By Kimberly Hundley
Photos by Adam Moreno
Into the Great Recession and throughout the slow recovery years, Scottsdale’s National Laser Institute has barely registered a frown, its business face as smooth and untroubled as a 19-year-old starlet with a burgeoning blockbuster career.
NLI, the country’s largest laser educator, has proven immune to the economy’s ups and downs, and now, under the direction of CEO/President Louis Silberman, the medical aesthetics training company has taken its show on the road, teaching courses and performing treatments throughout the country, with an eye on expanding permanently to several cities.
Students have flocked from around the globe to attend classes at NLI’s Scottsdale and Dallas campuses, established in 2003 and 2011 respectively. The institute trains doctors, career changers and aesthetics professionals in laser hair removal, photofacial skin rejuvenation, laser wrinkle reduction, cellulite reduction, chemical peels and more—usually in a full two-week program that runs upward of $9,000.
Business has been good, but Silberman knew he was missing golden opportunities in other states. The question was how to expand without a huge outlay or misstep into a too-green market.
“We’ve established a worldwide brand with just Arizona and Texas—we’re like the Harvard of this industry,” Silberman says. “But the reality is some people can’t afford to hop on a flight and spend two weeks in Arizona. And some can afford it, but they can’t escape from their practice or their life. And some people just won’t travel.”
Well, as the saying goes, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed.
For the last 15 months, Silberman and his instructor team have been racking up frequent flyer miles, presenting courses in luxury hotels about twice a month. The itinerary has bounced between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Hawaii.
NLI’s business model is servicing real-world clients, which means planning for remote classes includes recruiting customers in each city so educators can demonstrate the techniques, and their remote students—most of whom are medical doctors—can get experience during the week-long program.
Google is NLI’s not-so-secret weapon for reaching prospective students as well as customers. Ads for the training sessions pop up whenever someone in the target city does an Internet search for keywords such as Botox and laser hair removal. “We spend an outrageous amount of money on Google,” Silberman says. “Hundreds of customers come in for discounted treatments during the training days. So while we’re teaching medical professionals, they are getting unheard of deals: $25 for photofacial skin rejuvenation, which normally would be hundreds of dollars.”
Logistics also call for partnering with local plastic surgeons and dermatologists who can provide additional instructors to support NLI’s traveling cadre of teachers. Though the institute is paying more to operate due to travel and other expenses, Silberman says he’s saving money in the long run because he’s finding out what works and what doesn’t.
For example, Las Vegas and Hawaii turned out to have the lowest returns, mainly because they don’t have surrounding areas to draw students and customers from. Areas with large populations but a huge saturation of aesthetic services—like San Francisco and New York City—were still profitable because demand was also huge. Boston turned out to be a home run because it pulled in regional clientele, so next year, NLI is doubling its visits to Beantown and intends to build a permanent school there.
Silberman prides himself on attending just about every traveling program to give the operation a personal touch as owner. “I am on a zillion planes a year. I’ll fly in for 48 hours, do a welcome, introduce myself, and do a marketing seminar,” he says. “We’re big enough now, at 100 employees, that I can just barely squeak it out. The business challenge as we grow and become more corporate, will be how to continue that level of personal involvement.”
He’s also a big fan of promotional events to rustle up business, and his calendar includes 40 of NLI’s “Skin Scene” dates annually across the country, more than half in Arizona and Dallas. “We’ll get an average of 150 people in a room and feed them wine and appetizers. It will be like a five-star wedding—we drop some serious money,” Silberman says. “We do live demonstrations of Botox, for example, and I talk about the industry. The parties are fun. I love them.”
When Silberman got in the business 23 years ago, most of the M.D.s who came for training were dermatologists or plastic surgeons. These days, they’re in the minority, replaced by urgent-care doctors, family practitioners, OB/GYNs and even heart surgeons looking to bolster their practice in a less stressful sector that’s free of insurance hassles. Silberman says he recently talked with a heart surgeon at a training session who told him he routinely collects only $2,000 on $10,000 procedures once the insurance company processes payment.
“If you are a doctor, you are getting killed by insurance, and this is a cash business,” Silberman says. “When someone says medical aesthetics, they’re not talking manicures. We’re at a price point that is really moving and grooving, regardless of the economy.”
Next year, NLI may start doing promotional parties in Virginia Beach, Va., a major military town with funding for training available to active military families.
Other locales that are leading candidates for new NLI campuses, based on response to the traveling programs, include New York City, San Francisco and California.
Silberman believes any business with an educational platform should consider developing a road show, including those in nursing and massage therapy. “I think there are a lot of people who have built empires—look at Tony Robbins,” he says. “You’ve just got to figure out how much does it cost to get people in the room.”