Riding the Botox bus

When the pandemic closed their clinics, Ari Katz and Shari Sperling hit the road

Gabrielle Saulsbery//January 11, 2021//

Riding the Botox bus

When the pandemic closed their clinics, Ari Katz and Shari Sperling hit the road

Gabrielle Saulsbery//January 11, 2021//

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Husband and wife duo Ari Katz and Dr. Shari Sperling outfitted a conversion van for their mobile dermatology business.- SPERLING DERMATOLOGY

Husband and wife duo Ari Katz and Shari Sperling were posted up drinking wine on a spring pandemic Friday, admittedly freaked out. Their three dermatology clinics were, like any non-essential business, shut down, and the what-ifs were taunting them.

What if people aren’t comfortable enough to come back into the stores?

Fear-inspired brainstorming brought them the idea of bringing their offerings—Botox, CoolSculpting, and other injectables and non-invasive cosmetic treatments—to their own back deck, where fresh air could make clients feel more comfortable getting up close and personal. Coaxing clients to their West Orange home from Sperling Dermatology’s Florham Park and Montclair locations would be easy enough, but not so much from its Red Bank location.

If only location wasn’t an issue.

Katz remembered a dentist he knew in the Bronx who treated patients out of an outfitted conversion van. Blink. Lightbulb. Katz couldn’t sleep all night. By Sunday, scrolling and scrolling through party busses, limousines, and converted vans online brought him to one standout listing: an extended Mercedes Benz Sprinter, 25 feet long, 6 and a half feet tall, outfitted with leather seats and two flat screen TVs. The seller, he found out, was a wealthy Californian who cut no corners fitting it out but found himself without the time to appreciate it. He was selling it, garage-quality, for $60,000.

“I just started running through the specs. How am I going to keep my Botox cold? Do I need generators?” he said.

“By May, we had our contract signed, and had them take out a few seats to make room for the machines and added outlets to power them. We went onto Instagram Live [when we picked up the van], and immediately we were in massive demand.”

Clients booked over 100 appointments within the first week. By June 15, some VIP clients had already been served.

“The crux of it is how many different ways we can take this Sprinter business. We took this on thinking we would run around doing CoolSculpting with it, but really it was like a Botox bus,” Katz said. “We thought we’d go to this driveway and that driveway and go around with it. Instead, we created this host program where one woman would invite her friends, and they’d all come and we’d treat them and give the host a steep discount.”

Think Pampered Chef parties, but for remote workers confronted with their ownZoom face all day. When the bus is out, it’s a $5,000-a-day business.

“One of the other angles that came out was we had businesses who wanted to partner with us. A hotel in the Hamptons, Capri, we were out there for a whole week,” Katz said. “They put me and my wife and kids up, and we did $30,000 in that week from pre-books with the van.”

The Botox bus was going gangbusters. It’s like van life, but profitable.

Katz is quick to share that Sperling Dermatology’s success during the pandemic comes from a fortunate confluence of events kicked off by his wife 15 years ago, when she decided to go into dermatology. “I joke all the time that my wife could have been a world-class chef, and we could have three restaurants and be looking at a very different reality now,” Katz said. His years in digital marketing and sales fall under the umbrella, too. Sperling Dermatology was successful pre-pandemic, having risen to the top spot of any CoolSculpting business nationwide three years after opening according to CoolSculpting’s parent company.

Staying afloat required trimming the fat, so to speak, and negotiating over every cent of spending.

“You have rent that’s due every month. You think that’s unavoidable, but you call up the landlords, and due to the pandemic, they might give you a break. You look at salaries as an everyday expense and then you furlough, so that’s avoidable,” Katz said. “Every penny that was going out the door, you’re sensitive to because no pennies are coming in. Every dollar that was going out the door, it was triple checked, asking, ‘can you give us a break? Three months?’”

The furloughs at Sperling lasted three months, but once they opened up again, Katz figured out how to bring everyone back: converting every salary to an hourly rate to accommodate a slower business. A salaried employee would get the same hourly rate they were used to—a $50,000 salary, for example, is $25.64 an hour—but for as many hours as they worked.

Sperling’s moved everyone back to their pre-COVID pay arrangement and hours are ramped back to normal, but if an employee was working 25 hours a week instead of 40, being able to pay accordingly was a helpful cost savings in uncertain times.

Since reopening their brick-and-mortar locations in June around the same time they put the van on the road, Sperling Dermatology’s brought in $3 million. Demand has gone up, and the company’s cost per lead has dropped from $42 to $27. Multiplied across more than 1,000 leads monthly, they’re saving over $15,000 in marketing per month.

“Part of it is sad, it’s that competition has dried up. The leads are still there, but instead of 20 businesses offering a service, now there’s only four,” Katz said.

Vans have been a good platform for business this year. The north Jersey franchisee of GYMGUYZ, a brought-to-your-home trainer out of a Nissan NV 1500, said business during the pandemic shot up in territories around the state, with a 127% increase in greater Morris County, 90% in eastern Bergen County, 83.3% in north Essex and lower Passaic Counties, and 46% in central Monmouth County. Unlike Sperling, GYMGUYZ had a head start, working on its mobile business model throughout 12 years.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly [how much of the growth is due to COVID] as many of our franchise locations are still pretty new and growing fast. But it’s safe to say that a good portion of our rebound and growth has been driven by consumers needing a new approach to their fitness routine, given the pandemic. I think people are really preferring in-home and virtual personal training right now as opposed to heading out into a situation where you’re around lots of others,” said Phil Brojan, also the company’s chief marketing officer. “Consumers need the one-on-one personal instruction and motivation of a certified personal trainer without the risk of venturing out.”

“They also need a better solution than just buying in-home fitness equipment or using a fitness app, as those options tend to have very high failure rates. People are growing tired of wasting their money on fitness solutions that don’t work and want results, and it’s just a case of the right time, and the right place for us,” he continued.

Back at the mobile spa, Katz and Sperling plan on hiring on a van staff fulltime in 2021 to have it out on the road five days a week. They’ve been pulling from their brick-and-mortar staff, which has only allowed them the one to two days a week it’s on the road now. They also plan on diving further into the party sector, planning bachelorette parties and bridal showers, and one-off appointments with clients who can’t make it to the spa.

“Keep the baby monitor on your hip to come out to the van for 20 minutes, and we’ll make you feel good,” he said.

“Every other business in the country got hit with a major challenge, and we took a massive leap of faith. It’s a story of a risk that really paid off. It’s a pandemic pivot.”