Tighten your belt without choking your business.
Los Gatos Ballet director Marcie Ryken cuts recital expenses to fund outreach programs.
When Christopher Lynn, managing director of Ballet Conservatory of Asheville in Asheville, NC, opened the studio with his wife Angie three years ago, he learned fast that the costs involved with running a studio and doing a full-length ballet production pile up quickly.
“Between the backstage help, the sets, costumes and crew…it was more than we thought,” he says.
Like Lynn, other studio owners have found ways to make the most of their budgets—from modifying production spending to changing advertising strategies to be more effective. Here, Lynn and two other directors share how they’ve cut expenses and increased their bottom lines.
Ballet Conservatory of Asheville
When the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville first opened its doors, owners Christopher and Angie Lynn wore many hats. In addition to running and scheduling dance classes, the two did the bookkeeping, cleaning and all the odds and ends necessary to keep up the studio.
“We tried to do everything ourselves, but it grew too quickly, and we didn’t have the energy to do it all and still take our children out for dinner,” Christopher Lynn says. “We needed to find a way to get the work done that didn’t hurt our bottom line.”
Their solution? Bartering.
“We ended up having a parent with a cleaning service take on that responsibility in exchange for classes,” he says. “We have another parent who is a painter, one who does renovations.”
Thanks to the trades, the studio has been painted inside and out, the roof has been fixed and the Lynns have had more time to concentrate on the artistic aspects of running a studio.
“In some ways, bartering has us all more involved and committed to each other,” Lynn says. “We get to know the parents well and that’s important to us.”
Sometimes the parents will seek the deals out, while other times the Lynns will learn of a skill and offer the deal themselves. “Through our student connections we have a videographer, a couple of professional photographers, even a parent who works for a local CD-pressing company,” Lynn says. “Last year a very good photographer shot each of our three productions, attending at least one rehearsal and several performances. He also photographed dancers for advertising shots, showcases and our annual recitals—all in trade for free classes for his 7-year-old daughter, which would have cost him $700.”
When bartering, the Ballet Conservatory estimates the value of the services they’ll receive to keep the per-hour equivalent for the trade fair for both parties involved. They are currently creating a list of projects so that parents can trade in times of need.
“For some services, we just agree to pay them like a vendor and let them pay for their classes. This allows us to easily write off the services as business expenses for tax purposes,” Lynn says. “We usually barter for tuition only, and ask families to still pay for tickets and other fees. I believe people value the service more when they pay at least something for it.”
Susan L. Smith
New England School of Dance
Having been in business since 1986, New England School of Dance owner Susan L. Smith knows the value of advertising. After all, a good ad can bring in students or attract a full house to an upcoming recital.
“The biggest thing that I have changed over the years is the money spent on advertising, but I didn’t stop. I just alternatively advertised through social media and by using Facebook ads,” Smith says.
Over the past two years, Smith has spent $1,200 on Facebook ads, and although she’s not exactly sure of the return, she does know that it brings a great deal of people to her website. “It creates awareness, which is just as important,” she says.
Smith also saves money by taking over work she had once contracted out. She estimates she saves nearly $10,000 a year by taking on certain cleaning and administrative duties herself. “When you own a studio, you really have to do a lot of the cleaning and office work yourself,” she says. “My time is very much taken up by my business, and as I get older I find I am doing less teaching and more administrative work.” She uses QuickBooks for accounting, and she enlists a little help from her daughter to ensure things run smoothly.
She has also saved by cutting down on the number of backdrops she rents for the end-of-year productions, dropping from four to two. The shows might not be as elaborate, she says, but it allows the money to be used for other expenses, including the rental cost of the theater.
Los Gatos Ballet
Los Gatos, CA
“This is our 10th year in business, and we have managed to save by collaborating with other organizations for some of our bigger productions,” says Marcie Ryken, owner of Los Gatos Ballet in Los Gatos, CA. “It’s definitely helped us.”
Each year, Ryken’s studio joins forces with the nonprofit San Jose Dance Theatre for The Nutcracker, which she says has helped the studio grow while keeping costs down. Ryken directs, chooses a cast from open auditions and provides the artistic staff and some costumes, while SJDT provides the theater and takes care of production costs.
Ryken has also kept a sharp eye out for other arts programs in the area interested in trading or unloading old sets.
“Schools are a great resource because their theater departments often have great sets and props that they sometimes just get rid of,” she says. For instance, Los Gatos Ballet was going to have to spend a lot of money to build a carriage for a recent production of Cinderella, but Ryken learned of a nearby school that had one and was open to sharing.
“We probably would have spent about $500–$600 in materials, with an estimated 60–80 hours in labor,” she says. “We still spent about $100 in materials to paint and add lighting, but in the long run, it helped a great deal.”
Ryken allocates extra money like this toward the programs she feels need to expand, including her artist-in-residence programs, outreach and performance and educational opportunities for her students. DT
Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia. Photo by George Sakkestad