A Dream On Wheels: How Jamie Nelson Is Reinventing The Salon Experience

A Dream On Wheels:

How Jamie Nelson Is Reinventing The Salon Experience

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Step inside Ember Airstream, and you know it’s time to get pampered in a totally new way. It’s a trailer-turned-mobile hair salon that specializes in wedding events, makeup, hairstyling, and barbering. It’s in an atmosphere that can only come from Jamie Nelson, a fashionista/hairstylist who grew up in laid-back, earthy Colorado. She’s designed every inch of the trailer into a salon that will take your salon experience to a new level of down-to-earth glam. Think having a beer in a super fancy salon, but more intimate. It’s all about you and your special occasion.

“I’ve designed a blend of mid-century modern, simple luxury and Colorado rustic,” Jamie Nelson, cosmetologist and genius behind the airstream, described the Airstream concept. When she thought up the Airstream two years ago, the then 28-year-old had a lot going on her life.  In addition to working for Twig Salon, an upscale studio in Boulder, Colorado, She had clients hiring her to travel and do hair and makeup for weddings and other events. She also had a toddler and was expecting her second child.

Today, walk through the salon, and take in the barn wood walls, a vintage barber chair and a relaxing spa-like shampoo bowl. The salon is her vision of “Boulder glam,’ a term we coined during our interview. SWAAY  chatted with Nelson just outside of her former employers salon in Boulder, and she got down to how she made her dreams and visions for the airstream, come into a revolutionary salon on wheels taking special events for a ride.

Jamie Nelson

It all started when Nelson had dreams that would wake her up at night.

“I literally dreamt it,” she said. “I would wake up in the middle of the night with these visions. I would just start writing about it at 4:00 in the morning and start writing up a business plan. This is something,” she told herself. “I gotta write this down. I gotta figure it out.”

Taking pen to paper, she started writing, and researching.

But when the then 28-year-old stylist began researching the business operations, her findings were discouraging.

About 80 percent of salons operate at a loss, and Denver’s commercial lease rates were far beyond her budget.

Bride at Ember Hairstream
Jamie Nelson at work

“I just didn’t see how opening a salon would ever be profitable unless you owned the space outright,” said Nelson.

Based on numbers, buying a commercial building wasn’t feasible or really, something she wanted to do. But Nelson couldn’t stop the creative visions from taking over her dreams, so she decided to take over the steering wheel.

With life savings and a small loan from the Colorado Enterprise Fund, Nelson drove to a young man in Casper Wyoming, to buy an empty 1977 Airstream Trailer. She didn’t have a clear plan.

“I knew I was going to do something with it,” she said.  “I actually called the state on my way to buy the Airstream to make sure I could license a mobile salon in Colorado.” Their response indicated she was clearly onto something. “Yes, you will be the first and we predict many more,’” they told Nelson.

It was a sign. She laughed as she recounted that phone call, as we sipped ginger juice in between clients at Twig salon.

The Nelsons bought the Airstream, and named the business Ember Hairstream, registering it with the Colorado Department of Regulation Agencies.

The Airstream was in good shape to make those long drives all across Colorado, but everything else needed to be revamped to create the experience Nelson envisioned. 

Without hesitation, Nelson and her family started building. “When we were actually building the air stream,” she recalled, “I just kept saying, ‘It’s going to take on a mind of its own. I don’t really know where it belongs in the salon industry, but I know it will find its way.”

Bridal Party at the trailer

A friend in Steamboat did most of the carpentry and mechanical work. Nelson and her family worked on it over weekends. She comes from a resourceful family full of talent. Nelson’s father is an upholsterer, and covered the original Airstream walls with recycled leather and refurbished the barber chair.

More than 250 hours of labor later, the trailer was ready for Nelson’s final touches. Nelson worked with designer Megan Daughtry to create a space where “both men and women feel comfortable and relaxed.”

The Airstream was taking shape. Still, building this venture wasn’t all champagne and glamour. Nelson was spending a lot of money, and the Airstream was far from giving back any financial return. “Money brings on doubts and insecurities,” she said. 

Doubts and insecurities. And pressure. “Money starts to bring on issues between family. That’s when you start to have some sacrifices,” Nelson explained. 

The Airstream was almost ready for the road, but Nelson felt like she had to convince her husband this would be worth it. “I would say to my husband, ‘Oh, I’m going to make our money back!’ and he would respond,  ‘If you do people’s hair just for the money, then that defeats the whole purpose of why we’re doing this,’” she said. “He told me, ‘I want to see you doing what you love and make sure people feel that.’”

Finally, after months of remodeling the trailer into the visions of her dreams, she started taking the Airstream to outdoor markets, and high end flea markets. She figured it would be ideal to have the air stream where food trucks were.

But, she quickly found that wasn’t her market.

It was onto the next stop: the bridal wedding business.  “It’s more my style and about putting myself around more people like me,” she said. 

That’s when she discovered her focus, and the Airstream found its current. A mobile hair salon that specializes in wedding events, makeup, hairstyling, barbering. It’s about making people feel special with a slang that comes to them. “How can I be a part of their memories and meet more people just like them?” she says. “Because i love them so much.”

One wedding led to another. Clients loved the experience. Nelson is a phenomenal stylist, and the Airstream environment made them feel celebrated. 

All this to say, while this experience was new to her clients, it was also new to Nelson. She had some ropes to learn operating her Airstream.  “I didn’t know how to operate the generators, or the propane tank, the water tank, the leveling and the parking.” She laughed at her trial-and-error moments. It’s a lot to learn while giving clients a one-of-a-kind experience. So her husband John now drives the Airstreams for a majority of events. “He likes me to just focus on my clients and take care of customer service,” she said.

The couple truly are a team. ”He comes 90% of the time. He has a lot of trust and faith in me,” she said.

He has faith in her. And her family is showing they’re ready to do whatever it takes to support her. That’s where once again, financial sacrifices are necessary. The couple planned on buying a house. Instead, Nelson and her husband moved into his parents second home. They put all that money into Airstream.  “The Airstream stuff is all over the place in the garage,” she said, laughing at how patient and accommodating John’s parents have been. On the road, John watches the children whenever Nelson gets  booked.. It takes a lot of people, Nelson explained. “A lot of times when we’re on events, John’s taking the babies on a walk on the stroller. It takes a lot of people in your corner having faith.”

Fast forward to countless weddings and special events later, and the biggest challenge might surprise you. Nelson says customers don’t believe that the Hairstream will come directly to them and that the fees are minimal. She says Hairstream prices are comparable to other salons. She sets a minimum charge of $300, which can be applied to services and retail, and charges an additional fee for traveling outside of the Denver/Boulder area.

It’s no secret that stylists like her have traveled for special events or to clients who couldn’t make it into the salon for various reasons. But that usually lends a stylist to doing hair and make-up in tiny hotel rooms or tiny prepping rooms at wedding venues.

With the Hairstream, Nelson she can provide an upscale services and salon expertise, and a more personal connection. “If a client has small children or a new baby, or they work late or making an appointment at the salon during the day just doesn’t work with their schedule,” she said. “Instead of doing their hair in the kitchen, something I used to do when now, I can use the Airstream… I created a space that is beautiful, comfortable and convenient.”

Since launching the business in late spring, Nelson’s taken the Ember Hairstream to Denver’s TheBigWonderful, a marketplace connecting art, music, fashion and food. Customers get their hair styled, learn about extensions, dabble in make-up and much more. She’s also had clients hire Ember Hairstream for kid birthday parties and brunches before special outings, like broadway theater performances.

As Nelson recounts the journey of bringing the Airstream into a dream job, she reflects on the support and mindset it took to push through the roller coaster of launching her mobile salon. “You really have to go along with faith,” she said. “There were so many moments I just had to trust what I desire. When I start to question myself, I just told myself with self talk: ‘no no no, just keep going.’”

Samantha Miles

Samantha Miles is a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in various newsrooms in Colorado, Texas, and Columbia Nightly News in New York City. She has also written for several online publications, and won awards for her journalism in the Arab Spring Uprisings for her piece - "The Jasmine Flowers: Women of the Tunisian Revolution," where she interviewed women rewriting the Tunisian constitution after the revolution. She has written about women from various cultures covering issues of domestic violence, social justice, and beauty pressures.

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