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."


Music
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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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