When Lila Werner quit her job to become a professional ice skater, she didn’t do it for the money. She did it for an all-expense paid trip to Saudi Arabia.
This winter, the 27-year-old — who previously worked as an experience coordinator for companies such as Dell in Austin, Texas — was paid 5,000 euros (roughly equivalent to $5,450) for seven weeks of skating, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
Werner spent four of those weeks training in Belgium before performing 22 concerts in three weeks in Saudi Arabia and returning to the US in early January. The tour was an invaluable opportunity, she says.
But there’s a downside to being an international ice skater: Werner says he’ll come back with very little pay left. She is not alone. Other chartered ice skaters who quit their jobs and performed abroad during the holidays didn’t make much money — but got to travel essentially for free.
“I had to pull money out of my savings account to make my rent and car payments on time,” Werner says. But, she adds, the tour covered her housing, airfare and food stipends.
“It almost feels like a paid vacation,” says Werner.
Pay in experience
Ever since she hung up her skates in high school, Lily Samuels-Schrag, who works as a contract box office worker at music venues in New York, has been skating for fun.
But after submitting her skating videos to a tour company, she landed a role in a traveling ice show and was asked to join a four-week tour from Paris to the south of France between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She was paid 1,800 euros (roughly $1,965), according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. That’s about half of what she’d earn if she stayed in New York, she says, but the trip is worth it.
“I don’t want to limit myself in terms of experiences,” says Samuels-Schrag. “If I can break even or get paid to do the things I love when I’m young and have the stamina to live a chaotic life, it’s the perfect storm for now.”
Roaming around Nice and Paris quenched her wanderlust during the holidays, and performing for Monaco’s royal family was the icing on the cake, she says. Similarly, Werner says that when she didn’t have shows scheduled, she went on excursions like camel rides in the desert and scenic hikes with a view.
These experiences cost money, but both women say they saved some of their paychecks — Samuels-Schrag says she ended up pocketing about $900 — while still enjoying the trip.
For other skaters, traveling the world is not important. Experience and exposure are more important.
In October 2015, Toronto-based skater Victoria Smith was asked to help coach a synchronized skating team in Australia for a month. Fresh off a win at the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships, Smith saw the opportunity as a career-long lifeline.
“Honestly, I’m not sure if I broke that contract,” says Smith, now 29. “I just wanted coaching experience.
The concert led to more coaching and choreographic experience abroad. These jobs are often more lucrative than exhibitions, Smith says. And while many contractors simply accept the terms they’re offered, prioritizing travel over money, Smith negotiates with his employers.
The more hats you can wear, the more indispensable you become.
Toronto based skater
In the summer and fall, she brings in about $80 an hour — a minimum of eight hours a day, for at least six days per concert — choreographing for skating teams in the U.S., Canada, Turkey and France.
In the winter, she skates in the annual Busch Garden Christmas Show in Williamsburg, Virginia. Since she’s been performing for eight years, she earns more: Last December, she made $8,000 in four weeks of work.
The rest of the year, she helps the teams she coaches as needed, tutors skaters one-on-one, and takes short-term teaching contracts in Canada to make ends meet.
“It takes years to get consistent contracts, but once you do, you can count on that infrastructure,” Smith says. “The more hats you can wear, the more indispensable you become.”
International delivery costs
For many skaters, these trips have hidden costs. Monthly bills at home don’t stop just because you’re abroad.
Werner, for example, was still paying rent on her one-bedroom apartment while she traveled. And it’s not cheap: The average one-bedroom in Austin costs $1,594 per month, according to Rent.com.
Samuels-Schrag avoids high rent prices in Manhattan — an average of $4,550 for a one-bedroom apartment — with short-term sublease contracts. Frequent moves are inconvenient and not knowing where you’ll be sleeping for the next month is stressful, but it’s cheaper to pay rent only when you’re in town, she says.
Subletting agreements can also offer deep discounts, with absentee tenants desperate to recoup any amount of their rent. The result: Samuels-Schrag says she pays an average of $1,000 a month in rent while in New York.
Health insurance also matters, especially for those under the age of 26. Werner’s health insurance fees come directly from her paychecks, amounting to about $280 during her tour, she says. Samuels-Schrag is still on her parents’ health insurance plan, which helps her take home more from each paycheck.
Perhaps predictably, Samuels-Schrag says she would like to continue skating overseas. Werner, on the other hand, says she probably won’t take another contract, especially one that keeps her away from home for months at a time.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” says Werner. “But I also like my home. I like to be in my space with my routine.”
CNBC Make It converts Euro to USD on February 1, 2023.
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