How brands are shifting strategies to maintain growth during unprecedented times
When I first joined Stagecoach Performing Arts, back at the beginning of 2018, I had a clear objective to drive the expansion of the international brand presence and establish our quality children’s performing arts franchise as an outstanding business opportunity for investors. When COVID-19 hit, we were two years into a five-year global growth plan that, within a matter of hours, came to a grinding halt.
However, undeterred by the obvious and unavoidable business-critical scenario, the entire support team assembled (albeit virtually!) to develop at pace, a multi-faceted strategy – to reassure anxious franchisees, retain our students and uphold our standing in the international franchising industry.
Our international growth strategy is undoubtedly about securing large-scale investments, bringing in multi-unit franchise owners and entrepreneurs with corporate experience. But, when the crisis struck, it became about focusing on the core of the business, remembering the human impact by checking in with each franchisee, and then establishing the fundamental processes that will maintain our brand for the long-term.
The immediate focus as a team was firstly to reassure our franchisees by putting them at the heart of the strategy, engaging with them from day one, treating them as valued colleagues and, in doing so, strengthening a bond forged in the face of adversity. We began to host, and continue to offer, daily Google hangouts for all franchisees. These have been crucial in shaping our strategy which has evolved as quickly as the news has. They have been particularly important to our international franchisees and our ongoing commitment to them to provide support like a truly local franchisor. Face-to-face contact with our international franchisees is certainly preferable, and something that in normal times we invest heavily in. However, this really hasn’t hindered the quality of our franchisor-franchisee relationships. Engagement is at an extraordinary high level for any franchise network, with a 95%+ uptake in the new global digital initiatives that we put in place.
Step two, run simultaneously with the first, was to quickly devise and bring to fruition a range of virtual training resources that our current students could enjoy from the safety of their homes. From this, #stagecoachathome was born. In the days leading up to the 23rd March, when the UK lockdown was enforced, we filmed professional-quality videos, demonstrating a variety of activities students could do at home. Initially, these were shared via social media channels, with franchisees choosing to host in a number of different ways. We also encouraged our current community of franchisees, teachers and students to share their own video content and personal messages of goodwill using our assigned hashtag.
From a consumer perspective, this was an obvious solution to deliver Stagecoach services which would act as a tool to retain students. But, behind the scenes, this initiative had a multi-pronged objective for our franchise recruitment. To maintain contact with our active leads, we offered these resources out via digital mailers to past enquirers, as part of an overall message of support and understanding – resulting in a 70 per cent clickthrough rate. Essentially, these explained that we fully understood that times are tough for everyone and, whilst people may have been considering investing in a franchise in recent months, we knew decisions may go on the backburner in the short term. However, here were a whole host of free educational resources to share with our prospects’ families in the meantime. It was important to us that whilst we maintain our sales focus, it was done
so as an ethical and mindful franchisor. Being supportive, whilst demonstrating our organisation’s ability to act decisively and with real quality will pay dividends when the sales cycle begins to return to normal.
This campaign was also the preliminary step of a new, robust strategy for the rebound. To maintain the standing of our international brand, we put in place an action plan that would stand the test of time, long after lockdown restrictions are lifted. By focusing on our core offering - children’s performing arts education - and implementing measures that are proactive, not reactive, we are future proofing the business; not just sticking a band-aid on the problem and hoping for the best. #stagecoachathome offers scope for growth via a new consumer platform, as we took these virtual resources online and launched a new, digital offering - www.stagecoachathome.com. This revenue-generating offering will remain available for the long-term, establishing a new, durable model for our franchise network.
Step three was to implement the necessary actions to uphold our standing in the international franchising space. Every single component of this new action plan has had a resounding positive effect on our standing internationally. By looking after our franchisees, we’re publicly placing our brand as an ethical, innovative franchisor and, therefore, a worthwhile investment. We continue to receive enquiries from around the world, who can see the way that Stagecoach are tackling this crisis head on. Having our franchisees as brand advocates, supportive of our leadership will be a crucial step in turning those enquiries into new franchisees.
From a strategic perspective, yes, we have had to make significant changes to our objectives. A key driver for us in years three and four of our five-year plan was to focus on further growth in the US, in particular North America. Whilst we still continue to nurture this existing project, we’ve pivoted our short-term objectives by shifting our focus to development in Australia and China, where lockdown measures are thankfully slowly lifting. Our digital initiatives are already generating interest there as we look to seed the markets, and by continuing to utilise those all-important digital tools, like video calling and instant messaging, we’re keeping in touch with key investors. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, simply putting in place a well-informed and viable approach that is better placed in this new environment.
We’re continuing to bear in mind that the world has changed; we’re certainly not claiming it’s all sunshine and rainbows right now. In essence, there is a certain dose of realism required. In any recession or time of challenge, good businesses thrive whilst others may not even survive. At its heart, Stagecoach is a great business through and through. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will come out the other side of this together, as a network – a family that’s been 30 years in the making.
Andrew Walters is Director of International Business Development for children’s services franchise, Stagecoach Performing Arts. Here, he lifts the lid on the innovative and proactive strategies implemented by the senior team in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and, significantly, the policies put in place to retain their standing on an international scale.