In this exclusive Q&A with Chris McCuiston, co-founder and CEO of Goldfish Swim School, we learn how the swim school franchise leaned on its core values to help respond successfully to the pandemic.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Let’s start at the beginning. Can you chat through how Goldfish Swim School started and what you bring to the communities you serve?
Chris McCuiston (CM): At Goldfish Swim School, our core focus is making the children of the communities we serve safer in and around the water – while making the experience Golden.
My wife Jenny and I recognized the lack of quality swim lessons available to families and their children pretty quickly into our careers. It became clear when Jenny was working as a swim instructor at a local country club – the waitlist for her sessions was incredibly long. Jenny is a lifelong swimmer – she qualified for the Olympic trials twice – and has a passion for water safety, so together we set out to create a child-focused swim school to fulfill this need.
We wanted to do something different, something to help set us apart and to help get kids truly excited about learning to swim. After years of hard work and research, we developed our own proprietary curriculum, the Science of SwimPlay. Our teaching method allows children of all swim-experience levels to learn through guided play in a fun and safe environment.
Then, we began to build-out the rest of the experience to make our school bright and inviting. For example, we added vibrant decor and decided to keep our first school’s pool 90-degrees, allowing kids to immediately feel more comfortable and excited to swim.
Not long after opening our first school, we began to receive a lot of questions about opening additional locations and the potential for franchising. We now have grown to 100+ locations in ten years, with the goal of having 260 open schools in the next five years.
FC: The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but can you talk through how Goldfish Swim School stepped up to support its franchisees?
CM: Our number one priority is the safety of our members and their families, our teams and our franchise owners, so we temporarily closed all 100+ locations across North America to do our part in slowing the spread of the virus.
During that time, we leaned heavily on our core values to serve as a guiding light. One of those core values is to do the right things, make the right decisions, and treat people with integrity, compassion, and trust – this is exactly what our franchise office support team did throughout the pandemic.
We acted swiftly to support our franchisees, immediately jumping into action and developing an interactive COVID Support Site to provide franchisees information on navigating COVID-19 – legal insight, financial resources, downloadable marketing templates and collateral, operational guidance, reopening support, etc.
Furthermore, as states began to reopen, we hosted weekly ‘Franchise Features’ in which owners and general managers across the system who re-opened could share their experience with those who were still in the planning phase, allowing them to share feedback, problem solve and adapt to the everchanging business landscape.
Before reopening, we knew we needed to innovate and adapt so that we could equip our franchisees with the resources they needed to continue to interact with their communities and maintain member engagement. That said, while families were following stay-at-home orders for several months, we made sure that resources were made available – at no cost – to our communities.
We created ‘Goldfish At Home’ to provide free, virtual swim-inspired workouts where members and non-members are both able to follow along and choose videos that fit their child’s age or swim level. This kept water safety top-of-mind for children and their families so that when we reopened, there would be less of a knowledge gap. It was also incredibly helpful for parents looking for unique approaches to physical education homeschooling requirements.
We also developed at-home activities that families could print out and use to supplement any home school lessons. Daycares, schools and other groups holding virtual meetings were able to share our water safety presentation via Zoom as well in order to continue spreading the message of water safety.
FC: As Goldfish Swim School facilities reopen across the country, how are you supporting franchisees in getting back up and running?
CM: For safety and consistency, it became clear early on that we needed to supply suggested network-wide protocols so that our franchisees had a foundation to build on for their own schools’ procedures. While each state and city have their own mandates, our Safer. Stronger. Together.™ initiative was designed to help franchisees ensure their team members, families and guests felt safe when entering back into the schools. Each school has also worked closely with their local health departments and in accordance with the CDC guidelines on individual reopening procedures.
While cleanliness has always been a priority, we wanted to make sure that we were doing everything we could to ensure the safety of our communities. Health assessments, PPE, implementing social distancing throughout the facility, increased facility cleaning and sanitization stations as well as the removal of commonly shared amenities are just a handful of things we’re recommending at every school.
To further support our franchisees in their effort to safely reopen, we joined forces with a network of swimming partners to work with an Aquatics Coalition via USA Swimming to lobby for the safe reopening of purposeful aquatics. With the ability to limit capacity with scheduled lessons, enforce social distancing with swim lane protocol, direct traffic flow and provide PPE to team members, privately owned and instruction-based swim schools are in a much better position to navigate the pandemic and safely reopen in compliance with requirements.
FC: How have you communicated policy changes and protocol across the 100+ schools?
CM: While there are many elements of this pandemic that we cannot control, one thing we can control is the way we communicate its impact and the changes it has brought on. My team knows I’m a big believer in overcommunication. We make sure to be transparent in our communication by sharing regular updates with our franchise network while providing plenty of avenues for feedback. Early on, we held conference calls every day for franchise owners to ensure consistent communication and support.
We want our owners to be involved and invested in their work, so that they’re reminded of the value of their role – especially during a crisis. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, we increased touchpoints with each school making frequent calls, sending branded collateral and sharing updated reopening messaging so every swim school had the most up-to-date information via the COVID Support Site.
One of the things we made sure to emphasize for all of our schools was staying on top of their state and city mandates. Safety was and is our first priority every step of the way, and as things rapidly changed day-to-day, we made sure to keep the lines of communication open and work with each location to find the ideal solution.
FC: Have franchise growth plans slowed at all since the pandemic?
CM: Our strength, resiliency and ability to innovate and adapt has allowed us to remain steadfast and focused on our growth. During the pandemic, we opened five new schools, have an additional 20+ in construction and more than 100+ in various stages of development across North America.
Our plans for expansion are actually more critical now than ever, as the need to learn to swim will always be essential – it’s a life skill that should be available to every child. In fact, according to a warning issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids are at a higher risk of drowning this summer due to the pandemic.
FC: If someone is interested in learning more about opening a franchise of their own, where can they find more information?
CM: We’re always looking to grow our franchisee family, and are looking for qualified, active and engaged individuals who are involved with their community, have a passion for water safety and are ready to dive into the world of franchising. We are seeking new partners to develop throughout Canada and the western and southern regions of the United States.
For aspiring business owners, our franchise development website is a great resource as you explore the investment opportunity – available territories, testimonials, cost breakdown and more about what we look for in a franchise candidate is all there. If you’d like to take the next step and chat with us about opening a franchise, please contact our VP of Franchise Development, Dan Israel, at email@example.com.