” she says. “Considering the expensive set up costs, the size and scope of facilities as well as the need to offer, and train therapists in up to 30 different treatments, there are many barriers of entry for day spas. It would cost me three times as much to open a spa as it would a MOW and I could easily open up at least 20 MOW facilities in a city like Singapore, but it would be difficult to do 20 spas.”

Despite the barriers of entry for day spas, Chua still feels it’s important to experiment with different types of spa. “The waxing industry has had a resurgence, whereas the spa industry has just been existing and really needs someone to inject a breath of fresh air into it,” she says.

In 2007, she introduced HOUSE – a 35,000sq ft (3,252sq m) spa combined with a bar and restaurant – in Singapore. Two years later she added the Beauty Emporium, which includes six Browhaus stations and five MOW treatment rooms plus a large retail area showcasing all the products in the Spa Esprit Group portfolio. “It’s a huge beauty supermarket that brings everything together with a fresh tone.” Singapore is a test bed for different ideas, she says, and she’s excited to tell me that the big London department store Selfridges is showing interest in the Beauty Emporium concept.

With many spa operators now turning to beauty services – which attract a regular local clientele and revenue – what are Chua’s tips on integration? “It’s a difficult question,” she says. “If you have too many brand messages it would be confusing.

MOW or Browhaus wouldn’t work in a spa environment because the experience is far removed from a typical spa vibe – they are funky, fun and fast paced. Can a spa ever be upbeat? We’re looking at a model that might appeal to a younger clientele with a lower price point, which might work.

“However, there’s a demand for grooming right now compared to five years ago. So if operators were to introduce waxing and eyebrow services, their spend per customer would go up and it would definitely help if a guest wants everything done in one place.”

Recruitment and training are two challenges operators should be aware of, she adds. “Manpower is always an issue – we need up to 15 staff per MOW outlet and
10 for Browhaus salons – but the problems vary from city to city. In London, we’re able to get local aestheticians who we can easily train because the professional courses there give them a strong beauty knowledge. In Singapore, however, we’re going through a severe shortage in service staff because people don’t want the jobs. So I tend to find spa therapists from Indonesia, and for Brow Resurrection – which involves intricate embroidery and artisan work – we find that the Chinese have strong technical skills. For the front desk, a lot of service staff come from the Philippines. It can be tough and we’re constantly in talks with the government about our foreign worker quota.”

When it comes to training, the Spa Esprit Group’s academy in Singapore sees 80-120 staff each year. There are dedicated training departments for spa therapy, waxing and brow work, and courses last between four to eight weeks depending on the students’ capabilities and what they’re learning about. Brow Resurrection, for example, is one of the most complicated procedures, so students would take longer to master this.

“A brow tidy is easy enough, but brow shaping and construction is more complicated,” says Chua. “You need to understand about facial shapes, balancing and shades and it’s not as simple as ‘oh, it’s just plucking a few hairs out’. And if Brazilian waxing isn’t done properly, it can be very traumatic for the customer. So the training – covering everything from hygiene and contra-indications to bed-side manner – is very important.

Chua’s top tip for a spa operator who’s thinking of adding beauty services is to train just one or two therapists very well, rather than a whole team on the basics. “The standard of service is really high so if you want to get a slice of the pie you’ll need to perfect what you do,” she says. “If not, it could ultimately hurt the whole business in the end.”

Locally, Chua has diversified into food and beverage, with the launch of HOUSE, followed by the Tippling Club bar and restaurant and three Skinny Pizzas. Most recently she introduced 40 Hands coffee bar; O My Dog, a gourmet hotdog booth; and Open Door Policy, a modern rustic bistro. Internationally, the expansion of MOW and Browhaus is top of her list with a goal to open 15+ of each next year, with Beijing being one of the main destinations.

And she’s got more innovations lined up. At Browhaus, the next big thing will be fashion eyebrows, which will include experimenting with different colours to match make up and dressing them up with accessories. As services have been the main focus, Chua’s next aim will be on retail and creating an enticing shop front for stores to capture the attention of passers by. “The presentation will be really exciting and there’ll be a much greater product focus,” she says. “We’ll be trialling it in Singapore and, if it works, we’ll be rolling it out in London and New York.”

For MOW, Chua launched the Brazilian facial in April, comprising microdermabrasion and skincare for the Brazilian area on top of waxing. “It’s all about taking it to the next level,” she says. “Years ago people went to the hairdressers to get their hair cut, but now everyone gets their hair coloured.”

Overall, her aim is for MOW to become a household brand and for everyone to have perfect brows “because that’s what everyone deserves”! She concludes: “Having a vision and always pioneering something that no one has done before that involves innovation and creativity drives me. I feel it’s my creative output.”

- The 33 Ministry of Waxing (MOW) outlets typically cover between 900-1,200sq ft (84-111sq m)
and have up to eight rooms

- A Brazilian wax costs around sg$26-58 (us$20-45, €16-35, £13-29) and takes only 30 minutes

- There are 25 Browhaus salons worldwide and these usually cover 600-800sq ft (56-74sq m) and include five to eight stations

- A Brow Resurrection, which takes up to 90 minutes, costs sg$1,200 (us$935, €717, £597) for a full brow. The after care kit is strongly recommended and costs sg$150 (us$117, €90, £75)

- Brow Resurrection can last up to two years and maintenance costs sg$150 (us$117, €90, £75)

- A 60-minute massage at Spa Esprit costs around sg$95-120 (us$74-94, €57-72, £47-60)

Originally published in Spa Business 2012 issue 1

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