When Lila Werner quit her job to become a professional ice skater, she didn’t do it for the cash. She did so for a paid trip to Saudi Arabia.
This winter, the 27-year-old — who previously worked as an experiential coordinator for companies like Dell in Austin, Texas — was paid 5,000 euros (equivalent to about $5,450) for seven weeks of skating, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. .
Werner spent four weeks training in Belgium before returning to the US in early January, before performing 22 shows over three weeks in Saudi Arabia. She said the trip was a priceless opportunity.
But there’s a downside to being an international ice skater: Werner says she’ll return because there’s little left over from her salary. She is not alone. Other contract ice skaters who quit their jobs and performed abroad during the holidays didn’t make much money — but they essentially got to travel for free.
“I had to take money out of my savings account to pay my rent and car payments on time,” Werner said. But, she adds, the trip includes stipends for her accommodation, plane tickets and food.
“It almost feels like a paid vacation,” Werner said.
Paying in Experiences
Since hanging up her skates in high school, Lily Samuels-Schrag — who works contract box office jobs at New York music venues — has skated for fun.
But after sending her skating videos to a touring company, she landed a role in a traveling ice show and was asked to join a four-week tour from Paris to southern France between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She was paid 1,800 euros (about $1,965), according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. Half of what she made by staying in New York, she said — but the journey was worth it.
“I don’t want to limit myself in terms of experiences,” Samuels-Schrag says. “If I can still do the things I love or make money while I’m young and have the energy to live a chaotic life, that’s a perfect storm right now.”
Roaming around Nice and Paris calmed her wanderlust over the holidays, and performing for Monaco’s royal family was the cherry on top, she says. Likewise, Werner says that when she doesn’t have shows scheduled, she goes on excursions like desert camel rides and scenic overlook hikes.
Those experiences cost money, but both women said they saved a portion of their salary — Samuels-Schrag said she ended up pocketing about $900 while enjoying the trip.
Starting a career
For other skaters, globetrotting isn’t the point. Experience and exposure are 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-expanding lifeline.
“Honestly, I’m not sure if I even broke that contract,” Smith, now 29, said. “I want coaching experience.”
The show led to more coaching and choreography experiences abroad. Those jobs are often more lucrative than gigs, Smith said. And most performers accept the terms they’re offered, prioritizing travel over money, which Smith negotiates with her employers.
The more hats you can wear, the more irreplaceable you become.
Toronto based skater
In the summer and fall, she choreographs for skating teams in the US, Canada, Turkey and France for at least eight hours a day, for at least six days — bringing in about $80 an hour.
In the winter, she skates in Busch Garden’s annual Christmas show in Williamsburg, Virginia. Because she’s performed for eight years, she earns more: Last December, she earned $8,000 for four weeks of work.
The rest of the year, she helps teams train on an as-needed basis, coaches individual skaters and picks up short-term teaching contracts in Canada.
“It takes years to establish back-to-back contracts, but once you do you can rely on that infrastructure,” Smith said. “The more hats you can wear, the more irreplaceable you become.”
Cost of International Exhibition
For many skaters, these trips have a hidden cost. Monthly bills at home don’t stop just because you’re abroad.
Werner, for example, paid rent on a one-bedroom apartment while she was traveling. And it’s not cheap: According to Rent.com, the average one-bedroom in Austin costs $1,594 a month.
Samuels-Schrag avoided Manhattan’s high rental prices — an average of $4,550 for a one-bedroom — with short-term subleases. Frequent moves are inconvenient and stressful not knowing where you’ll sleep for the next month, but it’s cheaper to pay rent only when you’re actually in town, she says.
Subleases also carry steep discounts, with absentee tenants looking to recoup as much of their rents as possible. The result: Samuels-Schrag says she pays an average of $1,000 a month in rent while in New York.
Health insurance is also a factor, especially for those under the age of 26. Werner’s health insurance fees came directly from her paychecks, which came to about $280 during her trip, she said. Samuels-Schrag is still on her parents’ health insurance plan, helping her more with each paycheck.
Perhaps predictably, Samuels-Schrag said she would love to continue skating overseas. Werner, on the other hand, said she wouldn’t take another contract, especially one that would keep her away from home for months at a time.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Werner said. “But I also like my home. I like being in my space with my routine.”
CNBC Make It changed Euros to USD on February 1, 2023.
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