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Industry Insights – Moving Forward

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Back in March, as studio owners made huge changes to transform their businesses, similar innovations were happening in the wider industry: Software companies adapted their models; competitions, conventions, and other events transitioned online; costume manufacturers switched to producing masks and scrubs; flooring companies focused on cleaning products and at-home items. Vendors everywhere cast aside their usual production and focused on supporting their clients and communities into the unknown.

Here at INSight™, we asked a sampling of these vendors to share the ways their businesses have been moving forward and staying positive since the start of the pandemic. Keep reading for a glimpse into their operations and an extra dose of encouragement!

Education and Support for All

Tricia Gomez, Owner of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, immediately jumped into action when it became clear that studio owners and teachers would need to bring their services online.

“Within a couple of weeks, we created a new online learning certification experience, ran several flash discount sales, and started working on ‘done-for-you’ lesson plans for all types of preschool and specialized class content,” recalls Tricia. “We recognized that studio owners and teachers were going well beyond their comfort zone and were overloaded and beginning to burn out, so we decided to provide content that would help them check off a few of their to-do items.”

“One of the things I’m most proud of is being able to participate in the initial Studio Help Resource website by offering free content to bridge the gap while studios revamped their business to online viability.” Tricia says that it was an inspiring experience to see so many industry vendors pull together to support studios during that initial period of time and then watch that support grow. She says that kind of growth and togetherness is all part of this season of learning.

“You either win or you learn,” Tricia says. “What I know to be true is during times like this, is that it’s best to quiet down, listen, and watch. The answers are there. They might not be the answers we want, but they are the answers we need. Follow the signs, do the work, and I have no doubt that what lies at the top of the hill will be far better than anything our minds could have imagined.”

Coming Together for the Community

After the pandemic set in, it didn’t take long for this dance competition to become part of the greater supply chain. Caron Moore, Owner and Director of Encore Performing Arts Showcase, says that once it was clear their events would be canceled, they immediately switched gears and looked at how the company could help transport much-needed materials.

“In partnership with James Hix, the owner of our production company, Upstage Productions, we had the opportunity to re-purpose our 18-wheeler tractor-trailer rig, which was no longer needed on the road for our regional tour,” explains Caron. “We were able to traverse across the country, as far as New York, delivering essential supplies to individuals in need. Every time I think about it now, my heart smiles.”

Caron says that they’ve kept their Encore employees motivated by choosing to work by the words of Fred Rogers. “Encore provides each of our employees a quote in their workspace, by Mr. Rogers, which is this: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ These are words we strive to live by [personally] and as a company.”

Stepping Up Their Game

At Stagestep Flooring Solutions, President Randy Swartz says their approach has been twofold: Supply high-quality dance flooring to teachers and students to use at home, and produce more of their disinfectant cleaner that kills the coronavirus.

“We stayed on target to produce ProClean D Plus, our super disinfectant that kills COVID, and we cut the price by half. We’ve been fulfilling orders from around the country,” says Randy. “Additionally, we were able to supply almost 2,000
home studio floors, mats, and practice boards to dancers working at home.”

Being forced to shut down as the pandemic crept on, Randy says that Stagestep knew they had to figure out how to keep going. “We took steps to safely, partially open, committed to bring in inventory, and had staff working from home. “We
chose to find a way to [keep serving] our community.”

Dancing Through It

Darby’s Dancers Founder Valerie Jones knew that the threat of COVID would be an extra-daunting challenge for her organization, which serves 800 dancers with special needs through individual studio programs across the U.S. Understanding from personal experience that special needs can equal compromised immune systems, Valerie committed to developing new ideas for her studio partners to serve their students virtually.

“We created a dance called ‘The Darby’ for the dancers in our program to learn so that our entire Darby’s Dancers community was learning the same dance, in hopes that when we can reunite physically, they can all do it together,” says Valerie. “Using our ‘Be Brave Like Me!’ motto, we choreographed to a song called “Brave.” We also provided arts and crafts activities around this theme and presented a weekly story time with accompanying lessons.”

Valerie explains that there was no doubt that Darby’s Dancers would continue online during this time, and for however long was needed to keep their students safe. “My daughter, Darby, for whom our organization was founded, was born with leukemia and battled it her entire 14 years of life with grace, determination, and a completely positive attitude. She never complained and was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. She would always tell people to ‘Be brave like me!’. Darby’s Dancers strives to teach children with special needs to never give up, to be strong, and to always be brave like Darby, so we will continue to serve this population in ways to keep them connected, moving, and involved. We will get through this together because we cannot give up. That is the last thing that Darby ever did or would want any of us to do.”

Leaning into Relationships

At Weissman, relationships have been a key facet of the company’s 60-year legacy, and never more so than in the wake of COVID. “Internally, we’ve become closer as a team,” says Senior Vice President of Marketing, Claudia Reed. “Our CEO, Ken Ellingsen, has been very inspiring to us. He’s asked us specifically to build cross-functional relationships, ask how each other are doing, really get to know each other, and collaborate more purposefully. When we have those personal connections, and we hit a speed bump, the relationships ensure we make it through. We’ve become more aware and more kind to each other—and therefore stronger as a team, all pulling in the same direction. Overall, this shared experience has actually been inspiring to us as professional individuals.” And it wasn’t just these work relationships that developed for the better, Claudia says. Weissman lifted up its community by shifting sewing resources toward tens of thousands of masks and gowns for local healthcare networks, all donated.

And of course, the company’s customer relationships have continued to receive priority attention as well. As the pandemic set in, every line of communication was an opportunity for the Weissman team to be a listening ear to the heartbreak, resilience, and innovation happening in studio owners’ lives. “We listened,” Claudia says. “We hit the pause button. We stopped, reflected, and asked questions. [We] slowed down to truly understand what our customers were experiencing, and, more importantly, react to what they needed from us.”

Claudia adds that if she could give studio owners some extra encouragement right now, it would be to focus on the small steps forward and celebrate their wins. “Consciously choose to embrace each day,” she says. “This is especially true for those of us who have controlling personalities! You have to consciously make the most of each and every day. Give grace to those around you—including yourself—and be kind. Always be kind.”

New Memories, New Value

Dance the Magic has been bringing dancers to Disney parks for almost 20 years, and for the first time ever, was faced with the challenge of Disney being temporarily closed down. President and Founder Debi Barr says that providing a virtual choreography experience quickly became her new focus so that Dance the Magic could serve those whose travel plans became impacted by the pandemic.

“We brought our [Disney] parade rehearsal atmosphere directly into the homes of dancers from around the world,” Debi shares. “We were able to reach 52 studios within three weeks with classes taught by our choreographer, Jennilee.” Debi says that Jennilee not only teaches choreography during the newly-developed classes, but also offers Disney audition advice, answers questions about dancing professionally, and gives personal feedback to the participating students.

With the industry coming together to support studio owners and each other, Debi says that it’s important to listen and to share your own expertise. “You don’t have to know everything and have all the answers; reach out to those in your network who have knowledge and experience that you may not have and ask for their help,” Debi advises. “And on the flip side, if you have knowledge and insight to share, put yourself out there and let your network know you are willing to help. We’re all in this together!”

Supplying Essential Workers

When it became clear that masks were in short supply for essential workers, costume manufacturer A Wish Come True didn’t hesitate to change gears on their production line. Marketing Director Renee Stojek says that the company quickly made the decision to produce face coverings for healthcare facilities. “We’re proud to have manufactured and donated thousands of safety masks to local hospitals including Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, St. Mary’s Medical Center, Cooper Medical Center and more,” says Renee. “Contributing to these organizations allowed us to continue to employ American workers in an uncertain and scary time for many families. We will continue to support our staff and local community and bring awareness to the benefits of American manufacturing.”

Renee adds that “A Wish for Better” is a phrase they use often at the company; something they have in mind for every initiative that supports the community. It was this mentality that not only united the company in donating their masks to hospitals, it kept them working hard for their clients to make sure delivery dates and shipping addresses could be modified, and to expand costume exchange policies and eliminate extra fees. “This year more than any other we proved that we not only ‘wish’ to make things better, but we all put in the work to make things better.”

A Wish Come True plans to continue its efforts to provide quality and flexibility to its clients, as well as special attention to studios’ needs in the coming months. Renee adds: “We plan to be a supporting partner in these uncertain times. Together, our dance businesses will navigate this challenge with determination, understanding, and creativity.”

Words of Encouragement

What’s a software company to do when their client-base has been forced into facility closures during a pandemic? According to Brett Stuckey, Vice President of Akada Dance Software, you ramp up communications and you develop new tools. And you do it fast. “We implemented changes enabling studios to share virtual classes and class materials, like video and music files, with their clients through the client’s parent account,” Brett explains. “Additionally, we launched an app, Akada Express, and we lowered our prices including making our smallest tier, up to 100 students, free to users.” And Akada didn’t stop there; they also expanded their scholarship program to include studios, not just students, in order to give back to the dance community. At press time, ten $1,000 scholarships were scheduled to be awarded.

Brett says that he can’t help but think of the character Anna in Frozen 2, singing “The Next Right Thing,” when asked about advice he might have for studio owners during this time:

Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing”

There may still be unknown days ahead, but it’s clear from this group that the dance industry has the creativity and skill to come through this time of crisis stronger than ever. No one has quite the same business they had at the start of 2020, and yet everyone has the opportunity to build more sustainability, more hope, and more connections as the
year progresses.

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