To help our readers feel more confident while reopening their businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, we're publishing a series on COVID-19 business transformation and innovation.
In this series, we interview small business owners who've opened their doors following social distancing orders. They’ve graciously shared their reopening strategies and the lessons they've learned along the way, including the changes they've made to keep their customers and workers safe.
Prior to COVID-19, Bill DeGrafft taught Tang Soo Do, a karate-based Korean martial art, in-person only. But safer-at-home and social distancing orders suddenly made that model impossible.
Students from 4 to 56 years old could no longer train at his Ponte Vedra Martial Arts Academy (PVMAA) dojang, the Korean term for training hall.
Over the course of two months, DeGrafft lost about 25 percent of his students. However, he managed to keep the other 75 percent engaged — even though they were unable to attend their normal classes.
Though PVMAA is not technically a gym, DeGrafft chose to follow requirements placed on gyms, closing his dojang's doors to students in late March. But that didn't stop him and his instructors from teaching.
“We immediately began running classes on Zoom and held some private lessons one student at a time," DeGrafft says.
The virtual classes allowed students to keep training from home with a live instructor.
While virtual training was a different experience, wearing their uniforms, seeing their peers and being led by a live instructor offered a rare sense of normalcy to PVMAA students stuck at home.
During this time, PVMAA relied heavily on its mobile app to communicate and manage schedules with students and their parents.
DeGrafft used the app to regularly update members on virtual class schedules and other ways students could continue training remotely.
For instance, he and his staff built an online reference library for students to use while training at home.
When DeGrafft reopened his dojang to students in late May, he did so with an abundance of caution to maintain safe work and classes.
While students still had the option to join classes via Zoom, those who returned for in-person classes did so wearing face masks. The dojang also instituted a temperature check and instructed students to wash their hands prior to joining the socially distanced class.
To ensure social distancing, DeGrafft limited the number of students in each class by requiring pre-registration online. He also removed the dojang’s furniture and set up live feeds of each class, so parents could watch their children remotely, often from their cars. This further minimized the number of people in the building.
With these and other safety measures in place, DeGrafft has recouped 10% of his pre-coronavirus headcount. He has also sold out of spots for several weeks of his summer camps.
Communicating to your customers is essential, but so is allowing them to share their thoughts with you.
“We have a private Facebook group that we interact with to find out how our customers are feeling and what they're worried about," DeGrafft explains.
He surveys this group not only to understand their comfort levels and how to ensure they feel safe in his dojang, but also about whether there are more ways he can help them during this time.
DeGrafft allows 15 minutes between classes for disinfecting, and during class his staff re-sanitizes all equipment between each student's use.
But he doesn't stop at cleaning commonly touched surfaces.
To maintain top-notch air quality in his dojang, he installed UV air purifiers in his HVAC system, three-stage HEPA air filtration systems and an ozone generator.
Both during at-home training and as he reopened the dojang, DeGrafft shared regular updates with PVMAA members, especially when it came to the new safety protocols he planned to implement upon reopening.
To create a safety culture and instill confidence in his clients, DeGrafft publishes this information to PVMAA's registration web pages and communicates to members via the mobile app, email, text message and social media.
DeGrafft recognizes that he and his business aren't alone in dealing with uncharted territory. Many of his students' families are struggling with the possibility that school will be “distance learning" for extended periods of time. In homes with two working parents, this poses a significant challenge.
That's why he's exploring the idea of a virtual learning lab alongside his new after school program.
If he moves forward with his business innovation, the virtual learning lab would provide students with a safe place with high-speed internet and supervision to do their school work.