Culture Club: Lemonade out of Lemons

by MIKE SCHNEIDER, Executive Director, The Clearing

Nearly 39 months have passed since the pandemic hit the fan in Door County. For The Clearing, and for every other business – both for-profit and not-for-profit – it created unprecedented challenges. It was one of the most traumatic events in The Clearing’s 88-year history. 

But now that the pandemic is fading in the rear-view mirror (or at least I hope it is), I remind myself more and more that some very good things grew out of one very bad thing. 

It didn’t occur to me, especially in 2020, that, in the end, The Clearing would improve because of the pandemic. All we were doing for many months, especially those first few months, was trying to keep our head above water. But now, having made it through the worst of it, it has become apparent that The Clearing is better because of the pandemic. I expect there are many other businesses whose leaders feel the same.

Better and more frequent communication with our community was the first “pandemic-induced” improvement. Soon after March 16, 2020 – the day The Clearing closed – we started sending emails to our mailing list, at first to let folks know that we were closing, then about how we would be refunding payments for canceled classes. 

Soon after, we sent the first of three e-blasts asking for donations to help us survive a year during which there would be no income from classes – far and away our main source of income. Many of our students donated all or part of their class fee. Many others took a class certificate in lieu of a refund. 

Those emails quickly evolved into an e-newsletter that we named The Clearing Connection. They were weekly for the rest of 2020 and have been monthly since then. They include a letter that reports on what’s happening at The Clearing and a video “mosey” around the property, usually looking at plants in bloom, fruit, or fall color, depending on the season. There’s also an ad for our bookstore, information about classes, sometimes a recipe from The Clearing kitchen and, for more than two years now, a feature of one of The Clearing’s many original works of art, including oil paintings by our founder, Jens Jensen. The pandemic was the catalyst for much-improved communication with our community.

I started reporting to our board of directors via email immediately after the pandemic forced The Clearing to close. This quickly evolved into a weekly update to the board – something I continue to this day. These updates keep board members informed about a variety of things: financial issues, the status of class registrations, progress on facility projects, staffing issues and much more. Many board members have told me that they find the updates very helpful. It’s something I wish I had started doing years ago. It took a pandemic to get me started.

We created a new program called Clearing Retreats in early summer 2020, once the pandemic dust had settled a bit. We couldn’t do classes, but we decided that we could host guests for personal retreats. Meals were delivered to the lodging rooms, and guests enjoyed hiking around The Clearing and Door County. Classroom buildings and the Lodge were locked, but even with those restrictions, many came for a retreat until November that year – and then in the spring and early summer of 2021 – until we were able to start classes again. 

The Clearing Retreats program worked so well that we plan to continue offering a week or two of them every year. This year, there’s one scheduled for the first week of November, after our season of weeklong classes ends; and next year, we plan to offer one in late April as well, before the weeklong classes begin. This new program would not exist without the pandemic.

It also showed us that we could function by delivering meals to the lodging rooms, but we knew we’d eventually be back in the Lodge for meals. Thankfully, we’re there this year, but with some changes. 

Until the pandemic, all meals were served family style at The Clearing, but we’ve learned during the past three years that our guests love not having to be in the Lodge for meals at a specific time 15 times during their week. 

So we have a new meal plan: Some meals are served family style, and others are served buffet style. For the buffet meals, guests can arrive at the Lodge to eat anytime during a specific timeframe. So far this season – classes began the first week of May – the new meal plan has worked very well, and many guests have told us how much they like it. Without the pandemic, we would not have made this improvement.

Finally, although we had talked about putting our bookstore online for years, we never got around to it. The pandemic changed that. We developed an online store in May 2020, and now one of the best shops in Door County is featured on our website. Without the pandemic, we might still be merely talking about an online store.

So The Clearing did what other businesses did with regard to the pandemic: We made lemonade out of a lemon – one huge lemon.

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