I made a post on my bigger studio owners group [SAVVY] DANCE STUDIO OWNERS - (which is the free group I started when I was sharing my journey of achieving my goal of 700 students last year, and now exists mostly for the purpose of advertising Studio Savvy) - the other day, asking to brainstorm what challenges that we as studio owners expected we would have to face when we reopen our studios and recommence classes.
I actually got quite a few responses, so I'm going to answer each of them with some thoughts.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK THE GREATEST CHALLENGE IS GOING TO BE, ONCE WE ARE ALLOWED TO REOPEN OUR STUDIOS POST-RESTRICTIONS?" FEAR
The potential that fear of Covid-19 will stop people from coming back to after school activities. Honestly no two people I have spoken to share the same thoughts on this whole pandemic situation. Some are extra cautious and deeply concerned we haven't seen the worst of it yet, then others are of the opinion that the whole thing has been over-exaggerated by the politicians and the media. And most think somewhere between the extremes. There is no doubt, that SOME of our families won't be "ready" to return to their after-school activities immediately. I have heard from some parents who want to wait a few extra weeks to let the others test the waters. I have heard from some families who have specific immuno-suppressed, high risk individuals in their home and just know that coming back to dancing is too risky at the moment. We cannot control the decisions that our customers make, especially around such a complex situation such as this. All we can do is try our very best to ease any fear that might be there, by giving our families a reason to have confidence. We can do this by having clear, well-considered and professionally executed safety measures implemented throughout our businesses. By showing that we are taking the risks seriously and doing everything we can to minimise them. And by communicating these concisely, so that everyone in our studio is completely aware of all the new policies and procedures for a "CovidSafe" environment. The more we do to help ease that fear, the less likely it is to impact [most] of the parents' decision about when to return.
REBUILDING NUMBERS Under-capacity classes and lost clients. It's unlikely that any of us will resume with 100% of the students that we have prior to closing our doors. Some won't return immediately because of fear. For others it will be finances that dictate that decision. Parents who may have lost significant income during the restrictions. There will also be others who honestly might have lost interest. All this time at home - families getting to live a more simple life, eating dinner at the table together, not having to race around between activities and events, has been an eye-opening experience, and some will have discovered a life they prefer. This pandemic has, amongst other things, shaken not just our lives but our lifestyles. Others can't wait to get back. They've liked the brief break of routine and being home of an afternoon, but now they're more excited to get back in the studio and dance than ever before. In my studio, from the conversations I've had with families so far, this is the majority. I believe that momentum is such a thing. We have lost momentum, but it won't take long to get it back again. None of us can truly know how many of our kids will return. But DEFINITELY don't just ask them... (To ask is to open the door of decision, and we want the behavioral norm and natural implication to be that "of course" we expect to see everyone again - because humans are herd animals, and most of the time we all tend to do what we think others are doing.) So maybe we'll go back with 80%? Maybe for some of us it will be 90%? Maybe better, maybe worse. Again, we cannot totally control this, but we can help it. We can remove the "friction" from the process of returning, by making it easy for parents with a simple "you're in unless you opt-out" policy. We can show our enthusiasm about returning, and "encourage encourage encourage" 'till the cows come home. We can make sure that our communication is next-level awesome, and is reaching every single one of our customers across all avenues and platforms. We can take the time to reach out to those we don't see right away, and listen to their concerns. We can remind our students of why they love dance, and remind their parents of what their children get out of the experience. Once we've done everything we can to minimise the losses, then comes the process of regrowing. Filling those empty spots (...and then some). Getting our studios back to a state of growth, in all age groups and styles. This is where a good marketing plan is important, and quick-fire execution of multiple advertising initiatives. And it's not going to be easy. We're going to be coming into this with no money, and not a lot of time. There's a great article in Studio Savvy members area on our website with 50 useful marketing tips, and I highly recommend picking a few of those to start. Many of them cost little to nothing to execute. The trick is doing as many of them as possible, not just one or two. It casts a wider net. It won't be long until we're back in the swing of things. For the few clients we might lose as a result of the forced PAUSE we've had, there are thousands more out there that will be looking for a new passion or hobby. There are ALWAYS more kids. We CAN rebuild our numbers. (And in the meantime, a bit of cost-cutting is likely in order. Perhaps reducing some staff hours and consolidating the timetable for maximum efficiency and profitability.)
CONCERT Will we be able to have a concert, and what would that look like? Saving this one for another post... because it's a big topic and it needs a lot of discussion.
COMMUNITY With parents not allowed in the foyer, getting to chat with their friends and be part of the studio, will that deteriorate the “family” closeness off the studio community, and will it inhibit potential growth? Even if we are fortunate enough to have the rule of maximum 20 persons in each classroom, rather than applying to the whole premises, we will still need to change (for a while at least) the policies around our foyer and waiting rooms. I am a big fan of the waiting room, but not all dance studio owners are. I just think they add another element to the service that we provide, giving parents a comfy place to wait for their child, make friends, watch the classes on the big screens through the CCTV cameras and just generally feel connected to the studio. It establishes behavioural habit which I think helps with retention. I’ve spoken with parents before who have mentioned that in the holidays what they miss the most is their quiet time sitting and drinking a coffee and reading a magazine in our foyer, or chatting with the other mums and dads. For the next little while, we won’t be able to offer this service to our clients. It’s not crucial, but it might have some impact on the “community” feel of the studio. There is much that can be done to combat this though. We can make up for it by posting more regularly on our social media pages with great photos and videos of what’s happening inside the studio. We can set up parent catch-up Zooms like “wine time”. We can have virtual family events like online trivia and games nights. Now that the hospitality industry is opening up, we could even arrange social dinners for parents of certain age groups, or partner with a cafe close to our studio and establish that as the recommended spot to wait whilst kids are in class. I don’t think it will be a permanent, or even particularly long-lasting change, so the impact can be managed. Some other ideas to help maintain some sense of community in a foyer-less studio include banding together to raise money for charity, running some one-off adults classes for mums and dads, keeping everyone up to date with more regular newsletters or a studio blog. Perhaps depending on space, some of us could consider putting tables and chairs outside the studio or in the car park and setting up a makeshift waiting area with an outdoor gas heater and some fairy lights - parents could bring blankets and thermoses with coffee.
PROP-LESS PRESCHOOLERS The challenge of keeping preschool classes as engaging, without the useful props that they love. If your preschoolers are anything like mine, they are spoilt with so many exciting bright props that bring instant adventure to every class. But I remember a time when all we had for our preschoolers was an empty room and a CD player. And I believe that with some creative lesson plan adapting, we can still provide a fun and engaging lesson for our youngest students. Imagination is going to get a work-out. We can transport our kids to magical lands through song and play. And there are some special items that could be used and safely disposed of, like tissues, paper plates, paper straws etc.
VIBE Keeping a fun family vibe with all of the restrictions in place, and not feeling like a kill-joy. Make it fun! Anything and everything can be a game. Create a song (rewrite the lyrics to a song that kids already know) that reminds kids of the new rules. Make up some games for in class that work with social distancing. Make a funny video with staff to teach students about the new safety measures. Vibe comes from the top (the studio owner) so we just need to make sure we are having fun and everyone else will follow.
CLEANING Sooooooo much cleaning!!! One of the concerns that popped up in the poll is CLEANING. Studio owners worried about the massive increase in time needing to be spent cleaning the studio to a higher standard, every day as well as some cleaning between classes. I currently (well... previously) get my studio cleaned 6 times a week. I have mostly "hired" parents who couldn't otherwise afford dancing, or who struggle with their dancing fees, to clean for $25 an hour off their bill. My premises is over 800sqm though, so that just keeps it at a somewhat decent standard. I know that with parent expectations and our safety responsibilities, I'm going to need to step up the cleaning big time. I'm going to be offering additional cleaning "spots" to parents who have lost work because of the restrictions, and let them clean in return for some of their fees. My plan is to select parents who I know would not be returning (due to financial reasons) otherwise. This way it's not negatively impacting income for the studio - because it's not money I would have been getting anyway, and the benefit is that their children can still dance. This will be temporary, on a 5-week contract, which will be assessed before renewing for another 5 weeks if necessary. Perhaps some of the new cleaning helpers will be back to work later in the year, and this solution will have managed to keep them with us as a client for many years to come. For studio owners not in a position to credit or discount fees in return for cleaning, implementing a volunteer system might be viable? Parents are just as keen as the kids for the dance studios to reopen, and if they know that the only way for this to happen is if some volunteers put in time to help keep the studio safe and clean, then I imagine there would be quite a few that would be happy to help. And if any of us have staff on Jobkeeper support that are currently earning more than they usually do, and then they definitely should be putting in a few proper cleaning shifts too. I also plan on having at least one staff member "floating" at all times whilst operating the first few weeks, greeting at the door, reminding students to hand-sanitize, cleaning surfaces every 30 minutes, encouraging social distancing and keeping everything sparkling and fresh etc.
WORKLOAD As a studio principal, needing to be at the studio all the time to police the rules, rebuild the relationships and making sure everything is going smoothly. Nothing I write here is going to take away from the massive workload that lies ahead. Time management is going to be more important than ever. The next few months might just be the most crucial time in the history of each of our businesses. We have additional safety measures to manage, clients to win over again and a delicate atmosphere to rebalance. Delegation is our best chance of survival. Whether it is to Jobkeeper staff who are happy to take on some extra hours, or helping current staff to increase their efficiency so that they have the time to take more on, or recruiting the help of volunteer parents or senior students. And organisation will be everything. Daily task lists. Clearly articulated processes, policies and procedures. Short term and long term plans. Regular communication with staff, and consistent expectations. It might feel like you're alone, but you are not. Don't try to take on everything yourself. Oversee, and focus on management and vision. If there's a task that is especially time-consuming that anyone else could possibly do, delegate it. Ask. And it's ok to put the pressure on your staff, so don't feel guilty to do so. They have a job to go back to thanks to you.
PARENTS COMPLAINING ABOUT NOT GETTING TO WATCH ON THE CCTV CAMERAS If they’re used to being able to look up from their comfy lounge in the foyer and see their kids happily participating in class, it’s going to be a massive culture-shock to suddenly not have that service available. It might use up some extra phone data, but I reckon the best thing to do, for the youngest classes, is to set up a Facebook Live from a phone. You can get cheap tabletop tripods for phones at most electronics stores or online. If you do the FB Live inside a group, then only those participants will be able to see it. This might be the best possible solution if your preschool parents are anxious about waiting in their cars whilst their kids are in the studio. Too extreme for you? Even just some video snippets and lots of photos from in class, posted into your studio Facebook group would make a massive difference to parents.
WORKING THROUGH NEWLY FORMED (OR REFORMED) SEPARATION ANXIETY Kids and preschoolers have just experienced months of mostly being at home with parents, and there will be some who struggle to reestablish that independence right away. That attachment is going to be stronger than ever. And all that work in the first few months of the year working with our preschoolers to earn their trust, boost their confidence and help them develop some independence, will have likely been in vain. I think that we will see some extreme separation anxiety, and not just in our preschoolers. Patience is key here, but it really doesn't help that we will be limited by room capacities, so inviting parents in to watch and console for a while isn't really an option. I recommend that teachers of young classes meet and gather their students out wherever the parents are waiting, and then begin the process of rebuilding that familiarity and trust back up again before taking them inside to the dance room. Some extra assistant teachers might be needed for consoling upset kids, and taking them out to parents if they need a hug from mum or dad. My advice to teachers is to take it slow. Ease the kids back into it, focusing first and foremost on fun and confidence-building. Even in some of the older classes, I don't think the students will respond well to jumping straight back in at the pace they were previously used to working at. One step at a time.
AFFORDABILITY No matter how much they love dance, some families just won’t be able to afford it, if their income has been severely impacted by Covid-19 and the restrictions. So we as studio owners have a choice to make. We can either move on without these students, wishing them well and encouraging them to join us again at some point down the track, or we can look into solutions to help keep these students in our studios in hope that their family's financial situation will change soon and we will soon be receiving regular fees from them again, and long into the future. Oooh it's a tricky one. Who decides what the eligibility is for discount? Will people take advantage? Does that take up a spot in a class that will be in demand for a full-paying student? Will discounting for some and not for others create an unfair inequality within the studio community? Will it impact the amount that dance classes are valued by parents? It seems easier not to bother. But then again, the long term value of a customer is massive, especially when they are loyal and a family with siblings dancing. If it's a choice of not getting any income from them at all whilst their kids sit at home sad that they're unable to afford to go back to dance, or getting partial fees and providing their children an opportunity to dance, see their friends and maintain a strong connection to their studio.... what is the right decision? Again, like with most things, there is not one definitive correct path. Every studio is different. Every area has a different demographic. I'm not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you what I'm going to do. I am going to wait to see who doesn't return and find out why. And if the reason is financial, I'm going to call the parents to talk about it, try and get some more information about the parents' income situation and consider offering some discounted or free classes on a case by case basis. These will be based on an agreement of confidentiality, and with terms clearly identified in writing - especially timeline and plan for returning back to full payment.
GETTING STUDENTS’ TECHNIQUE AND CONDITIONING BACK TO STANDARD Fixing bad techniques students may have developed whilst dancing at home, and building their strength, flexibility and stamina back up. Take it slow. Don't put too much pressure on. It won't take long for the students to get back to where they were. Especially with plenty of love, care and guidance. The students will be hungry for some fresh inspiration, motivation and encouragement. They will be excited to come back, but it's hard for any experience to live up to highly anticipated expectations, and there's risk of a "crash" in week two or three after returning. We don't need to make it perfect for them, we just need to bring the best of ourselves as teachers and mentors, and help to make the studio feel like home so that our students feel safe and confident.
TRAFFIC FLOW In a tight hallway, or cosy foyer - managing the thoroughfares is going to be a challenge between classes. This depends so much on each unique studio premises, but here are some strategies for helping to crowd control and avoid congestion in the walkways. We could adjust our timetables to make sure classes are starting and finishing at different times. Young classes can be walked with their teachers to their next dance room, or to their parents waiting outside. In some cases where age groups normally swap room and teachers stay fixed, the teacher could swap instead. Markers on the floor outside dance rooms can help students spread out when waiting in line to go in to class. Rearranging or removal of unnecessary furniture can help create more space. Where possible using a separate door for entry and exit is ideal - but I doubt many studios are build so that this could work. Mostly though I think that creating a calm atmosphere is the most important and most effective strategy. Having some staff or teachers in the hallways during class breaks and between classes to remind students to keep moving, keep a soft voice and maintain some social distancing would be hugely beneficial.