Pay to Play

From meals to airfare, expenses can add up for staffers traveling with your team. Here’s how to manage and mitigate those costs.

by Christina Raymond

Traveling to multiple competitions a year can be pricey—not just for parents, but for faculty members and studio owners who accompany the team. Here, three veteran studio owners share cost-effective ways of getting yourself and your staff to competition.

“I don’t believe my studio or my employees should lose money by participating in competitions.” —Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee

Covered expenses

With two locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, KJ Dance has roughly 20 people on its payroll; a handful travel with the studio’s competition team. KJ Dance participates in five to six competitions a season, and takes approximately 100 students every other summer to a national event such as New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA), where in 2017 the school was recognized as National Outstanding Studio of the year.

“Our company’s associate artistic director, Katey Finn, and I attend every competition,” says studio owner and artistic director Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee. Three or four key staff members capable of stepping into multiple roles—from rehearsal coach to wardrobe assistant to hair stylist—also travel with the team. “These are faculty who keep the heartbeat of our studio going; at competition, they are capable of jumping in and helping with any need that may come up,” says Blakeslee.

Surcharges added to dancers’ entry fees help Carlsbad Dance Centre owner Jana Romaine raise enough revenue to pay her teachers’ competition travel expenses. An additional, annual participation fee is used to purchase props and team apparel.
All photos by Meg Paulsen

KJ Dance picks up the tab for staff expenses like transportation, lodging, and meals; staffers also receive pay at a half-day or daily rate, depending on time spent at the competition. “The studio covers all competition-related costs incurred by our staff, with the exception of my own expenses,” says Blakeslee, who has been operating under this model for about eight years.

She says not every studio owner in her social network follows the same guidelines—the location of a studio and the type of market it serves heavily influence this type of business decision—but she believes that this practice has become more common in the industry over the past 5 to 10 years.

As a studio owner, Blakeslee feels strongly about both protecting the financial health of her business and looking out for her staff’s well-being. “I don’t believe my studio or my employees should lose money by participating in competitions,” says Blakeslee. Her solution is to add a flat fee per event to the entry fees for each dancer.


Funded through fees

Like Blakeslee, Jana Romaine, owner of Carlsbad [CA] Dance Centre, adds a surcharge to dancers’ entry fees, which helps offset the cost of various expenses, including bringing about six of her studio’s teachers with her to competitions. “We take a team of about 100 dancers, ranging from 6 to 18, to five competitions a year—four regionals, one nationals,” says Romaine.

Additionally, she collects a larger, one-time competition participation fee at the start of the season. The per-event surcharges and the annual participation fee pay for a variety of competition-related expenses, such as the purchase of props and branded team apparel, and staff expenses.

Carlsbad Dance team members usually drive to competitions and conventions. Romaine covers her staff’s lodging expenses and pays staffers a small fee for each dance that they help get onto the stage on competition day.

While she might treat her competition staff to dinner and drinks at the end of a long day, Romaine doesn’t normally reimburse her employees for meals on the road. “Rehearsal fees, minus a percentage for the studio, are shared with our competition staff; those should help offset any incidentals incurred while on the road,” says Romaine.


Explain in advance

Even before auditions are held, the full cost of participation—from fees to expenses—is made clear to all potential Carlsbad team members and their parents. This transparency keeps complaints to a minimum.

Romaine has not encountered any objection from parents to her competition team’s fee structure. Why? Transparency. All competition-related costs are clearly laid out for parents even before team auditions are held. “It’s important that parents fully understand what they’re getting into before they make any commitments,” says Romaine, adding that families can pay the annual competition participation fee in monthly installments.

Ideally, that same degree of transparency should extend to communications with your staff. Be clear from the start about your expectations for staff attendance at competitions, providing, if possible, a calendar of the season’s events and rehearsal schedule, along with detailed information about any payment or expense reimbursements they are eligible to receive in connection with participation. This is particularly important if you require staff to attend competitions but do not intend to cover related expenses.

At CMC Dance Company in Cicero, New York, staff attendance at competitions is not mandatory, but owner Marjorie Taylor says a few employees usually volunteer. These volunteers help supervise, rehearse, and prepare her team of 60 dancers, providing both practical and moral support. Taylor doesn’t cover expenses for volunteers—instead, she works to keep these teachers’ costs low by choosing competitions that don’t require hotel stays or expensive transportation. Before her competition team (and its collection of props) grew too large, Taylor says, she sometimes chartered a bus to get dancers and teachers to events. An additional benefit: traveling together in one vehicle can be good for team morale.


Creative accounting

Carlsbad Dance team dancers compete at about five events per year, a schedule that would mean sizable expenses for the six teachers who accompany them.

Regardless of whether you cover some, all, or none of your competition staff’s expenses, your business and team will benefit from bargain hunting—and smart spending.

Some events offer early registration incentives (the savings could be used to cover teachers’ expenses) or teacher rebates (e.g., one teacher attends for free for every 5 to 20 students registered in a workshop).

The cost of a bus could be covered through fundraising. Another option: contact transportation providers in your area and offer to publicize their services in your studio’s performance programs, monthly newsletters, or website in exchange for a season of discounted charters.

Consider consolidating your staffers’ lodging. When attending nationals in New York City, Blakeslee books an Airbnb apartment for her staff to share. The cost of renting an entire apartment may be comparable, if not less, than the price of multiple hotel rooms; plus, you can save additional money by buying groceries and cooking meals rather than eating out.

Blakeslee says securing lodging that is separate from that of her dancers and their parents also provides a valuable opportunity for her team to bond and get much-needed downtime. “We work really long days and are constantly ‘on’ at competition,” she says. “It’s great to be able to relax together in a fun apartment at the end of the day.”


Christina Raymond is a former dancer and ballet teacher. She is also a former Kirov Academy of Ballet student and holds a BA in philosophy from NYU.