When the pandemic first hit Northern Virginia, Amy Hershey reacted “the way most people probably did … fear, anxiety and disbelief,” she says. “There was so much uncertainty and confusion in the beginning; there still is.” The founder and owner of Loudoun Pilates quickly opted to close the studio before state mandates went into effect, as she felt that was the safest option. “It allowed us all to focus on ourselves and our families,” Hershey says.
We recently spoke with Hershey to find out more about what the past six months have been like for her and Loudoun Pilates, and how she’s currently getting clients (safely) back into the studio. See highlights from our conversation below.
When the pandemic hit the region, how did Loudoun Pilates first react?
There were definitely some dark moments in the beginning as everyone was processing the reality unfolding around us. I had no idea what to do or think, but at the same time there wasn’t much time to think. We had to act and adapt. As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
What was the game plan to make it through this challenging time?
We pivoted to a virtual platform immediately and offered a full schedule of Pilates mat classes. There are lots of inexpensive props that we encouraged clients to purchase to diversify their online workouts. Several private clients jumped right in and continued to take one-on-one lessons virtually as well. Loudoun Pilates is a fully equipped Pilates studio and the equipment is what our clients really love. We rented out some of the equipment to private clients who had the space at home and those clients did a combination of private lessons and group classes together. We also got creative with our Studio Rewards Program to incentivize clients to take mat classes online in order to earn future studio-account credit.
What has been a positive that has come out of this experience for Loudoun Pilates?
The biggest positive is how this pandemic has highlighted the awesome members of our community. So many clients jumped right onboard for virtual classes and continued with their private lessons, even if they were just mat lessons. We had a few people who asked us to continue charging them for weekly lessons even if they didn’t use them to help keep us afloat. I mean, wow, that was huge!
One offering we added during the pandemic was a special donation class that clients could purchase for essential and furloughed workers. That was hugely popular and demonstrated the kindness and generosity within our community. As a business owner, you make decisions and know that you can’t possibly please everyone. The support and understanding of the Loudoun Pilates community has been a bright spot during these uncertain times.
Another unexpected positive has been how we as instructors have had to adapt as teachers under these new restrictions. As Pilates teachers, we do a lot of hands-on corrections and partnering to help clients. Being hands-off has challenged us in new ways to grow in our teaching approach and creativity.
What were the virtual classes like? Will those continue for the foreseeable future?
We offered online classes and continue to do so, even though the studio has reopened. Honestly, the virtual classes have been a blast. We see clients in their homes and get to see everyone’s pets! Half of the time, my clients have a cat or dog jumping on them during a lesson and lately my 4-year-old son comes down and sits with me while I am teaching online. We are all in this together and seeing these little personal moments has been very special.
The virtual platform means that we had clients take lessons with us from literally all over the world. One former client has been taking classes from Italy, which never would have happened pre-COVID. We also have had people try us out from other states who were not clients before the pandemic. Even though we have all been apart, in many ways we are more connected than ever. The virtual classes will continue in the future. Many clients remain understandably hesitant to come in and others are restricted with schools remaining closed and children being home. We are committed to maintaining offerings that can serve everyone and now have some clients doing a combination of in-person lessons and virtual classes. Pre-recorded classes are also made available to clients and we plan to keep those available even after COVID. Clients have said they love having the option to take a class at their convenience or even when they are on vacation.
What was the biggest challenge during the stay-at-home orders and the shutdown?
As with many other small businesses, our biggest challenge during the shutdown was revenue loss. Being shutdown did not make the business expenses disappear. It was extraordinarily stressful due to the unknown longevity of the situation. Although we were able to pivot to a virtual platform, the reality is that what people love most about Loudoun Pilates is all of our equipment for both private lessons and classes. Despite getting some equipment rented out, there was just no way we could operate at the same levels virtually.
How did Loudoun Pilates persevere?
The shutdown forced us to take a hard look at studio expenses. In a way, this was a blessing in disguise because we managed to make some changes to the business in order to reduce our monthly overhead. I would not have considered these changes under normal circumstances so that will ultimately help the business in the long-run post-COVID as well.
What keeps you hopeful right now?
Being nearly six months into this and still being in business gives me hope that we will ultimately get through this. There were definitely hard moments when I didn’t think I could do it and the challenges of owning a fitness business during a global pandemic seemed insurmountable. However, our community of clients showed me that there will be another side to this and there will be an after. I see more clearly how much we mean to a lot to our clients. They seek us out for the expertise we bring to each Pilates lesson. We have clients who rely on us to help them manage their injuries, illnesses, chronic pain, stress and an array of other health conditions. Loudoun Pilates has always been committed to our clients and now I realize how much our clients are committed to us.
What does it feel like to be back in the studio?
When we first opened, it was surreal. I was initially very anxious about returning to work as I had personally not ventured out since the shutdowns began. To handle my stress, I would just pick one of my dogs to bring to work with me! After a few days back, everything settled right in and it was great to see clients again.
What have reactions been like from clients since you reopened?
When it looked like we were getting closer to being able to reopen, we sent out a survey to gauge what the interest was in returning to in-person sessions. I was shocked that an overwhelming majority of clients were wanting to come in right away. Everyone was so excited to be back in the studio and see real people again. After being on lockdown, I think all of us were happy to see a familiar face and share our stories. We did have to make some business changes in order to realistically survive in the long run and, fortunately, the majority of clients were all so supportive of those changes. Owning a small business means that you inevitably develop close relationships with many of your clients. Even wearing masks, you can see everyone’s joy at being together again and returning to some degree of normalcy. Although, everyone seems most happy when I bring my dog!
How are you keeping clients safe as they come back for in-person classes?
Safety is obviously our No. 1 priority and we implemented several new protocols in order to reopen. All of the equipment is spaced 10 feet apart and instructors are required to maintain a distance of 10 feet from clients as well. The cleaning products we use are not only EPA-approved against COVID but also Environmental Working Group rated A, meaning they do not negatively impact human or environmental health. We have individual cleaning stations for each piece of equipment and hands-free dispensers filled with sanitizer from the James River Distillery based out of Richmond. We selected James River because it’s a local Virginia business and its hand sanitizer is compounded using the WHO and FDA formula.
Despite the state waiving the mask mandate for exercise, I decided not to do so and have a mask policy for all staff and clients. I made the decision to require masks from a personal standpoint because I was unwilling to put myself into an environment where masks were optional. Additionally, many clients told me they would not be comfortable coming into the space if masks were only optional. That really stood out to me as I have a responsibility first and foremost to ensure the safety of everyone who walks into my business. There was certainly hesitation initially from some clients about doing Pilates in a mask, however, most people realized immediately that it isn’t a big deal. I did a lot of research on the types of masks available and we recommended some that were specifically designed for exercise. The further we get into this, the more options become available for fitness masks so we just blast the air conditioning and do our thing. There are even moments within a class where we all just start laughing about how crazy it is that we are all doing Pilates in masks. Seriously, who could have ever imagined this?
If you could go back in time to January 2020, what would you tell yourself?
Buckle up, buttercup because you are about to be challenged in ways you can’t even begin to fathom. Trust your instincts and be ready to do what you have always done by pushing forward and coming up with new ideas. Stay true to yourself and remember what (and who) matters most.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Being a business owner is hard. There are challenges that only a fellow business owner can truly appreciate. The shutdowns gave so many of us the gift of time to reflect and make positive changes to our lives both personally and professionally. When you make decisions, you do so knowing that there is no way to please everyone. The biggest lessons I have learned as a person and business owner during this pandemic is that that’s OK. It is OK that not everyone will be satisfied with what you do. When you are living in a global pandemic, that means that no one is immune to the hardships we are facing. We are all having to make decisions to survive, both figuratively and sometimes literally. At the end of the day, the kindness and grace that so many have shown gives me the confidence that not only will my business get through this, but we will all get through this and be better people and community members as a result. // 36 Catoctin Circle SE, Leesburg
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