River City Aikido is a unique Richmond-based martial arts school (est. 2005) where students learn much more than self-defense. Brian Hill (owner/instructor) is a 5th degree black belt as well as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 25 years of experience as a psychotherapist. By synthesizing these areas of expertise, he provides an experience that builds resilience, grit, and the emotional solidness to handle conflicts expertly. Brian instructs adults and kids in both hand-to-hand tactics as well as traditional weapons including the wooden sword and the short staff, all the while incorporating challenging class experiences that foster self-confidence, discipline, and emotional toughness. Since 2014, the dojo has also offered the Wilderness Warriors outdoor experience (summer camps for kids, and Appalachian Trail backpacking trips for teens and adults), where participants discover opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural world and experience wildness and play, while also learning wilderness survival, tracking and nature awareness along with martial arts.
Dojo families and students love the personal relationships, mentoring, and growth that results from the supportive culture of an atmosphere of high expectations woven throughout the curriculum.
How has their small business shifted as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?
Since the second week of March, face-to-face classes have been suspended. Without an immediate pivot, the business would be severely impacted - adult students and kids' parents would begin to withdraw or suspend their memberships. As a business owner, Brian had to first face the reality of what COVID-19 meant, and how long of a suspension of normal business they were facing. Waiting for things to shake out wasn't an option. They then had to completely let go of the traditional idea of practicing/teaching martial arts face-to-face, and fully embrace the new paradigm of online distance instruction.
What has River City Aikido done to be innovative and creative in order for their business to survive this economic crisis?
To replace their cancelled classes, they have started a new initiative called "The Distance Dojo" including regularly scheduled live online streaming classes through Zoom, as well as pre-recorded standalone instructional videos posted to YouTube as an additional resource for on-demand/asynchronous training. Luckily, part of the genius of aikido is that solo practice with the sword and staff are complementary to the hand-to-hand techniques, enhancing the student's understanding and competency in the hand-to-hand techniques. Initial Zoom classes and videos took place in Brian’s driveway. After venturing back to the dojo and moving equipment and furnishings to his home, Brian converted his dining room into a dojo space/studio which has a much more familiar feeling and atmosphere.
They are learning quickly and exploring ways of enhancing the student experience, using studio lighting equipment, a DSLR camera for video, and lapel and boom microphones.
They have used several videos of famous instructors to assign homework to their students, expecting them to watch and capture their observations in an "aikido journal," and text/email pictures of what they've drawn, written, had questions about, etc. They can then provide written comments, encouragement and feedback using markup and return it to engage in conversation. Further, students capture and share video of their solo practices, getting similar engagement.
Students are thrilled to see each other and connect during and after Zoom classes. As a result of the isolation experience, maintaining the dojo community for encouragement and support is a big part of their mission. With all of the online schooling happening, this approach isn't unfamiliar for the kids or adults - everyone is being exposed to this kind of learning and finding it possible.
There is also opportunity for increased student engagement and retention once the students are able to practice together again. As River City Aikido continues to create new content and online resources, perhaps new "Distance Dojo" students who live outside of Richmond, and/or in areas without a physical dojo, will become members. Because they have a large number of kids, they’re excited to explore and create more content through audio podcast or vlogging. They believe that there is an unmet need for encouragement and support, especially for younger students who are desperate for a sense of community.
How can you support this small business during this time?
For this small business, the budget for and knowledge of social media marketing is modest and limited to periodic Facebook posts. Most new students typically find the dojo through word-of-mouth. River City Aikido needs help spreading the word and telling their story, so that potential customers see what they have to offer. There is an excellent opportunity for an internship designed for someone seeking to gain experience in basic social media marketing, content editing, and website design. For more information on River City Aikido, visit their website at www.rivercityaikido.com.
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