Studio Owners

Why Now’s the Time to Make Big Changes at Your Studio

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.

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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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