Big-Time Marketing

Tips of the trade from company-affiliated ballet schools

By Cheryl Ossola

Dance schools large and small have one vital need in common: students. And the best way to boost enrollment—after word-of-mouth advertising—is through effective marketing. Whether the purpose is to increase awareness of the school in the community or advertise a performance, the end goal of most marketing campaigns, directly or indirectly, is to promote enrollment. The bigger, company-affiliated schools have one major selling point that private studios don’t—the glamour and visibility of the ballet company they’re tied to—but they still compete with other schools for students. We talked to three of them to find out what marketing tricks they might have that private school owners could adapt for their own use. And also on these pages you’ll find examples of excellent print marketing materials from each of the schools.

Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Pacific Northwest Ballet School, founded in 1974, has sites in Seattle and Bellevue, WA, with a total enrollment (as of May 2007) of 1,018 students in its program divisions and approximately 600 enrolled in open classes. Marketing strategies differ somewhat for the two locations because the Bellevue site is newer and has more room for younger children. Consequently more emphasis is placed on recruiting that population, primarily through advertising in region-specific publications.

According to Lia Chiarelli, PNB’s associate director of marketing and communications, the school’s marketing efforts include three areas: “obtaining new students at the youngest level, retaining our students at the oldest level, and our summer program. We definitely focus on the younger levels and the summer course. Once students have been here for a few years and are invested, they generally like to stay,” she says. As part of the school’s retention efforts, families of enrolled children receive a 20 percent discount on tickets to company performances.

Naturally, access to the company is a big part of the school’s appeal. “The students get to see the professional dancers at work. It’s very inspiring. And some of the dancers teach in the school,” says Chiarelli. Opportunities to perform in the company’s production of The Nutcracker are also a boon in recruiting children.

Enrolling at a company-affiliated school requires an audition (except for open classes), and PNBS does conventional print advertising for its twice-a-year auditions: for the academic year (in local papers and family-focused  magazines) and the summer program (in national dance-related magazines).

Other print methods include a mass mailing to schools throughout the United States and Canada and maintaining a small ad in the Yellow Pages.

 “We do a lot of direct mail to families,” says Chiarelli. “Sometimes we even buy a list of families with children 10 and under, who live in a 5- to 10-mile radius, which is more affordable than you might think.” She says that many companies provide that resource, and often a mail house can make recommendations. “Lately we’ve had luck with Info USA [].” She adds that PNBS sends flyers to local academic schools (with their permission) at the beginning and end of the school year, which she describes as “very productive.”

An ad in each of the company’s programs is a marketing staple, “but we hype it up for Nutcracker,” says Chiarelli. “Sometimes we’ll do an insert in the program that explains that all the children in the production are from the school. We try to draw a strong connection to the school every time we have families in the audience. We have school materials in the lobby, and we send information to any families who buy a family pack or child-priced tickets.”

In keeping with trends in communication technology, PNBS makes the most of electronic resources. In advertising summer programs, “we try to do a lot on our website and MySpace page,” Chiarelli remarks. “That’s been a great way to keep in touch with older students—we posted all of our audition cities on our MySpace.” The school’s email list for its monthly newsletter is 45,000 strong.

Another important source of enrollment for PNBS is outreach, particularly its DanceChance program, first implemented in 1994. Teachers go into Seattle schools and audition third-graders for the program. The schools must participate in a free or reduced-cost lunch program, which means that many of the students come from low-income families and might not normally have access to dance classes. The selected students are bused to PNBS and given tickets to company performances. After two years, the most promising of them (30 out of 154 students in 2006–07, according to Chiarelli) are mainstreamed into the regular classes on scholarships.

Scholarships are a big enticement, especially for boys. “The other thing that helps is that we have beautiful photography,” says Chiarelli. “We also do a ‘Bring a Friend Day.’ ” The school does radio spots to advertise its summer dance camps. “We did Radio Disney a few years ago, and that worked very well.”

Direct interaction with families is a productive marketing technique. During Nutcracker and other performances that draw families, the school’s teachers offer mini lessons before the show and during intermissions. “At our Fairy Princess Matinees, we’ll have a creative movement teacher come over and teach, and other staff will be there to answer questions,” Chiarelli explains. “We’ll also have face painting and coloring contests. We bring the school to the theater. It’s very effective and the audience loves it. The last time we did it we added about 150 names to our database.”

Boston Ballet School
Boston Ballet School was established in 1953 by E. Virginia Williams (predating Boston Ballet by 10 years) and now operates as part of the Center for Dance Education. CDE serves a large and diverse population, and because of that its marketing strategies are varied. Of its more than 3,000 students at three school locations and in multiple outreach programs, 1,500 attend the Boston Ballet School core classes.

Image courtesy Boston Ballet School

Elizabeth Benjes, managing director of Boston Ballet School, says that CDE advertises to its diverse populations with lots of brochures. The schools generally follow the demographics of the cities they are in—Boston, Metrowest, and South Shore. (A fourth location, North Shore, is scheduled to open in 2008.) Boston is the broadest in terms of gender and culture and South Shore is the most economically diverse. “We train professional dancers as well as those interested in dance for fun and fitness, and we offer outreach and adult classes as well. Some brochures target certain populations and some cover them all. We have our own database that we’ve established over time,” Benjes says. The organization uses Tessitura, a management system that allows the school, box office, and development department to share a database. “We make use of all those contacts,” Benjes adds.

Scholarships are a big draw, especially at the highest levels. According to Benjes, the CDE gives out “more than $400,000 a year across all programs, in scholarships and financial aid.”

Marketing for the school’s three locations is largely uniform. “We don’t have to differentiate the marketing, but communication about the differences [between locations] can be challenging,” Benjes says. The winter programs are offered at all sites, but students must go to Boston for the summer program and advanced-level classes. “We encourage the students to move around a bit to integrate the populations. Some of the Boston students might want to go to the Metrowest studio to be in the performing group. Core classes might be offered in one place and electives in another.”

The school’s many public appearances are a good way to generate lists of potential new students. Students perform weekly at community events like festivals and museum exhibit openings. “We have our brochures out at all performances,” says Benjes. “We gather names from those, so we know they have an interest in dance.”

CDE does other print advertising in addition to the brochures. “I think the direct response rate is low, but [ads are] important in keeping our brand awareness with the public,” emphasizes Benjes. “They’re specifically for the school’s individual programs, our winter enrollment drive, or our summer program. We place a half-page ad for the program in the [company’s] Playbill. Most are for newspapers, and every now and then we’ll do a magazine or a camp insert. Most of our print advertising is to boost awareness of our South Shore location; there’s less brand awareness of it and more competition.”

At Miami City Ballet School, children ages 5 to 7 account for nearly half the school’s enrollment. ‘Kids start young and stay with the program,’ says director of marketing and communications Pete Upham.

Other forms of print marketing methods include posters, which the students put up, and go-cards (postcards with an eye-catching image on one side and performance information on the other) to advertise the spring showcase.

Like PNBS, the Boston school makes good use of electronic marketing methods. In addition to keeping its website updated, the school sends out e-blasts, which Benjes describes as “great because they’re cheap. We e-blast the school population every other week. The company puts out a newsletter every month, and they include [news about] the school.”

The primary market for all this advertising is younger children, according to Benjes. “Our classical ballet program is thriving, and our adult program too. It’s hard to say, but I think our primary financial base is [children ages] 5 to 11.”

Outreach is an indirect but effective form of marketing. CDE offers five programs, and one of them has had a significant effect on the school’s ability to recruit boys into its programs. “Part of the reason we’ve had success with boys is our Citydance program in the public schools,” remarks Benjes. The program includes 3,500 children in Boston public schools each year. “We do a workshop in every third-grade classroom and select 150 boys to participate [in a 10-week introductory ballet program on scholarship]. This year we have our very first alumnus going into Boston Ballet II—Isaac Akiba.” When enough boys are enrolled at one time, they are given their own classes, separate from the girls. Lecture programs for families and seniors keep audiences and potential students informed about ballet. “Every segment is important. We do a lecture series and tie into the ballets—it builds awareness and draws people in. We educate parents about ballet. One of our donors started a [lecture] program called ‘Ballet in the Balcony’ for high school groups and their parents.”

Benjes describes the school’s affiliation with Boston Ballet as “critical, both to our marketing and to how attractive we are to students. It makes marketing much easier—being able to promote that the students will perform in professional productions. And they watch world-class repetiteurs and choreographers in the studios. We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream recently, and [former New York City Ballet dancers] Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, and Sandra Jennings were there setting their roles—the kids will remember that for the rest of their lives.”

Miami City Ballet School
Miami City Ballet School calls itself a “Super Human School,” and maybe that’s why its marketing needs are fairly minimal. “Over the midsummer we might run a couple of ads in local papers or produce a flyer that’s available in the lobby and handed out. But there’s nothing really targeted that goes on,” says Pete Upham, director of marketing and communications. In addition to the flyers and newspaper ads, says Nicolle Ugarizza, MCB’s public relations manager, the school runs calendar listings, stories, and ads in local publications and a community magazine. And Upham adds that stories about the school can be found on the company’s website and in printed and email newsletters.

The school, which was established in 1993, serves roughly 400 children ages 5 to 19 in its 63,000-square-foot studio. Like the PNB and Boston schools, it considers younger children the primary target of enrollment marketing. The Children’s Division, consisting of 180 students ages 5 to 7 who take creative movement and ballet prep classes, accounts for nearly half the school’s enrollment; the other half covers the large age span from 8 to 19. “It flows up,” says Upham. “Kids start young and stay with the program. Some kids do come in older,” usually those who attend the school’s summer program. “It’s probably only two or three [students] a year, but it happens on a regular basis.”

Like the other schools, MCBS emphasizes that having students perform with the company is a valuable way to promote its programs. “We do [George] Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, so the people who go to see it know that those kids are in our school. That’s another way to gain exposure,” says Upham. The school places inserts about its student showcase, but not ads for auditions, in the company’s programs.

According to Upham, outreach is not a major source of enrollment. “More than just a handful of students have come out of those programs, but mostly on a scholarship basis,” he says. “The school does outreach programs, usually tied in with a local school system, such as making a dress rehearsal of Nutcracker available to school kids. And the school’s teachers do go out into selected disadvantaged areas and do an outreach program. We try to bring in talented children regardless of their financial status.”

Scholarships, though, are an enrollment-building tool for MCB. “At the advanced level, all of the students have some percentage of a scholarship. They have so many classes that it would be prohibitive in cost,” says Ugarizza.

Selling ballet in a non-ballet world
Print advertising, electronic communication methods, outreach, community visibility—large, company-affiliated schools share many of the same marketing methods with privately owned studios. But since their market is primarily ballet students, we wondered whether they feel they need to sell classical ballet to parents in a world that’s saturated with hip-hop and music-video dancing. All three responded with a unanimous no. “It’s not been an issue,” says PNBS’ Chiarelli. “Both of our locations are at capacity.” She cites the grassroots factor of “Sophie’s having a great time at PNB School, and they’re doing such-and-such” as hugely important.

“I don’t think [MCBS] has ever had an issue with that. [Students] understand that it’s a classical ballet school and that’s why they’re here,” says Ugarizza.

Benjes makes the point that the students may be Boston Ballet School’s best form of marketing. “We do compete with [other dance forms], but I think the students do a good job of speaking for themselves,” she says. “They make the benefits of ballet so obvious—they’re beautifully groomed and put together, with presence. They show the discipline, artistry, and camaraderie they get from ballet.”