Arvon: converting in person courses to online

For their work in comprehensively, rapidly and successfully digitising their programme of courses, sustaining a stable income stream through the Covid-19 pandemic, Arvon were recently shortlisted by the Digital Culture Network for a Digital Culture Award for Income Generation through 2021.

Since the 1960s, Arvon has been famous for their week-long residential writing courses at across three rural locations around the UK: Totleigh Barton, a 16th-century manor house in Devon; The Hurst, a manor house in Shropshire, which formerly belonged to the playwright John Osborne; and the former home of Ted Hughes, Lumb Bank, a 17th-century mill-owner’s house hear Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.

George Palmer, Director of Digital and Communications, has been with Arvon for 10 years to date.

“I started off in marketing and that was the most digital job at the time, so I was the go-to person, but back then we just had the website, social media, a rudimentary course booking system and a database underpinning it all.”

In that decade, George’s role has expanded to oversee the digitisation and automation of operations and communications across the organisation.

Pre-pandemic, Arvon had begun to develop a digital programme, initially doing 1:1 Skypes online with participants. Through the pandemic they quickly introduced much more activity in their digital programming, and George continues to oversee digital strategy.

“Prior to the pandemic, we only had an online 1:1 programme in place. We’d been having conversations about online weekend courses, but these were slow moving. Then the pandemic struck, lockdown came into place, and our three properties were closed. Very quickly we had to shift to a robust online offer, which we launched within about 6 weeks of the first lockdown”

The online offer included the classic 5-day residency, delivered online over Zoom, as well as smaller 2-hour online masterclasses, and evening readings. George attributes Arvon’s success in developing a paid online offer to 3 things:

  1. Investment in their online booking and emailing systems, allowing rapid scale up
  1. Working with high-profile writers as tutors – names that would attract people and make them want to invest in that online course offer
  1. A reputation for delivering a high standard of tuition worth the investment

“A lot of organisations have positioned their digital offer as something you do on the side for free, either as artist development or to build an audience to engage in the main programme. So it can be very difficult if you suddenly want to expand of shift your digital offer and ask people to pay for it.”

Arvon saw a massive uptake in participation among disabled people and people with caring responsibilities thanks to a flexible and more accommodating online offer. Many people attending the online residencies expressed that they wouldn’t have been able to attend the classic residencies for any number of reasons, but particularly physical access needs and fatigue.

“We had someone participating in a residency from a hospital bed, we’ve had people participate from other countries in other time zones who’ve been doing the course through the night! We’ve had people with hearing loss or are deaf so we’ve had some courses signed and we’ve also used captioning.”

The Arvon at Home programme is now a permanent offering and there are plans to increase the range of options of online courses – they’ve just introduced a course that takes places over 5 evenings spread across a 5-week period, as well as a 1-day workshop, to ensure they cater to different access needs and commitment capabilities.

George says Arvon are also working in a more digitally savvy and connected way, for example using more online file sharing systems to work and communicate.

“Having the 3 houses and the national office, we used to work in a very siloed way – prior to the pandemic, all staff across the country used to meet twice a year, during the pandemic it was once a fortnight, and now we continue to meet once a month on Microsoft Teams.”

Why this matters

This case study shows how the pandemic sped up the pivot to digital that Arvon had already planned to carry out.  The move to online courses demonstrates not only the Dynamism Investment Principle, and its pillars of business model innovation and appropriate use of technology, but also the Inclusivity & Relevance Principle and the Creative Case for Diversity.  More diverse participants were able to access Arvon’s courses and they continue to adapt their offer to meet the demand for more flexibility.

The business sense is clear: meeting the needs of disabled customers – the so-called “Purple pound” – remains largely untapped in the general economy as well as the arts.  The spending power of disabled households was estimated recently to be worth around £274bn a year to UK businesses, according to the advocacy group Purple.