Is pole dancing an art, a sport, a workout or something else? Whatever you might be thinking, Alexandra Hood wants you to know that it's an exciting business and it's growing with the help of technology.
"I rely totally on the Internet and online tools," says Ms. Hood, whose Toronto studio, Pole Incorporated, is in the city's trendy Leslieville neighbourhood.
"Even my smartphone is part of my marketing," she said in an interview conducted while she was walking downtown with her daughter. "I carry it everywhere. I couldn't be talking to you about the studio if I didn't have it with me now."
Ms. Hood's studio offers a good example of the extent to which small companies rely today on technology to make their business case and build their customer base.
Technology tools make a small business such as Ms. Hood's studio, which employs six teachers in addition to her, into an enterprise with a larger footprint, beyond its immediate pool of local customers.
"It lets us reach out," Ms. Hood says.
Jacqueline Sharp, a Toronto business consultant who is familiar with the fitness industry, says technology is indispensable to this type of business. "For a small business in a niche industry it would be nearly impossible to reach so many people in a target audience or deal with things like scheduling without online tools," Ms. Sharp says.
True, there is always walk-in business in a fitness-minded hipster area such as Leslieville, a gentrified neighbourhood in Toronto's East End with increasing numbers of younger, loft-dwelling professionals. "People see a lot of online videos and then they come to a class," Ms. Hood says.
Technology comes in handy for basic communications – telling the company's story – and that's important for an activity like pole dancing, which has a lot of sizzle but is a complicated narrative. It can evoke Las Vegas, the circus and, let's be frank, less savoury connotations such as strip clubs.
"We run classes that are structured to be a fun and motivating workout that owe a lot of inspiration to beautiful exotic dancers. But the skills we are teaching you don't translate to a job in that industry," Pole Incorporated's website explains. "We teach a lot of pole dance moves that you might see in a fitness competition or in an artistic dance routine."
Indeed, a group called the International Pole Sport Federation has been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to have pole dancing recognized at the Olympics.
And yes, men are welcome as well as women and participants do keep their clothes on. "Our studio is a safe and homey environment to explore your sensual and creative side," the website says.
The studio, one of a handful of pole dancing academies in Toronto, was opened in 2010, and Ms. Hood took it over about 1 1/2 years ago. Last April, she launched a brand extension campaign, adding new classes that incorporate ballet, martial arts and yoga, among other disciplines, into pole work.
"We are reshaping our business to reflect the exciting developments," she explains. Just as a fast-food chain needs to add a new wrap or flavoured coffee regularly, it's a matter of keeping up in the competitive personal fitness market.
Ms. Hood uses Pole Incorporated's website and its social media presence not only to build knowledge and comfort for participants, but also as a vehicle to launch and maintain a constant, online conversation.
"We treat it like a newsletter. I use a combination of paid online ads and unpaid media, including a very active Facebook page and Twitter account," she says.
Customers and teachers trade notes about pending classes, point to interesting moves and routines on Web video, announce pole dancing competitions and send encouraging messages to each other.
Like a growing number of fitness and yoga studios, Ms. Hood's facility uses a software as a service (SaaS) booking tool, so people can sign up for classes and make sure there is room. The studio likes to hold classes with about five or six people, though it will take as many as nine in one session if there is demand.
Pole Incorporated uses an online booking tool called Mindbody. Companies subscribe to this cloud-based service under monthly plans that range from $75 to $175 a month, depending on the size of the operation.
To attract new customers, Ms. Hood also offers loss-leader discounts on coupon sites such as Groupon.com or Buytopia.ca. For businesses that offer an experience, such as her studio, it's an easy way to encourage interest, because once the class is set up for a group, the cost of adding one extra coupon customer is minimal.
(However, it can be a problem managing the expectations of customers who start out with a coupon, Ms. Hood warns. "They get the online deal and then they're reluctant to pay full price another time.")
One tech tool Ms. Hood uses to respond directly to customers is the online e-mail form – instead of just publishing an e-mail address for the studio, website visitors click on a form, which helps Pole Incorporated keep track of queries and answer them promptly.
That's the real benefit of technology for a small service business such as Ms. Hood's studio – the ability to connect directly and immediately with the customer. As Ms. Sharp explains, "Without the technology, each step, such as publishing class times, arranging teacher schedules, answering questions about levels and so on would require a phone call, and a person to answer the phone."
With technology, Ms. Hood says, "I can be the head of Pole Incorporated 24 hours a day."