Studio Business: 10 Things to Think About at the End of the Year

The holidays can make this time of year fly by. But busy studio directors know that December isn’t the time to rest on their laurels. “I’m constantly thinking of what’s coming up next,” says Jill Athridge, owner of Stage Door Studios in Sarasota, Florida. “I always say I’m an event planner—running a studio is a series of continuous events.”

We’ve compiled a checklist of things to consider this December, to give your business a year-end boost you might not know it needs. Trying all 10 would be overwhelming, but some of these ideas (or their shortcut versions) may inspire you.

1 Be a gratitude goddess. Athridge shows appreciation for her staff by holding two separate holiday parties at her home, one for her faculty and one for her student assistants. The staff party is catered, and she invites her teachers to include their significant others. Everyone brings a cheap gift to play White Elephant. “It’s a good ice breaker for the significant others you might not know, and everybody fights over the gifts,” she says. Athridge also gives out gift cards and baskets.

For her assistant party, she orders pizza or her husband grills burgers. She asks the students to bring White Elephant gifts and gives them personalized presents, like tree ornaments with the studio’s logo on them or specially printed studio shirts.

The “Too Long; Didn’t Read” Version: Write individualized thank-you notes. Athridge starts writing hers in November. “I don’t want it to be, ‘Thanks so much, Love, Jill,’” she says. “I have a staff of 17, so I try to write one or two a day. It’s more heartfelt, and they don’t sound the same.”

2 Show your website some love. Still have photos from seven years ago scrolling across your homepage? Swap them out for more recent ones. Raised your tuition? Update your pricing page. Embed the video from Nationals you’ve been dying to show off, upload bios for your staff or finally install the plug-in to include your social-media buttons.

TL;DR Keep your social-media platforms humming along through the holidays—with minimal upkeep—by scheduling posts with a social-media management program like Hootsuite or Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Tiered plans offer auto-scheduling on a number of social-media profiles at once.

3 Give your dancers a chance to shine. Don’t make your students wait until June to show off what they’ve learned—institute a winter performance. Athridge partners with the Moscow Ballet to offer her students (and other local dancers) the chance to perform as party children, mice, snowflakes and angels over two shows of the Great Russian Nutcracker. Her studio also participates in a holiday community parade down Sarasota’s Main Street on the first Saturday in December.

TL;DR Don’t have the resources to coordinate a full-length ballet? Consider inviting parents and friends to the studio for an informal showing of what each class has been working on since the start of the school year.

4 Get the 411 on what parents think. Build a short questionnaire—10–15 questions—with an online survey-generating program like SurveyMonkey, asking parents for mid-year feedback on your studio, classes, teachers and schedule. You’ll get a feel for which areas need attention or improvement and have the second half of the studio year to implement changes.

TL;DR Having trouble getting parents to fill out your survey? Offer the chance to win a tuition credit for every family that completes your questionnaire.

5 Tackle renovations or DIY projects. Take advantage of your winter break by deep-cleaning or refinishing your floors or re-taping your marley. Install cubbies, paint your walls or reorganize your prop closet or storage facility.

TL;DR If you have work-study students who need to max out their hours before the end of the year, or if your high schoolers need to accrue service hours before the semester’s end, now’s the time to put them to work.

6 Gear up for January. “In January, I get 100 new students,” says Athridge. “It’s that group of people who wanted to do soccer in the fall, but once that’s done, they think, ‘Let’s do dance again!’” She doesn’t mind the surge of new students, mid-year, because they’ve participated in a similar way before, and they’re willing to pay any extra fees to have a costume shipped faster.

Athridge cultivates this seasonally loyal following of students by visiting nearby elementary schools and sponsoring an ice cream truck during open house week in the fall. “All of the kids get ice cream and see that it’s sponsored by Stage Door Studios,” she says. “I pass out flyers, and my teen helpers wear our shirts.”

TL;DR Gear your December marketing to dance newbies. “I’ll do a promotion where if you sign up for classes as your child’s Christmas gift, you’ll get a free pair of ballet shoes to put under the tree,” says Athridge.

7 Hold performance reviews. Mid-year staff evaluations will help you measure your employees’ progress and track their goals. Have each teacher fill out a form (ahead of time) asking questions like: What’s been working for you so far this year? What hasn’t, and how has your performance been affected? How were your talents recognized? What do you want to improve on? Take notes, discuss any issues that come up in conversation and keep criticism constructive.

TL;DR Arrange meetings easily with a scheduling tool like Doodle (doodle.com, plus a mobile app). You can poll your faculty for dates and times that work for them, share your own availability and even send automated meeting reminders.

8 Get your (paperwork) ducks in a row. The deadline to file and send your employees and contractors W–2 and 1099 forms is January 31, but if you close your studio the last two weeks of December—meaning your faculty receive their final 2016 paychecks before the end of the year—you can get a head start. Meet with your accountant to plan your taxes and what you can write off. You’ll need your balance sheet, profit-and-loss statement and cash flow statement, at the very least.

TL;DR Ditch the shoebox full of receipts (and get on your accountant’s good side) by keeping track of business expenses throughout the year with Expensify. The app scans and categorizes receipts and tracks mileage. Even if you lose a receipt, you can import a credit card transaction into Expensify, and the app will generate an IRS-guaranteed receipt for any purchases under $75.

9 Review your business processes. Do any of your business practices need updating? Automating a recurring process such as registration could save you time come next fall (or in January if you offer mid-year registration). Or maybe it’s time to make the switch to e-mail marketing (as opposed to relying solely on handouts sent home) with the help of an easy-to-use platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact.

TL;DR Install studio-management software and watch your business transform. You’ll be able to review receivables at a glance, collect tuition online, track attendance trends and even organize your recital sequence.

10 Recharge your batteries. Resist the urge to tackle every single item on your to-do wishlist (even this one!) and remember to take time for yourself. Studies show that performance levels increase after breaks—you’ll get more done in a shorter amount of time when you take the opportunity to recharge. Whether it’s a short vacation or a few days’ rest, it will go far to reignite your passion and enthusiasm for running a studio.

TL;DR Give yourself an at-home spa night. Light a few candles, pour some wine, play soothing music and bubble the bath. A DIY manicure and pedicure or face mask are simple ways to pamper yourself without leaving the privacy of your own bathroom. DT

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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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