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Running a Salsa School is just like running any other business. In the previous article we talked about the need to understand your own purpose which will give you conviction during the inevitable hard times. In this article, I want to talk about the Customers of the Salsa Scene, how to reach them and the implications of not catering to them.

For the first part of this series please click Building a Salsa School

Salsa Scene in London

Although I have travelled a lot through Salsa and talked to many Salsa schools I will use the London Salsa scene as my case study. The London Salsa scene primarily operates in bars, clubs or function rooms; only a small portion of classes take place in dance studios. Also, the concept of a drop in classes (pay as you go) is dominant over structured long term courses.

Note: I personally predict an identity split over the next 5 years when Salsa Education (focus on learning and the home of the next generation instructors) is done in dance studios and Salsa Entertainment (Salsa as a casual hobby and primarily for fun) is done in clubs; this is going to be a subject of another blog.

Salsa Customers

Working in business intelligence for the last 13 years I can tell you that most organisations will target its customers based on a series of demographics such as age, sex or location. More mature organisations will target you in an even more specific way; for example previous purchase or last search terms. In Salsa, I use the following to identify customers: New People, Salsa Students and Salsa Dancers.

New People

I define New People as those that might have heard of Salsa but have not yet committed themselves to learning the dance or the community.

Schools that focus on long-term success will tell you that getting in new people is a core challenge. In today’s world, most people have heard about Salsa so the challenge is not bringing awareness but getting new people to take up the new challenge.

There are hundreds of ways to get new people to try Salsa. Online methods like building a search engine optimised website, building a Facebook community or perhaps leveraging YouTube and rich media. Alternatively how about the traditional method of feet on the streets with flyers being handed out at the local train station or street corner. Each method has an associated cost as well as demographic and for the most part, you should try them all and see which ones work best for you.

At TNT we decided to outsource our new people marketing to a third party company; this third party company takes a large proportion of the profit for the first few weeks but allowed us to focus on what we do best i.e teach and grow dancers. We also noticed that third parties generally bring in the same demographic which gives a higher chance of students to bond both inside and outside of Salsa. On top of this, we supplemented with a word of mouth referral model where people can recommend TNT.

Once a new person has joined TNT we present our manifesto of what Salsa is and give our prospective students a map of the next few years. We introduce what we do, why we do it and more importantly we give a glimpse into the global and diverse community Salsa scene; we do not focus on commercial, flash or exciting material but look to give a long term view.

If you are looking for long term sustained success then finding a regular and steady stream of new people will be crucial.

Salsa Students

I define a Salsa student as someone who regularly attends classes and has shown an interest in developing in the Salsa scene.

Salsa students are the most targeted demographics in Salsa as they are addicted (Salsa bug), curious and new enough that they still have that fresh enthusiasm. Most schools will try their best to help the transition from New Person to Salsa Student as once they become students their real learning journey begins; this is also the most financially lucrative type of customer as they are the most likely to be regulars as well as attending all workshops offered.

Transitioning New People to Salsa Student is often challenging and time-consuming so schools will often try to keep their Salsa Students or try to obtain Salsa Students from other schools; this leads to the strange world of student ownership which I find ridiculous. I will now describe two streams of common thoughts regarding obtaining and keeping Salsa Students.

The first school of thought is an isolation-based approach. These schools will often try to keep Salsa Students through isolation by not talking about the wider Salsa scene, promoting their school above others or worse putting down others schools. Smarter isolation based schools build a suite of offerings and strong communities which keep students in their enclosed ecosystem. This method is great for business (if you can pull it off) but not good for the students as they need as much creative input as possible.

The second school of thought, which I subscribe to, is an open model where students are shown the entire scene and where all schools are promoted. This mindset accepts that an individual school cannot cater to all personality types but it is better that a Salsa student goes to another school and enjoys themselves as opposed to leaving Salsa completely. I also noticed that our students will dance at different clubs and bring their friends to try TNT which is a nice testament to our teaching and our open model.

At TNT we are not obsessively looking for Salsa Students and more interested in developing our own. We have a very specific offering that will appeal to some and not to others, for example, we exclusively teach On2, we have a holistic foundations programme and have a strong musical identity as a club. We do not use superlatives or marketing techniques but focus on information only which has a massive benefit of not setting unrealistically high expectations and failing to deliver.

If you want to survive as a Salsa school you need to bring in New People and transition them to Salsa Student or attract Salsa Students from the scene. This is not an easy task and a lot of thought and preparation is required to understand what your possible appeal is.

Salsa Dancers

I refer to Salsa Dancers as those that have paid their dues and have developed a level of dancing and individualisation. Salsa Dancers are looking for inspiration as opposed to hoarding techniques so rarely go to classes (maybe when someone famous is in town) and attend socials just to dance. Unfortunately, Salsa Dancers are the least catered for within the Salsa scene so are seldom seen locally but spend more time travelling to explore their dancing.

Attracting Salsa Dancers in my mind requires providing three key elements:

Music – This is very subjective which is why it is important to have a musical identity. At TNT for example, we have a music policy which we stick to and the Salsa Dancers who enjoy our music policy will come along. I personally believe that as you progress from Salsa Student to Salsa Dancer you become more musically aware and tend to like more rhythmically rich music.

Space – Salsa Dancers require a good amount of space to be able to express themselves. Salsa dancers are environmentally aware so if they are dancing in a room with little space and bad dance floor etiquette they will not be able to express themselves and thus be bored and not return.

People – Salsa Dancers require a good proportion of the night with other Salsa Dancers. One of the hardest tasks as a promoter is to get the good will of the Salsa Dancer community.

A lot of people think that Salsa Teachers are the most inspiring dancers within a Salsa scene but often it is the Salsa Dancers; these Salsa dancers play a very important part in inspiring the Salsa Students to aspire to more and also encourage Salsa Students to go outside of the box.

Summary

For your Salsa School to be successful you will need to bring in New People, transition them Salsa Students and finally to Salsa Dancers. This can take a lot of time so in the meantime you will need to supplement your growth with an injection from the Scene.

When TNT first started we did not yet have a good means to getting New People so relied on a Salsa Student and Dancer injection from the Salsa scene. Although this was successful it was not sustainable so we added a focus on getting New People into Salsa with our holistic foundation’s programme and community building initiatives.

I have seen Salsa Schools stagnate as they could not get enough inspiration through the door via Salsa Dancers. I have also seen Salsa nights fail to get started as the New People and Salsa Dancers were standing around waiting as there were no enthusiastic Salsa Students to get things moving. The hard challenge is to get the right balance for what you want to offer but neglecting any of the customer groups has consequences.

I hope you enjoy the second part of this article about the Salsa Customers to consider when building a Salsa school. One of the important initial tasks is to understand your own local community, what is available, and then mapping out your long-term strategy for success.

With most of my articles, I hope this provided some insight and gave you food for thought. If you have any thoughts on the subject please comment below or send me a personal message.

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Toan Hoang

Written by Toan Hoang

Toan Hoang has been dancing Salsa for more than 10 years and was the co-founder and managing director of TNT Dance in London; A dedicated and holistic Mambo school, that thrives on innovation, and hopes to develop and inspire the next generation of instructors and performers. www.tntdance.info

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