When studio owner Kyle Preiser teamed up with university educator and longtime convention faculty Judy Rice, their 2020 plan didn’t factor in the arrival of COVID-19. But rather than postpone the launch of Alpha Dance Convention, they committed to making it a learning experience. Here’s how, with flexibility, patience and a relationship-first approach, their start-up has made good use of a challenging time.
It took a few years to get a “yes” after Kyle Preiser first approached Judy Rice with a proposal to start a dance convention. Rice, associate professor of dance at the University of Michigan, had for 20 years traveled most weekends (with Co. Dance, Artists Simply Human and other conventions) to teach ballet to competition-studio dancers. She was taking a break, she told him.
The two had first met at the Artists Simply Human Nationals, where Preiser and his wife and business partner, Amanda, brought a group to perform from Fusion Dance Force, their studio with two locations on Long Island, New York. Rice was impressed. “Their choreography was through-the-roof amazing,” she says. “Richly layered, smart, well coached—and age-appropriate.” She began to work with the Fusion Dance Force students and teach ballet at their summer intensive.
But after a three-year absence from the convention scene, Rice realized how much she missed it, and she longed for the professional stimulation she had enjoyed with her faculty colleagues. So in 2019, she and Preiser decided to launch Alpha Dance Convention.
They realize that the convention marketplace is already well populated with events. But they are convinced their approach will set them apart, that there is an appetite among studio owners for a return to education-first events, where long-term relationships are built and nurtured. “We don’t want to approach the business with making money leading the way,” he says. “All of our decisions are based on education first.”
Alpha Dance Convention launched with a modest plan: produce four events in 2020, each with an enrollment of 200; raise funds for one year of operation; book a profit by year three. But just as things were getting off the ground, COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown hit. Rice and Preiser watched with alarm as the entire convention and competition industry canceled events. And yet they remained optimistic. They had some time—the first event wasn’t scheduled until October. And they felt their smaller size could be an advantage—they could make Alpha events safer. “We said we’ll still make it happen,” says Preiser. “We’ll learn through this process.”
Here’s how they got Alpha Dance Convention off the ground, and how they are getting through the pandemic so far.
The Alpha faculty roster may not include household dance names. But that’s because their priority is hiring faculty members who align with Alpha’s teaching philosophy, rather than filling their roster with big names. Faculty members include Dee Tomasetta, who has worked with Mia Michaels as a performer and associate choreographer and dance captain on Finding Neverland’s first national tour; Hallie Toland, who was swing for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway; and Ryan Vettel, who Rice knew as a tap dancer and teaching assistant for Co. Dance. “I’ve watched him working with kids,” she says. “With these three, it’s their hearts. Even though they’re young, they’re true educators.” The current faculty roster includes eight instructors plus Rice and the Preisers.
Instead of driving enrollment through big names, as many other popular conventions do, Alpha seeks to leverage the relationships Rice has built with studio owners over her many years of teaching. Those personal connections, Rice hopes, will result in loyal clientele who return year after year.
Alpha’s goal is to start small, with around 200 dancers per event, and grow slowly, with an enrollment of 400 to 500, which is half the size of typical events. “We do not believe an 800-to-1,000–person event can be effectively run the same as a 400-to-500–person event,” says Preiser. They don’t want participants to become mere numbers on a spreadsheet: Preiser cites an experience at an unnamed event where, before his dancers had a chance to take their bow, the next routine was introduced in order to fit as many as possible into a 12-hour day.
They plan to add two to three events a year, with 12 events being “a changing point,” he says. “Once we reach that number, we will need to see if things still align with our mission. If we decide to host more events, then our first course of action will be to lay the additional foundation needed to stay true to our mission.”
Though Preiser has developed strong business instincts as a studio owner, his father is the one who brings the necessary financial acumen to Alpha. (He serves as a company officer to Alpha’s LLC, along with Preiser and Rice.) A long-time corporate executive, he advised against looking to the traditional investment community for support. Not only would they consider a start-up too risky during a pandemic, they also tend to require multiple years of operation as well as other prerequisites. So, instead, the Alpha team developed a plan that would make it easy for colleagues, friends and family to invest.
They currently have multiple group and individual investors. “We didn’t ask for much—$5,000 for a half a percent of the corporation,” says Preiser. “For young investors it was something not too far out of reach.” When modeling potential investment return, they projected conservative three- and five-year scenarios. (Preiser wanted to protect his first-time investors by giving them conservative projections.) The plan is for investors to begin receiving benefits in year two. “We have hit every single mark in our business plan,” Preiser says.
How It’s Going So Far
As we know only too well, the pandemic was spiking in October and Alpha had to cancel its long-anticipated first event. Toronto was also called off when the Canadian border closed. Not to be defeated, Alpha pivoted to in-studio events, where small faculty groups replicate a modified convention schedule privately. Three studios signed up to bring Alpha faculty to their locations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. “These are people I’ve known for a really long time,” says Rice. “Kids know the protocol and where to space themselves. It makes me feel comfortable. It’s a way to connect with our community.”
When we spoke in November, Alpha was set to have its first in-person public event the weekend before Thanksgiving, in Orlando. Registrations were at 60 participants, somewhat less than the projected break-even number of 100 and far short of the conservative target of 200. Yet in Preiser’s thinking, there remained good reason to hold the event even at this lower enrollment. He worked with the hotel and vendors to modify the budget and was now looking at Orlando as a trial run for a much larger event, planned for January in New Jersey, that has already exceeded registration expectations. The New Jersey event is big enough to bring Alpha back to break-even for the year, he says.
Orlando would also play a valuable role in Alpha’s marketing scheme. Because of the pandemic, Preiser has had to slash his marketing budget and for now relies primarily on word of mouth, including social media. Orlando would provide valuable testimony from satisfied customers to help spread the word, as well as promotional photography and video footage of the Alpha faculty in action. “That’s the biggest struggle through COVID. How do you market with little money and little revenue coming in?” he says. “This event is going to help us succeed down the line.”
Yet with news of Washington state and Michigan initiating more stringent closure levels, it was a nail-biter of a week. Preiser worried that Florida might shut down during the few days before the event. But, ultimately, the Orlando convention went off without a hitch. With 30 dancers in each room, Alpha had space for larger dance squares (8 feet by 8 feet versus the standard 6), and they increased staff by two to ensure proper social distancing and mask compliance. Best of all, because the event was small, dancers benefited from extra attention, including in-depth faculty critiques in class.
“I never want to start a business in a pandemic again,” says Preiser, noting the many hours of meetings required were easily double what would normally be necessary. “Everything changed every two weeks, and we had to talk about it all over again.” That slowed down other activities, like, for instance, learning the back-end system for registration. “In the past 30 days, we’re learning the system that should have been accomplished four to five months ago,” he says. “Instead, we were talking about how to space people out.”
Karen Hildebrand was editor in chief of Dance Teacher for 11 years and is a founding editor of Dance Business Weekly.