The struggle against COVID-19 has rightly been described as a war. Some martial arts school owners did nothing as the coronavirus attacked, and their businesses perished. Most school owners took defensive action, and they survived. A few, however, went on the offensive. Even as they defended themselves against the hit brought on by the lockdowns, they explored new territory where they saw good chances for growth. These are the success stories of seven of them.
School: Black Tiger Martial Arts
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
Co-Owner: Robin McLeod Ingram (with husband Bill Ingram)
When COVID-19 started to affect businesses in March 2020, our first plan was to have separate class times throughout the day with brothers and sisters training together — and maybe a few other kids for a maximum of four per class. We would make sure they were more socially distanced than was suggested. Furthermore, we would require everyone to wear a mask.
When local businesses were shut down altogether, we switched to Zoom for virtual instruction. Part of that was giving young students weekly challenges — we called them “The Superman Challenge,” “The Hulk Challenge” and so on. Of course, we explained how each one worked so students could do them at home. At the end of every week, the winner of the challenge was awarded a trophy that could be picked up at our school. The challenges kept the kids engaged and gave them something to work on (and film for social media) in addition to our daily classes.
We did all this along with Facebook Live sessions, but still we lost many students. It was a struggle to retain enough students to keep the doors open. That’s why we took advantage of a Small Business Administration loan to help with expenses.
As if 2020 hadn’t started badly enough, in July, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time, I had been looking at opening a school in York, South Carolina, a small community with no dedicated martial arts program nearby. Because the location was so appealing, in the middle of COVID — and despite surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other forms of treatment — I kept working on the dream of the new school. It finally opened, and on May 24, 2021, we held our first class.
Following the five tenets of taekwondo has kept our lives and our businesses moving forward: courtesy, or being kind no matter what; integrity, or doing the right thing by our kids and innovating ways to keep them active, fit and engaged; perseverance, or not giving up a dream in the face of adversity; self-control, or limiting negative thoughts while maintaining a positive outlook; and indomitable spirit, or cultivating an inner strength that cannot be broken.
Indomitable spirit is the tenet I really learned to identify with because of the combination of COVID and cancer. A cancer diagnosis alone is enough to break a person. However, I didn’t let cancer or COVID break me. Now, my team is looking at a bright future. It’s been a struggle and a lot of hard work, but we couldn’t be happier.
Schools: OKS Martial Arts and Fitness
Style: Matsubayashi-ryu shorin-ryu
Headquarters: Forsyth, Georgia; Macon, Georgia
Owner: Michael Brewster
It was January 2020, and the world was grand. Our martial arts schools were up in every way: student count, gross, retention and so on. Then COVID hit.
We were not super-concerned at first, thinking it would just be two weeks of “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” So we began holding classes outside and immediately implemented Zoom instruction to give anyone who chose to stay home an opportunity to continue training and thus see the continuing value of our programs. It worked! We lost no students during that first month.
As the situation got more serious, we opted to have only one or two instructors per day at each of our locations, and they taught only via Zoom. The outdoor classes were stopped because we were on lockdown. That’s when things really started to go downhill. We lost five students at each location. Then 10 students.
But we kept teaching. We also organized free parents-night-out evenings online, posted videos of our staff reading children’s books, etc., all while trying not to let it get to us. Then we dropped to 50 percent of our normal numbers.
Luckily, we had a great team of instructors who refused to give up. They taught even more exciting online classes, which we promoted in a way that attracted out-of-state students. We had parents volunteer to help their kids by holding pads and pillows for them to punch and kick during virtual classes. Instead of cutting back, we spent more on advertising. Instead of cutting out mentoring, we upgraded and joined the Championship Martial Arts family.
As the local community got “sick” of COVID and tired of being locked down with nothing to do, we started going back up. The lockdowns eventually were lifted, and folks started feeling more comfortable with physical classes again.
We enrolled more and more people. Our records show that in the first four months of 2021 at one of our schools, we signed up as many new students as we did in all of 2020. One school is eight students away from hitting its pre-COVID numbers, and the other is three students away. This first quarter, we are up 29.4 percent and 17.5 percent versus last year. We’re on target to hit our highest-grossing year ever.
We stayed open the whole time, didn’t lose our schools and didn’t have any employees leave. Now we’re looking to capitalize on our success and open more schools, which will give our team members more awesome careers to choose from and even brighter futures.
School: Rockcastle Shaolin Do
Style: Shaolin do
Headquarters: Mount Vernon, Kentucky
Co-Owner: Cassie Bullock
My husband and I own a martial arts school in a small rural town with a population of 3,000. Surviving COVID was definitely not easy for us, but we managed to do so — and we’re about to celebrate our school’s 10th anniversary. Here is the secret of our success.
Our school transitioned to virtual instruction in March 2020, and since then, I’ve made more than 60 videos that I’ve posted on our YouTube channel, which is called RSD Online. I got the idea from something I saw in a Facebook group, after which I created a game called Fire Dodge Challenge. Then I posted it on YouTube for our kids to play at home as a form of martial arts practice. I also shared it on a Facebook group composed of martial arts instructors and told them they could use if they wished. I received a lot of great feedback. Students loved it, and instructors shared it in their virtual classes.
That gave me an idea: Why not make a new game every week?
My YouTube subscriber count gradually grew to 500. Things were slow in the early days of the pandemic, so I began making custom versions of the games with school logos and other requested changes, and that was well-received. I watched our numbers approach 1,000 subscribers, the point at which you can monetize your YouTube channel. I figured that would make game creation more worth my time — it takes about six to eight hours for most of them.
I continued using the games in class, but when we returned to in-person instruction, I figured I might give videomaking a break. Then I created a game called Pumpkin Punch. It went viral thanks to a few groups populated by physical-education teachers, and within a month, we were at 5,000 subscribers. Around the world, PE teachers started incorporating these martial arts games into their virtual classes, as well as in socially distanced classes using projectors.
People sent me videos of gyms full of students who were playing along and having fun while exercising with my games, and that inspired me to keep creating. Sometime during the winter, our YouTube channel hit 10,000 subscribers, which meant we were making additional revenue — and that helped us survive the second wave of COVID lockdowns in November.
The games also helped us maintain a good base of online students, people who were uncomfortable with in-person classes but are now starting to return after a year at home.
It’s been a crazy year with many rough patches, but overall it’s been a great success that will change the way I look at teaching martial arts.
School: Sensei’s School of Martial Arts
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
Owner: Amanda Saludares
Throughout the pandemic, our school was fortunate to have parents who continued to support us and who were patient enough to allow us to find solutions so their children could continue to train. We stayed open for the majority of the time. However, the programs we had in elementary schools were lost for the entire year. We are in the process of discussing what we can offer schools for 2021-2022.
During the lockdown, we held online classes as well as in-person classes. To reassure the students and the parents, we placed marks on the floor to indicate the amount of space needed to abide by social distancing requirements, and we continued with our routine cleaning.
Some families came in for classes, while others trained online. We limited the in-person classes to 10 people each, took the temperature of our students daily and emphasized the importance of hand washing.
While social distancing, we allowed kids to stay in the dojo and do homework, which meant we could be a space where parents could drop their children off and the kids could use the dojo’s internet connection for schoolwork. The students were told they could get help by asking our staff. We even interacted with the kids’ teachers to make sure they were staying on track while their parents were working. (Most of our parents are essential workers.) This took extra effort on our part, but it gave the parents one less thing to worry about.
We also obtained food from nearby food pantries to help families that needed it. Some were not able to go those facilities because they lacked transportation or had to work during the distribution times.
Our efforts to serve the community while delivering excellent instruction paid off. At the beginning of the restrictions, our training floor consisted of 60 mats, but we had to expand to 96 mats because our student count had doubled. We plan to hold a training camp in July, and we’re confident it will be a success.
God has shown us favor in many different ways. We were very fortunate with the families we interact with, and we’ve been able to keep our doors open and continue to expand.
School: Action Karate
Headquarters: Cinnaminson, New Jersey
Owner: Matthew Brenner
When COVID hit, we, like everyone else, were drastically impacted. Many calls came in with people asking to cancel their memberships — the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Then, in April, right in the middle of our freefall, my enrollment director decided that this wasn’t for her. That meant one of my two full-time employees was about to quit. Everything was crashing down.
My school went from bringing in $40,000 a month to $19,000 a month. That caused us to scramble with Zoom classes in an effort makes things work.
The Zoom classes weren’t great in the beginning, but what saved us was that we were quick to get them started. The week of the shutdown, we had Zoom classes running from Monday through Saturday to meet the needs of our members.
With our backs against the wall, we knew we had to make additional adjustments, and that’s when I started focusing my efforts online. I decided to go all in with online instruction and began marketing my karate classes around the country.
I quickly went from working a 30-hour week to working 70 hours. I found myself giving lessons at 10:30 p.m. eastern time (where I live) for students in California. It was a wild ride.
At first, I continued to lose money, but eventually I started to figure it out. I fine-tuned my sales skills because I found that signing up virtual students was much harder than signing up in-person students.
Since the summer of 2020, we’ve had $247,000 in online revenue, not including local members who elected to switch to online classes. The phenomenal growth came from new students who will never train in-person because they live too far away.
In one recent month, our gross went from $19,000 to $84,000 for our in-person studio and online program. While most people were making their online programs cheaper, I made ours more expensive because it delivers a higher level of service, which is how we became the biggest online program in the country (as far as I can tell).
We now have a full-time online instructor who lives in Florida and two part-time instructors who run our online program from California and Pennsylvania. We’re bigger and better now than we have ever been. All the marketing and sales tactics that I learned for online purposes have enabled our in-person dojo to grow, as well.
School: Maximum Martial Arts
Styles: Superfoot System, krav maga
Headquarters: Flagstaff, Arizona
Owner: Jim Ginter
In mid-March 2020, businesses in my community were asked to shut down to help limit the spread of COVID-19. We were able to pivot immediately to Zoom classes because I had been following what was happening in other parts of the country. Seeing the closure coming, I ordered two sets of cameras, lights, green screens, headsets, etc. for my instructors one week prior to our shutdown.
In addition, we offered free private mini-lessons (15 minutes each), “drive thru” belt graduations, and constant connection to our members via Facebook, email and push notifications from our studio app.
From March 2020 to July 2020, we went from 176 members to 138, a 22-percent decline. From what I understand, many schools lost more students and had to close their doors. I believe we survived because of the community we’d worked so hard to create. Most of our members stayed with us and supported the studio.
From July 2020 to the present, we saw steady growth. We stayed active with social media postings about our cleaning protocols and safety measures (we were allowed to reopen slowly starting in May 2020). We constantly reaffirmed our commitment to our members’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Currently, we’re at 209 members, which is more than we had pre-COVID. This success has enabled us to raise our rates. Then and now, I’ve been able to pay my bills, keep all four of my employees and maintain my family’s household as the sole provider.
Essential to my success has been the quality of my team. I say that before revealing that in September 2020, I suffered an accident that broke my fibula and tibia. After the surgery, I was not allowed to place any weight on the leg (no standing, no walking) for six weeks. That was followed by six weeks of rehab. My team went above and beyond. They took over the school and made sure it continued to thrive.
I took advantage of the downtime to rework our operations manual — from class planning and instructor training to front-desk management and marketing. My team took these manuals and essentially ran the studio from September 2020 until January 2021, when I was able to return. If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure our studio would have survived.
Schools: PMA Harlingen, PMA McAllen, PMA Mission
Style: Karate, taekwondo, kickboxing, krav maga
Headquarters: Harlingen, Texas; McAllen, Texas; Mission, Texas
Owner: Eric Arriaga
Without a doubt, the past year has been one of the most challenging in my career as a martial arts school owner. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties that families have dealt with, but I do want to share my story.
I’ve been a martial arts school owner for 14 years, and it’s been a dream of mine to own multiple locations. I was ecstatic when I finally signed a lease on my second location in February 2020. I hit the ground running, preparing the location and the staff. Three weeks later, the world stopped turning.
I’ll spare you the details of exactly what happened next. Suffice it to say I was devastated. In the months that followed, I was certain that there was no bouncing back and that my dreams of having a second location were gone forever. After the initial shock, I did what any good entrepreneur in my situation would do: change gears.
We quickly set up a studio in my neighbor’s living room, and from there, we ran our virtual martial arts classes. The key word here is “quickly.” We were the first PMA school to transition to virtual classes and the first to hold a virtual graduation.
For the next two and half months, we taught every one of our 250 students from that virtual studio. We did our best to continue to deliver the same customer service and attention to detail we had in person. We hosted a virtual parents-night-out that was a hit with families, in part because it included karaoke and other fun activities. I hope I never again have to promote a student to the next belt level via Zoom, but I’ve never seen as much spirit as I did during that first graduation under lockdown. My students and staff have been amazing examples of perseverance.
We decided to move ahead with our plans for the new school. We adjusted our timeline and opened more slowly than we would have under normal circumstances. We had only four weeks of presales instead of the recommended six weeks. Despite this and the fact that we’re located in a poor part of the country, we have signed nearly 200 students in the 10 months we’ve been open.
Throughout all this, the community of PMA school owners, including Barry Van Over (president) and Myles Baker (vice president), were encouraging and supportive. They provided feedback and suggestions regarding how we could best serve our students and their families. They helped my team pull together and keep the business going strong. We look forward to opening four to six more schools in the next two years.
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