Nicci Donnelly used her loan from Transmit Startups to transform a former golf shop in Newcastle into a fully-equipped Pilates and yoga studio.

She tells us how her rapid response to the pandemic has not only allowed her to keep her business going, but means she can reach customers who didn’t have the confidence to step foot in the studio in the past.

Hi Nicci, give us a quick overview of your business journey before COVID-19 hit.

I discovered the healing power of Pilates after injuring my back during a normal exercise class. I trained as an instructor and started running community classes specifically for people with aches, pains and injuries. Demand was so great I quickly realised I needed my own dedicated space. My Start Up Loan covered the cost of fitting out a fabulous studio, complete with specialist Pilates Reformer Machines. I work with three other self-employed instructors, delivering a range of classes including over 60s yoga and pre-natal Pilates.

How quickly were you affected by the pandemic and what impact did this have?

The age range of my clients meant many had stopped coming to class – even before I officially closed – because of fear of catching COVID-19. Then the Government announced the closure of gyms and we were instantly shut down. That meant no clients, no classes and no money coming in.

How did your customers and suppliers react?

My clients were brilliant and rallied to the cry to support small, local businesses. They bought passes for future classes and gift vouchers to use after we re-open, which meant I was able to have a small income. It was a very worrying time and I was especially sad that I couldn’t pay the self-employed instructors. I requested payment breaks from my loans and creditors and started thinking about how to adapt.

What steps did you take to minimise the impact/diversify your business?

Within seven days we were online.I started off filming bits on Facebook Live but although clients were enjoying this, I couldn’t see them to make sure they were doing Pilates correctly. So, I faced my fears and launched classes using Zoom video conferencing instead. I really had to be brave because putting yourself out there on screen is a bit different from the comfort of the studio. Even having the right equipment was quite a worry.

Would my aging laptop cope? What about my wifi?  What if it all failed? It was scary at first. I was delighted with the response though – classes were quickly fully booked. Two of the other instructors join me now too and we deliver seven classes each week with about 10 people per class.

How did you adapt your working practices?

Learning a whole new set of skills in Zoom was interesting but it happened very quickly. The entire fitness industry responded rapidly, with our insurance companies adding online teaching to our policies. The booking system we used also developed a way of adding the Zoom url to the booking so we could still charge money to take part.

I decided to offer the classes as Pay What You Can Afford so all of customers can keep up with their practice, even if they don’t have any money coming in. On the whole everyone is very grateful to have these classes as a bit of normality in these strange times.

How would you describe your experience of the crisis as an entrepreneur?

I was really worried about my very young business. We hadn’t even been open a year when the crisis took hold. It’s all class-based too so not being able to get in the studio with my clients was confusing. I was really worried how my clients would cope with new online technology but on the whole, they have embraced the new world.

My clients are nearly all part of the vulnerable group and I have been concerned about their welfare. It’s lovely to be able to catch up with them and enjoy our Pilates and chats. I have even been dressing up in my best clothes to deliver classes just to make people smile and so I’m wearing something other than my PJs!

Have you taken any steps to cope with the crisis that could potentially lead to long-term changes for your business?

I am going to continue with online classes after we open. I will be offering online classes, an online library, and live filming of classes too, so you can be at home but taking part in a live class in the studio.

Have there been any unexpected outcomes from the experience?

We have had new customers join us who were scared to come to the studio as they lacked confidence to take part in a group environment. They started in Zoom with their cameras turned off but have since gained confidence to have the camera on. We have a lovely chat at the end of class, sharing our stories and having a laugh. It’s fabulous to connect with each other again.

We've laughed, cried and moved our way through this pandemic together.

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Norma Stabler, aged 69, has used Nicci’s classes for three years to manage the pain caused by a bad back and knees.

She said: “Pilates helps me to keep on top of my health issues and enables me to carry on with normal life to the best of my ability. Being able to continue with my classes online has been a real boost for me. It is very important that I keep my body moving and don’t revert to my pre-Pilates condition. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy Zoom is to use as I’m not particularly technically-minded.

It is lovely to be able to connect with other people and bring a bit normality back in to my life.”