The economic recovery will be a long-term venture, and what it will look like when it’s over isn’t clear, local business leaders said during the Business Record’s recent Newsroom 515 panel discussion.
The event, “Beyond COVID,” asked panelists to discuss what the future might look like in each of their businesses or organizations, and what steps need to happen for them to survive.
The panelists included Kelly Foss, director of the Downtown Farmers’ Market, Kevin Foley, executive director of the Des Moines International Airport, Greg Edwards, CEO and president of Catch Des Moines, Sally Dix, director of Bravo of Greater Des Moines, and Scott Carlson, managing partner at Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Co. and owner of Americana Restaurant and the Craft Beer Tent. The discussion, held over the virtual platform Zoom, was moderated by Publisher and Executive Editor Chris Conetzkey and Senior Writer Michael Crumb.
The answers to the question of what the “new normal” might look like were as varied as the businesses and organizations that were represented, but there were a few common themes: Be flexible, don’t expect perfection, and be forgiving. And maybe more importantly, learn to trust your gut again, some of the panelists said.
“We feel really solid that our core priorities and focus will remain the same. What we’re adapting to … is how we go about achieving those objectives,” Dix said. “It’s not the way, it’s not the fundamentals. It’s the process.”
Dix said what was once a two- or three-year plan is now quarterly, and as Bravo’s revenue stream changes, it is also looking at how it expands its non-grant-making role, and “if we’re not going to have the funding we had, we still have to be relevant and valuable in the community, so how can we grow into and expand those things that aren’t as financially based.
“We’re digging in and concentrating on the things that won’t change,” she said during the June 17 panel discussion. “Arts and culture will always be critical for our community to drive quality of life and economic development. What we can do to make sure the sector comes out stronger, so that’s how we’re digging in.”
Carlson said five-year plans went out the window in mid-March, and although he hopes to get back to that again, the plans that were in place at the beginning of the pandemic aren’t practical today.
“We’ve learned to trust our gut again, and feel things through and how they make sense for us, and make sense for our customers and for our work family and our staff,” Carlson said. We’ve become much more sensitive to our customers again, more compassionate to the people who enter our doors, trying to understand what they’re looking for. We’ve had to step back and listen and try to understand what our customers want today. We’ve always done that … but now we’re having to adjust very quickly, and they need to know that we hear them. We need to listen, empathize … and give them a plan of action pretty quickly.”
Part of that is the recent protests over racial inequities and treatment of people of color by police, Carlson said.
Edwards said the pandemic has been a “devastating blow” to the local economy, particularly the hospitality industry.
Hotel occupancies in Des Moines hit 26% last week, well short of the 60% needed to reach profitability. Many employees have been furloughed or laid off.
The hospitality industry books events up to three to four years in advance, so for organizations such as Catch Des Moines, it’s about the short-term recovery.
“All of our case reports look strong in future years, the devastation is right now, so we kind of re-challenged our focus to concentrate on right now. What’s out there we can capture right now.”
Foley said the airport’s short-term challenge is how quickly passengers will come back. It’s also about keeping passengers, tenants and employees safe, with signs about social distancing, hand sanitizer stations. In the long term, uncertainty about what that looks like is the norm, he said.
“We’re a highly regulated industry, and I don’t know for sure what regulations will come out of here, or what society expectations will change how we operate, but I”m certain there will be changes as a result of this pandemic,” Foley said.
He said use of technology, such as facial recognition, will play a greater role as airports and airlines turn to more self-serve and touchless systems for passengers to avoid risks of physical contact where germs can be spread. Other changes could be health screenings for passengers before they enter the terminal or board a flight.
“I’m not sure what we looked at prior to the pandemic is still applicable,” Foley said.
Foss, who has created an online farmers market and virtual market meet-ups to keep vendors and customers connected during the pandemic, said while it’s uncertain when a live market will return, it’s important to keep the mission of the market moving forward.
“Always have plan A, plan B and plan C, and hopefully plan A works out,” she said. “Planning for the future is making sure we ask all the right questions.”
But Foss said people shouldn’t be upset if things don’t go right the first time.
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy, and so knowing it may not be perfect … we just have to do it and know we can make fine-tune adjustments along the way,” she said.
The panelists also talked about the importance of reserve funds when navigating through the recovery.
“Thank God we had a reserve fund, because we will be tapping into that in the next fiscal year’s budget,” said Edwards, who noted that Catch Des Moines’ reserve fund is 23% of its annual budget.
Foley the airport has about three years of operating expenses in the bank, and received $23 million from the federal CARES Act, leaving it in better shape than most airports.
Dix said nonprofits need to have reserve funds, despite the perceptions that may exist that nonprofits should put all the money they receive back into the community. If donors see a nonprofit with cash reserves, they may think they don’t need to contribute, she said.
“Nonprofit is just a business status, it’s just a tax status, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready to respond to whatever is coming down the pike,” she said. “I think this may be an really important opportunity and shift for us to all better understand the nonprofit sector and the needs of the nonprofit sector.”
Dix also said the collaboration that exists in the community will continue to be integral in the community’s recovery from the pandemic. But so will the ability to adjust quickly.
“We’ve all realized we can move faster than we thought we could, and we can be more fluid than we felt comfortable being before, and we take risks, we can fall and we can adjust and we can move on, and I hope that sense of nimbleness, that’s a positive that has come from this,” she said.