“It’s a story of resilience and adaptation,” Catalina Moraga says of her recent experience running the Spirit Loft Movement Centre with husband Andre Talbot. “There has been loss and sadness, but the silver lining has been an opportunity to innovate. And I’m proud of us for all the lightning-fast adaptation we’ve been able to do.”
Catalina and Andre have been running Spirit Loft, a movement and mindfulness centre, for nine years. They take an interdisciplinary approach to wellness that emphasizes play and embodiment, drawing on practices like strength training, yoga, dance, athletics, meditation, and mindfulness, to bring people together. And like most Canadians, their concept of ‘business as usual’ changed dramatically when COVID-19 hit.
“Oddly, I would say that in January it was looking like this was going to be one of our strongest years,” Catalina recalls. By late February though, changes were afoot. “Some people were already starting to self-select out of our programming because of the virus,” she says. “By mid-March, we voluntarily closed and announced to our community that we would be shutting down our group class operations.” And just two days later, Ontario declared a state of emergency and the province locked down.
As a result of COVID-19, 84% of small businesses in Ontario report a negative impact to their profits and operations, according to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. A resilient 49% have been able stay partially open, but it’s often required a huge amount of change, very quickly.
Overall, Spirit Loft has lost about 70% of their revenue due to the lockdown. Half their business includes events, workshops and a professional teacher training program that couldn’t move online. Classes and private training were one revenue stream they could keep going, though. “Within two days we pivoted all of our private clients online and within one-and-a-half weeks we pivoted about 80% of our group class instruction to live stream delivery,” Catalina says.
A large portion of the Spirit Loft community were eager to participate online. They jumped on board, logging in and enthusiastically moving through private sessions and group classes. “That was really positive,” Catalina remembers. “What was difficult was figuring out a way to price these new online offerings because the financial climate was so extreme for most people in our community.”
The other early challenge was the dramatic shift in how they were teaching. “It’s such a different format,” Andre says of his new working hours. “Every day, I come to the studio to teach my private clients and I’ve got my laptop, iPad, camera for the laptop, wireless mics, 50 foot Ethernet cord running through the studio…” As much as setting up tech can be tiring, though, Andre adds that he’s super grateful for it. “Ten years ago, pivoting like this would not have been possible. Now, we can shift at least a portion of the business online and feel like we’re continuing to take care of the people in our community.”
It’s still a very different experience than being in the studio, though. “A lot of what we did would bring people into contact with each other,” Andre explains. “We would have physical contact tasks, games, and situations … and at this point that’s not in the cards.” Plus, a program like Zoom, designed for people sitting at desks in video calls, can’t replicate all the ways their practices would bring people together through their relationships to other bodies and the dynamics of the space itself.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 49% of independent businesses in Ontario have reduced their workforce, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Likewise, Spirit Loft has shifted to a much smaller team to help reduce operating costs. At this point, Catalina and Andre are taking care of all aspects of the business themselves, with a few teachers staying on to deliver live stream programming. “It’s made for some really long days,” Catalina remarks. “It feels like when we first started, when it was just us.”
Perhaps harder than anything else, though, is the uncertainty. As Catalina says, “the announcements from the government – about changes and re-openings – are so sudden.” With no way to get advance notice of what the rules and restrictions will be in a month, even in a week, they’re planning for ten different scenarios all at once, all the time. “No one would ever open a business this way,” Catalina notes. “You wouldn’t secure a space without a sense of your business model and projections. But small business owners are on the hook for their commercial rent, and as we can see, some of them are already folding, and others like us are hanging on in the hopes that we can launch something profitable and sustainable on the other side of this.”
Spirit Loft qualified for CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account), which has helped. They’ve also had some interest relief and offers for deferrals, but so far, no rent relief. “Our commercial landlord hasn’t participated in CECRA [Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance] as of yet,” Catalina says. “If we’d had CECRA these last months, we would have more confidence in our future.”
One step forward
There’s no sense of doom when you talk to Catalina and Andre, though. They’re planning for the future, even if it is uncertain. Now, as some restrictions start to ease up, they have more options. “We’ve been able to negotiate with our landlord for some space in an adjacent parking lot where we can offer outdoor instruction,” Catalina enthuses. “It’s an experiment for him, for us.” Andre adds that the prospect of outdoor classes has “definitely inspired us, we’re feeling good about getting creative with that.”
Even as they plan to move things outdoors, Catalina and Andre are making changes to their studio for when they can welcome people back into the space. They’ve turned a reception area into another private training space and made changes that will minimize touchpoints, to promote health safety throughout the studio. Andre also sees it as a unique opportunity, “like if there’s something that we’ve never really liked or hadn’t gotten around to touching up before, we can do that now.” Still, moving forward with these changes is a bit of a gamble, Catalina notes. “We’ve invested money into preparing our space to re-open without knowing exactly what’s possible.”
Adapting quickly and planning for the summer months has given Catalina and Andre momentum going forward, even though they know there are more challenges ahead. The very nature of their activities is high risk - a group of people in a confined space, moving, breathing heavily. “That creates a lot of uncertainty for us about what the future holds for the wellness industry,” Andre says.
They’re not alone in that struggle, though. Catalina notes that since “all of our colleagues who run gyms or studios are in the same boat as us,” it’s fostered a stronger sense of community. Before the pandemic, she describes it as a distant relationship, even competitive. Now, “we’ve all come together through Zoom calls to share best practices, resources, support … and just to have an ear to talk about your difficulties with people who understand. So that’s been really lovely.”
None of us can tell the future, but we keep moving. For Catalina and Andre that’s literal, as well as figurative. All their efforts right now are about continuing to serve their wellness community in a way that’s safe and fulfilling. “That’s important for me, as a small business owner, as an entrepreneur, as someone who’s dedicated her whole life to embodied practice, community education, and movement mindfulness,” Catalina declares. “I want to continue to offer that in some way.”