Three Sticky Problems That Can Be Solved

Savvy studio owners share their solutions.

Tired of the hassle of
collecting tuition each month? Consider automatic billing.

Most of the time, owning your own studio is a pretty rewarding profession. You didn’t go into it expecting money, fame or great hours. You do it for your love of dance and the satisfaction of passing on your art to younger generations. Except then there are those needling day-to-day issues that can really get you down.

Dance Teacher talked to three studio owners about a few chronically annoying problems that seem to pop up for almost everyone: meddlesome parents, poor attendance and late payments. Read on for three easy-to-implement solutions to each issue, and get ready to bid these problems good-bye forever.

It’s my money; therefore, I’m in charge

Phyllis A. Balagna has noticed a change in each new crop of parents over the 25 years she’s spent as studio owner of Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “Parents want to be part of the process so much more these days,” she says. “I find that they’re a much more engaged bunch.”

More engaged can also mean more demanding. Here’s how Balagna keeps her considerable parent population (she has approximately 450 students) in check.

  • Be up front about your policies. At the beginning of each year, Balagna has a meeting with her competition students and their parents—often the bulk of the problem—and goes through her studio handbook, word for word. At the end of the meeting, both students and parents have to sign a contract stating that they agree to adhere to all policies and procedures (regarding tuition payments, late fees, dress code, absences and the studio’s mandatory rule that all parents and students support other students). “It’s saved me a couple of times, having that on file,” says Balagna. “When parents tell me, ‘I didn’t know this,’ I can remind them that they were at the meeting and signed the paper.”
  • Channel parents’ energies into useful activities. “I want them to have a little ownership,” Balagna says. “When they feel they’re connected in some tiny way, they’re much more supportive.” Balagna has a booster club, made up mostly of competition parents, but also some recreational parents, who work with her on fundraising and studio events. She has a travel committee (in charge of arranging out-of-town accommodations), a public relations committee, a special-events committee—it’s all about giving her parents a purpose.
  • Be communicative. “I send out a weekly update every Monday to keep my parents in the know,” says Balagna. “I find the more they know, the better they’ll behave.” If a student has a breakthrough in class or in a private lesson, she’ll shoot the parents an e-mail to tell them about it. She also has her front-desk staff monitor any signs of parental discord or unhappiness: “They’ll tell me, ‘You should talk to so-and-so—she seemed upset.’”

Jane has cheerleading. And piano lessons. And a birthday party.

When Rebecca Reese decided to open her own studio in Altoona, Pennsylvania, she knew she would need an attendance policy. The studio where she’d taught before didn’t have one in place, and she found that frustrating. “I knew I didn’t want to penalize kids for not coming, but I wanted to reward the kids who made the effort to come all the time and made up any class time they missed,” she says.

For a teacher, it’s difficult to choreograph a piece on invisible dancers. And a student who consistently skips class is missing out on valuable technique lessons, which will put her in danger of falling behind her peers. Reese takes a three-pronged approach at Blair Dance Academy to maintain good attendance studio-wide.

  • Institute a rewards program. Reese and her instructors select a student of the month—for which the first requirement is perfect or near-perfect attendance. Those selected receive a trophy, a balloon bouquet and a T-shirt. They also have a photo of themselves shared on the studio’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. At the end of the year, all nine students of the month are recognized at the recital, and one is chosen to receive a $500 scholarship toward the following year’s tuition. Additionally, every student with perfect attendance gets a medal and his or her name in the recital program.
  • Have a flexible makeup policy in place. Reese allows students to make up a missed class in a similar or lower class-level up to three weeks following the absence. Or, if the student knows in advance that she will miss class, she can attend a makeup class up to two weeks before.
  • Consider establishing different policies for different programs. Reese’s competition kids follow a different set of attendance rules: They must maintain a 75 percent attendance rate in all of their classes, or they are put on probation and not allowed to participate in the performance company.

Tuition payment? What tuition payment?

Eight years ago, Johnna DeGrasse got tired of the hassle of collecting cash and check tuition payments at her Virginia-based DeGrasse Dance Studio and decided something needed to change. “People would be late with their payments, or they’d write the check for the wrong amount,” she says. “Some people would only be a day late, so we’d wonder, ‘Do we really charge them a late fee?’ We get so attached to our families.”

Since switching over to automatic billing, DeGrasse says tuition-collecting is “so much easier.” And her delinquency rate has plummeted. (Many studio software packages—like Jackrabbit Dance, MINDBODY and ClassJuggler Dance—include automatic billing.) She offers parents two different ways to pay, as well as incentives.

  • Set up automatic credit card payments. At the beginning of the year, parents fill out a form authorizing DeGrasse to charge monthly tuition payments directly to their Visa, MasterCard or Discover credit card accounts. “The credit card processing fees are an expense, but in the long term, it’s definitely been beneficial,” she says.
  • Set up automatic withdrawal from checking accounts. The other option is for parents to provide DeGrasse with a voided check, so that she can access their bank routing numbers and deduct tuition fees directly from their checking accounts each month. “It’s a convenience for them, too, because people do simply forget to pay,” she says. “Even with e-mail—not everyone reads their e-mail.”
  • Offer incentives—and be clear about penalties. For families who decide to pay the entire year’s fees up front and in full, DeGrasse offers a 3 percent discount. Each studio year begins with her giving parents a payment schedule for the entire year, with every expense and its accompanying due date clearly delineated. “It’s important to let people know ahead of time what their charges are,” she says. For one thing, it allows families to budget ahead. And “even if they don’t read it, if they complain, you can pull it out and say: ‘Here’s your payment schedule; here’s what you signed.’” DT

 

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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Studio Owners
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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