Yes, we’re open for business

Local businesses are innovating so they can serve their customers safely

A survey by the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center in late June revealed more than half of all small businesses had seen their revenue fall by 50% or more. Declines in sales, reduced hours of operation, and having to close were all primary factors that impacted the businesses’ finances, with a decline in sales clearly the most important factor, the report said.

Many of New Hampshire’s small businesses have had to adapt and adjust to best serve families as they approach the holiday season.

Bouncing from inflatables to remote learning

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Camden Tefler of Manchester, a second-grader, is participating in Cowabunga’s new Learning Lab this fall.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cowabunga’s attracted families who purchased monthly memberships so their kids could bounce at New England’s largest indoor inflatable park.

With locations in Manchester and North Reading, Mass., the children’s play gym at one time had 25 employees who assisted with private parties and open gym play times.

Cowabunga’s closed its doors last spring, reopening its Manchester location in September. When it re-opened, co-owner Kelly Pearson said that Cowabunga’s had to adapt. Instead of bouncing around, children are now hunkering down in front of computers at the location’s Learning Lab.

“During the week we have a Learning Lab to help support remote learners in the area,”  Pearson said. “We are licensed by the state and abide by all of the rules. The biggest reason why we decided to do that was because we wanted to be able to accept state aid and help a greater number of families.”

Each weekday, students in first through eighth grade log on to their remote classes and get help from staff with both technical and academic questions, and a director provides structure.

While students must devote several hours to classwork, they are welcome to bounce out their energy on the gym’s equipment during break times.

Opening the Learning Lab has allowed Cowabunga’s to bring back some employees, Pearson said, although she admits it’s not a money maker.

At the end of October, the Learning Lab served between six and nine kids each day and has capacity for 20 students. The cost of the full-day program runs $65/day or $250/week. Pearson said she is actively looking into grants and ways to bring costs down for families.

“It keeps us going and pays some of the bills,” she said. “We are basically paying our payroll through the program and using our space.”

On weekends, Cowabunga’s still hosts limited private parties and asks families to reserve walk-in play times by reservation. Monthly memberships are temporarily suspended until it is safe to allow large numbers of groups in the 15,000-square-foot open gym.

For the Tefler family, Cowabunga’s proved to be the right fit for their second-grader, Camden. The 7-year-old attends Webster Elementary School in Manchester and learns remotely.

“As a household with two full-time working parents, we were looking for a place to provide support and social opportunities for Camden. We had spent the past 6 months trying to work from home while providing social and academic/developmental support to both of our children,” said Gavin Tefler, who also has a 17-month-old son, Lucas.

“The set-up at Cowabunga’s allows for Camden to get academic support and physically-distanced social interaction with other kids during the day.”

Not only is Camden having a good time, but he’s also getting support he might not receive elsewhere, Tefler said.

“The communication from the Learning Lab has been fantastic. We get a sense of what his day looked like, what assignments he completed, and where he might have struggled,” he said. “They know what motivates him, what frustrates him, and they have a sense of how to help him work through issues and show some resilience.”

Child care and virtual programs

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Seacoast Science Center hosts a Nature Detectives afterschool program. Kids spend lots of time outdoors exploring Odiorne Point State Park.

Before COVID-19, the Seacoast Science Center in Rye welcomed guests daily to learn about marine life. The museum offered visitor programs, preschool programs, and field trips for schools and groups.

It reopened July 4, but only on weekends at half-capacity by reservation, shortening its hours to allow for deep cleaning at the end of each day, said Karen Provazza, director of marketing at Seacoast Science Center.

“Maintaining safe social distancing and limited capacity to ensure safety has meant a 50% or greater reduction for SSC,” Provazza said. “Being unable to host its in-person fundraising events has also negatively impacted the bottom line. To address this, SSC has reduced staff hours and increased its focus on virtual fundraising.”

To better meet the needs of parents, the SSC began having in-person day camps this fall and afterschool programs for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Because the museum does not have visitors during the week, children who attend the afterschool program and camps do not share space with others. They remain in small groups separated by age and much of their programming is outdoors.

The Nature Detectives afterschool program began in October and meets Monday through Friday afternoons after school, giving students an opportunity to get outdoors, meet with friends and explore nature.

On Fridays, the museum’s Camp Care program offers a full-day camp experience to the same age group, helping families meet the challenges of caring for their children in remote and hybrid learning models, Provazza said.

The museum began delivering virtual programs within two weeks of being impacted by the pandemic, Provazza said. Young learners, students, teachers, adults and families can choose from a variety of virtual programs, including virtual field trips that explore ocean and coastal topics.

All options are live, naturalist-led programs, delivered to classrooms or homes via a gated connection through the Seacoast Science Center’s YouTube channel, its website, or a secure Zoom connection.

“The Seacoast Science Center will reopen fully when it is deemed safe to do so as determined by the CDC and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human services and when visitation and participation numbers support a full-time schedule,” Provazza said. “This holiday season, you can support us by purchasing a membership or guest passes, shopping in the Nature Store, or by making a donation in honor of a friend or family member.”

Outdoor tours and ice skating

Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth re-opened for the 2020 season in July with a new visitor experience. The museum, which includes 32 historical houses and 10 gardens, was forced to close the interiors of its historic buildings due to concerns surrounding the pandemic, said Valerie Lester, director of marketing at Strawbery Banke.

Instead, the museum now offers self-guided tours that focus on the outdoor sites that tell the story of the historic waterfront neighborhood.

“Strawbery Banke Museum is seeing about 25% of the visitors of a normal season,” she said. “Staff hours have been reduced as well, as many large events have been cancelled, postponed, or moved online.”

The museum’s signature fundraising events, including its Vintage and Vine winetasting event, were either postponed or canceled this year, Lester said.

The staff has shifted many learning opportunities for children and adults online. For example, the museum offers its Virtual Field Trips program for students in kindergarten through high school, in which they visit with a role player, meet a museum expert, and time travel to different time periods.

Puddle Dock Packs include take-home materials in which kids can practice their fine motor skills, Lester said. Adults may also engage in enrichment opportunities that include meeting with a role player or museum expert.

This holiday season, visitors can still look forward to the popular Candlelight Stroll, which has taken place annually since 1979, with a few modifications.

Although the insides of the historic homes will remain closed, participants can look forward to an outdoor-only experience that focuses on the lights, wreaths, role players, and holiday magic represented on the exteriors of the museum’s historic buildings and landscape, Lester said. The Candlelight Stroll Under the Stars will take place on select December weekends, with more information announced soon, she said.

For those who enjoy ice skating, Strawbery Banke plans to reopen Labrie Family Skate at Puddle Dock Pond, the museum’s outdoor skating rink. Prior to visiting, guests will be required to review the museum’s COVID-19 precautions, Lester said.

“The museum has taken extra precautions in terms of cleaning, sanitizing, and ensuring the proper space for physical distancing. Skating and events such as Candlelight Stroll Under the Stars are occurring outdoors, and the museum purchased an air-filtration system for the TYCO Visitors Center,” Lester said.

Flexing services and classes to keep families fit

The Works Family Health & Fitness Center in Somersworth, a part of Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, like other businesses, continues to look at new ways to make the best use of its space.

The Works has reopened in a phased approach, while still providing the best customer service possible, said Danielle Krenzer, director of programs for The Works.

When the club closed in mid-March, it opened an emergency child care center to support hospital employees. Memberships were frozen for everyone in the spring, but now members can re-activate them.

This fall, the club began ramping up its offerings at a reduced capacity to ensure that families may experience a safe workout.

For example, the gym’s Cycle Zone has moved to its larger gymnasium to allow for more airflow. Group exercise classes are running at smaller capacity, by reservation only.

The club continues to operate its supervised children’s program to provide child care for parents during their workouts by reservation only. For those members who feel more comfortable taking exercise classes from their favorite instructors at home, the Works offers virtual options.

“We’ve worked really hard to find the right schedule. We are putting the high- demand classes in the appropriate areas and trying to meet the need,” she said.

“Our motto for a long time in our children’s program has been healthy minds, healthy bodies, and healthy futures. Even in a pandemic, we’ve tried as best as we can to help fulfill that vision for ourselves. It is possible to social distance and have fun,” she said.

This holiday season, The Works will continue to expand its in-person offerings and also plans to extend its virtual exercise and wellness program and operate its pre- and post-natal fitness programs.

By appointment only

When spas and salons were forced to close, many parents became their children’s stylists. In June, when salons were allowed to reopen, Sweet Snips in Hampton Falls began welcoming clients to its candy-inspired salon.

“We have had multiple family members coming in at the same time to limit exposure from going to multiple salons,” said Sherry Flaherty, manager of Sweet Snips. “The flow of clients since we have re-opened has been consistent.”

The salon follows strict safety and sanitation protocols and limits the number of people allowed to visit the salon at the same time. Every child over the age of three is required to wear a mask.

Business had peaked for the six-year-old business last spring, which had been operating with four full-time stylists, most days of the week. The salon has cut its staff in half since then and is still booking by appointment only.

Flaherty said Sweet Snips is looking to increase its staff as the holiday season approaches.

Although the salon is no longer booking SPAtacular birthday parties, it is instead allowing families to book smaller spa sessions that include the birthday girl and a couple of friends, who can receive special hair styles and mini-manicures. Sweet Snips will be offering gift certificate specials this season that can be mailed to the gift recipient.

“We are always available to answer our clients’ questions and concerns and can work with them to make accommodations to make their visit fun and safe for everyone,” Flaherty said.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Categories: COVID-19, News