Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

From Zoom plays to online potty training: How UAE entrepreneurs have been forced to think outside the box

A number of residents have come up with creative concepts to keep their businesses alive in the wake of the pandemic

Shereen Saif acts in an online performance of 'Ashputtel'. Courtesy Bark at a Crow
Shereen Saif acts in an online performance of 'Ashputtel'. Courtesy Bark at a Crow

Known for bringing large-scale immersive experiences to some of Dubai’s biggest physical spaces, theatre director Liz Hadaway once held a performance of The Great Gatsby across three decks of the QE2, under her company Bark at a Crow. She presented Romeo and Juliet on the roof of Mall of the Emirates. Then the restrictions on movement introduced because of the pandemic threw her a massive curve ball.

“I stalled for the first two weeks, but it presented an opportunity to do something different. I was forced to think more theatrically,” Hadaway says.

Helped by technical production partner MXB Studios, the result was a live-streamed performance of Ashputtel, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales version of Cinderella. The ticketed event was broadcast to a global audience, from the UAE to Canada, to the US, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and India.

The digital set allowed professional actors from London to join the cast. The performance was also interactive, with audience members invited to communicate with each other and assist characters or choose props. The show was touted by The Guardian in July as one of the “hottest front-room seats”.

“It came off better than expected,” Hadaway says. “It has opened up myriad possibilities and allowed us to reach people who were stuck at home or sick. It’s something I will continue to do and now that we have done it once, it will be easier to replicate.”

Scrambling to make sense of a new order where face-to-face contact comes with a health warning, businesses across the board have been forced to think outside the box, creating online initiatives that may well outlast the pandemic.

When Dubai Sports Council halted all contact sports as health measures were put in place, companies such as Infinite Sports UAE lost the use of 54 facilities across its academies. Parents who had paid in advance were offered free online sessions for their children during terms two and three, replacement sessions for term one this month, plus new resources such as webinars, sports quizzes and even online gymnastics birthday parties.

“We became more innovative and active on social media and created lots of community videos,” says Gareth Mordey, chief executive of Infinite Sports UAE. “The situation forced our coaches to become more dynamic. We ran 603 hours of live online sessions with 5,404 children taking part. We hosted 27 free webinars involving big sporting names that were open to the wider community.”

An online quiz organised by Infinite Sports. Courtesy Infinite Sports UAE
An online quiz organised by Infinite Sports. Courtesy Infinite Sports UAE

In some instances, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for completely new business concepts. Toilet training is a topic that will make most parents grimace, but because of the pandemic, the UAE is home to its first licensed potty trainer. Former nursery principal and qualified nanny Lisa Sherrington-Boyd is the “Potty Queen”.

Last year she received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis – a rare form of spinal arthritis – and underwent surgery and immune suppression therapy. So when Covid-19 hit, she immediately had to start working from home.

“I found that the lack of contact with families made me feel quite low,” she says. “Years of teaching children in nursery taught me many tips and hacks and I started sharing these online. Then I started getting referrals.”

Using everything from bubbles to teddy bears, over Zoom and WhatsApp, Sherrington-Boyd has helped 42 families to “house train” their children, and has since been invited to host a live chat show on radio station Pearl FM.

Online bra-fitting also became a thing during stay-at-home orders, thanks to TKD Lingerie. Operating in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, owner Kate Kikano launched her business online shortly before Covid-19 hit and both stores closed. Customers were invited to share photos on WhatsApp with TKD bra-fitters, and orders were delivered straight to their door.

Alternatively, a bra-fitter or a driver could deliver lingerie to the customer to try on at home, as a car waited outside. Whatever did not fit was sent back. What Kikano is most proud of is that she not only retained every staff member in lockdown, she also gained new customers.

With a 70 per cent drop in business in March, licensed photographer Nithya Rajkumar was forced to radically rethink her business model.

Flexible services also mean I reach a wider audience and I can work from home, which is great as I’m a mother

Nithya Rajkumar, photographer

She specialises in lifestyle portraits, live events and family shoots, but having to self-isolate prompted her to launch a mix of online and discounted contactless services, such as personal branding and product photography, outdoor photo sessions, online training for photography enthusiasts of all ages, live mentoring and mindfulness photography workshops. These new offerings helped Rajkumar to bounce back.

“I now use a lens with a larger focal length to facilitate social distancing. Every online activity has generated positive feedback and an increase in enquiries,” she says. “Flexible services also mean I reach a wider audience and I can work from home, which is great as I’m a mother.”

Six months on, things that may have seemed impossible to replicate online have become part of our new normal. More Than Birth Doula Collective and Belly Baby Mum UAE are providing hypnobirthing classes online and live support for expectant couples and labouring mums.

The world has changed irrevocably, but a host of small businesses have proved that the most adaptable and enterprising will survive.

Updated: September 7, 2020 09:24 AM

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