Studio Owners
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Odds are, there are families at your studio who are struggling financially. And if dance training ends up on their budget chopping block, doing what you can to keep students dancing doesn't just benefit them and their family, but your retention as a studio owner.

But how do you offer financial support without breaking your own bank? According to these owners, who have maintained sizable scholarship programs at their studios for decades, the key is setting clearly defined parameters for scholarship families and thinking creatively when it comes to funding.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Studio Owners
Students from Chasta Hamilton's training program, which she started after scrapping her competition team. Courtesy Chasta Hamilton

Odds are, you spent the majority of 2020 making lots of big changes at your studio—often in rapid succession—in response to the pandemic.

Now, you and your studio families are primed for any other major changes that come your way. And, you've established your ability to pivot quickly and keep your business moving forward.

What does that mean for 2021? As you continue to adapt in response to the ongoing pandemic, you also have the opportunity to revamp your studio in big ways: to finally let go of things you've always done but no longer serve you, or to implement new ideas you've been curious about but too scared to follow through with.

"Remind yourself: 'I'm a studio owner, and I pulled 2020 off. I still have a good chunk of my students, and my kids are happy whether we're virtual or live or both,'" says Rhee Gold, founder of the DanceLife Retreat Center and former studio owner. "Your parents are looking at you, thinking, 'Look at what this guy did—he pulled this off!'"

So what should you be thinking about changing, and how should you go about it? Gold and Chasta Hamilton, owner of Stage Door Dance Productions in Raleigh, North Carolina, have some ideas.

Don't worry about what sticks

Hamilton is focused on engineering creative programming as a way to make up for lost revenue—and not worrying too much about what doesn't last long-term. "Try things you haven't tried!" says Hamilton. "We've been throwing so much at the wall to see what sticks and what doesn't. In the past, it would always feel like a failure to have to cancel something new, and that fear's been stripped away now." If a new programming attempt goes bust, it's not an indication that your studio is on the brink of failure—families understand, now more than ever, that your flexibility and readiness to adapt to each new phase of the pandemic are powerful assets.

Think beyond dance

Gold encourages owners to use this time to expand beyond dance instruction. "It's about being a new type of teacher—now you know that a talk with a group of kids is just as important as a one-hour warm-up or progressions," he says. "Bring in a nutritionist or psychologist who will help these kids deal with issues that are affecting them. This is an opportunity to teach self-esteem."

Gold, a middle-aged white man wearing a black patterned button down shirt and a jacket, both rolled up to his elbows, stands at a clear podium, speaking

Rhee Gold, photo courtesy Rhee Gold Company

Survey families often

Talk to your clients frequently to see where their interests lie, and then build programming around that feedback. That's how Hamilton decided to create a three-day-a-week pre-K experience called Perform, Learn, Play as well as a remote learning center, The Academy at Stage Door Dance, which have served to both meet parent needs and take advantage of daytime studio space to bring in new revenue.

Build on existing programs

You don't need to start everything from scratch. In the past at Stage Door Dance, studios were available to rent for birthday parties. "We recognize that large birthday parties are something people aren't comfortable doing right now, so we shifted that to playdates—themed opportunities for pods," she says. "Those have been very popular."

Hamilton has also kept a careful pulse on what's popular and used that as a programming springboard. "When Hamilton came out on Disney+ this summer, we did a Hamilton camp, and that eventually grew into a musical theater ensemble class," she says. "We just identified a passion that already existed within our student population."

Be bold in deciding what doesn't work

When Hamilton decided to dissolve her competition team a few years ago in favor of creating an intensive training program, she expected the fallout—initial enrollment losses, shock from her parents and even doubt from her staff. But she knew that focusing on community and collaboration, without the added pressure of competition fees and a trophy-driven mindset, would ultimately lead to a more meaningful dance experience for her most serious students. Her boldness paid off: "Even now, in the midst of COVID, our training program is larger than our competition team ever was," she says.

Hamilton, masked, sits an outdoor table, holding her book called "Trash the Trophies" and a sharpie. A young masked student stands on the other side of the table

Hamilton with the book she wrote about dissolving her competition team. Photo courtesy Hamilton

Rethink your pricing structure

Though the thought of raising tuition prices right now might give you pause, consider the added value you've generated for your clients over the last 10 months: the option to continue with online instruction until families feel ready to return in person; intensive cleaning and sanitization measures; customized recital experiences; even on-demand makeup classes. You've worked tirelessly to make sure your students still have access to dance class, and all of that hard work can serve as a ready-made answer for any parents who question a tuition hike, says Gold.

Communication is key

Every savvy studio owner knows that the way you communicate big changes to your families is perhaps as important as the changes themselves. Gold suggests being confident, up front and decisive about your plans with your clients—don't pussyfoot or solicit opinions.

"You need to believe in what you're about to do and tell parents you're doing it," he says. "If I go to my parents and say, 'Geez, I was thinking of bringing in a psychologist to talk to the kids, but I'm not sure—are you all comfortable with that?', there's no way it'll happen. But if I say, 'I have a friend who is a psychologist who knows dance, and she's going to come in and talk to the kids—it'll be good for the soul', how can a parent argue?"

To avoid encountering resistance from parents, Hamilton encourages owners to always take the time to explain the why behind your decisions. "This helps achieve accountability to your brand standard, too," she says. If you do receive pushback, she recommends approaching parents with empathy and a willingness to listen but, like Gold, cautions owners not to come across as wishy-washy. "Be confident in the choices you're making," says Hamilton. Across the board, she says, a proactive, consistent and calm approach to communication—with your students, families and even staff—will establish trust in your leadership abilities and lead to a decrease in conflict and toxicity.

Hamilton also advises owners to regularly share positive feedback they've received with parents, especially if it's about changes you've implemented. "When you get really great feedback, embrace it and share it—it's good for morale," she says. "It's easy to say, 'I had five kids quit last week,' but you can also say: 'I have this other child whose parent says I changed their life forever." You'll transmit the message that your studio is here to stay, pandemic or not, and parents will trust that any changes you implement are made with your studio's future in mind.

Studio Owners

Courtesy Santa Barbara Dance Arts

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."

A large tent in a parking lot with a dance floor underneath. Strings of lights are strung across the top, and it is surrounded by a fence.

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.

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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