One family is itching to return to in-person instruction. Another is understandably scared. Here’s how to make them both—and everyone in between—feel safe, included and engaged.
As August swiftly approaches, you’re likely fine-tuning the details of what your fall schedule will look like. More than ever, much of your decision-making will have to be tailored to studio parents—some of whom may be eager to return to in-person instruction, and some of whom may be understandably scared.
“Having three studios across two counties in the midst of this crisis, we’re really seeing the full spectrum,” says Melanie Gibbs, owner of Boca Dance Studio, ProAm Dance Studio and Weston Dance Academy, all in Florida. “We have people who are firmly in the camp of, ‘Get these kids out of my house—they’re climbing the walls, and they want to get back into the studio with their friends.’ We have other clients already telling us they won’t be back to in-person classes this season—even if the school districts reopen—though they’re happy to continue virtual training.”
So how do you keep both groups—and everyone in between—happy, without losing any families in the process? For Gibbs, who is happy to report that her fall 2020 enrollment numbers are currently higher than they were on the same date in 2019, it’s a matter of evaluating her business from a studio parent’s perspective and then acting accordingly.
“We have a tendency to come at every decision with what we think will best serve our creative vision,” she says. “We forget to look through the client’s eyes. Just like when you have a toddler and they tell you to crawl around on your hands and knees to experience what a toddler sees when baby-proofing your house, we could stand to experience this from the client’s perspective.” What’s she gleaned from her parents? Convincing them to return requires giving them choices.
1. Highlight safety and wellness
Though the health of your students has likely always been a studio concern, now is the time to put that sentiment forward. “What we’re selling as studio owners had to flip. Safety and hygiene were never something we mentioned on our fancy print brochure, because it was sort of assumed,” says Gibbs. “Now we’re leading the conversation with safety and wellness.” She created a “Safer Studio” plan, with instructions regarding mask-wearing, increased sanitization and social distancing, and posted it on her website and on signs around the studio. She’s also included safety measures as part of videos she’s posted to her Facebook page and her website, and that play in her lobby. She’s also made sure her cleaning supplies—and between-class cleaning protocol—are visible to parents at all times.
By implementing and communicating hygienic necessities, like constant studio sanitization, taped-out six-foot grids and staggered class start times, you’ll reassure parents that their children’s health is an utmost priority not only for you but also for your entire staff. “Teachers are now part of the janitorial staff,” says Gibbs.
2. Offer multiple modes of instruction
“Every family is not experiencing the pandemic in the same way,” says Gibbs. “And we want to be able to say yes to every family, in every way we can.” She’s offering five different ways for students to take class, come fall: in-facility private lessons; semiprivate lessons (“a customized class for a family or friend group,” she says); standard in-studio classes, with a strictly limited capacity; livestreamed classes, created specifically for students taking class at home (“We want to make sure it’s a separate class—that they’re not just getting the scraps of in-person instruction,” says Gibbs); and prerecorded, on-demand classes that families can take on their own time. By letting the decision of how to take class fall to her parents—with the option to mix and match instruction methods, depending on how the pandemic evolves over the fall—Gibbs guarantees her studio families’ comfort.
She’s also guaranteeing an increased workload—and bigger payroll—for her and her staff. To accommodate such a time-, work- and cost-intensive plan, she’s sacrificed nonessentials, like repainting her studio, to prioritize payroll. Gibbs has also done some “shopping in our own closet,” she says. “For example, we wanted to polish our weekly e-mail newsletter,” says Gibbs. “Typically, I’d have everyone learn new software, like Mailchimp or Constant Contact. Instead, we found templates inside Studio Director, the software we already pay for, and got a new look with no new expense.”
Melanie Boniszewski, who runs Tonawanda Dance Arts in Tonawanda, New York, is offering similar options to her families, with one tweak to the livestreamed class option: Those students will meet synchronously online, and a rotating selection of students will have the option to meet in-person each week. That way, every student gets the chance to have an in-person instruction experience.
3. Invest in technology
Upgrading the virtual components of your studio’s instruction demonstrates to parents that you’re committed to giving every student—even those learning from home—a top-notch experience. “In our new normal, even once we have a vaccine, every physical group class that meets in the studio will have a Google Classroom assigned to it, whether those students are interested in a virtual component or not,” says Gibbs. “It’ll become a homeroom of sorts—we can post announcements, students can communicate, and I can train my people so they’re comfortable with the technology before another crisis.”
Boniszewski is investing in efforts that will make students who are taking class virtually feel as if they’re in the studio. “We have four classrooms, and each will have a smart TV,” she says, which will allow the teacher to interact with online students. “We’ll also have a 180-degree camera on the ceiling near the back wall. When a student logs into Zoom, she’ll feel like she’s in the back row of the class. She’ll be able to see the teacher, see into the mirror and see the full classroom.” Boniszewski’s teachers will also wear headsets that are integrated with the studio’s monitors, so students taking class virtually will only hear the teacher’s voice and the music. “They won’t hear background noise, and they’ll feel like they’re hearing the music at home,” she says.
Though this technology was a considerable financial investment for Boniszewski—$15,000—its payoff will be bigger, she feels. “We surveyed our families and realized that 30 percent of them are still uncomfortable with in-person classes,” she says. “That’s a big enough percentage that I felt we needed to be able to offer them something more than just a computer set up in a classroom.” It also offers a built-in backup plan, she says, in case New York mandates that in-person instruction is off the table at any point, or if a family decides to travel for any length of time.
4. Reconsider your payment structure
Most studios, pre-COVID, used a monthly tuition-payment structure, paired with incremental payments—costume fees, recital fees—all going toward a spring end-of-year performance. “Under our old model, people were paying us in September for something we were promising was going to happen in May,” says Gibbs. “At the time, that was perfectly normal, but now we’re realizing how insane that it is. No one’s buying a promise right now.”
Gibbs has created monthly tuition rates for the fall but also per-class rates and per-session (a block of private or semiprivate lessons, say) rates. “That way, if a parent says, ‘I’m not comfortable committing,’ we can say, ‘Let’s shift to a weekly or drop-in rate,’” she says. Right now, during her summer session, she reports that families are choosing to pay the more expensive drop-in rate for classes, as opposed to paying for the summer session in bulk at a cheaper overall price. “People want to pay you and then get what they paid for—and they’ll wait, and then pay you again,” says Gibbs.
Though Gibbs is adjusting her summer tuition rates according to whether a class is in-person or virtual—in-studio group classes, for example, are $89/month for one class per week, and livestreamed are $69/month—Boniszewski is holding firm to one monthly tuition rate, no matter the class format a family chooses. “Our reasoning is: Our service hasn’t changed, so none of our fees have changed,” she says. “You’re being taught in a different place, but it’s still the same quality of teaching.” She plans to deal with any client pushback on a case-by-case basis.
She is willing to reconsider her recital-related fees, however. “I know there probably will be people who opt for distance learning and don’t want to do a recital,” she says. “Obviously those students wouldn’t need to pay costume or performance fees.”
The Bottom Line
In the long run, it is your studio’s commitment to uninterrupted service that your parents will remember. “Our slogan through all of this has been: ‘Stick with us—we’ll be there for you,’” says Boniszewski. “We are committed to being here for the community. Parents are going to need an activity for their kids to do, and we want to make sure we’re available.”
Rachel Rizzuto reports on studio business for Dance Teacher and is a third-year MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.