View Article As Printed

Photo Credit: Christina Stuart Photography,

Longevity in the bridal industry comes from many factors, including anticipating your customers’ needs, making changes when changes are warranted and weathering the storms, such as a global pandemic.
    As someone who bought a bridal salon 26 years ago with no experience and turned it into the success it is today, Cami Hester, owner of Aurora Bridal in Melbourne, Fla., identifies several factors that helped her along the way.
    “I would say my ability to make quick changes when needed is a key to success,” she says. “If I see a policy isn’t working, I change it. If someone tells me my store looks dated, I change it. If an employee isn’t performing, I work hard to get them on the right path or part ways. If a line isn’t producing, I drop it…be prepared to have constant change and just embrace it.”
    Learning to recognize when it’s time to make changes, even when it would be easier to maintain the status quo, is the key.
    “You have to be flexible and open to change and to new ideas and be willing to have fresh eyes when you look at things,” she says.
    She also credits a strong support system.
    “You can’t have enough friends in this industry outside of your own store,” she says. “It’s always good if you can be friendly with the local competition, but it’s even better if you have friends across the country in the same industry. That bond is so important; it will keep you sane, and it will help you through the worst of times.”
    A supportive family, like Hester has had all these years, has also been extremely helpful, as has engaging in regular, continuing education, including conferences with her fellow Better Bridal Group members.
    “If you stop learning, you might as well just close,” she says.
    From the beginning, Hester sought out a group of salon owners who have become her lifeline, friends and best source of support. This support, combined with her ability to pivot, have allowed her to excel in an industry for which she still, nearly three decades later, has a passion.

A Salon by Age 30
    When Hester was a senior in high school in the 1980s, she vowed that she would own a bridal salon by the time she turned 30, despite never having worked in the industry.
    “I have just always loved all things bridal,” Hester says. “It is a passion that grew from childhood and is still with me today.”
    With a childhood dream propelling her forward, Hester periodically did try to get a job in a bridal salon when she was younger. However, when she revealed that she wanted to own her own stores, no one would hire her.
    She married at age 19 and moved with her military husband to Denver. While living in Colorado, she continued to research the ins and outs of owning a bridal salon. Eventually, she and her husband moved back home to Melbourne, Fla., and she worked in her family business and then became a sales rep for another business, selling toys, gifts and stuffed animals. However, she never let go of her bridal shop dreams.
    In September of 1995, married with two small children and another on the way, Hester drove past Aurora Unique Boutique, a shop she knew well, having grown up in the area. The store was primarily a consignment shop but it had started to offer new bridal gowns as well.
    On a whim, Hester popped into the store and said to the owner, “I know you have no idea who I am, but I’m wondering if you want to sell your business.”
    Ready to retire, the owner eventually agreed. Hester signed on the dotted line on November 1, 1995 ­– her 30th birthday – then went home to tell her husband about her new purchase.
    “My first day working in bridal was November 1, 1995, the day I bought the store,” she says.

The Evolution of a Boutique
    Hester renamed her new store Aurora Bridal and kept the original owner on for a year so that she could learn all she could about the business, even though it had been primarily a consignment shop with only about 1/3-1/2 dedicated to bridal.
    A newbie to the industry, Hester could not even thread a needle, another reason that she asked the owner to stay on temporarily.
    But Hester knew she had to make some changes if she wanted to stay in business and be competitive in the industry.
    She did not get rid of the consignment section immediately – that would come gradually over a two-year period – but she did computerize the store within 60 days of purchasing it, as business had previously been conducted the old-fashioned way – by pen and paper. Hester kept the original staff, and after the owner left, hired a seamstress.
    “When I purchased the shop, it was a hot mess: junk everywhere, things crammed in every space, mannequins with faces and wigs, so I immediately started cleaning out, throwing out and organizing,” she says. “I had to create space for a tuxedo area right away but I also had so much to learn since I had never worked in bridal. I had only dreamed of it! Touching every item in the shop as I organized was a great learning experience.”
    One of Hester’s first lessons? She made the classic mistake of overpaying for existing merchandise, much of which she would donate to charity over the next couple of years. She also overbought in the early days, trying high-end lines, which didn’t work. Now, her lines are moderately priced.
    “As I grew, I started offering mothers, prom and expanded the bridesmaids’ and bridal lines,” she says, although she stopped buying prom about four years ago. “I added quinceañera about a year ago because girls were coming in looking for dresses. I only carry one line so it doesn’t eat up too much floor space, and they are selling well.”
    To establish herself in the community, Hester created a bridal show in the area – a very large one – in 1997.
    “I did the bridal show for several years, and then handed it off to a DJ; it was getting too big and too much work,” she says.
    But bridal shows like this helped her in the days before internet advertising to introduce herself to the community. She also ran newspaper, radio and Yellow Page ads, just to get her name out. And it worked, as business kept growing.
    In fact, it grew so much that it was not long after purchasing the shop that Hester thought about expanding. When space became available in the same plaza at the opposite end, she purchased that and moved the whole store, increasing her footprint from 1,000 to 3,500 square feet.
    “Then about ten years after that, I took over the space that was next door, cut holes in the wall, and became 7,000 square feet; it’s been that way for about ten years,” she says.

Connecting with Industry Experts
    Hester laughs when she thinks about her first few years in business.
    “I didn’t know anything about anything; it was trial and error, and I had a lot of error,” she jokes.
    But connecting with others in the industry proved to be invaluable.
    She met her first group of owners when she drove to Atlanta to purchase her POS system and stopped in shops along the way from Gainesville to Atlanta.
    “A couple of them introduced me to a couple more, and suddenly we had a little e-mail exchange going on constantly to share ideas,” she says.
    Soon after, she signed up to go to her first bridal show in Vegas. Then the internet started progressing, and bridal boards became a thing. Hester joined the Better Bridal Group (BBG).
    “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” she says. “I’ve learned more from that group through the years than I can even describe.”
    In fact, the same people are still in her life today. And they have made such an impact on her life that Hester refers to them as her BBF ­– Bridal Best Friends.

A Package Deal
    Aurora Bridal is known for its bridal packages. When Hester bought the store, the original owner, who was a little ahead of her time, priced her bridal gowns to include three items: a handmade veil, a slip and a bustle.
    “When I bought the store, that was the package; you had it priced in, and this was before packages were cool,” Hester says. While she kept the original package concept, she changed things up.
    “I just started changing what was included and how I priced it and how I gave it value,” she says. “Packages are a big thing now; I do mine differently.”
    Her Love at First Sight package includes a dress, headpiece, veil, garment bag, storage until the wedding and steaming, as well as discounts on bridesmaids, grooms, mothers and flower girls; discounts on invitations, jewelry, and accessories; and wedding gown preservation.
    However, if a bride returns to the salon to buy the dress later, the price is just for the dress, though she can add the package back in for another $350. Or, if a bride wants the dress only, Hester will subtract $200 from the dress price.
    “I also partner with other stores in my area so I give discounts with the DJ, photographer, videographer, hair, nails, tanning and massage,” she says. “If they purchase a dress on that first visit, the prices include all of that.”
    Hester says the packages make her store unique, as does the fact she’s got the largest selection in the area. Plus, Aurora Bridal is known for having a very friendly staff.
    “Our close rates on first visits are extremely high,” she says. “For 2021, the first-visit closing rate was 62%.”

Redecorating Spree
    One thing that Hester appreciates is straightforwardness and honesty, which is how she approaches her business.
    In late October 2019, just before the pandemic, she attended the yearly BBG conference, held in Orlando. As Orlando is only an hour or so east from her shop, one of her BBG colleagues, who not only owns a bridal salon but is in real estate, asked if she could visit Hester’s store in person.
    Hester had not done any remodeling since she expanded eight or nine years earlier, but she was happy to show off her boutique. After her friend left, she called Hester and said, quite frankly, that her store needed some work, as it was dark, with burgundy walls, and cluttered. The shop had traditional front-glass showcases, a slot wall and shelving full of stuff.
    Initially taken aback, Hester realized that her friend was right.
    Fortunately, she had just completed a home remodeling project, so she called her decorator and had her come to the store.
    “Within a week, she had drawings for me,” Hester says.
    She also got lucky because, by watching Facebook Marketplace, she found a boutique in a high-end neighborhood that was going out of business, and everything was for sale – fixtures and beautiful, white cabinetry.
    “I bought it all, this new custom-built cabinetry; I got such a great deal,” she says.
    From there, she built other cabinets that would match and added a new coffee bar area at the back of the shop. Rather than replacing all the carpet, which would have been excessively expensive, she opted to replace some of it with ‘fake’ wood in the entry way and added large area rugs. She also lightened up the place by repainting the burgundy walls with a soft cream color. A new, brighter, softer feel was the result.
    “I’m 100% glad I did it,” she says. “I was grateful that someone was brutally honest with me.”

A Bright Future
    Aurora Bridal has come far from its humble roots as a consignment shop/partial bridal shop, and it is all due to the perseverance of a young girl on the cusp of high school graduation, filled with big dreams.
    Today, Hester maintains a staff of four stylists, as well as her seamstress, who has been with her for 26 years. She has moved, remodeled and redecorated, brought in new lines, taken advantage of the internet, connected with a group of likeminded business people, come up with creative merchandising strategies, and continues to learn everything she can about the bridal industry.
    Now, she’s one of the experts.
    Owning a bridal salon has met all of Hester’s expectations and more, even more than 25 years later.
    “I rode a bridal high for a long time; I love this business,” she says. “We all love to make brides happy; brides do give me joy.”
    In particular, she loves watching brides come in with one idea and then leave with something entirely different, a phenomenon that happens a lot.
    “I love watching that evolve as the appointment goes on,” she says, adding that the satisfaction of owning her own business contributes to her personal happiness quotient.
    In fact, nothing makes Hester happier than when someone recognizes her and says, “Oh, you did my wedding!” Or, “Your staff was wonderful!”
    When brides walk in the door, “I want people to feel like they’re being welcome into our home,” she says.