by Perry William Kelly
The pandemic has hit the world’s economy like a side kick that knocks the wind out of a white belt in his first tournament. It would have been simple enough if our industry had could have followed the example of other small businesses that shifted gears to stay afloat — for example, distilleries that started making hand sanitizer and clothing companies that began fabricating facemasks. This option, however, was not available to us. Our end product — martial arts instruction — simply cannot morph into something else.
To help school owners cope with the fallout of the pandemic and the shutdowns, MASuccess organized a virtual roundtable with professionals from across the country who agreed to speak about how they weathered the crisis. All are small-business owners not unlike you, and they were able to not only navigate the COVID chaos but also beat the odds that the pandemic had stacked against them.
Our Experts: the COVID Kickers
Topic: Communication Strategies
Question: How do you keep in touch with your students and their families to ensure that you don’t lose anyone?
Halama said Facebook is among his primary communication strategies. He also calls and texts his students to stay up to date on their health status and make sure they know about his Zoom classes. “It is important to have a connection and give them a level of reassurance that we’re taking actions to stay safe,” he said.
For the Colliers, the job of keeping in touch with students is at the forefront of their daily duties: “We call, email, text [and] send personal videos to the students, [as well as] Facebook messages and posts. And we drop off belts and uniforms at their doors.”
When they decided to transition to virtual classes, the Colliers phoned every student before the move. “We also helped them navigate the Zoom classes,” they said. “We had a weekly Facebook live video, which we texted out to each parent.”
The Hamlins used the methods listed above, and they found a student app that facilitated face-to-face communication. “Two-way discussion helped us make sure we stayed very connected to the students and parents and helped them see how we would continue to offer the same level of benefits and experience regardless of the medium used to provide the training,” Bret said.
Ramos stayed connected in a myriad of imaginative ways: “Every Tuesday, we had lunch with our students via Zoom with a different theme. [We] also had a painting competition — we personally delivered all the art to each door. We had a virtual belt promotion, and students were able to pick up their belts drive-through style. When a new student enrolled, we personally delivered their uniform to their front door.”
Topic: Online Training
Question: What lessons did you learn as you transitioned to distance learning?
“We used Zoom as our platform for our regular classes and have offered supplemental material in our app using Spark software,” Katie Hamlin said. “We did have a few parents express concern about the ‘Zoom bombing’ incidents they had heard about, but we had already taken the necessary precautions to prevent those so our parents felt confident about the platform.
“We were concerned about online learning causing a decline in the quality of our students’ technique, but we were impressed with them once they returned to in-person classes. We practice a lot of striking and joint locks, and these students had gone months without making contact with a person, target or heavy bag, [but] they still showed power, application and accuracy.”
That’s not to say that computer learning is easy for everyone. “We did have a few very young students struggle with online learning,” Bret said. “Several adult students struggled with it, as well, just for different reasons. One of the big reasons adults train in martial arts is for a healthy social activity, and Zoom classes simply do not provide the same level of social interaction as a regular live class [does]. But we are extremely grateful to have access to technology like Zoom; it kept us going during a really challenging time, and we learned a lot.”
Topic: Business Shifts and Pivots
Question: How did you navigate the uncertainty, and were there any particular strategies that helped?
“One of the biggest shifts we did was in our mentality: How were we going to make it work?” Ramos said. “If it works in person, it has to work virtually. We did Black Belt Club nominations virtually the same way we do them at our school — except through the computer. We sold retail virtually. We did enrollment appointments virtually. Everything was done this way.”
For the Hamlins, adapting required shifting from old to new. “We were understandably worried because we are experiencing the most significant health and financial crises in a century,” Bret said. “We realized we needed to go back to working our systems, and this was not the time to change how we’ve been doing things. We are MAIA Elite members, and the systems we’ve learned from them have changed our lives both pre-COVID and presently.”
But, as Katie explains, they also pivoted toward the new: “In May, we joined the Skillz and Hyper teams, and that was a huge step for us. The resources available through the Skillz and Hyper programs were so helpful and lifted a huge weight off class planning and, quite honestly, helped relieve a lot of stress for us. Skillz and Hyper helped us plan upbeat, fun and exciting classes that had our students making awesome progress, and our programs are better for it.”
Collier said they focused on making things easier for students: “We set up easier ways to buy equipment and sign up for trials, programs and private lessons digitally. After our March belt testing, completed in the school but with no ceremony because we shut down immediately after belt testing, we held a drive-through belt ceremony. We delivered Black Belt Club nominations to kids’ doors with balloons and giant congratulation signs! We went above and beyond to make sure our students knew we were thinking about them.”
Topic: Marketing and Sales
Question: Have you used any marketing tools or sales opportunities specifically to address the pandemic?
Ramos said she participated in such programs: “We offered at-home-kit training, which included a set of gloves, square targets and a clapper pad. This helped collect revenue for the school, while also helping parents train with their kids. Some of our students already had at-home-training equipment, but those who didn’t, we took care of them. We also made calls to those students who had stopped training because of the spring sports, [and] we offered them virtual training. Some came back since they had no other sports to do.
“We also gave parents incentives such as a 10-percent discount on programs once reopening took place, free parent’s-night-out vouchers [and] retail discounts that can be used any time.”
Collier mentioned a partnership program his school ran: “We talked to each of our Partner in Education schools and worked to offer an eight-week martial arts summer intro course. Many of the schools agreed, and we got 103 summer trials for a combination of virtual and in-person classes.”
Topic: Safety Precautions
Question: What preventive measures did you use to keep students safe? (Many noted the same measures, so we’re listing just a few of their ideas.)
“We did and still do temperatures checks and hand sanitizing,” Ramos said. “We adjusted our schedule to 30-minute classes with a block of time in between each class to clean and disinfect. Each class held 10 students to keep numbers down. Parents were very understanding about staying in their cars. If we had siblings, cousins or a group of friends, we adjusted their class time so they could do it [together]. This made it possible for us to fit all our student base back into onsite training.”
Bret Hamlin said, “We have installed air purifiers that will run nonstop throughout classes. Additionally, we will run an ozone machine at night and have installed a UV light in our HVAC system for sanitizing the circulating air.”
Halama said his team installed a new sidewalk to adjust traffic flow into and out of the school. “We also renovated the gym to eliminate changing rooms and create a whole new training room to split up into smaller groups,” he said. “Students now come dressed in their uniform or they use the single-occupancy changing room.”
Collier has his students line up outside on markers spaced 6 feet apart. “They are admitted one at a time after being temperature-checked and symptom-checked,” he said. “They wear masks in line when entering and exiting the building. Then they sanitize their hands and walk to their training square where they, while spaced 9 feet apart, train for the rest of their class. Masks are optional while in the squares.”
Topic: Locations and Demographics
Question: Was your success during the pandemic tied to the location of your school or the demographics of your student body?
Hamlin said his small town’s population benefited his business. “When many of the local sports and activities [were] still being canceled because they [were] generally following the rest of the state, people [were] searching for some kind of activity, and many [were] finding us and our martial arts programs,” he said.
Collier answered similarly: “We decided that the crisis brought us a unique opportunity because all our competitors — soccer, football, baseball, etc. — were not being practiced or played. We had thousands of parents in our county going insane with kids trapped at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go.”
The fact that Ramos is located in a town of 16,000 meant that for her, attitude and business savvy were more important than location. “I personally don’t believe demographics had anything to do with the success or the failure of any school,” she noted. “I believe the mentality of the instructors and staff has 100 percent to do with the success. I know schools in California and New York that were closed for five months and still managed to succeed.
“But also being part of MAIA set us up for success. One of the first things I remember hearing from Mr. [Mike] Metzger and Mr. [Shane] Tassoul was having money set aside for rainy days. Running a business as a business [rather] than a hobby really made it possible for us to survive. Mindset is everything. Set your goals and reach them. If you can’t, don’t change the goal. Change the approach.”
Topic: Reliance on Martial Arts Principles
Question: Were there any principles that you relied on to keep your business from being defeated?
Like the others, Ramos said that grit and determination were key. “We wouldn’t be great instructors if we give up when things get difficult,” she said.
Hamlin added: “Excuses don’t get things done; hard work does. Keep putting in the work, day in and day out. Don’t back off, especially if it’s difficult.”
It was Collier who offered the reply that’s most likely to resonate with his fellow martial artists: “When someone is beating the tar out of you, you don’t hide in the corner and let him kick the stuffing out of you. It isn’t time to back down; it’s time to step it up. Hit harder and faster.”
Topic: Advice and Encouragement
Question: Are there any parting thoughts you would like to pass on to readers to help them succeed during these tough times?
From the Hamlins: “Don’t give up. Persevere and stay disciplined. Whatever you have been doing, all the work you’ve been putting in — keep at it. It will pay off, and things will get better. More specifically, have your plans and systems in place and stick to them. Don’t be afraid to adapt as needed, but stay disciplined and true to your systems and procedures to both earn and keep the trust of your students and to be successful in business.”
From Halama: “Always keep pushing forward even when it doesn’t seem like [there will be] an immediate return. During the two months of shutdown, things seemed pretty bleak. But all the little things we did helped get us ready for reopening. You need to get your ducks in a row when it’s slow so you can use them when the opportunity strikes. Reach out and get help. Keep strengthening your processes and systems, and keep working to make them better so you can make big changes in short amounts of time.”
From Collier: “Be ready and be proactive. Have a plan for marketing with and without COVID. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Plan how you’ll find and how you’ll teach new students, even if you’re locked at home. This will not last forever. Support your staff in every way possible — they will support you and work harder.”
From Ramos: “One main thing everyone should do is have a coach. I don’t mean a karate coach; [I mean] a business coach, someone who will tell you what you are doing wrong without babying you. Always have a plan B and a plan C. Be ready to shift and pivot at any time to make your business successful. If we get a second wave of the virus, we already have plans on how to make (our virtual programs) even better. We have been working in the background [to be] ready for anything that hits us.”
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic can be compared to the scene in The Karate Kid in which Daniel-san is practicing his blocking while standing in the boat and Mr. Miyagi is rowing. Unfortunately, most of us are doing a similar balancing act with our businesses while storm clouds swirl overhead. None of us knows when those clouds will disperse.
As we huddle to await the passing of the storm, we must stick together, supporting each other with actions and knowledge if we want our industry, our communities and our country to win. As Bruce Lee said, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.”
Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He’s the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.
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