diddi dance’s Anne-Marie Martin talks to workingmums.co.uk about the franchise’s Covid experience and how important dance is for mental health.
When Covid hit there were two weeks left of diddi dance’s term. Everything closed and the toddler dance franchise had to help its franchisees put their classes online and fast.
That meant testing out what was the best option technology wise. Zoom, for instance, was problematic as having everyone visible distracted some children while putting it on speaker view meant teachers couldn’t see the children. The franchise settled on private Facebook groups for Facebook live sessions which were recorded so parents could click on the classes at their own convenience. Fortunately, diddi dance has developed its own music so there were no licensing issues.
They also created messenger rooms linked to Facebook Live sessions so they could talk directly to customers. “We tried to keep it as community-based as possible from the start,” says founder Anne-Marie Martin, adding that it was “a rollercoaster moving everything online”. She tried to lead by example and did lots of videos showing franchisees how to teach online.
Over the lockdown months there were periods, particularly in the summer months, where interest in online classes dropped off because of screen fatigue, but having the classes on Facebook meant children could do them outdoors on the move and in fact they ran a ‘take us to the park’ campaign at one point, emphasising that the classes could be done on the go and in parents’ own time. Anne-Marie stresses the importance of the link between dance and mental health, something that became more important as worries about the longer term impact of Covid became more apparent.
Over the course of the pandemic, she has also launched diddi dance on TikTok, doing live sessions for all ages three times a week. At one point she had 48,000 viewers. That has increased the brand’s recognition, but also helped a lot of people with their mental health. “Diddi dance is about giving children a healthy and happy start to life. It encourages them to see dance as something happy and fun and that sets them up for life,” says Anne-Marie.
A lot of the emphasis for her has also been on supporting her franchisees when it comes to finances and interpreting government guidance, although as a limited company Anne-Marie could not access any help outside a one-off rates relief grant for a business unit and bounce back loans. She also could not furlough herself because she was needed to help her franchisees. “When you are the franchisor the buck stops with you,” she says.
To alleviate some of the pressure she linked up with other children’s franchisees through the Children’s Activities Association. “It was amazing to talk to other activity providers and franchisors. Everyone was very open, sharing things. I felt really well supported and I don’t think I would have been able to get through it without that support,” says Anne-Marie. “When things started to open up everyone was busy doing their own thing, but those friendships will be much closer now after what we have been through.”
The Association also helped her talk through the latest government guidance. The picture was more complex for diddi dance because guidance related to out of school classes, early years and performance arts and it took a while to get used to it, but the central thrust was clear – to keep people safe. Anne-Marie then passed that information on to her franchisees through documents and presentations online. “Being part of a franchise network we could figure things out together. We had lots of two-way conversations with franchisees and families,” she says. “It’s about being transparents and open and respecting different people’s choices.”
When classes could return they were often running at half their capacity, which meant they were making franchisees no money. Franchisees had to keep adapting to all the changes. The franchise created ‘diddi dots’ to encourage toddlers to dance on a ‘magic’ dot. “We wanted to keep people safe, but most people were working at reduced capacity. We felt like we were just about getting there when the winter wave of Covid cases hit,” says Anne-Marie.
Social distancing and the use of diddi dots has continued up to September. Anne-Marie notes that in different regions there are different attitudes about things like social distancing and mask-wearing. “It varies by region and between classes. Some childminders meet up a lot and feel okay being with each other whereas some parents sit apart and wear masks,” she says. “We can only advise based on the science.” The emphasis now is on choice. Head office still has an online offering for parents who don’t want to go to a class or for those who don’t have a franchisee local to them or can’t access a class that fits their timetable.
There have, says Anne-Marie, been both gains and losses. While a few franchisees dropped out due to personal reasons such as the stress of doing homeschooling and teaching, the franchise took on more people than it lost and had to adapt its training and interview process to make it accessible online. Anne-Marie has recorded every element of the training process onto a private Youtube channel, including validation classes. The pandemic has shown her how much can be done online and there are some advantages of this, for instance, savings on potential franchisees’ travel costs.
For the next months, it is all about a steady recovery and Anne-Marie says enquiries are up from people looking into franchising. She is also looking into developing an interactive Youtube channel.
Anne-Marie says that one good thing that has come out of the pandemic is an increased sense of resilience. “We have just had to roll with it as there has been no other choice,” she says. “Our ability to be adaptable and flexible has developed. Although I don’t want another wave of Covid and many are at the end of their tether financially, I know we can cope.”