Alana Tillim had an inkling early in the pandemic. "I've always had a gut feeling that this was going to be a very long haul," she recalls. And unlike us pie-in-the-sky dreamers—who never imagined we'd still be operating on Zoom almost 10 months later—the 23-year veteran business owner of Santa Barbara Dance Arts (SBDA) was, unfortunately, right.
Located in central California, SBDA is a 9,000-square-foot studio serving 1,000 students ages 3 and up and offering classes for children and adults, teen performance companies and competition teams. In normal times, SBDA also operates a small dance retail shop and café, and rents space to wedding and birthday parties. After the initial shutdown of nonessential businesses and a pivot to online classes, Tillim's team worked diligently to secure county approval to reopen indoor classes beginning in June.
Two months later, however, SBDA announced it would be moving its remaining summer operations outside, to a makeshift space in the parking lot—the constant work of adapting to and clarifying the county officials' often confusing and contradictory policies regarding indoor activities became too much. But a simple piece of marley on concrete wasn't good for dancers' bodies, nor was it appealing to new clientele. That's when Tillim did some math, hired a contractor and set a new plan in motion. "I was watching people spend all this money on rickety tents and immediately wanted to invest in building something more permanent. Short-term I knew it would help during COVID, and long-term, it could be this extra space that we desperately needed to meet demand."
Courtesy Santa Barbara Dance Arts
She verified with her landlord that no extra permit would be required to build in the parking lot, and in a matter of weeks, they'd installed a sprung floor with a sturdy tented structure drilled into the ground (think: immovable big-top style, not pop-up tailgate tent) and privacy fencing.
SBDA's permanent outdoor studio officially opened August 17, and Tillim welcomed students back to the 2020–21 school year through a hybrid of online and in-person outdoor classes. Indoor classes began in early October, but as cases started to rise again, California's Governor Newsom announced a second shutdown of nonessential businesses on November 16. This time, however, SBDA was ready—and Tillim has continued operations outdoors (and online) without skipping a beat. Dance Teacher spoke to Tillim the next day.
Building an outdoor studio must have been a big undertaking. What made you confident it was the way to go?
At first, I just wanted my students to have a safe outdoor floor to dance on. But as I looked at the expenses of rental tents to put over the floor, I realized that if I invested in a permanent structure, it would allow me to monetize the space into the future. Before the shutdown, we were really struggling with full classes.
What were the cost differences between renting and building?
I will preface this by saying that the price of construction plywood is really volatile right now, and where my studio is located, in Santa Barbara—a destination wedding site—rentals may be more expensive than in other communities. But for a 45-by-40–foot tent, I was staring at $2,000 a month. I was able to build my own tent for about $14,000. We built the floor—plywood with a Masonite surface and carpet padding—for $6,000.
Are there other costs to consider?
We put construction fencing around the studio as well as around our parking lot for an added layer of security. And it was a couple hundred dollars to hire an electrician—we hung twinkle lights to make it sort of magical in there, and we have a few propane heaters, and an outdoor front desk that needed electricity and internet. Even after 23 years, building everything from scratch makes me feel like I'm back in year zero. But you can't forget the man-power costs associated with having to set up and take down six pop-up tents and modular flooring every time it rains.
Still, $20,000 is a big investment.
Well, the way I see it is if you take $20,000 and divide it by 12 months—I'll be paying about $500 a month for three years. In planning I said, 'If I just put a couple of students out there a month for the next three years, I'll cover my bases.' And now, the space is full throttle from 2:30 pm to 7:30 pm. We've also been doing classes out there in the morning for toddlers and custom classes for homeschooled kids, and have been able to rent out the space to community fitness instructors during off-peak times.
How did you finance the studio?
We applied for an EIDL (economic injury disaster loan) and we did get PPP funding for payroll, which allowed us to invest in what was needed and be able to pay my staff.
Are you seeing a return on your investment?
Our enrollment numbers are down 40 percent overall, but the outdoor studio has saved us completely. Our profit isn't down as much as our numbers, which was by design. We've made sure decisions, filled the classes we have and lost the classes that weren't thriving. We just don't have the bench strength to keep a four-kid class anymore. Every class we have needs to be close to capacity, and that will help us generate the revenue to pay this off sooner than planned.
Was canceling those underperforming classes a hard customer service pill to swallow?
There are those on my team who like offering classes at requested times regardless of size—and they are the ones who have to break the news to parents. But I'm the numbers person. And I think one thing that COVID will bring is the buy-in from my team to see that we can be down and still do OK—if we watch our profit. So, what if when we're successful, we also watch our profit? That means more bonuses, more opportunities for raises. I think that when we come out of COVID, we will all be more financially shrewd. My mentor always said success hides failure. And I think that those of us who went into COVID doing well are thinking, 'Wow, I could have been doing better.' I could have been more shrewd, not afraid to say no, and made tougher decisions.
You're lucky to be in Santa Barbara, temperature-wise—but you did mention rain.
We had bad storms last week. Our tent is drilled into the concrete, and while one little strap came loose, we tied it back and came out unscathed. There was also a little bit of moisture that got under the carpet, but that's something we figured would happen. We're talking to different contractors to get advice on how to maintain it with sandbags and such. One thing to think about is to build your floor slightly smaller than your tent, so that way rain can run off and splash and not affect the floor as much. My goal is that the tent stays up for the long run. I know we'll need to replace the floor in time—but just like an indoor studio, you have to do that as well.
Before the new shutdown, were you holding classes outside as well as indoors?
We'd built a fall schedule for two scenarios—one for outdoor and Zoom operations and one for indoor. We had 21 classes a week outdoors on the regular schedule of more than 80 classes. But in preparation for the possibility of another shutdown, we primarily used the space for privates or pop-ups—things we knew that could be canceled, rescheduled or moved online at a moment's notice to get our most dedicated kiddos outside again and not on Zoom the entire time. Now, we have six classes a week that had been indoors and that we've moved outdoors as a thank-you for staying with us.
For the students who were outdoors but now on Zoom, what's the plan?
I'd like to offer them some sort of credit or equivalent. Ultimately it will be up to the fiscal health of the company. Our policies state that no matter what class you're in, and no matter what you're paying, you may be on Zoom for a certain portion of the year and there is no remuneration for that. But I like to under-promise and over-deliver. One thing to consider is if you don't have language built into your policies to protect you in these cases, check in with your attorney. You can always update your terms and conditions. I mean, think of how many times iTunes sends us alerts of its terms updating.
How do you see the space being used post-COVID?
We'll utilize it as a seventh studio, especially during peak times, either for regular classes and/or for private lessons. We will also continue to fill the down- or lower-peak times with rentals for community artists, or fitness or yoga instructors and dance and theater companies.
I think part of the reason we've been so successful in the last 23 years is because we're always innovating, and our outdoor studio feels like an extension of that.