Looking back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's clear that owners rallied admirably to shift in-person offerings to online—with very little time or support, in most cases. At the very least, your studio families have gained confidence in your ability to bounce back from any emergency.
"Our studio has navigated all of this with grit and grace," says Misty Lown, owner of Misty's Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, and More Than Just Great Dancing!, an affiliation of 250-plus studios. "If they have confidence in the way we handled this, they'll have confidence that we can handle any future challenges."
Now that the initial panic-induced flurry of activity has died down, it's a good time to survey how your studio fared—what worked, what needs more finesse, what you want to keep post-pandemic—and then make plans accordingly.
Here's what worked well for these three studios:
A Zoom "tech" week
After a week devoted to organizing online classes, Lown held an online tech week, which allowed her staff to work out any kinks and reassure parents that the transition would be a smooth one. (It was an optional week for students.) "That was really important when it came to managing expectations with parents," she says. "When things went wrong that week, they expected that."
Adjusted class time lengths
"We made all of our classes, especially for younger kids, a little bit shorter, by 15 to 30 minutes," says Jeannette P. Van Haverbeke, company director at her mother Jeanne G. Pecot's school, Off Broadway Dance Studio, in New Orleans. "We didn't have the lapse in time you might have in the studio, where students are asking to go to the bathroom, say."
"As soon as we knew about government financial assistance—before we could even apply for it—my business partner and I were talking to our bankers," says Mary Elizabeth Alfonso, who co-owns Alfonso Academy, a studio with 100 students, in Miramar, Florida. "Once the government released that funding to the banks, if you had a strong relationship with your banker, it was less of a complication for your loan to be processed."
Special programming for graduating seniors
"When we initially laid out all of our plans, it was really focused toward younger children," says Lown. "Our older kids saw those plans and didn't really see themselves." Lown created a few special events for them—some of them surprises. "We put signs in their yards," she says. "We gave them 20 Easter eggs, for the class of 2020, with quotes and notes inside to encourage them." Lown also held a senior night with a big group dance spread out in the studio parking lot, and gave graduating dancers the chance to perform their solos in front of their families and a livestream on the studio's in-house stage.
Lown refers to the transfer of in-person classes to an online format as compensatory service—"something that approximates what they originally purchased," she says. What really kept her families engaged was what she terms "exceptional experiences." This translated into themed weeks (pajama weeks, wear-your-old-costume weeks), Zoom parent-and-family chats, and a partnership with a local studio to offer yoga for families. Alfonso upgraded her studio's CLI membership, so students could have more online class opportunities. "We also started a blog where students could post journal entries and share improvisation tasks," she says. "We created a Marco Polo channel for fun, as a place to share dance videos and fun social-media posts. We wanted the kids to stay connected."
"The number-one barrier to signing back up for class right now is not having flexibility in service continuity," says Lown. This fall, she's offering five different ways for students to take class. "We polled our parents, and their class-taking preferences fell in a bell-curve distribution," she says. Though most families said they would prefer in-person instruction, some requested private and semiprivate lessons; some asked for synchronous online classes; and some asked for asynchronous online classes, to be viewed on their own time. Contingency plans will assure families that you are prepared for multiple scenarios. "If we have to start classes earlier in August and end in November to avoid a second wave of COVID, we will," says Van Haverbeke. "We'll have smaller classes if we need to, with each class offered more frequently."
When confronted with unanswerable queries from parents (Will competitions happen as planned? Will online classes be required again at some point in the fall?), respond honestly—even if that means admitting you don't have all of the answers. You can always reassure them that you will do everything you can to protect their best interests. "People are asking us right now how we're planning to keep our studio and students safe," says Van Haverbeke. "So we send them the entire list of things we're just considering doing: temperature checks, keeping 10 gallons of hand sanitizer in the studio, drawing boxes on the floor to separate the dancers, mandating handwashing."
New revenue streams
"We're considering offering virtual Mommy & Me daytime dance class in the fall," says Van Haverbeke, even if all other classes are in-person. n Makeup class options Studios occasionally have to close for emergencies—snow days, wildfire smoke days, even days when a teacher gets sick at the last minute and it's impossible to find a substitute. Online classes offer an easy makeup option.
Alternate delivery systems
"That first weekend of stay-at-home orders, we went to the studio, organized all of the costumes and did a drive-by pickup," says Van Haverbeke. "We might do it every year. It's so difficult to give out costumes during class and constantly have to remind the students not to open them."
Clear commitment language
"We're putting new phrasing into our student contracts," says Alfonso, to make it explicit that tuition will not be refunded or discounted if classes must continue online instead of in person.