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Dojo Spotlight: Scottsdale Martial Arts Center

A Martial Arts Success Story

As part of our ever--growing effort to expand the KarateMart.com blog into different facets of the martial arts, we want to take a moment each month to highlight one particular school or dojo. Our goal is not only to give recognition to those schools out there doing it right, but also to provide a resource from which other dojos may learn. We want to help give a boost to those martial artists out there that may struggling to maintain a successful martial arts program.

Whether you need a fresh outlook on the direction you school is taking, help on your latest marketing idea, or just a few tips that might help bolster enrollment, it is our genuine hope that our Dojo Spotlight series will help.

So let's jump right in to our very first Dojo Spotlight shall we?

Scottsdale Martial Arts Center: The Beginning

"My philosophy is [about] translating every emotion that you experience in the dojo to the outside world."

As founder of the oldest martial arts school in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sensei Ray Hughes has 25 years of experience in running the area's most successful martial arts program. What originally began at a local YMCA in 1986, Sensei Hughes' martial arts program quickly grew in popularity. In fact, it was just a few months later that a primary location for the school was opened in a nearby industrial area. But this only marked the beginning of what Sensei Hughes had in mind for his martial arts program.

Originally focusing solely on the Wado-Ryu karate style, 1993 marked the year of Sensei Hughes' risky decision to take the school from being 'karate only' to one of multiple disciplines.

"One thing that has helped me and my image in martial arts community is when I brought other styles...Not everybody wants to do a striking art."

Unafraid of taking the martial arts in a new direction, Sensei Hughes went beyond even the uncommon practice of featuring two disciplines. Instead, his school offered an unheard of ten styles. He had a vision of creating a martial arts center that would teach a large variety of styles taught by the most prominent instructors in the world. What many would have deemed a huge gamble was set to pay off in a big way. "Shoot for the stars, and if you don't make it, at least it was a good ride."

A New Home

"If you're going to go bankrupt, go big."

On September 5, 2002, the doors to the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center officially opened. Four years of painstaking perseverance prefaced this amazing milestone for the school, but Sensei Hughes couldn't be more pleased with the end result. The thoughtful planning that went into its design is apparent from the moment one steps into the impressive facility.

Sectioned off into what is essentially three separate training rooms, one can stand from almost anywhere in the building and have a clear view of multiple classes being held. "It's very important that people be able see the trainers and their classes training." An insightful idea, but far from the only one hidden in the dojo's design.

Directly across from the main instruction area is a smaller room labeled "Play Room". Aptly named, this room serves as a dedicated play area for younger children and toddlers to occupy themselves, whether mom and dad are simply watching a class being held or are participants themselves.

"If you can't have a parent involved, you can't be successful."

Speaking of class spectating, the dojo has been designed with comfortable viewing at the forefront, as bleacher seating takes up a full side of the main dojo floor. Finally, an immaculate locker room (proudly kept up by the students themselves) serves as the final piece to brilliantly crafted martial arts facility. It has been a labor of love, and it shows in every square foot.

Business Wisdom From Sensei Ray

"My personal passion and mission is kids."

The following insights for building a successful martial arts studio have been generously provided by Sensei Hughes. While some of these may not apply directly to every situation, there are a number of approaches and philosophies here that any martial arts instructor can use.

  • On Finding Your Dojo's Identity In The Martial Arts - "My advice to people starting a martial arts school is that you have got to know what you're talking about. What really kills schools is when an [inexperienced] instructor has a poor foundation of martial arts...It's not about the kicking and the punching, you have got to have a philosophy...My philosophy is about translating every emotion that you experience in the dojo to the outside world."

  • On Building Successful Attendance - "You have to have a good message. The old images of people punching each other in the face does not work...You have to be able to market toward women, they make the majority of decisions in the household...Be fanatical about service...If you do your job, people will stay."

  • On Effectively Marketing You Dojo - "[For me] paid marketing and advertising doesn't work...The most important tool for a martial arts school is a website. Nowadays, people make their decision before they even leave their house. Put all of your money into building that website...The person that's going to stay in your school is the parent with the five-year-old kid. They're researching. That's why we have so much information on our website."

  • On Promoting Martial Arts Principles - "You have to have an instructor that's philosophical. That makes you want to come back...I talk with the kids everyday about how a good philosophy relates to class, how to learn to never quit, how the lessons learned today will help when they get older..."

The Inner Workings of Scottsdale Martial Arts Center

"You have got to do everything first class." From the stunning architecture and details of the building itself to the professional photographers utilized during belt tests, Sensei Hughes is adamant about doing everything top-of-the-line. This idea resonates through every aspect of the business, though it's most apparent by looking at their lineup of instructors.

With names such as Grandmaster Will Maier (teaching Modern Ninjutsu) and 7th Degree Shihan Dana Abbott (teaching what may very well be the best Kenjutsu class offered anywhere), the instructor roster reads more like an "All-Star" list of martial artists. Top notch instructors are definitely a great first step, but how's the view from a student's perspective?

Unlike most schools, all children must begin in a "Discovery Program" where they spend time learning the basics as well as the discipline required of them. After a few months has past, they must be recommended by an instructor in order to advance into the "Master Level Program" where they have a chance at working their way towards a black belt. Also unlike many other dojos, students must be at least 13 years of age to earn a black belt.

"We don't use contracts."  Instead of relying on contracts to keep their roster full, the school relies entirely on an honor system where students are free to leave whenever they want. Students receive a discount on their tuition if they verbally promise to stay for a specified period of time. And it works!

One last piece of advice for the martial arts business-minded? "Let staff handle the money. Instructors should never be involved with the money."

Closing Thoughts

With a refreshing approach and solid philosophy towards the martial arts, the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center is a solid role model for all other dojos to follow. But nothing is easy.

Often times, the more humble the beginnings, the greater the chance for success. This tends to hold just as true (if not more so) in the martial arts. Every martial arts program must contend with the same difficulties. Low attendance, growing pains, an unfocused philosophy, etc. What is vital is to maintain a strong focus and unwavering passion for your martial arts program.

If you've been frustrated with your martial arts program, it's never too late to re-evaluate and shift your approach. A key principle of the martial arts is adapting to the situation at hand. So don't be afraid to make some changes. Be fearless, and show the martial arts world that you're here to stay! Maybe one day we'll be doing a Dojo Spotlight on you.

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If you have dojo that you think would be a make a great candidate for our Dojo Spotlight, let us know! Send us an email explaining why you think it should be spotlighted and we'll give it a look.

Let us know what you think about the new series in the comments below. We love to hear from you!

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