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Affordability a concern during prom season

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Stockbridge resident, LeVon Bellamy, has revamped the business model for his Express Tuxedo Rental shop in Decatur.

When business should have been booming during the last high school prom season, he saw a slump in clientele.

"Last year was a down year for me," said Bellamy. "But it's definitely started to pick up lately. I think one big change is that they [clients] are trying to find ways not to spend a lot of money, because it's a one-time occasion in their life that they want to take part in."

High school students continued to patronize retail shops specializing in formal dresses and tuxedos, but in times of economic hardship, their loyalties lie in the bottom line, Bellamy said. So, he had to find a way to be more economical, in order to continue to be competitive.

"One of the things that I'm doing different is changing our approach to the prom market," he said. "It's all about creative marketing and reaching out."

Bellamy now offers incentives for students who rent from his tuxedo-rental shop. He created a competition among 16 different metro-Atlanta schools this year, called the Battle of the Proms. He said schools in the competition automatically receive a donation toward a school-related program worth 10 percent of each student's rental cost.

Bellamy added that, at the end of prom season, the school with the highest percentage of students who have rented tuxedos from his shop are awarded an additional 10 percent per rental, in effect doubling the donation for that school's school-related program.

"It's a little friendly competition, and it's going over really, really well," he said.

Morrow High School's Athletic Program stands to benefit from the competition, according to Jennifer Henley, a teacher and prom coordinator at the school.

Henley estimates that at least 350 students, from her school, will attend the school's prom in May, about the same as attended last year. That could mean about 175 potential clients for Bellamy, and other area tuxedo retailers.

While much changes in relation to the economy, students continue to support activities during their senior year of high school, Henley said.

"It's like their rite of passage," Henley said. "I know for a lot of seniors, they've been looking forward to prom since their freshman year."

Henley said prom has become relatively more expensive for students, who continue to find creative ways to prevent over-budgeting themselves.

"At about $50-65 per person, it's like planning a wedding," Henley said. "We've already tried to keep our cost low over the years. We do our prom on a Friday night, because that does save money. Costs are also lower when more students attend. We've already sold 250 tickets," she added.

Students at Eagle's Landing High School, in McDonough, seem to find ways to finance their futures, as well as their memories, according to Eagle's Landing Principal Gabe Crerie.

"I have found that although we are having a tough economy, people are willing to spend on areas of significant importance," Crerie said. "We have seen very healthy payments for senior dues [senior events, Advanced Placement exams, graduation, and prom]. Prom is an event, like graduation, that people hold as an important rite of passage."

Schools continue to try to curtail costs associated with school-related activities like the prom, going as far as taking donations to supplement those costs, according to Lori Vincent, a teacher and prom organizer at Ola High School in McDonough.

"I think it is fair to say that we are working with a budget that is economically friendly and appropriate while providing an experience that will be memorable," Vincent said.

"We've never, to my knowledge, planned an event that went beyond the affordability level of the average student in our attendance zone," she said. "We provide as much as we can for what we can afford."

Vincent noted that, while organizers have made progress in making the prom more affordable, the need for financial support has persisted. She said the school's "scholarship" prom tickets, given to those who are financially unable to purchase tickets, will be in shorter supply this year compared to years past, even as the number of students in need has increased.

"We'd like to ensure that prom isn't cost prohibitive for any student," she said. "And we welcome any donations from generous benefactors."