[This article was originally published in its edited form in the August 2014 issue of The Stylist. Here is the full version.]

High-energy trade show competitions are dramatic, exciting, and inspiring. However, they’re costly to attend and participate in—not to mention infrequently scheduled and often inconveniently located. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to that same excitement to your own salon without the travel or expense? You can and you should! The benefits a technical skill competition offers both your staff and your salon are numerous.

Salon professionals tend to be competitive in nature. As salon owners, many of us take full advantage of this by setting performance goals and rewarding our top earners. These mini-contests keep our staff motivated to work hard, but they aren’t particularly fun and—although they do encourage staff to upsell—they don’t inspire them to push their creative limits the way a technical skill competition would.

Technical skill competitions encourage staff to leap outside of their comfort zone, improve their skills, and push beyond their perceived limitations—all of which are fantastic for the salon itself. Staff excel when given the freedom to create with the incentive of reward and recognition in a fun, supportive environment. Team-based competitions strengthen the bond between your staff members and promote camaraderie, which then translates to better teamwork on the salon floor.

The benefits for the salon don’t stop there. Salon competitions generate buzz. Events like this get people talking and involved, so they promote loyalty from both clients and staff, reducing employee turnover and increasing client retention. These competitions also local media attention, especially if you alert them in advance by sending a press release several weeks prior to the event. Local business will also take note and may be interested in securing your services for future projects or sponsoring your next competition.

Encourage your staff to partner with local clothing designers and makeup artists to put their looks together. Websites like ModelMayhem (www.modelmayhem.com) make it easy for creative professionals to pair with models and photographers for fun collaborations. This expands your salon’s network considerably and allows local independent artists to showcase their own talents in exchange for prizes, professional portfolio images, and credits on your website and various social media outlets. Securing a photographer for the event results in fantastic photos of the event and each entry, which can then be used to build the salon and staff portfolios. Many photographers found through these networking sites are also willing to work “TFP” or “TFCD” (“Time For Print” or “Time For CD”). This means that no currency gets exchanged, but all professionals involved get credit and photos. I highly suggest developing an ongoing collaborative relationship and referral relationship with a local photographer. When integrated with your salon’s email newsletter, social media, and your salon website, the event (and photographs) will pay off tenfold in public interest.

Pairing your staff to work together to achieve a common goal helps both professionals grow—especially if you pair them strategically by partnering your more experienced professionals with your less experienced. Personally, I like the “timed tag-team” approach to team-based competitions. The rules only allow one team member to have their hands on the model at one time. The inactive team member could assist the “active” member by verbally consulting and handing them tools, product, or other items, but they were not permitted to touch the model. Every thirty minutes, the team members exchange places. This type of competition strengthened the staff’s communication skills. In addition, team members learn tips and techniques from observing and instructing one another during the process.

You have a great deal of freedom in terms of how you structure your salon competitions, how frequently you schedule them, and how you reward your victors. I preferred quarterly, themed, timed, live model competitions that clients were invited to attend, but you could omit the theme if you want, substitute models for mannequins, and allow or disallow spectators at your own discretion. Have your staff vote on themes, create teams, challenge them to incorporate new techniques or strange objects into their entries. Where prizes are concerned, you could offer a cash prize, a temporary commission boost, gift certificates, or a cardboard box containing a howling family of feral cats—really, the options are limitless! Whatever structure you choose, be sure to create your own evaluation forms to provide all the participants with scores and constructive feedback.

What are you waiting for? Don’t wait for those competitions to come to you! Get crazy and structure your own! Since you are in complete control of your competition, you have the ability to eliminate the less-desirable aspects of the professional competition arena while enjoying the benefits, so maximize the fun and reduce the stress and tension…and maybe omit the box of feral cats.

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