As the holiday craziness dies down and we settle into our "slow season," I finally feel like I have a moment to breathe and reflect on the past year....and WOW what a crazy year it has been (for everyone). There have been moments of panic and fear, extreme stress, and doubt. But there have also been moments of gratefulness, confidence, pride, and hope.
Hitting Rock Bottom
When the pandemic first hit in March of 2020, it went from a few cancellations here and there to 100% cancellations in a matter of days. This was my first moment of "panic." So many questions were going through my mind...How long will this last? How do we handle this? What do we do about our employees and contractors? Can we afford to refund all of these prepaid parties and still stay above water? What should our policies be moving forward? How do we make sure we are compliant with CDC guidelines when things are changing every day...? I had guilt over cutting employee's hours, but I had no choice if we had any chance at long-term survival. I remember looking at my personal savings, calculating an estimated loss per month, and figuring out how many months I would be able to personally fund the business without going completely bankrupt. I felt despair...I had worked so hard for so many years to reach a certain level of profitability, and I was facing the possibility of losing everything.
What kind of Company do we want to be?
I had a moment of clarity when I was on the other side of a transaction (I was the customer) in the summer of 2020. I was trying to get a refund for a $200 payment I had made to a small boutique fitness center. I had made the payment for a 2 month unlimited membership 3 days before the shutdown occurred. I was never able to use the membership due to the shutdown, and by this point my partner and I had moved to a new city, so even if this fitness center reopened (which it hadn't, and had no plans of doing any time soon) I would not be able to use the membership. I spoke to multiple sales representatives, and ultimately reached out to the owner trying to come to some resolution. In the end, they were not going to work with me and I was not going to get my money back. It was frustrating, and so disappointing, so in that moment I made a decision about the kind of business I wanted to run. In my opinion, a $200 refund wasn't worth losing a loyal customer, and more than that, this was a time when I felt we all needed to show empathy and understanding towards each other. My gripe was not only that this other company wouldn't give me my money back, it was that they seemed to care more about their strict policies and bottom line than getting to know any individual circumstances or work with the customer. I realized that can't know what financial situation my customers are in and how much they may need a refund, so although issuing refunds initially caused us some financial strain, I was able to sleep more easily knowing that we are a company that leads with kindness and understanding, and strives to do right by our customers.
Keep on keepin' on
In the past year, I have seen multiple competitors in our industry close their doors. I have so much sympathy for these companies, because I know what they are going through, and I know how hard it would be to make the final decision to shut down. I also feel an immense about of pride that we have found a way to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going, and I have admiration for the many other companies that have showed the same level of tenacity. It has been challenging. It has often felt like as soon as we pivot and find something that is working, circumstances change and we have to start back at square one.
A perfect example of this was Virtual Summer Camp. I wasn't sure what to expect offering virtual classes for the first time, and I was scared. It was an extremely large undertaking to plan all the lessons, train all the instructors, build out the website and class listings, figure out ways to market this new service to a brand new set of customers...and what if after all that it didn't work? I didn't want to disappoint the instructors, the customers, or myself. But luckily, summer camp was a HUGE success! We actually ended up having a comparable July 2020 to July 2019 in terms of gross sales! Princess Camp, specifically, sold extremely well. But then...kids went back to school. We were extremely optimistic that Virtual Classes in the fall would experience the same, or similar, success as summer camp, because after all, kids were continuing to get more used to online learning and surely parents would be looking for extra-curricular activities that kids could do at home. And while this was true to some extent, it turns out that kids and parents were burnt out by the end of their online school day, and most parents of school-age children were not signing up for virtual classes the way they were during the summer. So, it was back to the drawing board: trying to find new ways to increase our income and stay afloat (rethinking pricing, coming up with new offerings, focusing on other income streams, etc.). It was exhausting to say the least. But overall, and despite its challenges, this new virtual world turned out to be such a huge blessing.
A Brave New (Virtual) World
Years ago, I had the idea of offering video calls with our characters, and tried briefly to strongarm this project into being successful. But, there was no traction....people were not interested in meeting characters virtually, or even purchasing pre-recorded videos. So, when we came up with the idea to offer this same service in mid-march 2020, I was skeptical to say the least. I had tried this. It didn't work. Turns out though, the world just wasn't ready a few years ago; my timing was off. This time, people were stuck at home and could not meet characters in person, so out of the necessity to entertain their children, the virtual parties took off like a rocket! There was a time in April when I, myself, was performing up to eight virtual parties in a day (talk about exhausting) but it was so rewarding. One of the best parts about being a princess performer is getting to talk to the kids, and often times in an in-person birthday party there is no time to talk in depth with any one child because you've got 20+ kids there all vying for your attention and a lot of activities you need to complete. So it was nice to slow down and really be able to spend 15-30 minutes just talking to one child or a small group of children - getting to know them, talk to them about their hopes, dreams, fears, and hobbies. I even got to meet with one child on a weekly basis who had selective mutism (she wouldn't talk to most of her peers or teachers), but by some miracle was willing and eager to speak to me as a princess. We talked, sang, and drew pictures together, and worked on getting her out of her shell. I believe I was able to make a real difference in her life, and she certainly touched my heart in the process. I'm so thankful that we were able to effect so many family's lives this year, like spreading joy to so many children on their birthday, and hopefully making their birthday a special occasion even though this year wasn't what anyone would have hoped. Our Virtual Santa Claus performers were able to meet thousands of children online and spread Christmas joy in a year where meeting him at the mall or private event just wasn't a safe possibility for most. We were able to have conversations with children about how they were feeling about being at home and not being able to go to school and see their friends.Our characters encouraged children to practice safe habits at home, and remember to have hope and confidence that the world would go back to normal eventually if only we could all have patience. I think these were extremely important conversations to be having in such a confusing time for most children.
Finding a new audience
Not only has performing for children virtually created such a unique experience, but it was so rewarding to be able to reach a whole new audience. We had always serviced Southern California with our in-person events, but through virtual performances and classes we have been able to create a strong East Coast following, as well as perform for audiences in India, Ireland, England, Germany, Canada, Sri Lanka, France, and many other countries. Never would I have imagined the global reach our characters could have! Virtual performances have also made it possible to offer the experience of meeting a character for extremely inexpensive rates (free events, classes as low as $5, and private visits as low as $30). This allows us to reach children and families who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to bring a character to their birthday party or event in person. It is my belief that every child deserves the magic of talking to their favorite character, and I think we have made that a genuine possibility now. We have even been able to video chat with several children who were in the hospital. We would LOVE to do more volunteer events at our local children's hospitals, but the red tape at hospitals is almost impossible to get through, and volunteering in a hospital is a lot more difficult than you may imagine. Zoom has made it possible to chat with a child from their hospital room and spread that necessary hope and joy that keeps their spirits up and makes them feel like a child again. For all of these reasons, it is my hope that virtual parties, video calls, and virtual classes will continue long after the pandemic is over.
Here's to 2021!
All in all, I am so proud of everything that we have accomplished this year. I have a renewed confidence that no matter what this crazy world throws at us (all of us), we can endure. Our performers and office managers have been fantastic at being flexible and adapting to all of the new changes, and I am so thankful for this amazing team. We have plans to continue to grow in 2021 and beyond, and I am excited for what the future will bring. We are looking at new and innovative ways to bring characters to life and we hope you'll come along with us on this journey.
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