5 Mistakes That Could Be Holding Your Studio Back (Plus Some Quick and Easy Fixes)

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Running a studio can be a major juggling act. You have to stay on top of the big things, like paying rent on time and chasing after delinquent payments, and track the details, like replacing that blinking lightbulb and sending out a snowstorm alert. No surprise, then, that a few things slip through the cracks—costing you money or students. Here, some savvy studio owners talk about five common but often unnoticed mistakes, and what to do about them. Pay attention to these, and you'll find yourself with more time, clients and revenue on your hands.


Letting e-mail become a time sink

Are you checking it constantly? Feel overwhelmed with responding to queries, often from parents, about subjects you've already gone over or regularly update on your studio's website? Just For Kix executive director Cindy Clough has a solution. For the first half of the day, she only checks her e-mail in the early morning and once again before lunch. “Constantly checking it interrupts my creative plans and takes me off in a different direction," she says. She actively encourages parents to be self-sufficient, reminding them to always check the website first for answers, rather than shooting her an e-mail. With the high school dance team she coaches, Clough asks parents to check with their daughters first to find answers, or with fellow parents. “I ask them to save my time for their more important questions—if their child has an injury or illness, or [is dealing with a] divorce," she says. “What time practice is or the bus leaves, they can find out from each other."

Keep in mind: You don't want your e-mail to build up. Clough challenges herself to “touch things once": When she opens an e-mail that requires a decision—making a donation, deciding on a date—she tackles it immediately. “If you open it but don't respond," she says, “you just have to read it again later, and that's wasting time."

Using online registration as a crutch

If you offer registration via your studio website, make sure you aren't losing clients by neglecting in-person registration. One day Kathy Morrow, director of Dance Du Coeur in Sugar Land, Texas, overheard a front desk staffer directing a new client to the studio's website to register, rather than offering to do it over the phone. “I thought, 'You had a fish on the hook—why didn't you walk them through it?'" she says. “I felt we'd lost the personal touch we started with. When you register, there are a lot of boxes to check off. Some people want to pay with a check, some to link to a credit card. We can make it easier by answering any questions directly."

Keep in mind: “Customer service is the most important thing we deliver to people," says Morrow. “I want people's first experience with us to be nice and easy, to start a conversation and get to know them." Emphasize to potential clients that your studio offers several ways to register. At Dance Du Coeur, parents can do it over the phone, via the website or even by coming into the studio and using a computer there, which has been set up for clients to create an account and log in.

Allowing credit card fees to eat away at profits

Three years ago, studio owner Misty Lown started noticing that the competitions she registered her students for had begun adding an extra fee if she paid with a credit card. After confirming that this trend existed in several other local businesses—her nail salon, for instance—Lown began adding a 3.5 percent fee to tuition payments if parents paid with a credit card, to cover the bank fees. Since implementing this fee at her Onalaska, Wisconsin, studio, Misty's Dance Unlimited, Lown has seen very little push-back from parents. A bonus: Payment delinquency has virtually disappeared. Now parents like to pay before the due date with cash or a check to avoid the merchant processing fee that would be added if payment went through on their on-file credit card.

Keep in mind: Check your state laws to see if adding a fee is legal where you're located. Currently, 10 states (including California and New York) don't allow merchants to add one. Also, look for ways to address credit card fees that don't feel like punishment to your clients: If these fees are a significant cost for your business, consider folding them into your tuition prices studiowide. And always give clients options. “People can pay with the card we have on file, or we can deduct the amount directly from their bank account at no extra cost," says Lown. “Or they can come in and pay in advance with cash or a check. [Studio owners] who get push-back on changes are the ones who lay it down like law. We come at it with a service approach."

Letting leftover recital programs gather dust

Do you have boxes of leftover recital programs sitting in your office or basement? Put them to good use. At Create Dance Center in Massapequa, New York, Elizabeth Swansen includes leftover recital books in her studio's recital packets the following year. “That way, people can see what business and personal ads look like," she says. “We keep a few up in the lobby, too, since the kids like to look through them." Last year, Swansen hung old framed recital program covers on a studio wall as a fun, through-the-years display. Studio owner Doreen Rafferty gives her leftover Academy of Dance Arts books to dancewear stores in her Brookfield, Connecticut, area. Shoppers love to thumb through the books while they wait. “It's free advertising," says Rafferty.

Keep in mind: Avoid the issue altogether by ordering an accurate number of program books at recital time. Compare your numbers from previous years. “Knowing an approximate ticket sales number before printing programs," says Rafferty, “can make estimating easier."

Not delegating

Have you heard yourself say, once too often, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself"? Overextending yourself because of perfectionism or a misguided need to control can be counterproductive. By creating choreography, teaching, bookkeeping, cleaning, making phone calls, typesetting, doing payroll, mailings and ordering, you could be leaving no time for the very things that will create your best business. Lown decided to delegate all the teaching at her studio. “Giving up teaching was super-hard," she says, “but it's the best decision I ever made. Whenever I was teaching, it meant I never saw the other five classrooms that were operating during that time. Now I can rotate my time checking on classrooms and interacting with students."

Keep in mind: Take the time to honestly assess what you're best at and what you struggle with. Lown knew she was a good teacher and a competent choreographer, but she really shined when it came to business strategy, coaching teachers and creating programs. “If I don't delegate most of the teaching and choreography," she says, “I won't have any time for the things I am uniquely gifted to do."


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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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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.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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