Studio Owners

How Studios Are Adapting—and Excelling—During COVID-19

Sacramento Ballet began offering online classes to its SB School students on April 1. Photo by Scott Beckner, courtesy of Sacramento Ballet

On Wednesday, March 11—two weeks ahead of a statewide stay-at-home mandate—Colorado Conservatory of Dance executive director Richard Cowden and artistic director Julia Wilkinson Manley made the difficult decision to take all of CCD's classes online. As you'd expect, it wasn't easy. "This chapter in our future book will be called 'The 96 Hours From Hell,'" says Cowden, laughing, who joined the Broomfield-based nonprofit and its conservatory program of 200 students in 2018. "Over four days, we got together with our staff and faculty, all hands on deck, and launched our entire conservatory of classes online." You've probably done something similar at your own studio, scrambling to orient yourself and your staff with a video-conferencing platform (like Zoom, a popular choice among owners) for classes, as sweeping stay-at-home orders preclude in-person instruction.

COVID-19 continues to disrupt daily life as we know it, which means the state of your studio has been evolving often and rapidly. But regardless of what lies ahead, the skills you're learning as you pivot your business from in-person to online will come in handy again, no matter the crisis you're facing. We've compiled COVID-19-specific advice from the leadership of four studios and schools, in an effort to help you communicate and operate as effectively—and thriftily, and smoothly, and normally—as possible.

Keep It Positive

In your communications with parents and students, keep your outlook positive and emphasize the normalcy of what you're offering. "We're coming at it from an angle of 'This is an amazing opportunity. We're excited to keep you active and fit while you're home!'" says Hillary Parnell, who runs the Academy for the Performing Arts in Apex, North Carolina, with up to 1,000 students. "There is no doom and gloom in our messaging." Consider offering your dance family some lighter fare, too—sharing uplifting or humorous videos on your social media. "The first thing we did was put some stuff out there that's lighter in mood," says Amy Seiwert, artistic director of Sacramento Ballet, which began offering online classes to its SB School students on April 1. "We shared part of a short ballet we do that's funny."

"Our approach was normalcy," says Manley. "We wanted to keep our kids feeling like they have the same schedule, the same classes, the same expectations." With a business-(almost)-as-usual approach, you'll reassure families that instruction will continue, and parents will remember your investment in their kids' dance education long after COVID-19 is over.

"We said, 'Our commitment as a studio is to give you more, not less," says Joe Naftal, marketing director of Dance Connection, run by Mary Naftal, in Islip, New York. "We want to keep your kids engaged. We want parents to feel they're getting the value of their tuition—to buy into our brand, to see the value of our studio."

Try not to give in to the temptation to hammer home glum if-then financial scenarios with your families. "What we didn't do was overtly threaten our own shutdown and extinction," says Cowden. "There was no mention in our messaging of, 'If you don't stay with us, then we're screwed.'" Parnell reports seeing studio owners pushing out less positive messaging online. "I've seen Facebook Lives where the owner is crying, saying, 'I'm sorry to disappoint my customers and kids,'" she says. Remember that by continuing to offer dance instruction online, you're keeping students active and engaged. "Kids are bored out of their minds right now," says Parnell. "We're offering them the world!"

Make Every Dollar Count

Now is the time to cut expenses, if you can—sensibly. "Go through your profit and loss and monthly credit card statements," says Naftal, to see what can you let go of. "Ask for a discount from every vendor that you can." (Keep in mind that you'll likely need to take on new expenses, too: "We don't have to clean the studio, but now we're spending $700 a month on technology," says Naftal.) Consider offering families the chance to register and pay now for next fall, as a revenue boost. "We're offering a pay-it-forward thing to some of our students," says Seiwert. "If they want to pay for next year now, they can lock in a particular rate. That's helped some income come in."

Cowden reports that, perhaps surprisingly, CCD's enrollment hasn't suffered too much. "When we sent out that first e-mail to our families about studio closure and going online, we saw an initial drop in tuition and enrollment—people panicked and withdrew," says Cowden. "But it wasn't very many. Primarily it was at low age levels—parents of 4-year-olds, after all, were dropping their kids off and taking an hour to regain their sanity, whereas online classes require more hands on deck."

If you haven't already, avail yourself of federal small-business relief—specifically, the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan to cover payroll, or a low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loan. As overwhelming as it may feel to keep up with such a rapidly changing business landscape, it's important that you stay informed and operate proactively. "The school side of CCD, for all intents and purposes, functions like a for-profit would," says Cowden. "I'm approaching it as if I were a small-business owner: What relief is out there for me? My whole approach is to try and mitigate loss of revenue by increased contributed or granted income somewhere else." Be vocal about your business' needs with your state representatives, urges Naftal. "Call your Congressperson and say, 'We need government help. This is the relief we need,'" he says.

Think Outside the Box

Your classes, of course, are transforming rapidly, now that instruction is happening online. Don't be afraid to reach deep into your dance teacher's bag of tricks. "In our classes, we're doing more conditioning and less centerwork. We're supplementing classes with dance history, talking about what we keep in our dance bags and why, and teaching how to do that perfect French twist," says Seiwert. "We're doing a Zoom watch party with the kids' school show that happened in January. The students' ability to connect and see each other is just as important as anything else."

Transitioning your classes to a purely online space is also a chance to reevaluate other parts of your business that may be affected by this virus—and not necessarily in a negative way. "It's an opportunity to innovate and think about your business model," says Cowden. "We're developing infrastructure to deliver courses in a really cool way, so how can we broaden our reach to underserved populations?" Seiwert reports that Sacramento Ballet is seeing a resurgence of former students taking class, now that instruction is online. "We've had a lot of people join us who we haven't seen in years, all across the globe," she says. "Normally, they don't have access to us. So how do we use this opportunity to bring others back into our fold? Can we do that year-round?"

As recital season nears, you'll need to start thinking creatively around it, too. "I'm not really that worried about the recital—we'll figure something out," says Parnell. "If it's in August, and the teachers do the dances onstage with the students, that's fine—after all, we're in a global pandemic."

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