Businesses built around delivering in-person experiences were forced to innovate quickly during the pandemic. Some are now finding those short-term solutions have helped unlock new long term opportunities.
From the moment that Covid restrictions on gatherings of people were introduced all manner of businesses found themselves forced to adapt quickly. For those whose entire business model was based on hosting people, or providing in-person services and experiences, it required a whole other level of creativity. From gyms and personal trainers to event planners, musicians, and theatres, even escape rooms — all had to somehow pivot, and fast.
It was one thing to launch or enhance a business’s eCommerce store to make up for lost in-person sales. But quite another to translate often personalized real world services and experiences into online interactions, while quickly learning how to make the most of the platforms available.
Video conferencing tools like Zoom obviously earned some early traction, though they came with clear limitations. Zoom may work fine for a business meeting, or even a session with a personal trainer, less so as a means of encouraging spontaneous purchases. Besides, there is only so much screen time a person can take. The companies that thrived in spite of the challenges were those that got resourceful and imaginative when it came to delivering authentic in-person experiences.
For small businesses like Calgary’s Pinnovate and Pictus Goods in Toronto it was about turning the ennui brought on by the pandemic into an opening. Pinnovate quickly mobilized early on to deliver DIY craft kits to homes around the city, in an effort to emulate its in-person art classes. Pictus Goods offered its floral arranging workshops over Zoom, as well as robust local delivery options.
Now, as most of the restrictions we’ve lived with for two years have been lifted, those same companies are asking themselves whether their Covid pivots are worth sticking to. Are some initiatives born of pandemic necessity possibly also ongoing growth opportunities?
Many small businesses followed in the footsteps of much bigger brands by creating original or customized content that could act as a calling card for their business when they were no longer able to offer that personal touch customers usually appreciate. Whether this took the form of blogging, making TikTok videos, or, in the case of the consulting company Done to Death Projects, a podcast that led to a nation-wide live tour. Without the benefit of meaningful in-person interactions save for brief curbside pick-ups, small businesses recognized the value of producing original content that enabled customers to connect with the people behind the business, a strategy that can continue to pay dividends even beyond Covid.
And what if your business is an escape room? Mobile Escape in Ottawa already had a model different from most, in that their concept was built around bringing the escape room to you. “We utilize our customers’ rooms and spaces and transform them into an escape,” says Eric Marcotte, co-founder of the six-year-old company. But a steady stream of bookings for birthday parties, corporate events, and festivals suddenly dried up in March 2020. “At that point, it was in the back of our minds that we might need to go back to supply teaching.”
The turning point came in October 2020, when Marcotte and his partner Nicolas Marcil created their first virtual escape room, designed on a platform the company had built from scratch. The new online and interactive version of their escape room could, for example, be facilitated by teachers, and accommodate ever larger groups simultaneously, while in essence being fully automated. Numerous school or corporate groups could play at once without Nick or Eric being present. Their foundation of creativity and thinking outside of the box—buoyed by Eric’s experience as a magician—allowed them to pivot seamlessly.
“We had over 50 schools all across Ontario playing our virtual escape room on a single day,” adds Marcotte. “This last year has been by far the best year we’ve had.”
It’s a lesson for all entrepreneurs who are in the business of providing experiences: Are there ways that your in-person service can take on different forms to reach more people?
Vancouver-based Innovative Fitness launched a video platform that allowed its gym members to participate in one-on-one personal training sessions as well as group workouts. Suddenly unconstrained by geography, the gym found new clients in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.
At the end of the day, more customers can be reached by extending a business’s services to meet the customer where they are: at home, on their mobile devices, or abroad.
Mobile Escape went from 250 students in one day, to 2,500 students at a time. The ability to scale, without needing to be physically present, proved exponential. Now they’re able to reach gamers all over the world—a pivot that has become a permanent fixture in the company.
What started as a solution to a problem has become an engine for success. Mobile Escapes must now grapple with the additional challenge that, after two years of lockdowns, many people don’t want to be stuck in another room, even metaphorically. But in a similar creative fashion, Eric and Nick demonstrate that it often comes down to how you think about the elements that a business’s success depends on.
“I always joke that an escape room is probably the worst business to have after a pandemic,” says Marcotte. “But what it did help bring back is the importance of team building. And the appeal of an escape room, whether in person or virtual, is taking an hour to try and solve the puzzle put before you”—an excellent team-building exercise for any group. Which just goes to show how one smart pivot can create a chain reaction, unexpectedly opening doors to the next business opportunity.
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