In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Lindsay Duncan and Krystal Ferguson, co-owners of The School – Creative Arts Education, located in Port Credit, Ontario. The School offers kids the unique experience to train with industry professionals in a range of classes from dance and theatre, to aerial arts and parkour. Read about their beginnings, how they connected through their shared teaching philosophies, and how Clover helped them to continue teaching virtually during the pandemic.
Clover: Hello, Krystal and Lindsay! Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you came to open The School?
Ferguson: I grew up dancing, went on to pursue it post-secondary, worked professionally a bit, and taught dance for a long time. I’ve lived mostly in Toronto, and used to commute to teach in another city. That’s where I met Lindsay. It turned out that Lindsay and I were living within walking distance of each other in Toronto–and both of us commuting out of town to teach.
Teaching has always been my main gig–even throughout all the performing gigs. And I always dreamed about doing my own thing. Working with Lindsay over the years, we noticed many similarities in our teaching philosophies and often chatted about the kinds of things we would do differently if we were to run our own studio. It just snowballed from there. That’s how the School ultimately came to fruition.
Duncan: I grew up dancing competitively as well, but I went to university for theater and acting. When Krystal and I met teaching dance together, I was also working for a theater program with my husband, who is a Broadway actor. He and I coached together throughout the years. That’s where the theater side of the School came from.
What we all found—Krystal working professionally as a dancer and my husband and I as actors—was that we got a taste of the industry, the way it actually is. And that’s what we wanted to bring to the kids. Give them access to industry professionals coaching with real-world experience in a studio setting–something you don’t often get at a studio.
Clover: How do you choose the industry professionals to teach with you at the School?
Duncan: A lot of our teachers have worked with us before. Some were former students of ours, which is great because we know exactly what their training is. All of our teachers have university or college degrees in their field and/or are also active performers in their industry, which we feel is important.
Ferguson: Right. For us, you’ve got to want to do this. It’s not a side hustle or a casual way to make a little money. We want people who love kids and are educators who want to share their knowledge.
Clover: Beyond dance and theater, what other programs do you offer?
Duncan: We follow trends in childrens’ programming closely, and try to incorporate a wide variety of classes—gymnastics, parkour, breakdancing, aerial arts, hip hop–you name it!
Ferguson: We’ve worked with such a wide variety of performers. I always had friends that were aerial artists, so we’re very familiar with that industry. As aerial arts became more trendy, we wanted to offer it at our studio. Parkour was a similar story. We noticed that it was becoming very popular. People want different activities, movement activities, for the whole family. So that’s why we incorporated parkour.
Clover: With all the programming you offer, how do you help students decide which classes are right for them?
Duncan: We start by asking them, almost like a little personality profile:
“Is your daughter climbing trees, jumping off the furniture, and running down the stairs? Maybe you should try parkour because you need an outlet for that kind of energy. If you have a child who dances and sings along with Elsa, maybe a ballet or creative movement class is right for them.”
We provide what we call “concierge-style customer service.” That means we’re dedicated to bringing you in, having a meeting, and providing some value before we even talk about money. We want you to be happy here, and we know that when you start with us as a two-year old, there’s a very real possibility that you could keep coming until you’re an adult. We want to support all our students along the way, and we want them to do more than just come in, give us their credit card, and leave.
Ferguson: Yeah, studio environments can feel daunting. Not even just dance studios, but any sort of children’s activity—sports, gymnastics, dance, theater—when you don’t know about that area. You might say, “I think my kid really wants to sing” or “My kid is always dancing around the kitchen, and I think they can do hip hop because they like to shake their booty.” Generally, parents have no clue. I’ve experienced it with my own kids, too. I sign my kid up for something, and I’m like, “Hello, what’s next? What do I do? Where do I go?” We very much want to empower families that come into the School to be able to try anything they want, feel welcome, and feel taken care of in our space.
Clover: How did you decide on Clover as your payments processor?
Duncan: We’ve been with Clover since the beginning. We have a really good relationship with our provider, and we trust his advice. In 2017 when we opened, Clover was fairly new in Canada. When our provider delivered the set up, he even said, “I’m pleased to present you with the very first Clover terminal in all of Ontario.” We were very proud of all the “oohs” and “ahhs” it elicited from all the parents.
Ferguson: We use the Clover Flex, and it’s been amazing. It has no issues–it just works! But for us, the most exciting part is the Virtual Terminal. I used it occasionally before the pandemic. If we were away at a competition or a client had an issue, I could just log into the Virtual Terminal to do whatever I needed to do. Now, it’s invaluable–really! We just send parents an invoice, and they can pay directly.
We also love how nicely Clover syncs with our website through the Smart Online Order + WordPress app. When we had to transition quickly to virtual last spring, we were able with Clover to create a portal on our website that links directly to our POS. So we could tell the parents, “Hey, everyone, go here now to pay.” Boom. Virtual classes were set up and paid for. It was really seamless.
Duncan: To be honest—not trying to be cheesy here—Clover completely saved us in that moment. We couldn’t have made such a big pivot in our payments processing in one afternoon like that without you guys. So that took a big weight off of us.
Clover: Tell us more about switching to a virtual class format. How have you been able to compete with other studios that offer virtual programming?
Ferguson: It was so hard. We had to rethink everything in a very short amount of time just to keep our students. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of other teaching studios were saying, “Well, you already paid for these classes, so now you have to do them online or forfeit your fees.” We know that virtual classes don’t work for everybody, so we really wanted to provide flexibility to our clients. If a student was doing an in-studio class when we shut down, we gave them an option to put their account on hold, take a credit, or take a refund if they needed it.
Duncan: Yeah, we took a totally different view of the situation. I mean, yes, it was harder on our bottom line, but we really think that by providing families what they need, they are more likely to come back later.
One unique thing we developed was custom classes. We let the clients tell us what they need, whether that was a private class or a semi-private class. A lot of people have been doing this with their friends who live in other areas. It’s nice to see two friends that live in two different cities take a virtual class together.
Ferguson: We also sent each student a free little swag bag with coloring sheets, a bodysuit, and a note from their teacher. Just something to make them feel connected to us while they’re at home–any little thing to keep the same connection and energy that we have in person.
There are so many options for kids’ programming in the virtual space. So we definitely took a huge risk by saying, “Hey, this is your choice. We’re available for you. We’re going to offer this great program to keep your kids moving.” We offer something you can’t get by using an app or watching a YouTube video—a personal connection with an actual dance teacher.
Clover: It sounds like you might never have offered virtual classes were it not for the pandemic. Will you continue this format once you’re allowed to fully reopen?
Duncan: It’s definitely helped us stay connected to lots of clients and children, so for sure there’s value in that. I think we’ll continue the virtual classes for as long as there’s a demand for it. It’s hard to say because none of us know what the new normal is going to be, or how long it’s going to take before we get there. So, for the foreseeable future, we’ll maintain completely custom virtual classes. That model really seems to be working for us, and I think it will run nicely alongside in-studio programming.
Ferguson: What we found particularly cool about the virtual format is we could get our competitive dance team access to workshops. Some amazing companies like Steps on Broadway in New York or Pineapple Dance Studios in London have offered virtual workshops, and it’s so great that we can all attend from home. I don’t think this was something that our industry really offered before. In the future, we will probably livestream classes from any guest artists we host at the School.
Clover: Speaking of the future, what are your upcoming plans for the School?
Ferguson: We are always looking to offer new programs. This summer we’re offering outdoor forest camps, parkour camps and arts camps to adapt to the new requirements for dance and fitness facilities. Beyond that, we also want to continue prioritizing our community involvement–even through simple things like Instagram and just keeping ourselves out there. There’s such a need for a community hub, and we want to fill that gap. We want to be the place where parents know their kids are safe while they work on their laptop or socialize.
Duncan: Yeah, we want to be an integral part of this neighborhood. Port Credit is very much a village; it’s a walkable community. People want to be out and about. Parents want their kids to be involved in physical activities. So we want to continue offering new and different programs and establishing ourselves in this neighborhood as that place to be.
Read more of our Meet the Merchant stories for real-life stories of small businesses in action all over the country. Want to be featured in this series? Send us a message, and if we can include you in a future interview cycle, we’ll send you an invitation!
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