Studio Owners
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If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

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Studio Owners
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Q: I have an amazing group of polite and dedicated dancers, but their moms are constantly at each other's throats. What's worse, they spend all of their time at the studio, stirring the pot. It really changes the mood here. What can I do to stop this?

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Dance Business Weekly
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Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

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Studio Owners
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Accountant Jessica Scheitler has a helpful phrase for the clients of her Las Vegas–based tax preparation business, Financial Groove—one she thinks they'll understand: Expense full-out. "It's the same as when you're at a convention, and you're supposed to dance full-out, as big and crazy as possible," she explains. In the world of tax preparation, it means handing over all your studio business receipts, rather than cherry-picking what seems appropriate or "right."

There are a few other things she'd like from her clients as well—so we made a list. Use it to impress your accountant this year (and make their job a little easier).

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Studio Owners
Trai Allgeier, whose studio received a Torch Award. Photo by Wes Hamilton, courtesy of Point Performing Arts

Competition trophies, well-respected faculty and an end-of-year recital with Vegas-level production elements are all powerful attractions for potential students and their families. But what about recognition outside the studio sphere, in your community? Is there value in that?

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Studio Owners
Photos courtesy of Google

Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

Studio Owners
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You've grown up dancing; you can no longer ignore the itch to teach; you've been secretly planning your first recital theme for the past three years—in fact, you're eagerly hatching plans to open your own studio. While your passion for dance and desire to pass on such a beloved artform will be strengths for running a studio, they are by no means sufficient to make it a success. Owning a studio is a commercial venture that requires capital, business savvy and an almost obsessive attention to detail. Here are six risk-reducing strategies to ease into studio ownership.

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Dance News

Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around.

Today, we didn’t have internet in our office until 3:00 pm. And it felt amazing. My fellow editor kept lamenting that she couldn’t get anything done without it, but I’ve never been more productive. It’s because I’m usually trying to prove to myself that I can do 15 things at once. It’s because of—in a word—e-mail. E-mail is a complete time suck, and studio owners know this just as well as magazine editors.

Today I learned that messages can wait, because sometimes they must. Without the option to answer numerous logistical e-mails, I was free to do an essential (my favorite) part of the job: write. For studio owners, I imagine this is like the times when you get to just teach. It feels great, doesn’t it? It’s important to make real, uninterrupted time for this kind of work, not only so you enjoy it, but so that you do it well.

I asked Cindy Clough, owner of Just Fox Kix—the dancewear company and several successful studios—how she keeps e-mail from taking over her busy life. She has a few tips:

  • Overload clients with info. Clough keeps as much current information as possible on her company’s Facebook page and website. “I try to be as detailed as possible in my communications,” she says, “so they don’t have to contact me as much.”

  • Send one-way messages. Clough uses an app designed for classroom teachers called Remind. You can send a mass text to a group of contacts, and no one can reply to it directly. In that sense, it functions like an alert: “Due to snowy weather, preschool classes are canceled today.” Boom. Done. If someone really needs to reach you, they can e-mail or call you separately, but it’s not quite as easy as clicking “reply” on the message.

  • Manage expectations: Reply less frequently. In addition to running her own studio, Clough coaches a high school dance team. When she took on those extra dancers, she began replying to the students and their parents just once a day instead of immediately or hourly. “I work with a lot of high school dance coaches, and they get bothered [if the internet isn’t working],” she says. “I tell them I coached before the internet. It really does eat up your time. Checking it less often is important.”

There you have it from the veteran businesswoman. If she can manage to take a step back, we all can.

Photo: Thinkstock

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