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Improvise, Adapt and Overcome! 6 Lessons I Learned When My Dojo Reopened After the COVID Pandemic Shutdown

maia mentor Sep 01, 2020

by Adam Parman


As American states begin allowing businesses to reopen, many martial arts school owners are finding themselves in a strange new world filled with challenges, financial pressures, fears and, in many cases, far fewer students than they once had. This has made their lives anything but easy. Their minds are filled with self-doubt and apprehension.

As a martial artist, you know what it’s like to be pummeled in a fight — and what it takes to come back and win. But do you have the fortitude and the know-how to do the same with your business? No doubt you’ve heard about martial art schools across the country closing their doors for the last time, and you’ve vowed that even though it’s apparent that not every business will survive, you won’t be one of the victims. But that may not be enough. Chances are you also can benefit from a few pointers.

I’m based in Atlanta, Georgia, which means I live in one of the first states to reopen. That means I’ve already begun navigating the uncharted waters that lie before all of us. Because I know how confusing this journey can be, I’ve prepared a list of lessons that can help.


Lesson No. 1: It’s not over!

Don’t be lulled into thinking that your most challenging months as a business owner are behind you. We all would like to think that once we open, the cancellations will stop, the students will come back and the revenue will return. Unfortunately, with social distancing and class-size limitations, this likely won’t be the case for you.

After we reopened, we continued to receive cancellations from students who had lost interest while trying to participate in our Zoom classes. We also lost students whose automated tuition payments had stopped without explanation.

Furthermore, we noted that students who returned did so at a slower rate than we had anticipated and that renewals were low. The first several weeks were sobering, to say the least.

Why am I opening with such a “lesson”? Because it’s essential to state this at the outset so you know what you’re up against — just like any martial artist who’s heading into a fight.


Lesson No. 2: Systems matter!

After talking with clients, speaking with friends and reaching out to my connections in the industry, I realized that we’re not as bad off as some martial arts schools are. While we had experienced losses, our school hadn’t lost nearly as many students — and I discovered the reason: systems.

You need to have systems in place for retention, cancellations, student communication, upgrades and replies to leads. Having these helped us retain our current students and enroll new ones while many schools suffered. Those same systems are helping us rebuild at a much faster pace, and that will enable us to get back on top.

If you haven’t already, take the time to focus on your systems and make changes where needed. Some of the systems that made a big difference for us were the selling of programs (rather than memberships), our extended time guarantee, our summer seminar series, our upgrade nomination process and our “miss you” automatic responses.

If you’re lacking any of these basic systems, make it a priority to find someone who can help you develop them so they can take your school to the next level and strengthen your opportunities for growth in the immediate future.


Lesson No. 3: Virtual training is not optimal!

When the shutdown hit, I remember watching Facebook posts made by school owners who seemed overjoyed that their first day of virtual training went well. Many made comments about how they would continue the virtual training forever because it held limitless possibilities.

Fast-forward 12 weeks: None of our schools’ instructors look forward to getting in front of the computer to do another Zoom class. Although I, too, prefer in-person training, I admit that virtual training serves a purpose and, as such, it will be critical to your success as you reopen.

Expect many of your students to be apprehensive about returning or, even worse, unwilling to return to in-person classes at all. As a result, it’s imperative that you continue online training for now — at least until the majority of your student body returns.

While most of us can agree that virtual is not the best way to teach martial arts, our schools have found ways to incorporate it into our business, and we’ve had outstanding results. Example: We recently held a “parent presentation” on the last day of our summer camp and invited the parents to join us for a special martial arts class on Zoom. During the class, campers showed off all the cool martial arts techniques they’d learned. If it was their first week of camp, we allowed each participant to break a board and earn their white belt.

At the end of the Zoom session, we discussed a special enrollment offer and asked parents to let us know if they wanted to take advantage of this deal when they picked up their child later that day. The end result: five new enrollments for our evening classes.

Over the past few months, we’ve found that virtual training is quite useful for orientation and private lessons with students who have schedule challenges or are still leery about returning to our schools.


Lesson No. 4: It’s crucial to ask the right questions!

This is perhaps the biggest lesson my staff and I learned. When they returned, I had them call each member and ask about their plans for coming back. Some said they were ready to do so immediately. Most said they would cautiously wait. Others were adamant that they wouldn’t be resuming in-person training anytime soon.

The staff members looked defeated after completing those calls — which is when I realized that we hadn’t asked the right questions.

Rather than inquire about the students’ intentions, we should have asked what would make them feel more comfortable about returning, then worked with them to provide a reasonable solution. Once we started posing the right questions, we found that many said they were OK with the notion of coming in for private lessons even though they didn’t want to join the group classes.

That revelation prompted us to work on building trust in the safety of our private lessons, after which it became easier to get them into larger — although still restricted in size — group classes that used social-distanced squares and equipment that was cleaned more rigorously.

Likewise, I found asking the right questions during the inquiry calls and the orientation appointments was crucial. As do most martial arts schools, we have a web page that offers virtual training and promotes in-person classes. However, we noticed that most parents who contacted us about virtual training were OK with in-person training as long as they understood all the protocols we had implemented to keep everyone safe and healthy. Remember that it’s easier to build value in your classes once someone has experienced them in person. That results in a higher percentage of down payments — revenue you will desperately need once you get up to full speed again.


Lesson No. 5: You need to maximize your marketing!

Replacing the students you lost must be your top priority. To that end, you should invest extra time and money in maximizing your marketing efforts. For school owners who were fortunate to receive the government-backed loans, resist the urge to use the money to remodel your school. Instead, use it to rebuild your student body. The following are five ways to maximize this marketing campaign.

  • Lesson 5a: Ensure that you’re capturing every lead and that you’re getting notices as soon as you receive them. If your website and Facebook pages are not supplying you with daily leads, you’re doing something wrong. You need to fix it immediately. I never realized how many leads my staff was missing until we switched to a website that was built to convert, one designed with an understanding of the martial arts business. Your ability to follow-up with those leads in a timely manner is essential to scheduling appointments at your facility instead of at a competitor’s school.
  • Lesson 5b: Work on implementing or revising your automation lead flows to engage prospects and convert leads into appointments. Remember that some leads aren’t ready to make a decision about your program right away. They’re simply visiting your website while they consider getting involved in martial arts and may make a decision in the near future. This is why it’s so important to have automated lead flows that are designed to engage, inform and convert leads into appointments or trials.

It’s worth noting that not every lead is looking for the same thing or the same program. Make sure you have separate automations that are tailored to the individual interest of each lead. My schools have separate lead automations for our kids, teen and adult classes, as well as for birthday parties, summer camps and afterschool programs.

  • Lesson 5c: Create a plan of action and be prepared to launch a summer or back-to-school special as soon as you begin to see more interest in attending class.

When businesses go through hard times, they often stop marketing because money is tight. Don’t make this mistake. The longer it takes your school to regain the students you had, the more it’s going to ultimately cost you. You must be willing to spend money to make a quick recovery. This could be money you don’t want to spend or money you’re reluctant to allocate because of the financial losses you incurred. This can’t stop you from investing in your business.

  • Lesson 5d: Learn to think outside the box. When you reopen, you’ll need to set aside old, preconceived ideas and make some changes that might be uncomfortable. Embrace that!

Whenever I feel uncomfortable, I tell myself that it means I’m growing as a person, a manager and a leader. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Start thinking about solutions rather than excuses. Government restrictions will keep you from doing business indefinitely if you let them. Stop letting them. Start looking for unique ways to interact with your students — for example, a buddy day in the park or a virtual mass enrollment.

  • Lesson 5e: Don’t forget traditional forms of marketing. If you’re not marketing your school on social media and Google, you’re missing out on a ton of leads. The more forms of marketing you use, the better everything works. You must have a strong online presence, but you also must have a strong local marketing effort. This includes direct mail, banners on the street, yard signs, rack cards in businesses and more. The more marketing you have in your community, the more effective your online marketing will be. They work hand-in-hand to get the results you need to beat this virus and continue to make a difference in your community.


Lesson No. 6: You must learn how to find your new ideal customer!

If you asked me what the ideal customer for our academies was prior to March 2020, I would have listed the characteristics that make most of our current students ideal. The new ideal customer is someone who’s not afraid to take in-person classes, not afraid of catching the coronavirus and not predisposed to continuing to shelter in place. These students see value in what you offer and are excited to get started with a new activity that’s not virtual. They understand and respect the COVID protocols you have in place, but they would train with you regardless. These students can afford your program, may have jobs that allow them to work from home and are quick to refer friends to your academy. Knowing these attributes enables you to market accordingly.

Recently, we modified our print and web advertising to include statements like “Now offering in-person classes!” and “Get started today with your in-person orientation lesson!” This is designed to attract what we regard as our new ideal member. As you reopen, you’ll need to make similar changes in your marketing.

Throughout this difficult process, never forget the winner’s mindset. We all make decisions about the things we allow to influence us. We must strive to push aside negative beliefs and thoughts of self-doubt. Because this likely will be one of the most challenging times your business ever faces, you need to do the following:

Right now, tell yourself that you have this, that you’re up for the challenge and that you will succeed! Now is the time for action. Conquer the day and learn to thrive amid the turmoil.


Adam Parman is a Martial Arts Industry Association consultant who owns schools in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Keith Scott, Joe Corley, Bill Clark, Mike Metzger and Frank Silverman. To contact him, send an email to [email protected].


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