Saturday 24 February 2018

How a year out after their father's death inspired sisters behind Saoirse Ronan's favourite nail hotspot Tropical Popical to open salon

Four years ago, sisters Andrea and Michelle Horan set up a nail salon like no other in Ireland, the phenomenon that is Tropical Popical

Andrea Horan at Tropical Popical on Dublin’s South William Street. Photo: Mark Condren
Andrea Horan at Tropical Popical on Dublin’s South William Street. Photo: Mark Condren

If you are into whale music and rose-petals-style establishments, Tropical Popical is not for you. However, the wild and wonderfully decorated nail bar, which was set up by sisters Andrea and Michelle Horan in 2012, has managed to become something of a phenomenon amongst the thousands of clients who pour through the doors each month from all corners of Ireland and beyond.

The inspiration behind Tropical Popical came to Michelle (a former hairdresser) and Andrea (a brand manager) during a year out, while travelling around the United States.

"Our dad died, so myself and my sister took a year out and went travelling. I had been working in Thinkhouse, which is a PR and communications company, for over 10 years at that point and Michelle was hairdressing for a long time," Andrea explains.

"During the last part of our trip, we were in America and we were getting our nails done regularly as a social occasion really. It was just the two of us travelling together for so long that we were getting bored, so getting our nails done became our hobby.

"It was so cheap that we got them done every three days or so and my main concern at that point then near the end of the trip was 'where am I going to do this when I get home?'" Andrea laughs. "Somewhere that was quick, easy and affordable, like in America.

"The trend here at that time was that you might only get your nails done if it was a special occasion like a wedding; but in America it was a real social event. So instead of going for coffee, people in America would say, 'I'll meet you at the nail salon.'

"I loved that sociable side to it and the fact that you would go with a friend or a group and it wouldn't be about all rose petals; it would be fast and furious and there would be loud music and fun."

To say that Michelle and Andrea had spotted a niche in the Irish market is a massive understatement. Four years later, the duo who shun automation (unlike many others in the beauty industry) to instead reply to each and every customer query personally, struggle to cope with the sheer volume of customers they now attract.

"We came back in September of 2012 and we opened Tropical Popical on the 1st of November that same year," Andrea says. "We had the luxury of that time travelling to have the idea perfected.

"We came up with the initial concept when we were in Texas at South by Southwest with a lot of our friends who were over. They are in creative industries too, so there was a good mixture of business and creative people and I bounced our ideas off them," Andrea explains.

"That's when I knew that I was on to something. After that we had three weeks in Mexico, just on a beach with my laptop, where we had the time to come up with a formula and work on the branding and the design and figure out exactly how it was all going to work."

When they first returned to Ireland, Andrea went back to her job at Thinkhouse.

However, soon, Tropical Popical became more of a full-time gig.

"Initially, it was a side project, which I thought would work out, but then it started to sustain us and I realised I could put my whole life into it. Michelle has been front of house since we began and she knew how salons worked, whereas I knew about branding and creating something," Andrea says.

Despite the sisters' seemingly perfect mixture of skills, however, there were still a few teething issues along the way.

"When we opened, we didn't know what we had to order in terms of products and all of that kind of stuff, so the staff then told us what we needed," Andrea laughs. "It was definitely not something either of us knew about at the very beginning."

The expert feedback, ideas and input from their now 10-strong team of nail artists has played a major role in ensuring Tropical Popical's success.

"We would be nothing if it wasn't for the staff and we hire very carefully, otherwise it would just be a room full of tacky things," Andrea smiles. "We were never greedy to grow fast; we took our time to make sure we had the right people on our team.

"The first thing I always say when I meet a new client is, 'What is different about you?'" explains Andrea, who also runs Tropical Hype, an expert branding agency for small and independent businesses.

"When we were setting up, there were two things that were important to us; one was that we were going to do great nails and be affordable, so that we would become a habit for people and position ourselves in that way, and the second thing was the unique environment; the staff, the brand, the interior, everything from the way in which we speak to clients on the phone and in our emails, to the relationship that we foster between nail technician and client. We always wanted to be more than just a nail salon."

A key difference between Tropical Popical and other nail salons is the often unusual and creative nail art they offer, which, coupled with its beautifully bold interior decor and casual, relaxed atmosphere, has resulted in its widespread appeal.

Actress Saoirse Ronan is a Tropical Popical regular and even gave the South William Street Salon a shout out during her recent appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in the US.

"The Ellen Show rang the salon and asked if they could use one of our photos from Instagram," Andrea explains, still noticeably thrilled by the event. "And I remember the night before the show thinking how outrageous and amazing it would be if Ellen actually said the words 'Tropical Popical.' So when she did it was huge, they even did a tweet about it. When we were in America, my sister and I would sit in and watch Ellen every day, so to see it come full circle was amazing."

Andrea places a big emphasis on the importance of customer service with a strong, on-message, yet casual voice throughout all Tropical Popical interactions.

"We have a very clear way of communicating everything and I think people like that," Andrea says. "We are different from a lot of brands in that we talk the way our clients talk; it's very casual and fun. That is how it should be," Andrea adds.

"You are actually holding someone's hand for an hour so it is very intimate; the girls have real conversations with people, it's not just the questions like 'where are you going on your holidays?'

"And the way that has worked out in practice now is that you have a situation where if someone is in and they are going on a date, they'll pop back in to let the girls know how they got on the next day or when they get engaged they'll drop in to show the girls the ring.

"We actually care. You can try to instil that in people and tell them that is the way you should do customer service, but if you simply explain that this is how you actually care for people, it does that job of customer service, but the result is actually real and very natural."

So what is next on the agenda for Tropical Popical's winning brand?

Well, quite a few things actually, with the Trop Pop school offering nail art courses and branded products already on offer. There are also a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, from Tropical Popical nail polishes to the possibility of a clothing line.

"I don't want any more Trop Pops and I think for me that is more about not wanting to break the magic, than anything else," Andrea says of any possible expansion.

"I love that Michelle is our front of house and that she creates the atmosphere and I would be so nervous of recreating what we have done, but we can't handle the volume we have right now. Michelle and I are going home and staying up until 1am returning emails every day, so we are trying to figure out our next step at the minute.

"In an ideal world, I would love to get a big warehouse space and have an area for the Trop Pop School, the shop, an area for parties and maybe something like a bowling alley; something different," Andrea explains.

"The challenge now is figuring out how to let it grow without losing its heart. We were approached by one of the major nail varnish brands in the US to do a collaboration, but we want to do our own one.

"We would never just agree to a white label with our name slapped on it, which is what most people do, it would have to be us. I would prefer to do something really special and keep things smaller, rather than sell out.

"Tropical Popical has all been self-funded, so we never owed anyone any money or took out any loans. We only grow when we can self-fund to do so," Andrea adds.

"For me, business is a passion; I am not trying to be on the Forbes list of billionaires, I am just trying to be able to afford to go on some really good holidays and create something that changes a landscape.

"It's not about how many salons you have or how big you are, it is about how you are changing the landscape."

Sunday Indo Business

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