With its emphasis on unstructured play and the encouragement of freeform exploration and discovery, the Children’s Art Factory in Guelph is the very epitome of a hands-on experience. Children and their parents or caregivers drop in or participate in organized events like birthday parties, and roam freely among the art studio’s themed stations, choosing for themselves what materials they want to work with, and what they want to make with those materials.

Owner Melissa Mazar says her approach is a hit with parents, who see the magic that happens when their children become actively engaged with art materials and their own imaginations. “We know that when children are engaged, that’s when learning happens,” she said.

When COVID-19 lockdowns put all that out of reach for the studio’s customers, Melissa said she and her team struggled at first with how they would continue to offer their services. Their first response was to create rental bins, collections of art materials that could be delivered or picked up, played with for a day or two, and then returned to be cleaned and rented out to the next customer. It worked well enough but was inadequate to replace what had been their bread-and-butter business of birthday parties and similar events.

Then Melissa learned of the Digital Main Street initiative, and said it was an easy decision to apply because she did not want to lose her business.

She used her Digital Transformation Grant (DTG) to launch a subscription program, an extension of what they were doing with the rental bins but one that could add more diversity to what customers would get. A big advantage was that she could expand her market reach beyond the local Guelph area. Customers who sign up for a three-, six-, or 12-month subscription receive a high-quality toy each month, and the materials to explore art with it.

The DTG also brought a new webstore that lets customers buy art supplies and allows grandparents and other gift-givers to send virtual gift cards. Now that the studio is open again for in-person play visits, the Children’s Art Factory has shifted its booking system from a tedious manual process to a streamlined online process.

Online revenue grew from zero to $175,000 in the year since this digital venture was launched, replacing almost two-thirds of the roughly $300,000 the studio earned the year before. Equally as important as growing the online revenue is the new online booking system. The new system has increased efficiency and convenience, unshackling Melissa and her team from the manual method and leaving them free to grow the business in other ways, both online and in-person.

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