Dance Business Weekly

6 Steps to Protect Your Business—Before a Disaster Strikes

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It's not just tornadoes and hurricanes. Even everyday disasters—a failed server, burst pipes, a fire—can cripple a small business. Use these advance-planning steps so you'll be able to jump into action when you need to—and keep your business thriving.

When Jayne DiPierro relocated her Staten Island, NY, store On Your Toes Dancewear, her reason wasn't to avoid damage from hurricanes—she was expanding into a bigger space. But as it happens, when Hurricane Sandy blew in, the new store was in a safer neighborhood and suffered no flooding. Even so, like many local businesses, DiPierro's business was closed for five days because of power outages.

"Small businesses are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster," says Carol Chastang, spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Assistance. "Many don't come back." A disaster-preparedness plan can help, but three out of four small businesses don't have one, according to a Symantec study. This is a short-sighted and costly mistake because the more quickly you get your business up and running again, the less revenue and the fewer customers you'll lose.

Here's what disaster and insurance experts have to say about protective steps your small business should take now—before disaster strikes—so that you can jump into action should you ever need to.


1. Think about how your business might be vulnerable.

It's human nature to become complacent as memories of tornadoes or hurricanes fade, but what is the likelihood of a natural disaster in your region? There are many resources available to help you figure that out. AT&T has a fact sheet listing the states most affected by different types of natural disasters. Or to identify common hazards in your region, you can plug in your zip code at the Institute of Business and Home Safety website. (The site also has tools and information on protecting your property against them.) Flood risks change from year to year and FEMA's floodzone maps are always being updated. Go to floodsmart.gov or ask your insurance agent about the neighborhood where your business is located. Brainstorm about day-to-day hazards, too: the sprinkler system of the upstairs tenant that could flood your store, for instance.

2. Review your insurance with your agent.

"One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is that they don't buy the right type of insurance and often have gaps in their coverage," says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. Ask: Do I have enough insurance to rebuild my store or studio and replace all of my merchandise and possessions? What perils am I covered for? For instance, flood insurance is not included in standard business policies. It is available from the federal National Flood Insurance Program and a few private insurance companies, and covers up to $500,000 on property and $500,000 on contents. It takes effect only after a 30-day waiting period.

Don't forget business interruption insurance, and be sure you understand exactly what it covers. For instance, are you still covered for loss of income caused by a peril that you're covered for, even if that peril doesn't damage your particular space? You should also ask if you're covered for expenses, above and beyond normal operating costs, to keep your business open, such as renting a generator, or loss of income due to damage to the property of your suppliers or customers. "Make sure the business interruption policy limits are sufficient to cover your company for more than a few days," says Worters. "After a major disaster, it can take more time than people anticipate to get a business back on track." Power outages are the most common disaster. Would you be covered if a flooded power station caused an outage and kept you from opening your business, even though your business hadn't been flooded? These are just a few examples: the key is to go over in detail various scenarios with your insurance agent.

3. Back up your computers regularly and keep a copy of critical financial and other business records in another location.

Follow the 3, 2, 1 rule: Make three copies, on two different media (for example, DVD, hard-drive or remote server) and keep one copy off-site. (With recent disasters being more widespread, you may want to have a backup disk some distance away. It can be as simple as sending it to a trusted relative in another state.) Subscription services like Carbonite automatically back up your files in the cloud. Programs like Mac Time Machine will back up your entire system, including apps. Insurance policies and deeds tend to still be paper documents. Keep them in a separate location, and scan them to a backup disk.

4. Develop a business continuity plan.

Think about the critical and time-sensitive business functions you need for the day-to-day running of your store, and what kind of contingency plans you could put in place to maintain them. You might decide, for instance, that it makes sense to establish a small e-commerce website, from which you could sell basics to keep some revenue flowing in (and customers satisfied) should the physical store be closed. You'd need inventory, of course, so storing some products at another location could be considered. Where could you do business? Perhaps you could make an arrangement with a dance studio to temporarily use a small space to deliver product to customers, in return for a discount to that studio's students. Having to close for even a week can hurt a business badly so it's important to think about these issues.

Appoint one person on your staff as communication point person. Have them establish and keep current a contact list of critical people to your business: financial advisors, vendors, suppliers, customers; set up a phone tree for employees; set up and use Twitter and other social media for crisis communications. Communicating clearly and accurately is critical during a disaster. If your store or studio is boarded up while you reconstruct, it's important to let customers know that you're on course to reopen on a specific date, and to quickly correct rumors that you've closed down for good.

5. Make yourself a disaster-help resources list—before you need it.

If you wanted a generator for a week or two, do you know where would you could get it? Does it make sense to open an account with the company now? What secure storage facilities could you use to temporarily shelter some of your inventory? How about temporary space for a pop-up shop? Government disaster assistance for businesses comes in the form of loans, not grants. For instance, the Small Business Administration disaster office offers physical disaster loans up to $2 million to cover repair or replacement of uninsured or under-insured property, equipment, inventory and fixtures, and economic injury loans to meet operating expenses like rent that the business would have normally have been able to cover. You can apply online or call 800-659-2955. Local and state governments also have programs. Identify those relevant to your store and location, and record details of what they offer, contact information, how to apply (online? 800 number) and what documents you'll need to have on hand.

6. Start your disaster preparedness today.

"We're all really busy," says Chastang, "but in the stress of a disaster, it helps to have a recovery action checklist in hand and to have spent a little time once a month rehearsing how you would exercise your disaster contingency plan. It's in your blood, then, and you just go into action."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"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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"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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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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