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Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event for a pancreatic-cancer organization — one way it’s filling the void with live events curtailed.

While most of the business world slowed gradually in March, or even ground to an eventual halt, the story was more dire for the events industry.

It just … stopped.

“When the whole country shut down, we were impacted immediately. We were one of the first business sectors to really feel the effects,” said Andrew Jensen, president of Jx2 Productions, noting that among the state’s first orders was barring large — and eventually even modestly sized — gatherings.

Within a day or two, he recalled, “we had no business left, just one or two things left for the rest of the year. Everyone freaked out. From weddings to live events to conferences to concerts, everything was gone overnight. It was non-stop with the phone calls. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. When there’s some kind of natural disaster or act of God, everything might be off for a while in one area, but never worldwide like this.”

After hunkering down for a while to get a sense of what was to come, it was time to get off the mat and figure out how to move forward in 2020. In Jensen’s case, like most players in his industry right now, that meant a shift to a new type of virtual, or online, event.

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events. It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events,” Jensen explained. “It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

The typical live gathering might include livestreams as a secondary factor, he said, mostly at higher-end events; smaller companies typically don’t bring in a secondary audience remotely. “We had to shift our mentality, and that was hard. Did we have redundancies and protocols in place? What if we lose somebody on the other end? How does that effect everyone?”

Michael Zaskey has been dealing with those questions, too, since the industry crashed to a halt in mid-March.

“We were the first to go, and we’ll be the last to come back in a traditional sense,” the owner of Zasco Productions told BusinessWest. “We knew pretty quickly that online and virtual events were going to be the norm for a while.”

At first, companies thought they could take a DIY approach, he added. “Initially, folks were trying to do things with Zoom and GoToMeeting. Those are awesome tools for meetings or small-group sessions, but not for producing events. You can have a board meeting or discussion over Zoom, but if you want to engage and entertain and create an experience similar to a live event, that’s not the right tool. You still need a production company.”

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room, and out on the road, to meet the needs of a largely virtual event landscape.

The world is figuring that out. Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly tenfold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion. And that puts a squeeze on businesses like Jx2 and Zasco.

“People figure a virtual event costs less than a live event because you’re not renting ballroom space, but on the production side, it’s just as expensive, or even more,” Zaskey said. “We’ve tried to be flexible with budgets, but we’re working with a very slim margin.”

It’s a challenge that will remain, at least in the short term.

“Obviously, it will be a long time before live events come back full force,” he added. “Virtual events will never replace a live event, which is so much about the networking, and people miss that. But in this time of pandemic and crisis, they’re viable solutions that allow people to connect and participate.”

 

Technical Concerns

The first thing people need to learn in this new landscape is the terminology, Zaskey said. “Like, when people started using the phrase ‘socially distant,’ I’ve always thought we say that wrong. We should be socially connected and physically distant. Or connected with technology.”

Likewise, people often mean different things when they say ‘virtual event.’ “People started throwing that term around, but it means something different for every person we talk to.”

That’s because, in his world, virtual events have often meant events that occur in a virtual space, like a corporate meeting in which the CEO stands on a virtual stage in front of a greenscreen, backed by a set created electronically, as if standing in a video game or virtual-reality environment. “What most people call a virtual event today, we use the term ‘online event.’ That’s more accurate.”

There are hybrid events, too, which mix in-person and remote elements. “Instead of 500 people in a room, maybe you have 20 smaller rooms with 25 people in each room, physically distanced, and connect those rooms electronically” — a good option even in non-pandemic times for large, national companies that don’t want to fly everyone to one location for an important gathering.

Zasco is also doing some drive-in events, like a recent pancreatic-cancer fundraiser in Connecticut that had been postponed from May. “We wanted to keep our audience engaged, so we did a drive-in event and spaced out the cars, with a large screen outdoors, and you could listen through FM radio.”

While short speeches were delivered on stage — again, in a distanced fashion — the biggest donors and benefactors attended live in their cars, with others able to watch through a webstream.

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations,” Zaskey said. “That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars. I’ve been impressed, because people aren’t always known for following rules.”

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations. That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars.”

One pressing issue at online and hybrid events, of course, is connectivity and having the redundancy and bandwidth to keep connections from going down. “We’ve had to think and engineer our way into … not necessarily new technology, but using it in new ways. It’s always changing and growing.”

Part of the challenge is communicating issues to attendees, he added. If a hotel ballroom loses power, all 500 people attending in person experience the same thing and know what’s going on. “If 500 people tune into a stream and lose power to the master control room, those 500 people have no idea what happened.”

Jensen agreed that technical concerns were paramount. “It was slightly challenging at the beginning for us tech people,” he said, adding that another challenge has to do with communication — not only with the crew, but with presenters who may be in different locations.

“We’ve done thousands of events over 20 years, and the process is different. We’d have a stage manager go on stage and hand someone a microphone. Now you have to make sure you have plenty of rehearsals and walk them through the process.”

Technology upgrades are a must as well, both for production companies and their clients. “A standard laptop camera and microphone don’t work — certainly it’s not high-enough quality. So we created ‘cases’ and sold a couple dozen to clients, and have some in own inventory. This allows them to have much better image and quality and make their event that much better. We all know a standard iPhone camera or computer camera is not that great.”

Like Zasco, Jx2 found a niche in drive-in events, like graduations. And because the company got into streaming at least 15 years ago, as it went mainstream, it wasn’t too difficult to shift focus to that side of the business this year. “We kind of already had a foot in the door.”

One upside to the current situation, Jensen said, is that it’s forced businesses to think differently about their events.

“It’s a chance for our clients to think outside the box and become OK with not doing things the standard way, the rinse-and-repeat event you’ve done for 10 or 20 years. You get used to doing things a certain way: guests arrive at this time, you do a cocktail hour, there’s a formula to every live event.

“Now, you’re trying to recreate something where the guests’ attention span is definitely lower because it’s virtual, and you’ve got a lower level of interaction from guests,” he went on. “You’ve got to make sure whatever you put on the screen will resonate with guests.”

Working creatively to achieve that goal, he said, can often spark inspiration for future events as well, even the live ones that will return … someday.

 

Optimistic Outlook

Zaskey is looking forward to that day.

“We’re pretty fortunate to be pretty busy, but the profit margins are not the same as they are for live events,” he said. “The entire industry is still struggling greatly.”

Much of the staff laid off in March has come back on a part-time basis as jobs are scheduled. “A lot of what we’re doing, we have to deeply discount, not just to be a good neighbor and help clients so they can pull out of this as well, but to keep our people working.”

One long-term concern is a possible ‘brain drain’ as the pandemic wears on, he added.

“The industry is at risk of losing talent, and that scares us a little bit. As people get desperate and wonder about the future, they might consider career changes. Maybe they’ll come back, but maybe they won’t — maybe someone has always wanted to be a chef, and decides it’s time to go to culinary school. When the world bounces back and live events come back, we need highly skilled people to work on them.”

And events will come back, Jensen said, if only because people desperately want to attend them. “Human nature is interactive; we want to see people, be with people, go to dinner, go on vacation. Most people aren’t homebodies. People over the summer couldn’t wait to go to the beach or go camping. You couldn’t buy a kayak.”

In the same way, “I think live events will come back massively once we get through this pandemic and the comfort level comes back up.”

In fact, Jensen predicts bottlenecks as venues book up quickly once they get the go-ahead from the CDC and state officials. “I think it’s going to be the end of ’21 into ’22 when events pick up fully. We’re a couple years out from full recovery. But people will be eager to plan these things.”

Zaskey agreed. “It’s still very, very tough, and it’s going to be tough for a long time,” he said, but he looks back to 9/11 for a possible parallel. Events suffered mightily after that tragedy as well, but 2002 through 2004 were Zasco’s biggest growth years.

“People wanted to get back to live events. And I think the same thing will happen when the pandemic is over. Getting to that point is the challenge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Lending Support

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank.

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank.

Community banks love commercial lending, Chuck Leach says.

“It’s just good business for us — Main Street lending, that’s where we can have a nice give and take with customers. It’s kind of our wheelhouse.”

That’s all still true, even though 2020 has rocked that wheelhouse in unexpected ways.

“We’re not seeing the same commercial demand,” said Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank. “It’s either risk aversion or businesses are waiting to see what happens.”

Or, in some cases, they’re extra liquid after taking advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other stimulus measures, as well as deferring payments on other bank loans, he added. “Put all that together, and they may not have borrowing needs right now, or they’re sitting on their liquidity until they see some clarity with the pandemic or the election or both.”

Clarity has been in short supply since the COVID-19 pandemic forced a widespread economic shutdown at the start of spring that continues to wreak havoc.

Michael Oleksak remembers the first few months of the year, of hearing occasional news about the novel coronavirus back in January, and much more of it as February crept along.

“I’d been asking myself for years, ‘what are we missing? What’s next?’ Because there had to be a ‘next.’ Who would have thought it would be a pandemic?”

“Then, from mid-March into April, everything was a blur. It just spiraled,” said Oleksak, executive vice president, senior lender, and chief credit officer for PeoplesBank, before discussing the PPP surge and other measures that followed (more on that later).

Blurring the picture further was the very uncertainty of what was coming. Having experienced several economic upheavals, from the bank failures of the early ’90s to the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and 2001, to the housing crisis in 2007 and 2008, he had no idea what the next crisis would be.

“I’d been asking myself for years, ‘what are we missing? What’s next?’ Because there had to be a ‘next.’ Who would have thought it would be a pandemic?

“This will be the fourth economic cycle I’ve been through, and every one has been different,” he added. “And this one is far different than the others. We’re not seeing a lot of new activity. I think everyone is kind of hunkered down, for lack of a better word, in survival mode.”

As Allen Miles, executive vice president at Westfield Bank, put it, “obviously this one was a lot different. You couldn’t see the train wreck coming; that’s the best way to explain it. It just got dropped on us.”

What happened next in commercial lending is an oft-told story recently, but one worth telling again. What will happen next … well, no one really knows. But banks will certainly take lessons from a challenging past seven months as that story takes shape.

 

Lending a Hand

Miles said Westfield Bank started reaching out to loan customers in February when coronavirus became a more widely reported issue. In mid-March, like other banks, it was actively sending employees home. And then the storm hit.

From mid-March into the start of April, “that two weeks was absolutely crazy because you had people looking for loan deferrals, and the bank examiners were very friendly to both the banks and borrowers to try to help these people out,” he recalled. “We were just trying to help our customers. You’re not worried about loan origination; you’re just worried about getting people through the unknown and the craziness.”

Michael Oleksak says new lending activity has been down

Michael Oleksak says new lending activity has been down because many businesses are “in survival mode.”

The first Monday in April, the bank received about 500 PPP applications, and about the same number the next day.

“We needed to get all hands on deck,” Miles told BusinessWest. “We were still waiting on guidance from regulators and the Treasury Department. We had people afraid for their livelihoods, their families, and everything. It was organized chaos.”

The bank got $185 million in PPP loans approved in that first round, what he called a “herculean task.” The second round, several weeks later, was much less chaotic. “That was more for the smaller businesses — a lot more applications, but smaller in dollar size. We were able to keep up with those because we’d been through it, and they weren’t as complicated.”

Oleksak said the PPP was a critical lifeline for a lot of people. “There was kind of a mass panic there wouldn’t be a round two, which put a lot of pressure on the banks and our customers, trying to rush to get them into a program that was not very well-defined from the outset,” he recalled. “Then round two came along, and everyone who needed funds was able to access them, and that made a big difference.”

Leach said the widely reported chaos was quite real, but the larger story was a positive one.

“For now, this has put a lot of capital in the banks and a lot of capital in businesses in our region and beyond. A lot of our customers are in good shape right now.”

“In spite of the controversy, and the people who thought they were making up the rules as they went along, I think the PPP was very functional,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of customers well-capitalized right now, which is the untold story nationally.

“Maybe that changes and this is just a Band-Aid,” he added, due to the lack of clarity about the next few months, from fears of a second COVID-19 surge to the limbo status of further federal stimulus. “But, for now, this has put a lot of capital in the banks and a lot of capital in businesses in our region and beyond. A lot of our customers are in good shape right now.”

Lee Bank processed 348 PPP loans and has submitted more than 100 forgiveness applications, although some customers are waiting to see if the federal forgiveness guidelines change, specifically whether “they do a sweeping approach where everything under $150,000 is forgiven with a very, very simple forgiveness application.”

Again, borrowers want clarity. Still, Leach came back to the positive impact his bank was able to make with the PPP — and also with loan-payment deferrals for about 240 customers, with about $60 million deferred in total. “In a bank that has $400 million in total assets, you can see that’s a good chunk,” he said, adding that only a fraction of those customers requested a second deferral period.

Oleksak and Miles both reported similar trends, with requests for continued deferrals dropping after the first 90-day period.

“Thirty days before the first deferment was up, we contacted people, and 85% to 90% said, ‘we’re good, we’re not going to be looking for a deferral going forward.’ So that made us feel really comfortable,” Miles said. “With the PPP and the deferrals, it bridged the gap for customers.”

“We’re being very sensitive,” added Kevin O’Connor, Westfield Bank’s executive vice president and chief banking officer. “We’ve been very involved with them, understanding their needs and how the bank can work with them.”

While borrowers in the broad hospitality sector continue to struggle, for obvious reasons, most customers have come through the past seven months well with the help of PPP and loan-payment deferrals, Miles added. “The main ones hurting are the ones being affected by the phases and the rollouts — restaurants, bars. They’ll take a while to get back on their feet.”

 

Starts and Stops

That’s true in the Berkshires as well, Leach said, and restaurants in particular are worried about the onset of cold weather and an inability to seat more customers, due to both the state’s indoor-capacity restrictions and the reluctance among some patrons to eat inside restaurants right now.

But the region’s hospitality businesses have benefited in others ways during the pandemic; in fact, one bed-and-breakfast he spoke with did record business this summer.

Allen Miles says some loan customers are doing well

Allen Miles says some loan customers are doing well, while others, particularly in hospitality, continue to struggle.

“People left urban areas for a safer place, whether for weekends or longer,” he said, adding that some secondary homes became primary homes, while other people bought first homes in an area they felt was safer than, say, New York City. “Interest rates are obviously really low, but there’s also the fear factor of ‘wait, I’ve got to get out of this urban area.’ So there’s been a huge sense of urgency to buy in an area like the Berkshires.”

Unlike some lending institutions, Westfield Bank has seen healthy activity in loan originations recently, Miles said.

“The deferments and PPP money actually made some people stronger because it’s been cash preservation instead of cash burn,” he noted. “Usually for commercial lending, it starts getting busy after Labor Day. We weren’t sure if we were going to see that cycle again, but now it’s quite busy, and people are active. So that’s a really good sign.”

That activity is strong across the board, particularly in commercial real estate, where customers are refinancing for a lower rate or selling, he explained. “It’s a great time to sell — low interest rates, lower cap rates, people are going to pay you more for the property — so you’re seeing a lot of transactions going on right now.”

Commercial and industrial (C&I) loans are healthy as well, he said, adding, of course, that, “with anything related to hospitality or travel, the jury’s still out on that. The longer this [pandemic] hangs over us, the longer the recovery for them.”

At PeoplesBank, Oleksak said, many customers have been accumulating cash and paying down lines of credit, or shopping around to lock in better long-term rates on loans, which is a challenge for banks already facing flattened yield curves. “I think the depth of the crisis is a little bit masked by the amount of stimulus money in the market, from PPP, SBA programs, and deferments.

“The deferments and PPP money actually made some people stronger because it’s been cash preservation instead of cash burn.”

“Some individuals out there are suffering mightily, particularly restaurants and hospitality,” he added. “The other great unknown is, we don’t have a vaccine yet. Are we going to see another spike? People are trying to get back to normal here, but I’m not sure what the new normal is going to look like.”

He pointed to his own institution as an example. Between half and two-thirds of PeoplesBank employees are still working remotely, a trend being reflected across all geographic regions and business sectors.

As a result, “nobody really knows what’s going to happen with the office segment of the market, with so many people working from home. Will they go back at some point? Will companies decide they don’t need so much space, or does social distancing mean you have fewer people but still need more space? It’s a total unknown for us.”

It’s unfortunate that some industries, like restaurants, will likely see a slower return to health, O’Connor said, “but it’s good to see customer confidence in some areas coming back, even a little bit sooner than we would have expected.”

Miles agreed. “We’re very happy with what we’re seeing right now. It’s not behind us, but it’s not as bad as people anticipated. If activity is picking up and people are borrowing, they’re confident, which is good.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Insurance Special Coverage

At a Premium

The story is a familiar one by now: hospitals across the U.S., hammered by COVID-19, began directing resources toward fighting the pandemic last spring and curtailed elective and non-emergency procedures. Meanwhile, patients, even when sick, stayed away from medical practices out of fear of infection.

As a result, health insurers continued to reap premiums while paying out millions of dollars less in medical claims. Some of the largest companies reported second-quarter earnings about double what they were a year ago. Anthem’s net income soared to $2.3 billion for the second quarter, up from $1.1 billion in 2019, while UnitedHealth reported net income of $6.7 billion, compared to $3.4 billion last year. Humana’s second-quarter net income rose from $940 million in 2019 to $1.8 billion in 2020.

But the issue is a complex one, especially in Massachusetts, where laws governing insurance are different, said Keith Ledoux, vice president of Commercial Line of Business, Sales, Marketing, and Business Development for Health New England, a 166,000-member health plan based in Springfield.

For example, HNE did see lower utilization for medical services among its members in the early months of the pandemic; however, at the same time, it saw an increase in prescription-drug fills as members made sure they had their medications during stay-at-home orders.

“On the pharmaceutical side, we saw a small spike in claims and overall costs starting at the end of March and the beginning of April because we had relaxed our rules on allowing folks to fill prescriptions early, or to get a greater supply,” Ledoux told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, “after April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

At the same time, the pandemic brought about a significant increase in telehealth utilization; through April, HNE had processed 114,000 telehealth visits for its members versus 900 in all of 2019, accounting for $12 million in costs for Health New England.

“One reason that’s so costly for us is that we’re mandated by the government to pay the same rate for telehealth as we would for an in-person visit, and typically telehealth is cheaper than in person,” Ledoux said, adding that future state negotiations will likely alter that formula as telemedicine continues to gain traction in healthcare.

“The silver lining is not the cost, but the behavior shift of so many members embracing the idea of telemedicine, which does broaden your ability to access non-invasive care. There’s definitely an opening for systems to adopt a new approach and potentially increase their revenue stream using telemedicine.”

Massachusetts-based Tufts Health Plan reported that COVID-19 treatment costs were one factor in actually recording a drop in net income between the first six months of 2019 to and the six months of June 2020.

Keith Ledoux

Keith Ledoux

“After April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

“Tufts Health Plan proudly serves all segments of the market, regardless of a person’s age or life circumstance,” Chief Financial Officer Umesh Kurpad noted in a statement. “This diversity in our business translates into different financial pressures, such as significantly higher COVID-19 infection rates and treatment costs for our members, particularly those who rely on both Medicare and Medicaid.

“Year-to-date, our earnings were challenging, with the increased costs of COVID-19-related expenses across virtually all of our businesses,” he went on, projecting COVID-19 expenses to reach $220 million for the full year. “The pandemic cost tail is anticipated to be long with the lingering impact of COVID-19 survivors and increased morbidity from deferred care.”

In short, there’s no one trend common among health insurers in a year where they, like all industries, have learned to expect the unexpected.

Appointment Viewing

Another Massachusetts-based insurer, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, reported little change in second-quarter net income from 2019 ($36.2 million) to 2020 ($40.9 million). It also encouraged members not to avoid medical services they need.

“Now more than ever, our focus remains on the health and well-being of our members and the communities we serve,” President and CEO Michael Carson said. “Many people have deferred care over the past several months, and it is incredibly important that they not neglect their health. Healthcare providers have implemented stringent safety precautions, and we encourage our members to seek routine and preventive care, including checkups, health screenings, and vaccinations.”

Ledoux told BusinessWest that HNE typically doesn’t know the performance of a year until probably three or four months after the year has closed.

In its planning for 2021, he explained, the company must consider uncertainties with expenses, which include utilization continuing to pre-COVID levels; increased use of high-cost technology; and costs of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines and testing, as well as increased costs for certain behavioral healthcare for children and adolescents.

Consumers are protected to an extent by state and federal laws that require health plans to rebate customers annually if the percent of premiums spent on medical expenses falls below a certain threshold.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to use a fixed percentage of the money they take in from premiums for their customers’ medical expenses — at least 80 cents of every dollar they collect in premiums from small businesses and individuals, and 85 cents per dollar for large employers. The remaining 15% to 20% percent is what they are allowed under the ACA to spend on administrative costs like overhead and marketing, and to keep as profit. Excess revenues are to be returned to consumers in the form of rebates.

“If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market. In a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Under Massachusetts’ health-insurance law, that number rises to 88 cents on the dollar. “If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market,” Ledoux said, adding that, “in a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Some of those variables emerged this year in the form of concessions to the pandemic and the stress it has placed on families, he noted. “We relaxed a lot of rules on how we collect premiums. Normally it’s a 30-day grace period, and we expanded that another 30 days.” HNE also allowed furloughed employees to stay on their companies’ health plans.

“We continue to evaluate our position in the market,” he added. “There are already protections in place, profits above what would be considered reasonable, and a mandate to rebate that back to the market. We already know it self-corrects on its own.”

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, told BusinessWest that health-insurance premiums haven’t been a big topic among EANE’s members. “We’ve heard from some employers who are getting refunds, but it hasn’t been a major thing that anyone is focusing on at the moment.”

Nationally, insurers are spending a far lower portion of premium revenue on their customers’ healthcare costs. For example, CVS said its medical-benefits ratio was 70% for the second quarter, compared to 84% over the same period in 2019.

According to a report in the New York Times, the ACA gives companies a three-year window to calculate how much to return, so members probably shouldn’t expect relief anytime soon, especially because it’s hard to tell what the rest of the year will bring, with COVID-19 numbers still fluctuating dramatically from state to state, as well as the impact of potentially expensive new vaccines or treatments around the corner. At the same time, many people who postponed getting medical attention could surge back into doctors’ offices and submit more bills for coverage.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020,” according to a statement by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “However, if these costs never materialize and remain below certain levels, American consumers, businesses, and taxpayers are protected by provisions in federal and state laws that require health-insurance providers to deliver premium rebates and put money back into their pockets.”

Community Focus

In addition to changes in patient volume and the bottom line, the pandemic shifted the priorities of Health New England in other ways, Ledoux said.

For instance, it contributed $300,000 in grants for COVID-19 relief efforts throughout Western Mass. to help residents with access to food, mental healthcare, child care, housing, and basic needs.

The company has also made benefit adjustments that make it easier for members to get the care they need, such as eliminating out-of-pocket costs for all telehealth services and for COVID-19 diagnostic testing ordered by a medical professional, no prior authorizations for members receiving medical care for COVID-19, and flexibility with payment plans and adjusted underwriting guidelines to ease the burden for employer-group customers and members.

Meanwhile, as it approaches Medicare’s annual enrollment season, Health New England is holding online Zoom sessions and drive-up events, and has added staff to its call center, to help educate people about their Medicare options.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020.”

Tufts has implemented a number of changes as well, including compensating providers 100% of an in-office rate for telehealth, working with providers on a case-by-case basis to address their concerns regarding payment stability, extending premium payment periods for employers who need more time to make payments, and contributing $2 million to support those affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

Certainly, reports of soaring profits may persuade some lawmakers to revive proposals to cap insurers’ profits even more, but insurers say they are using their financial strength to help customers, hospitals, and doctors. In the New York Times report, AHIP also cited trends like waiving co-payments for COVID testing and treatment and paying for telemedicine visits, some of which the government has mandated be covered.

“From the very beginning,” AHIP CEO Matt Eyles said, “health-insurance providers have focused on being part of the solution.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Coronavirus Special Coverage

A Matter of Speculation

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky is transforming 14,000 square feet of what was retail space into Venture X, a co-working concept, one of many signs of change within the region’s commercial real-estate market.

It was time to face facts, Ned Barowsky recalled.

For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies left at Barowsky’s property at 98 Lower Westfield Road by the departure of Pier One Imports and Kaoud Oriental Rugs. And they had gotten … nowhere.

“I met with them on the phone weekly, and they sent me a sheet of everyone they talked to and e-mailed, and all the responses they got,” he said. “For six months prior to COVID, not one bite. And they worked it. I felt bad for them; I wanted to pay them, but they didn’t get me anybody.”

Faced with this handwriting on the wall and an uncertain future for the Holyoke property he has owned for nearly 35 years, Barowsky is doing what so many are doing in the midst of COVID-19, and in general. He’s pivoting — big time.

Indeed, he intends to remake those vacated storefronts, and some additional space at the complex, into a franchise for the emerging co-work concept known as Venture X, which bills itself as “the future of workspace” (more on that later).

This intriguing pivot is just one indication that the local commercial real-estate market is in a state of flux, if you will, with perhaps profound changes to come as the pandemic continues and its impact on this sector grows.

Indeed, there is already significant movement in the market when it comes to additional vacancies and properties becoming available. Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation that the office market in particular may see considerable disruption as businesses with some or most of their employees working remotely consider making such arrangements permanent.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live.”

And even if they don’t swing that far when it comes to working arrangements, there are questions about how much of their present space they’ll retain when their lease is up.

“We have lost a few tenants, mostly due to non-renewals as companies look for ways to be more efficient and perhaps consolidate if they had multiple locations,” said Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and co-owner of 1350 Main St. in Springfield, noting that Bay Path University, which occupies roughly 12,000 square feet, is one of these tenants.

But as some are downsizing or not renewing, others are actually taking more space to accommodate pandemic-era guidelines on social distancing and keep employees safe, said Plotkin, noting that he’s already seen such upsizing from a few tenants and expects more in the months to come.

In the meantime, new leases are being signed, and properties are being acquired, said Demetrios Panteleakis, a principal with MacMillan Group LLC, which has authored what could certainly be called a stunning turnaround at Tower Square in downtown Springfield.

Over the past 24 months or so, Panteleakis said, MacMillan has successfully backfilled roughly 80% of the 150,000 square feet of office space in the complex that MassMutual vacated, with about a third of that coming in just the past few months.

The latest additions in the office tower include Wellfleet and Farm Credit Financial Partners, which moved into 37,500 square feet on the sixth floor, but also a few law firms and a civil-engineering firm. Meanwhile, on the retail side, the Greater Springfield YMCA moved several of its operations last winter, White Lion Brewery is completing work on its brewery and eatery in the former Spaghetti Freddy’s space, and a nail salon has moved in. And all this is on top of a massive renovation of the hotel on the property into a new Marriott.

“Tower Square is absolutely on fire,” he said, adding that he believes the success at that address has been a function of providing an attractive product in a good location, in this case an urban area in the midst of what has been called a renaissance.

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square in recent months, with new leases signed for both retail and office space.

Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, agreed that there has been activity within the market despite the pandemic, noting that his firm has completed a number of transactions, including the sale of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield formerly occupied by United Bank, the Newman Center on the UMass Amherst campus, and lease of the former Chandler’s restaurant space at the Yankee Candle complex in South Deerfield, among others.

The $64,000 question is … what happens now?

No one really knows the answer. Many brokers are encouraged by numerous stories in recent weeks about both productivity being down as a result of remote working and pent-up desire to return to the office. But these sentiments are juxtaposed against others indicating that remote work has been a success and, as a result, less office space will be leased in the future.

Speaking for others, Panteleakis said there will likely be a lull or pause in the action until perhaps the end of the first quarter of next year as business owners sort some things out.

Work in Progress

Plotkin calls it a “remote work hub.”

That’s a term he borrowed from a request for proposals he’s likely to respond to, and it describes … well, a place where people can both live and work. But not like the current work-from-home environment many are now experiencing.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live,” said Plotkin, adding quickly that he’s thinking hard about whether 1350 Main St. can be shaped into one of these remote work hubs. He thinks it can.

“I have a design here that works great,” he told BusinessWest. “We have some empty floors, and if we created maybe 20 units per floor and used the three floors that are empty, that would be 60 market-rate housing units. And if you had another floor that was a COVID-19 pandemic remote work space, which has yet to be designed, I think you’d have something very attractive.

“The idea is to make people feel that they can go someplace to work and not be in their kitchen, not be in their living room, and actually have some socialization and see other people,” he went on, adding that such a facility would help attract people of all ages, but especially young people, to downtown Springfield.

The fact that Plotkin is thinking about such a dramatic pivot provides more evidence that the commercial real-estate market is changing and there are certainly question marks about how — and how profoundly — the landscape may change.

The remote-work phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly at the heart of much of this speculation. Indeed, as more workers toil from home for longer periods — some of the massive tech companies have told employees they won’t be coming back for a year, at least — questions are raised about whether such arrangements will become permanent, and what this means for major urban centers and individual office facilities.

Barowsky, for one, believes that companies will be less likely to want to tie themselves down with long-term leases for large amounts of space. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s moving forward with Venture X.

A Holyoke native who has seen a number of economic cycles and an ongoing evolution of the area’s retail scene, Barowsky believes this co-work space is certainly the right concept at the right time — and especially the right place.

“I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Indeed, the site, just a few hundred yards from the Holyoke Mall, is right off I-91 exit 15 and only minutes off exit 4 of the Mass Pike.

“This is literally the crossroads of New England,” said Barowsky, adding that this address makes the Venture X facility attractive for businesses across a number of sectors.

Add all these factors up, and Barowsky doesn’t see this dramatic pivot — away from retail and into co-working space — as much of a gamble. And if it is a gamble, it’s one he believes will pay off eventually, perhaps sooner than later.

Indeed, he said the current timeline doesn’t have him opening the doors for another six months, but he’s already received a number of inquiries about his concept.

Questions and Answers

While Barowsky doesn’t have any doubts about his new development, there is a growing amount of uncertainty when it comes to the larger commercial real-estate market.

And it crosses many of the sectors within that realm, including retail — which was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 due to online buying and now is under even more — and especially the office market because of questions about the future of work.

“At this point, I think the jury is still out — the verdict is not in yet,” Plotkin said. “There’s been an abrupt change in how we work, and it has required us to work remotely. It’s been a complete lifestyle change, and it’s created a fair amount of fear. And those converging factors may prevail over a long period of time; we just don’t know.”

Panteleakis agreed to some extent, but said he concurs with JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently told American Banker that he sees economic and social damage from a longer stretch of working from home.

“Between 2002 and 2005, there was a big movement happening — commercial real estate had become so expensive that everyone was trying remote working,” he recalled. “Jamie Dimon is saying the same thing that everyone was saying back then — that they see a decrease in productivity. So I think real estate is coming back; I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Plotkin concurred. “Today, people can work from anywhere, and it’s appealing to people to work from anywhere. But the reality is that working from home is isolating, and I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.”

Added Bolotin, “there is a lot of speculation on both sides of that fence. I believe that the office market will still have a future — there will still be demand. Working from home is fine on a limited basis, but people will eventually migrate back to an office setting.

“Needs might change,” he went on. “They may need to consolidate, or they may wish to add more space for social-distancing purposes. But what the net effect of this will be … time will tell.”

Returning to the present, those we spoke with said there are certainly some deals getting done, and the market remains active. Panteleakis cited not only Tower Square, but also neighboring 1550 Main St., which he also handles, and which is fully occupied.

Bolotin, citing those recent transactions in West Springfield, Amherst, South Deerfield, and other communities his firm was involved with, said they provide evidence of a resilient economy and an equally resilient commercial real-estate market, one that has seen a number of downturns — and recoveries.

“We’re very active, we’re busy, there are transactions happening,” he said of his firm but also the market overall. “Over the past few months, we’ve had deals close across a number of categories — office, retail, industrial, land, investments. We’ve had activity in all segments.”

Some of these transactions bode well for the region and some of its individual communities, he noted, such as the sale of 95 Elm St. in West Springfield. Considered a key to development of the downtown area, the property is being targeted for a mix of office and retail, said Bolotin, and his firm is currently negotiating several potential leases in that building.

Meanwhile, other deals have been closed involving retail (two Family Dollar stores), industrial (more than 500,000 square feet in total), and even a few church properties.

“It is certainly a challenging time, and there are people who have been negatively impacted,” he stressed. “But there is still activity within the marketplace.”

Bottom Line

As for the immediate future … Panteleakis said a pause, or lull, is common just before presidential elections. And this year, COVID-19 has given business owners and managers more reason to be cautious.

“People are in a wait-and-see mode,” he explained. “Most of the executives that I’ve spoken with are waiting to see what happens in the first quarter of 2021. So I think the jury will be out until that first quarter of next year.”

After that … no one really knows when the jury will actually be back and what the verdict will be.

But some are already anticipating long-term changes to the landscape. That’s why Venture X is taking shape in Holyoke and why Evan Plotkin is drafting plans for a remote work hub.

Plenty of questions remain about the future, and the answers won’t come easily.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

Travelers at Bradley (and there are fewer of them) will find a number of new protocols, from mandatory face coverings to more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Bradley International Airport has a contract with a medical laboratory willing to conduct COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which manages the airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., thinks that would be an ideal way for healthy travelers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont in July.

But state leaders turned that option down.

“We have a lab that’s willing to start testing here, yet we can’t convince the Department of Public Health to allow that to occur. It makes no sense,” Dillon said. “Because what’s impacting us now is the travel advisory that’s been put in place here in Connecticut.”

According to the policy, both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out a travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Failure to do so incurs a $1,000 fine.

“Unfortunately, the airlines are reacting to the travel advisory by pulling flights out of the airport,” Dillon explained. “As you can imagine, it’s very, very difficult for someone to take a week vacation and then, when they come back, have to take a two-week quarantine. The same goes for business travel — people aren’t going away for two days when they have to quarantine for 14. That’s had a pretty chilling effect on our level of recovery.”

It’s a recovery — if one can call it that — from the most dramatic loss of business airports across the country have ever experienced, the post-9/11 period included. In April, passenger volume at Bradley was down 98% compared to the same period last year. The airport has recovered some of its volume, but a typical day is still some 70% to 75% below 2019 numbers. And the state of Connecticut is doing the airport no favors with one of the most rigid travelers’ advisories in the nation.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable. This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region.”

“I’m not questioning the medical necessity of a travel advisory — I’m not qualified to question that, and I take folks at their word that it’s is a necessary thing,” Dillon told BusinessWest. “What we have asked for here is a testing option. If you get a negative COVID test, you should be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine period. Massachusetts is doing that.”

He has other questions — including why it’s OK to cross the border for a funeral, but not a business meeting — and they all come, he said, from a place of common sense. “We’re not questioning the travel advisory, but I do think testing here at Bradley would make all the sense in the world.”

If the impact of discouraging interstate travel was a short-term thing, it would be less frustrating, but Dillon is looking far beyond 2020, when airlines will emerge from the pandemic as much smaller companies, with fewer planes to spread around the nation’s airports, and some tough decisions to make about where to put them.

“They’re really having a struggle,” he said, with some airlines saying they don’t expect to return to normal operations until 2023 or 2024. “There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this.”

This is true, he said, not only of airlines, but of airports.

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable,” Dillon explained. “This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region. It’s a concern of ours not only for today but as we look to the future — what damage we’re doing to our relationships to airlines as well as their view of this market.”

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is easier when terminals are less crowded, as they are now.

For this issue’s focus on transportation, BusinessWest spoke with Dillon about how Bradley is navigating an unprecedented business challenge, and why it’s important to keep investing in the future, because the future is where this story really gets interesting.

Shifting on the Fly

Even before COVID-19 was a thing, Dillon often spoke about how Bradley was constantly competing on two levels: with Logan and the New York airports for passengers, and with every airport in the country for those precious aircraft assets. On thar front, Connecticut’s mandatory quarantine isn’t helping.

“Airlines have to be in locations like Boston and New York simply because of the population and business volume. But airlines have alternatives in terms of not having to serve Bradley and still serving a good portion of this market area,” he explained. “I don’t think it would serve the area really well without us, but an airline trying to skinny down as a result of cost-cutting measures could very well look at it that way.”

The more pressing issue in 2020 has been plummeting demand, of course. “If we don’t have passengers coming through the airport, airlines cut back, we don’t get airline fees, and no one’s here utilizing concessions, parking, renting cars, all the businesses here. When your business is off 75% to 80%, you have a corresponding drop in revenue. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Dillon said Bradley was fortunate to receive some financial assistance from the CARES Act, which allocated $10 billion to airports across the country. Based on the allocation formula, Bradley received $28 million, which sounds like a lot of money, he went on, but to put it in perspective, that covers about three months of operating expenses and debt service. And the pandemic-related travel slowdown is now well into its sixth month.

“We are fortunate that, as an airport authority, we did create what I consider some healthy reserves, and we will rely on those reserves to some extent, but it wouldn’t be prudent to exhaust our reserves,” he said, noting that they impact bond ratings, among other things.

Bradley did institute a hiring freeze, not replacing most employees who chose to retire this year, and has cut department budgets by 10% to 20%. The CAA is also looking at further measures, including a voluntary severance program.

“It is a goal of ours to try to prevent involuntary severances,” Dillon said. “We don’t want to get to a place where we’re talking about layoffs. For now, that’s off the table. We tried to make a commitment to the employee base — first and foremost, to protect their health, and second, to protect their paycheck. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge.”

About $20 million in capital projects are on hold as well, but some are moving on, including an airport-wide restroom-renovation project that should be complete by October, and features a largely touchless experience with sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and more. These features were planned well in advance of the pandemic, but Dillon said travelers will appreciate them more now.

“People want a safe, healthy, clean environment, and we try to deliver that the best we can,” he noted. “Folks think differently about hygiene in public places now; they have different expectations.”

Other protocols in place at Bradley include the expected: mandatory face coverings, more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts at high-touchpoint areas, plenty of hand-sanitizer stations, signage detailing physical distancing rules, and plexiglass shields in high-passenger-interaction areas.

Some airlines have committed to limited capacity on planes as well, Dillon said, citing Southwest and Delta as two examples. And the airport is developing touchless kiosks where travelers don’t have to interact with an agent or touch the screen to activate the ticketing process.

Bradley’s restrooms

A major renovation of Bradley’s restrooms, including many touchless features to discourage the spread of germs, began well before the pandemic.

“The key for us is to keep differentiating ourselves from our larger competitors,” he told BusinessWest. “We want people to understand that Bradley is going above and beyond in terms of sanitizing and cleaning the facilities. And Bradley might represent a better option because it’s less congested. We’re going to keep highlighting to the traveling public why Bradley is a better alternative.”

View from the Ground

Again, however, all these efforts are blunted by the fact that considerably fewer people are traveling, and Connecticut is making it difficult to do so.

Airlines are struggling too, Dillon said, sending 135-passenger planes into the sky with only 25. And, like airports, they’re all having internal discussions about the future. Bradley’s five-year contract with carriers expired in June, and with no airlines in a position to sign another five-year deal, they opted for one-year extensions.

But even had longer-term contracts been in place, he explained, “I think a lot of people don’t understand how an airline agreement works. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee you full revenue coming in, because airlines pay revenue in large measure based on landing fees. Airlines can have a presence and pay rent for space, but they’re not required to operate a certain number of flights. If you have carriers cut operations in half, the landing fees we get are then cut in half from that carrier.”

As a difficult, uncertain year continues to unspool, there are a few bright spots, especially progress on a $210 million ground transportation center — expected to be fully operational in late 2021 — that will house car-rental services, expand public parking, and incorporate public-transit connections.

“All that money had been bonded prior to the pandemic, so we’re committed to the project,” Dillon said. “It will really transform the look of the airport and our operations. People who haven’t been to the airport recently will be surprised by the magnitude of the project and how it’s transforming the space out there.”

In addition, cargo business at Bradley has remained consistently strong. “I believe one factor is that people are staying home and doing a lot of online ordering, so we’re seeing small-package delivery — UPS, Fedex, and Amazon — all increase at the airport,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the revenue profile of cargo is much different than passenger traffic, as the bulk of the revenue at any airport comes from the passenger side of the house. But I appreciate that cargo is doing well right now.”

After all, in a year of startling setbacks, any good news is welcome. But what airports need now is clarity — and for people to get back on planes.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I’m convinced that, by working smart and having employees work smart, we’ll be able to get through this. But it will be a balancing act for a while.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Uncharted Waters

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

It’s safe to say 2020 has been an unpredictable year, testing the ability of all businesses to be nimble. Matt Sosik thinks banks are passing that test.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change,” said Sosik, president of bankESB. “So we’re used to it. It’s not always visible from the outside, but culturally, we were very well-positioned to deal with the pandemic.

“The unique thing was that it just seemed to happen so fast. It was zero to 60, and you can’t always move at that pace,” he added, noting that bankESB is part of a family of three different banks with almost 500 employees. “But we pivoted as fast as we could.”

Part of that was recognizing that many customers were suddenly in turbid financial waters, and needed help. So, early in the pandemic, all banks were doing what they could to help them, whether that meant deferring mortgage loans for a few months or guiding businesses through the hastily assembled Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

“We had a customer-centric focus, which meant helping people navigate payment-related financial issues — at least the financial issues in their lives that could impact their ability to pay us. We did modifications for a lot of folks; we could foresee this was going to be a problematic situation for them. We got out front of it early and tried to alleviate that one piece of stress at a time when so many aspects of life were stressful. We did millions-of-dollars-worth of modifications for customers in the Pioneer Valley.”

Business customers, especially ones forced by a state mandate to shut their doors, were facing similarly dire issues, Sosik said. “We were also doing PPP by the truckload. It was uniquely challenging for us because it all happened at once.”

Such efforts have impacted banks’ bottom line, said Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB), noting that about 15% of mortgage and commercial loan customers took advantage of deferral programs, resulting in an impact of $900,000 from an accounting perspective.

“Everyone else seemed to be in good shape — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t see this totally ending until there’s some sort of treatment or vaccine that’s really effective. That being said, things are slowly reopening, and Massachusetts has done a pretty good job keeping infections down.”

And community banks were an important part of that, he said, noting that those loan deferrals, plus costs related to the shutdown and investments in safety protocols in order to reopen, have contributed to GCB being about $1.5 million behind where it would normally be.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change. So we’re used to it.”

“It’s going to be a profitable year, but a lot leaner. It’s going to be a challenge,” Tucker went on. “What worries me is what hasn’t risen to the top. We did the payment holiday, but now that the unemployment supplement is gone, and companies rightsize — a lot of them were paying people but couldn’t keep it up forever — I think, until we have a vaccine, we’re looking at a very difficult 2020 and 2021. We’ll be solid; we’ve put a lot of reserves aside, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Loan Stars

There are some positive signs in the economy, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which launched in Springfield last year. He participates in a group of bank CEOs, and on their last group call a couple weeks ago, most said they were pleasantly surprised that, at least on the commercial-loan side, customers who had deferred loan payments had largely returned to their normal payment schedule.

He noted that bank stocks have been “beat up,” as the analyst community didn’t like the idea of deferring principal and interest. “But the overall, totally unscientific trend I’ve seen is that people are pleasantly surprised with how businesses are coming back.

“From our standpoint, we see a lot of growth; businesses are making plans again,” he went on, conceding that New Valley doesn’t yet have a huge portfolio to manage.

Meanwhile, the housing market and stock market are doing better than anyone expected three months ago, he noted, which contributes to an overall mix message when GDP was down 30% in the second quarter and unemployment rose to 16%. “These are troubling numbers, and from a community-bank perspective, we hope it doesn’t turn into a haves-and-have-nots recovery, where the rich get richer and more people get left behind.”

Tucker said demand for loan deferrals has been way down, and banks are now pivoting to help businesses with the forgiveness-application phase of the PPP.

“We did about $18 million worth of PPP, which for us was a lot because most of our loans were under $250,000,” he said, noting that GSB handled about 280 such loans. “It was about a year’s worth of work in a month. Like a lot of banks, our staff was working nights and weekends.”

Sosik added that the waters surrounding the PPP forgiveness phase are still a but murkey and could use some clarity from Congress so the forgiveness path can be clearer. “If people are unclear about forgiveness, they don’t want to spend the money, so it doesn’t get out into the economy.”

At the same time, he added, banks are also being cautious when it comes to growth plans.

“It’s a time to be careful, but at the same time it’s been a very successful year,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve grown a lot this year, but we’re obviously looking forward, expecting continued economic challenges, and our job is to be here for many years. There are times to push hard and run fast, and times to slow that down and be cautious.”

Still, banking leaders are pleased to have made the investments they did in online and remote banking models, Tucker noted, while holding up his smartphone. “Our fastest-growing branch is this. That’s a reality.”

“Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks.”

But while the number of GCB customers using remote banking is 25% higher than before COVID-19, branches still serve a critical purpose, he added. “We’ve seen a lot of people realize we are invaluable to them. When they had problems with their mortgage, they can deal with one person and not get shuffled through a lot of bureaucracy. That’s a plus.”

While branches are still necessary, he went on, they’re different than they used to be; the recently opened South Hadley branch is 1,800 square feet, less than half the space the bank used to set aside for new branches. But he doesn’t foresee any closures, aside from two Amherst branches, about a mile apart, that recently consolidated into one.

“Some banks are using this time as a trigger to say, ‘OK, we’re going to close these branches,’” Tucker added. “We’ve chosen not to do that because there’s enough disruption for customers as it is.”

Sosik noted that bankESB has invested a lot of money in the remote infrastructure and platform. “The technology works seamlessly, and the adoption was good. We were looking for a catalyst we could use to push it and have customers really start enjoying the technological advances. We didn’t expect it to come from a pandemic; we didn’t want it to come from a pandemic. But the pandemic absolutely pushed people to use it.”

That said, “we totally believe in the branch part of the overall delivery system, and we’re still investing in branches,” including one recently opened in Amherst. “But they’re much different than the ones we built a decade ago, or even five years ago. There’s still a need for a branch; customers still want that. Even if they don’t need to be there, they still like that someone they know and trust can work with them when they need it.”

Here for the Long Haul

Whatever the model, the presidents BusinessWest spoke with all believe in the work community banks have done and continue to do during a very difficult year for so many.

“We believe in it,” Sosik said. “Everyone who works for a community bank does it because we love that part of it. If you look at any successful New England town, you’re going to find a locally managed, if not locally owned, community-type bank at its economic center”

While banks still grapple with the impact of not only loan deferrals but ultra-low interest rates, they’re still in strong shape, he added.

Sullivan agreed. “Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks. Banks are healthy and have lots of capital. And hopefully we can turn the page soon and get back to normal lending.”

Tucker doesn’t know what shape the recovery will take — a U, a V, or the one he feels is most likely, resembling the Nike ‘swoosh’ logo, with a long, gradual ascent to normalcy.

“But we’ll do fine, and we are doing fine,” he said. “There’s just a lot of pressure on the margin with rates as low as they are and all the unknown with COVID.

“I’m very optimistic, though,” he added. “Businesses are doing OK. Yeah, a lot of them are struggling, but we see a lot of small businesses trying their damnedest. And we’re trying to support those businesses. We’re here, and we’re going to be here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus

Volume Business

By Mark Morris

When COVID-19 made its arrival in Western Mass., it was mid-March, just weeks before the start of the traditional home-selling season. Area mortgage professionals didn’t know what to expect when the pandemic hit, but they certainly weren’t projecting a solid year.

Soon, though, they had to adjust those expectations and projections.

Indeed, a combination of factors, from historically low interest rates to high demand and low inventories, have made this a much busier, much better year than most residential lenders and home sellers could have hoped for back in the dark days of March.

Indeed, instead of completely canceling the spring home-buying market, the pandemic merely postponed it, said James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending with Holyoke-based PeoplesBank.

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August,” he told BusinessWest.

Jeffrey Smith, vice president and chief Lending officer with Freedom Credit Union, concurred, noting that any debilitating effects on the housing market from the pandemic have been more than offset by lower interest rates. The rates were already fairly low — in the 3.25% to 3.5% range — before the pandemic, he said, but now consumers can now get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for well under 3%.

James Sherbo

James Sherbo

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August.”

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years,” Smith said. “When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

Meanwhile, many mortgage holders are taking advantage of these lower rates to refinance, and this high volume of refis, as they’re called, is keeping most all lending institutions busy.

“It’s crazy … we’ve seen an 80% volume increase in our overall business compared to last year,” Smith noted. “And we certainly did not expect that.”

Tami Gunsch, senior executive vice president and director of Relationship Banking at Berkshire Bank, agreed. She said the bank is pleased with the Mortgage Division’s performance, “especially during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the housing market and the various, and powerful, forces that are driving it.

Rooms for Improvement

Flashing back to mid-March, Sherbo said his department was mostly focused on where (and how) team members would work, and keeping employees and customers safe.

“We just tried to prepare as best as we could to keep our team safe and our customers safe,” Sherbo said. “When COVID-19 first hit, everybody wondered what would happen; nobody had a crystal ball.”

Indeed, no one could have foreseen how the drop in interest rates — one of many steps taken to stimulate the economy — and other factors would collaborate to stimulate virtually all aspects of the housing market and create a unique set of circumstances.

Home sales are strong, again, because of low interest rates even though fewer homes are for sale, said Sherbo, adding that he can’t recall a time when both conditions have happened at the same time.

Jeffrey Smith

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years. When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

“I’ve seen rates this low before, but I’m not sure we’ve seen this lack of supply in quite a while,” he said, adding that it’s no surprise that many people do not want to move or sell during the pandemic, so the supply of homes for sale is limited. That creates an environment where many purchase offers are coming in higher than the asking price.

“New listings are selling very quickly,” noted Smith, adding that nearly all the houses offered for sale in early July were sold by early August.

In addition to people moving out of the city and into the suburbs to take advantage of low interest rates, Smith said the demand for second homes is exploding.

“In the last three to six months, prices have increased by 20% or more in areas like Cape Cod or Maine,” he noted. “Second homes are a hot market right now, and because there is a limited supply, properties are on the market for only a short time before they are sold.”

Then, there’s the refi market.

Gunsch said that, in addition to strong new-mortgage activity, Berkshire Bank is doing a high-volume business in refinances.

“Refis account for 52% of our closed-loan production through July,” she said, “while in the prior year, during the same period, they accounted for 35% of the closed loan volume.”

Smith added that, thanks to the robust business Freedom is doing with loan refinancing, he does not anticipate the lack of housing supply to limit the institution’s growth potential this year.

Strong housing-sales activity is even more impressive considering how the entire home-buying process had to quickly change when COVID-19 hit.

The notion of a real-estate agent walking potential buyers through a house for sale sounds almost quaint these days, as virtual tours have replaced showings, and drive-by looks at a house have become the norm.

“People are buying homes based on what they see online,” said Smith. “Many people are not even going out to the house to see it. In some cases, particularly for second homes, they are buying them sight unseen.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Smith said Freedom had limited online mortgage-application capabilities, but the virus forced the institution to quickly go all in.

“Luckily, we had the technology to be able to make a fast adjustment to online only, so we were kind of ready for it,” he told BusinessWest.

PeoplesBank launched its paperless mortgage-application system in October 2019 after two years of refining it. When COVID-19 arrived and disrupted so much of daily life, Sherbo said having a touchless system already up and running made it easier to maintain business levels.

“Our customers don’t have to meet or sign anything in person,” Sherbo explained. “The entire application process can be done online or over the phone. We were ready for this, which was great.”

Gunsch said Berkshire also uses an online application process. When an appraisal of the property is needed, only the exterior is appraised to reduce physical contact.

“Loan closings are still done in-person with everyone wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines,” she added.

Critical Deferrals

A serious concern at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential for mortgage delinquencies to spike due to homeowners affected by financial and health issues. In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on consumers through March 2021.

Meanwhile, those who are struggling with COVID-related issues are encouraged to contact their mortgage holder to defer payments. The law makes it clear that, by deferring, consumers merely extend the length of the mortgage without taking a hit on their credit rating.

All the mortgage professionals BusinessWest spoke with said the deferral program has worked to keep delinquencies down and allow people to stay in their homes.

“We have a strong team in place to assist our borrowers with loan deferrals and ensure they understand their options to defer payment during this time,” said Gunsch.

Smith said that roughly 5% of Freedom mortgage holders have taken advantage of the deferral program. “We’re actually seeing our delinquencies at very low levels, lower than they’ve been in years.”

Smith added that most of the deferral requests occurred in April and May. With each passing month, the number of new deferrals continues to decline.

“The deferral program is working the way it was intended,” Sherbo added. “It’s giving people the chance to maintain their own stability and credit.”

As for inventories, even that picture may improve soon. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed new housing construction starts are up more than 23.4% in July 2020 compared to July 2019. The national figure closely mirrors the Northeast, which saw a similar increase of 23.3%.

Locally, Sherbo said new home starts are relatively flat, but if interest rates continue at record lows, that would encourage more new construction in Western Mass.

Just as no one had a crystal ball back in March, none of the mortgage professionals we spoke with can really say what will happen six months or a year from now. That’s the nature of this pandemic — a high level of unpredictability.

For now, the housing market is booming at a time when few thought it would. This is good news for banks and credit unions — and for the customers they serve.

And it’s certainly one of the more intriguing stories in a year with seemingly no end of them.

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Manufacturing

Current Events

Tony Contrino

Tony Contrino says his utility’s extensive practice with preparing for weather events has certainly helped in its efforts to cope with the pandemic.

 

Tony Contrino says Westfield Gas & Electric, like all utilities, has considerable practice watching storms develop, getting ready for possible damage, and, as the old saying goes, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that — sort of, said Contrino, general manager of Westfield G&E. It could be seen coming, and there were certainly efforts to prepare for it. But the pandemic is, in most all ways, not like weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias, which barreled through Western Mass. earlier this month, leaving sometimes days-long power outages up and down the Valley and creating huge headaches for utilities — and the customers they serve.

Indeed, those storms come and go, the damage is repaired, and life goes — until the next storm. This crisis is different, not only in its duration, but in its far-reaching effects — everything from a significant drop in electricity use (7% to 10% are the most often-given estimates), and its impact on the bottom line, to an equally sharp rise in delinquent payments, which also affects the bottom line, to changes in how work is carried out — right down to putting one person in each truck, rather than two.

But as with those weather events, area energy providers are working their way through this crisis, adapting and pivoting, as businesses in all sectors have, and encountering challenges and opportunities — again, like most all other businesses have. But, unlike many businesses, they’re providing a vital service, and thus they’re being diligent about working with, and communicating with, those they serve.

“It’s certainly a different, and very challenging, time — for us, but also for all our customers,” said Contrino. “We’ve made a real effort to communicate through all this, not only with employees but customers as well. We’re trying to keep people aware of what’s going on and what our plans are, and try to give them some assurance that we want to work with them.”

Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of Regional Electric Operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, agreed. He said the investor-owned utility has been working to keep the power on — yes, Isaias has certainly impacted those efforts — while keeping employees and customers safe.

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities,” he told BusinessWest. “We have half our workforce working at home, and people have been very creative and able to adapt to their work at home. We’ve been able to work differently to do the things we need to get done. Everyone’s working differently — we’ve learned how to use videoconferencing very well — and, for the most part, we’re getting our work done.”

Craig Hallstrom

Craig Hallstrom

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities.”

While making adjustments within their own operations, the utilities we spoke with said they’re working with clients, both commercial and residential, to help during this time of crisis.

Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, observed that, while his utility is facing declines in revenue and sharp rises in delinquent payments — further impacting cash flow — these problems often pale in comparison to what customers are facing.

“If we were looking at our losses in isolation, we would be very alarmed, and we are concerned about the numbers,” he noted. “But when we look at the impact to the overall economy and what many of our customers are going through … we’ll figure out a way to manage and get through this.”

For this issue and our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, BusinessWest shines a light, pun intended, on how the pandemic has impacted those in the energy business — and how they are responding.

Hitting the Switch

As he talked with BusinessWest, Contrino was just returning from a vacation — only he didn’t get as much relaxation time as he planned, or hoped. Isaias saw to that.

“I was very involved in the storm activity — I just took care of it all remotely,” he said nearly a week after the storm came through, leaving tens of thousands across the region without power for long stretches and “hitting Westfield hard,” as he put it.

That phrase is appropriate for the pandemic as well, obviously, and it applies to every community across the region. Indeed, large numbers of businesses, including some large users of electricity, such as colleges and universities and some manufacturing facilities, but mostly smaller ventures in the hospitality and service sectors, have been shut down for long stretches. And some, like the colleges, are, for the most part, still closed.

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some facilities, but COVID-19 and a need to socially distance has prompted a re-evaluation of those plans.

Meanwhile, many businesses that are open are struggling and finding it difficult to pay all the bills, including the one from the utility company. And many individuals working for these businesses — or not, as the case may be — are in the same boat, with matters likely to get worse before they get any better (see related story on page 53).

All this has presented a number of challenges for utilities, who are responding, as all businesses are, with use of reserves, belt tightening, and sometimes delaying planned expenditures when possible.

While estimates on the decline in power usage vary — Lavelle also put it at roughly 10% — and the overall drop in demand has been mitigated to some degree by a very hot summer that has commanded more use of air conditioners, said Hallstrom, the bite is significant.

“Over the course of a year, a 10% reduction would mean an impact to us in the vicinity of $4 million to $5 million — and that’s a big number,” Contrino noted. “We’re cutting back, we’re not doing some of the work we would typically be doing, and we’re trying to control expenses as best we can and work our way through this.

“We anticipate that we’re going to be hit on the receivables side, and we’re planning for that,” he went on. “We’ve got funds in place to help us with that, and we’re thinking long-term — I don’t think this is going to end that quickly; I’m sure it’s going to extend into next year to some degree.”

Lavelle agreed, noting that, while Holyoke G&E is looking at a similar hit, it has been helped by some new businesses coming online, including a few involved in cannabis cultivation, which are typically large users of power.

“We’re seeing a few of those businesses start to ramp up, and that will offset some of the COVID impact,” he explained. “But the COVID impact is about 10% overall.”

And while that is, as Contrino said, a big number, it pales in comparison to what businesses across a number of sectors are facing, said Lavelle, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“We can’t compare to what some of the businesses and some of our residential customers are dealing with,” he went on. “Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

To help these businesses — and residential customers as well — Holyoke G&E, like other utilities, has been working with customers to help them through the crisis.

“Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

There is a moratorium on shutoffs for late payments — the governor put one in place for investor-owned utilities, and municipally owned operations have followed suit — and Holyoke G&E is working with individual customers to create payment plans, said Lavelle, adding that, overall, the utility has seen a 25% rise, roughly $1 million to date, in delinquent payments.

Like Contrino, Lavelle said his utility is handling the decline in revenue through reserves and some reductions in expenses, many of which are coming naturally as a result of the pandemic, such as those involving travel, training (some programs cannot be carried out remotely), and other areas.

Lines of Communication

While coping with the pandemic’s impact to their customers, and the bottom line, area utilities have, like other businesses, been forced to adjust and change how they do things.

This means everything from having some employees who can work remotely do just that, to putting one person in each service truck, instead of two; from closing offices, thereby compelling customers to pay online, to taking steps to make sure those in the pivotal control rooms are at minimal risk of exposure to the virus.

Overall, the goal, said those we spoke with, has been to keep people apart as much possible in order to keep operations moving as efficiently as possible. In fact, Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some of its operations prior to the pandemic, and now, it is certainly rethinking that strategy.

“For a fairly small utility, we have several different buildings, and we had been looking at a consolidation plan,” Lavelle said. “But the distance between facilities and the number of facilities has actually helped us comply with social distancing and other recommendations associated with good COVID hygiene. So we’re revising that whole consolidation plan at present.”

Contrino said his utility’s experience in preparing for weather events like Isaias has been beneficial as it continually adjusts to life during the pandemic.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience working through numerous storms and large-scale electric outages in the past, and have conducted various emergency-response drills over the years,” he explained. “So we were somewhat prepared to take action — although the duration of this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before.”

Elaborating, he recalled that, as it became clear the pandemic was coming and there would be a significant impact, the Westfield G&E implemented an emergency-management plan, designated a COVID-compliance officer, and formed an incident-response team of key management personnel — a team that continues to meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and what is likely to happen in the weeks and months to come, although looking far down the road is extremely difficult.

“During this pandemic, we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” Contrino told BusinessWest. “Although we have essential services to provide, we want to keep everyone safe; we have that balancing act going on — while we’re trying to provide our services, we’re also going to keep everyone healthy.”

Hallstrom concurred, also using the phrase ‘balancing act’ to describe how Eversource is working to keep the power flowing while keeping employees and customers safe.

He said roughly half the utility’s 8,000 employees‚ including those in finance, HR, accounting, and other business functions, have been working at home the past 20 weeks or so. Most of ‘his’ 2,800 employees, those who work to directly provide power and maintain service, have been coming to the office — in whatever shape it takes — every day.

Keeping these individuals safe has become a top priority.

“We’ve implanted many safety protocols — we promote face masks and washing hands, and instead of crews going out two per truck, we’ve had them going out one per truck,” he explained. “We’ve actually bought trucks and taken vehicles out of retirement to increase our fleet so that people can go out by themselves in a vehicle.”

Precautions also extend to service in individual homes and businesses — crews will go in only after ensuring there are no COVID-related issues at the address in question — and to the control centers, which are vital to managing the electric system.

“Day to day, we have a sufficient number of people to manage these facilities, but one of the fears from the pandemic is that if someone got sick and they passed it to fellow employees, that might quickly impact our people and make it so we couldn’t operate that system,” Hallstrom explained. “Those people are highly trained, and in the case of transmission, they’re certified, so that was a big concern.”

While some utilities had control-room personnel quarantine and stay in what amounts to a bubble, he noted, Eversource, which has several smaller control rooms, has been able to spread out its people so there are fewer individuals in a given control room, while some of these facilities were set aside as ‘sterile environments’ that employees not infected with the virus could be moved to in order to keep the system running properly.

Meanwhile, like banks, utilities have had to close their doors to their main offices, which have traditionally seen large amounts of traffic involving customers paying their bills or conducting other business. This business has now shifted online in many cases, said Lavelle, and for some customers, it’s been a big change.

“Being shut down has really impacted how we conduct business,” he explained. “We’ve had online services for some time, so a lot of it has been training customers how to pay online or sign up for a new account online; we’ve seen an uptick of more than 200% in online transactions.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he went on. “There’s been a little bit of hand holding with some customers, but other than that, it’s gone quite well.”

Watt’s Next

Drawing one more analogy to Isaias — and all the other storms his utility has confronted over the years — Contrino said that, when it came to the pandemic, Westfield G&E prepared for the worst.

And this is the mindset that will continue as the crisis plays itself out, with certainly more questions about what’s on the horizon than answers.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into working through this and moving forward in a disciplined and measured manner.”

With that, he spoke for all the utilities that have been working to keep the power on — tropical storms and all — during a crisis that is testing them in every way and on every level.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Safe at Home

By Mark Morris

Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’

This before-and-after view of Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’ is just one of many jobs keeping crews busy recently.

When COVID-19 began spreading earlier this year, it forced everyone to make adjustments. Or, as Brian Rudd put it, “The pandemic lets you know how prepared you are for change.”

Rudd, owner of Vista Home Improvement, said his company handles around 700 projects every year, and keeps everything straight by following an organized process. Once the pandemic hit, those processes had to change on the fly.

“Thanks to our staff and our company culture, we were able to adapt quickly, especially in the way we interact with our customers,” Rudd said, adding that some of the changes, such as heavier reliance on technology to interact with customers and employees, will benefit the business long after coranavirus is under control.

Amid such changes, though, several home-improvement contractors who spoke with BusinessWest tell a similar story about 2020.

Specifically, they all experienced downtime in March and April; even though they were included among ‘essential’ workers, the home-improvement business suffered a severe slowdown, as most people were not comfortable with any outsiders in their home during the early months of the pandemic.

But as more precautions have been put in place, business has returned to most companies — and, in some cases, increased over last year.

Back in December, Ger Ronan, president of Yankee Home, organized what he calls a ‘mastermind’ group of 11 home-improvement companies from all over the U.S. The point of the group is to network and share ideas about what’s working and what’s not.

“In the early days of the pandemic, members of the group came together and wanted to help in any way they could,” he said. “I got lots of ideas and strategies from companies much larger than mine, and they really helped.”

Ronan expressed a common observation as to why home renovation work has picked up. With people spending so much time at home, they are looking at faded siding, worn-out roofs, and other needed repairs. On top of that, fewer people are going away on vacation this year, opting instead to invest money in their homes.

With everyone staying put, homes are simply getting more use — and attention — than in the past.

“There’s more wear and tear on rooms in the house, especially bathrooms,” he said. “Our bathroom-renovation sales are really strong.”

Scott Keiter, president of Keiter Homes, said his company is working on a wide range of home projects. From new additions to kitchens, bathrooms, and especially outdoor living spaces, he said people want to make their houses more user-friendly in this time of increased isolation.

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed,” Keiter said. “Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

Safety First

All three contractors follow state guidelines for COVID-19 in terms of masks, sanitizing worksites, and keeping a safe distance from clients. They also emphasized the importance of safety for their employees and clients.

“Every morning, we give all of our employees the option to not work that day if they do not feel safe,” Rudd said. “That’s become part of our daily routine, and it’s worked great.”

When working on exterior projects such as siding and roofs, Keiter said, it’s fairly easy to maintain a safe distance from the homeowner.

“It’s a little more complicated when we have to work inside the home,” he said. “A simple solution like a plastic partition wall allows us to segregate our work area from the client’s living space.”

Yankee Home uses red carpets to protect clients’ floors when working inside the home. In addition to having the carpets cleaned frequently, Ronan said, project managers from his company visit every job site to make sure all safety protocols are in place.

These contractors told BusinessWest that having people at home during renovation projects was definitely a help and not a hindrance to the job. They all pointed out how much easier it is to discuss changes to a project while the owner is on site, rather than trying to reach them at work and waiting for a reply.

Ger Ronan

Ger Ronan says people have been spending more time at home — and finding more reasons to invest in their home.

“We do a lot of customization, so it’s nice to have people there so they can tell us exactly what they want,” Ronan noted.

At a recent siding and window installation, Rudd added, the homeowner appreciated the details of the work and enjoyed seeing the job from start to finish. “We love people being home because they can see the craftsmanship and what goes into the investment they’ve made with us.”

One trend developing as a result of so many couples working from home involves ‘his and her’ home-office spaces. Keiter, who builds new homes as well as additions, said he has not worked on such projects, but expects he might get requests in the near future. Long before the work-at-home explosion, his clients have wanted home-office setups either for work or to stay in touch with distant family members online.

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed. Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

“Whether it’s a dedicated office space, flex space, or a study, many plans call for one room in the house that’s being dedicated for computer use,” he explained, noting that the next trend in home offices will likely involve upgraded wireless infrastructure. “From parents working at home to kids trying to go to school online, and all the other laptop and iPad use, I think we will be seeing more sophisticated wireless access points in the home.”

Security Blanket

Though business is booming now, Ronan predicts that the pent-up demand caused by COVID-19 will eventually dissipate, but won’t reduce business too much.

“You know the old adage of, no matter how bad the recession might be, you’ll always get your haircut,” he said. “Well, we’re not quite up there with hairdressers, but you’re always going to take care of your home.”

Rudd said 2020 reminds him of the period right after 9/11 when people saw the home as a security blanket. Similar to that time, his clients are focused on ‘nesting’ in the safety of their home — so it’s not surprising his business is up 32% over last year.

“Anything related to the home is booming,” he noted. “Friends of mine who are landscapers are having record years, too.”

Homeowners have long been advised to make renovations to their kitchens and bathrooms because money spent on those two rooms will provide the best return on investment if the house ever goes up for sale. While kitchen and bathroom renovations remain popular, Keiter said, he’s finding that people are investing in those spaces for a different reason: quality of life.

“We’re staying at home because the virus has made the world unpredictable in so many ways,” he told BusinessWest. “With all this uncertainty, putting money into our homes seems like a pretty safe bet.”

Coronavirus Law

A Stern Test

By Marylou Fabbo

With schools reopening, parents and employers will be in a difficult boat together as they attempt to juggle parenting with personal and professional responsibilities.

Parents are understandably anxious about how they will meet their obligations to both their children and their employers. Several school districts have announced hybrid returns with students alternating between attending school and remote learning. Some jobs just can’t be done from home, and some parents who would otherwise be able to work at home will be needed to help their children with remote learning (or breaking up arguments).

To make matters worse, schools that are already back in session have shown us that, despite precautions that are being taken, school-based COVID-19 outbreaks are a real concern.

Employment-law Compliance

There is no question that many parents will be working from home in some capacity once the school year starts. Businesses should keep in mind that laws that are applicable in the workplace don’t go out the door simply because the workplace has moved to an employee’s home.

Marylou Fabbo

Marylou Fabbo

“Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle?”

For instance, Massachusetts employers must continue to make sure their employees take their 30-minute meal break and keep records of all hours worked, which may not look like the normal 9-to-5 workday. State and federal laws that require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled employees in the workplace apply to remote employees as well.

To meet these requirements, employers may need to do things such as make adjustments to equipment or the manner in which work is completed. Notices that must be posted in the workplace should be electronically distributed or mailed to an employee.

Still, there are many unanswered questions, and businesses are advised to consult with legal counsel before taking any risky actions. For example, employers are required to reimburse employees for required business-related expenses, but what does that mean when employees use their own laptops and internet for at-home work?

Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle? How does an employer prevent and address sexual harassment in the remote workplace? Is it discriminatory to distribute extra or different tasks that can’t be done at home to older employees who no longer have kids at home? All these issues should be discussed with your employment-law advisors.

Job-protected, Paid Time Off

Not all employees will be able to work when their children are taking classes from home. Employers should be prepared to work with a reduced staff for the foreseeable future. Federal laws will provide many parents with job-protected time off when school is closed, which includes situations where some or all instruction is being provided through distance learning.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) generally requires employers to provide paid time off to employees who cannot work (or telework) because their child’s school is closed. However, it’s not enough that a child is attending class remotely. The parent must be needed to care for the child, and the child must be under 14 absent special circumstances.

Still, the FFCRA does not cover all employees or all employers. Employers with 500 or more employees are not covered by the law, while small employers and healthcare providers may be exempt from certain requirements. Also, employees who have been employed for less than a month are only eligible for a maximum of two weeks of ‘emergency sick’ leave, while employees who have been employed for at least 30 days may be able to take up to an additional 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave (EFML), including on an intermittent basis, assuming that the leave hasn’t already been taken for other permissible purposes.

Eligible employees can earn up to $200 per day when taking childcare EFML, subject to certain maximum dollar amounts. Lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are considering legislation that would fill the gaps in the FFCRA’s paid-leave provisions, and several states have already extended virus-specific paid leave. Employers whose employees aren’t eligible for protected leave will have to decide whether to allow job-protected leave or lay off or otherwise separate with the employee.

School-related Exposure

Unpredictable, illness-related absences can pose another challenge for employers and employees. Children may be exposed at school and bring the virus home.

Employees may be needed to care for their children who are ill and may even test positive themselves. The FFCRA provides up to two weeks paid time off for COVID-related illnesses. The Massachusetts paid-sick-leave statute and the FMLA may also provide employees with paid time off. Employees may also be able to take protected time off (or time at home) as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s own disability that makes it risky for the employee to go into the office.

Plan Ahead

There’s never been a return to school quite like 2020. The only certainty is that employers could not possibly plan for all potential scenarios. Businesses should make sure they have effective remote-work policies, practices, and procedures in place, be prepared to operate with fewer employees on an intermittent and possibly long-term basis, and designate one or more people within the organization to whom management and employees can direct their questions.

Marylou Fabbo is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., a law firm that exclusively practices labor and employment law. She specializes in employment litigation, immigration, wage-and-hour compliance, and leaves of absence. She devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance; (413) 737-4753 ; [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Step Inside

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford, owners of Cornucopia in Northampton.

For Dave DiRico, the forced shutdown of retail outlets across the Commonwealth in March could not have been more ill-timed.

After all, late March is when many golfers, a good number of them armed with gift certificates from the holidays, start filing into his store in West Springfield, DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, and reload for the coming season. They come in looking for new clubs, balls, bags, shoes, and other accessories.

And they keep coming in through the spring, said DiRico, noting that, aside from the holidays, March, April, and May are by far his busiest months.

But not this year, obviously, as he was closed completely until early May and then open for curbside sales only — something this business isn’t really suited for — for several weeks.

But when he did reopen … well, the surge in business might not make up for everything that was lost during the shutdown, but it has been significant and in many ways surprising. Indeed, in addition to what could be called pent-up demand — people who needed to reload and had to wait until he was open to do so — the pandemic has actually created a mini-explosion of interest in golf, because it’s one of the few sports that can still be played under the current restrictions and advisories on social distancing.

“Things took off … it’s been crazy,” DiRico told BusinessWest. “One of the few outdoor activities you can have right now is golf; we have kids who were supposed to do internships and can’t, and they’ve taken up golf. We have kids who played baseball and summer sports and couldn’t play those, so they’ve taken up golf. We have spouses who’ve never played the game who have taken up golf.

“Couple that with our regular business,” he went on, “and June and July have taken off like a rocket ship.”

Nate Clifford has also navigated the ups and downs of shutting down and reopening at Cornucopia, the natural-foods store he and his wife, Jade Jump, own at Thornes Marketplace in downtown Northampton. They were among many shop owners who had to shift their business model on the fly to survive the past few difficult months.

“Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

In fact, March 15, the day they and all the other Thornes stores shut down, was the couple’s one-year anniversary of buying the 40-year-old establishment. Though sales of food and wellness products may have made Cornucopia an essential business in the state’s eyes, Thornes made a decision to shutter the whole complex, and that meant Cornucopia, too.

“We understood, but we made an impassioned plea to the landlord to give us some access for pickup and delivery, with the goal of helping people, especially the older population around here who need us,” Clifford said. One day later, on March 16, they were back in business with that new model.

“We put a simple order form up on the website and told people, ‘you shop here; you know what’s here — what’s your wish list, and we’ll get the best possible order for you.’ We delivered, or you could pick it up and we’d run it out to you, put it in your trunk or in the passenger window, whatever you were comfortable with. We did that for three months, and we were overwhelmed with the support we got.”

That support was certainly reflected on June 15, the first day shoppers were allowed back in the store itself. “We had such a rush of people, I had to step into the back room to shed a few tears,” Clifford said. “I thought, ‘we’re going to be OK.’”

Unfortunately, not all retailers can say the same thing. They’ve seen some pent-up demand, to be sure, but 2020 is turning into a very challenging year as many shoppers are staying home, cutting back on their spending (or both), and doing most of their buying online.

Still, retailers are happy to be open again, even if the long-term outlook is mixed, and consumer confidence remains uncertain.

One Step at a Time

Sharon Cohen, who has owned Footbeats for Women at Thornes for the past four years, noted that, without college students and tourists from out of town, business is slower than is typical for this time of year, but customers are returning steadily. She’s happy to see them, especially after instituting the safety measures mandated by the state — and by common sense.

“We’ve revamped the way the store is laid out to promote social distancing,” Cohen said. “Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

After Thornes was shut down in mid-March, Cohen launched a website so customers could still purchase her shoes, and, like Clifford, she delivered to peoples’ homes. Every Friday afternoon, she used Facebook Live to talk about shoes in stock and offer commentary on trends and new styles.

“I’d pick them off the displays on the wall and talk about them. Customers would text and ask questions about cost or size,” she said, noting that she will likely continue that practice. “We tried new, inventive ways to meet the customers.”

In the store, she tries to strike a balance between customer needs and safety; for example, when customers try on a pair of shoes, if they are leather and cannot be sanitized, the shoes are put in quarantine for 24 hours, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says a mini-explosion in the popularity of golf has helped offset some of the huge losses incurred when his shop was shut down by the pandemic during the spring.

Thornes management has instituted many new protocols and equipment, including iWave ionizing air filters that heighten air quality, foggers that sanitize the building nightly, and door monitors at each of the two open entrances to ensure that people entering wear masks and sanitize their hands. The complex also installed hands-free door openers on bathroom doors.

“Thornes has done a lot to prepare for our opening, and we continue to stay educated and follow safety protocols,” said Richard Madowitz, the marketplace’s co-president. “We are receiving consistent positive feedback from shoppers on the cleanliness of the building and their comfort. We are providing a safe environment.”

All shared tables and chairs on the building’s second and third floors have been removed, and directional arrows on the floors separate traffic and promote social distancing.

“Signage is everywhere,” Madowitz stressed. “Each store is managing its state-mandated capacity count, and Thornes itself is managing the state-mandated capacity counts for its common spaces without shops.”

“I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Mask compliance is high, at 99%, he noted, adding that “masks are not required for those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing one.”

Despite what he calls a “vocal minority” making waves nationally about mask wearing, Clifford said his customers have been respectful of the mandate.

“We’re dealing with people who have health issues, and I’d say the average customer spending big amounts is over 50, getting supplements, taking to our expert staff. We want them to feel safe,” he told BusinessWest. “For those folks who don’t want to wear masks, even for legitimate reasons, we still have pickup and curbside. But I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Visitors to Holyoke Mall are greeted with a similarly wide range of mandates, from face coverings and six-foot distancing to directional arrows and guidance to wash hands, use sanitizer, and avoid touching products unless purchasing them, said Lisa Wray, the mall’s director of Marketing.

In return, the mall has enhanced its cleaning and sanitizing of the common areas and numerous touch points, restrooms, seating areas, and food court, and the cleaning team is utilizing new electrostatic sprayers, leveraging the same technology used to clean hospital rooms, using an approved disinfectant recommended by the CDC. In addition, Holyoke Mall employees, security, housekeeping staff, and contractors undergo daily health screenings.

Sharon Cohen

Sharon Cohen says she used online outreach and a sales website to stay afloat during the shutdown.

All those steps were necessary, Wray said, to not only bring customers back, but make them feel safe upon return.

“Having our tenants close with thousands of employees and their livelihoods impacted is certainly difficult; however, the safety and well-being of our guests, employees, and tenants is of primary importance,” she told BusinessWest.

“We have been seeing guests steadily return to the shopping center, and even with reduced occupancy, tenants have been seeing strong sales,” she added. “With the back-to-school season upon us and the sales-tax holiday weekend at the end of August, we’re hopeful the months ahead will continue to trend positively. We’re cautiously optimistic that the fourth quarter will continue to ramp upward, as guests adapt to this new way to shop.”

Warning Signs

That optimistic view isn’t shared by the entire retail industry. Just last week, two businesses at the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — announced they were closing, unable to stay afloat after the forced pandemic closure and an inability to procure business aid from either the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the city’s Prime the Pump grants.

Meanwhile, on a national level, Tailored Brands, which owns suit sellers Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, is closing hundreds of stores and drastically reducing its corporate workforce as the pandemic continues to decimate the retail industry.

GlobalData Retail recently noted that year-over-year sales of men’s formal clothing fell by 74% between April and June, and not just because stores were closed. “While this deterioration will ease over time, demand will remain suppressed for the rest of 2020 and well into 2021 as office working, business meetings, and socializing are all reduced.”

Fortunately for DiRico, the pandemic has done the opposite in the golf sector, creating some opportunities in the form of new players who need equipment — with many of them using stimulus checks to buy it. But there are challenges as well, starting with shortages of stock caused by closure of factories and then restrictions on capacity.

“Our biggest problem right now is getting equipment,” he explained. “That’s because most of our manufacturers are based in California, where only 40% of the factory is open, which means they can only produce ‘X’ amount of clubs for the world; it’s slow in getting equipment.”

Other challenges include the many the new rules and protocols regarding social distancing and sanitizing, he went on. Still, for the customer, things are pretty much business as usual, meaning they can still try on shoes or gloves and take a few practice swings with a driver in the simulator.

‘Normal’ is not a word that comes to mind when describing operations or this year in general, but overall, the surge the game has seen will certainly help make 2020 less forgettable, DiRico went on, and it offers considerable hope for the future — if those who have taken up this difficult, expensive, and time-consuming game can find a way to stay with it.

“For the past 15 years or so, golf has been on the decline,” he said, listing cost and time among the big reasons. “Now, some of the pros I’ve talked with say they’re booked solid; they have tee times from 6:30 to 4. And membership at the country clubs is up. If these clubs can retain just 15% of these new golfers, they’ll be in good shape.”

For Cornucopia, the pandemic offered an opportunity to build an online, pickup, and delivery presence it might not have otherwise, Clifford said — one it will continue to maintain, opening up new business avenues.

“We were thrilled to be able to pivot to that quickly. That’s one thing Jade and I do well, being flexible and doing whatever we need to survive. We’re resilient, and now that we have a strong foundation, if we were ever to experience another shutdown, we’ll be able to continue the cash flow.”

These days, sales volume isn’t what it was on reopening day on June 15, and won’t be until colleges are back in session. “That’s when you normally see more foot traffic; July is not a busy retail time,” Clifford noted, adding that a weakened tourism season isn’t helping, as even visitors to the Berkshires often make their way to downtown Northampton for an afternoon. “That’s not happening right now.”

But he’s cheered that all the Thornes businesses are open seven days a week. “That has caused a lot more consistency in the shopping experience, when the stores are open and welcoming people and wanting them to come in and physically shop.”

And hoping that extended shutdown is a thing of the past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Driving Forces

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan says inventory has been an issue for many car dealers, but overall, the picture is much brighter than analysts were predicting in the spring.

Back in the earliest and darkest days of the pandemic (at least in this part of the country), analysts within the auto industry were predicting that overall sales for 2020 might be off perhaps as much as 80% from the year prior.

Those projections turned out to be well off the mark, as were some of the later estimates as well, said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, adding that a number of factors have made this year — and it’s a little more than half over, so a lot can still happen — much better than perhaps anyone could have imagined back in late March and early April.

These factors include stimulus checks that provided some disposable income for many people, as well as some extremely attractive incentives from the manufacturers, including 0% interest for as many as 84 months, job-loss protection, and no payments for six months.

“From an auto-dealer standpoint, I don’t think we were intended to be direct beneficiaries of any stimulus money,” Sullivan said. “But what the consumers are doing with the money has certainly offset what we expected to be a much steeper decline in the auto business than what we have actually experienced.”

But some of these same factors, coupled with pandemic-forced factory shutdowns, have created a slew of challenges for auto dealers as well. These include shortages of inventory for new cars, although there seems to be some improvement on that front, according to those we spoke with, and an even more pronounced shortage of used cars, which is spurring something almost historic when it comes to the prices offered to those willing to trade in vehicles or just sell them outright — something that’s happening with increasing frequency.

“There’s an unbelievable shortage of used cars,” said Sullivan. “There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up. And people are recognizing that and saying, ‘if there if was a time to trade in a car, now’s the time’ — and that’s helping the new-car market.”

As for overall inventory, a drive by any dealership in the area would reveal fewer cars in the lot, a clear reflection of what’s happening with both new and used vehicles, said Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes Benz of Springfield, noting that his store is typical in most respects. There’s a smaller supply of used cars (only about 12 days, as opposed to the 30-to 45 days that would be typical) and fewer new cars as well as the factories try to catch up for the time lost when they were closed or making other products, such as respirators, in the case of General Motors.

“There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up.”

The situation is improving, though, and by late August, most expect a return to something approaching normalcy.

“We’re starting to see inventories coming back, which is exciting for all of us,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, adding that, while the landscape may change and there remains a good deal of uncertainty, there is currently demand for those cars that will soon be filling the lots.

Which is good because, while sales of used cars (if dealers can get them) have been more than solid, new-car sales have been off — but, again, not as much as the experts thought they would be back when states were shut down and governors were rolling out phased reopenings.

“I’d say, on average, the sales pace for the new-vehicle industry in the Northeast is probably down 10% to maybe 15%,” said Sullivan, adding that these numbers could not have been imagined back in the spring, when it looked like the bottom might fall out of the market.

Looking ahead … well, looking ahead is something that’s difficult in any sector. But those we spoke with said that, overall, dealers are in decent position for quarters three and four. Inventories are improving, there is still some pent-up demand, there are still plenty of incentives, and new models are arriving on many lots.

But as they’ve seen already this year, things can change in a hurry, and projections — as those made way back in March can attest — are difficult to make.

Hitting the Accelerator

As he talked with BusinessWest at the Mercedes dealership on Burnett Road, just off turnpike exit 6, Wirth noted that, in many respects, a touch of normalcy has returned to this store, and the business of car selling in general.

Indeed, he noted there were several people sitting in the service waiting area, more than there would have been back in the spring, when ‘pickup and dropoff’ was the order of the day — and it’s still a popular option. Meanwhile, all employees are back at the dealership — many of those who could were working remotely in the earlier days of the pandemic — although there are now vacant workstations between those with people, and some sport plexiglass dividers between them. Perhaps most importantly, business is … well, perhaps not normal, but it’s certainly in the ballpark.

Peter Wirth

Peter Wirth says business is returning to something approaching normal at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, and the summer and fall look promising as new models roll in.

In many respects, the dealership is well-positioned for a solid year, despite the pandemic and various negative forces it has created, Wirth said, listing everything from those aforementioned factory incentives — Mercedes has them as well — to lingering, pent-up demand; from new models arriving regularly to the mix of vehicles consumers are demanding.

“This might be the second year that we’re producing more SUVs than cars on the new-car side, and we’re almost at 60-40 now,” he explained. “It took us a couple of years to get there, but that’s what the market wants. So, maybe for the first time in five years, we’re actually in sync with what the market wants, and I think that’s going to help us.”

But while there are some signs of normalcy and even progress when it comes to sales volume, there are reminders everywhere that these are very different times — from the masks on the customers and employees to the deep cleaning that accompanies every car that leaves the service bay, to the cars in the lot, or the lack thereof, to be more precise.

Sullivan told BusinessWest that inventory has been an issue across the broad portfolio of makers within the Balise stable. Closed factories were a big contributor to the problem, he said, but supply-chain issues were, and still are, a factor as well.

“Next to the tsunami that hit Japan, the pandemic and everything it has brought has had perhaps the most impact the auto industry has seen since World War II,” he explained. “The supply chains got interrupted, and this is a global industry; there’s parts from Scandinavia, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, the list goes on. And it really only takes one part to not be able to have a production line running.

“If you have a plant that goes down, and you’re missing that key component, you can’t build an F-150, or a Silverado, or a Camry,” he went on. “The industry has been absolutely disrupted from an availability standpoint. But the good news is that it’s a pretty resilient industry; they find other suppliers and ways to navigate through. But we are a low point of availability.”

Some makers were hit harder than others, he continued, noting that General Motors never fully recovered from the strike of last year before the pandemic hit, and the arrival of COVID-19 further complicated matters, especially when it comes to the production of trucks, one of the more popular items in recent years.

Unlocking Options

Overall, though, and especially as the summer has progressed, buyers have had a better time of trying to find the make, model, and color they want. Mercedes has a sister store in New York that effectively doubles the dealership’s chances of quickly supplying want the buyer wants, and Balise and TommyCar have similar relationships within the industry.

Some are settling for maybe their second-favorite color or a model with most but not all the options they were looking for, said those we spoke with, while others chooose to wait for exactly what they want. And the wait is getting slightly shorter.

“We’re lucky that we carried a good days’ supply of inventory before this happened, so we were in a good position as far as the number of units we were able to maintain through this, and now, we’re starting to see the manufacturers supplement the inventory back,” Cosenzi said. “But the biggest hurdle was being able to get the exact specifications a customer was looking for when it came to new cars.”

If the new-car market is getting somewhat back to normal, the same can’t really be said for used-car buying, which, as noted earlier, is in what would have to be called uncharted territory — or at least a place visited very infrequently.

Using words and numbers, those we spoke with said demand for used cars is through the roof — even for convertibles — and this is definitely a sellers’ market.

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says getting used cars has been a real issue for most car dealers, and that will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future.

Sullivan knows, because he recently was a seller — if you count trading in as selling.

“I traded my wife’s car in two weeks ago, but it really is the best time you could ever ask for,” he said, adding that prices are up, on average, almost $1,800 per car over the past few months. “With my car, I got $2,000 more than I would have two months previous — or two months from now. It just happens to be that timing in the market — the used-car market has defied every industry analyst’s predictions during COVID.”

Overall, a number of factors are contributing to the bustling used-car market in the 413, Wirth said. For starters, this is more of a used-car market than a new-car market, and from all he can gather — he’s been in it for four years — it always has been. What’s more, with the pandemic creating questions about the future and some economic uncertainty for many, used cars are being seen as an attractive, less risky option than buying new — even with all those incentives from the carmakers.

But supply, as it is with new cars, is perhaps the biggest driving force.

“I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan told BusinessWest that most all of the auction houses where so many used cars are acquired by the dealers were closed for a long stretch early this year, removing those supplies. Meanwhile, many leases were extended due to the pandemic, taking those cars out of circulation. And some consumers simply decided that, given the conditions, they would hang onto their car for at least another year.

All this forced dealers to look elsewhere and explore options ranging from buying some of the suddenly unneeded rental cars cluttering lots across the country to buying cars off the street, a tactic Balise deployed.

And that imagination has been needed, because demand — fueled by cautiousness in the era of COVID-19 and other factors — has certainly spiked.

Bottom Line

As for what happens next … it’s hard to say with any certainty, because there are so many unknowns when it comes to the virus, the economy, additional stimulus, and other factors.

“There’s so much uncertainty, but especially when it comes to where the customer demand will settle in,” said Cosenzi. “And we’re prepared to adjust our operations accordingly. We’re starting to see a lot of the manufacturing plants open up and trucks pulling into the dealerships with the cars we’ve been waiting for. I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan agreed.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “And we’re incredibly grateful for being in as good shape as we are. When we looked at what the analysts were saying, that can really put a lump in your stomach. I’d like to say that we’re wildly optimistic, but we can’t be because we know there’s some choppy waters ahead.”

With that, he spoke for everyone in a business that has fared much better than most could have dreamed, but is still staring at some rather large question marks.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Developments of Note

SSO

The SSO hasn’t been able to perform live since the pandemic arrived, but it has found ways to keep the music coming.

Susan Beaudry called it a ‘stop the presses’ moment — quite literally.

Indeed, the program book for an adjusted, and truncated, 2020-21 season for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was at Hadley Printers back in April, and the presses were set to roll. But at the very last moment, the order was canceled.

“The tenor of our industry was … ‘I wouldn’t say anything, I wouldn’t announce a season,’” said Beaudry, adding that, back then, as the number of cases in this state and around the country were soaring, industry groups were advising that it didn’t make sense to put a schedule down in black and white. And it still doesn’t.

“When you’re selling, which is what we’re doing when we announce a season, it’s very difficult in this climate,” she told BusinessWest. “People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be. They’re not going to pre-buy for a concert that may be months away; we just felt it was an awful lot to ask our patrons and the community to make that kind of commitment.”

This episode captures, in poignant fashion, the state of limbo in which the SSO, and most all other institutions of its kind, now resides.

In short, the future is unknown, and when it comes to live performances before real audiences — the absolute lifeblood of these orchestras — it comes down to a waiting game. A wait for a vaccine, most probably, or perhaps an effective treatment for the virus. Something that will prompt the governor of the state to give the green light for phase 4 of his reopening plan.

“We’re listening and waiting,” Beaudry said. “We’re not planning based on our needs or our desires; we’re just listening. And when it’s the right time, we have a season ready to rock and roll. We may have to move some dates around, we may have to move some soloists around … but we know what we’re doing when the time comes.”

“People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be.”

Beaudry stressed that she and others at the SSO are not simply waiting. Far from it.

In fact, she said she’s probably working harder and longer than she would during a typical season, largely because of an even longer to-do list.

It includes providing music to an audience — not the typical audience and not in the typical way; the SSO is now offering the HomeGrown Series, a weekly (Wednesday) webcast featuring a performance, demonstration, or lecture. It also includes fundraising, creating a fund to pay musicians sidelined by the pandemic, planning — as much as that assignment can be carried out in the COVID era — and working ever harder to create ways to broaden the orchestra’s audience.

Indeed, those at the SSO were well aware, long before anyone had ever heard the term COVID-19, that it needed to expand its base of patrons and supporters, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has perhaps brought a greater sense of urgency to this work.

“What we’re not doing is waiting,” she explained. “We’re fully engaged, and we’re working very, very hard. We still have to raise money, we still have to market our brand, we have to keep our musicians in front of our patrons, we have budgetary issues, a strategic plan to undertake … I’m working harder and longer hours than ever, but it’s exciting, fun, and rewarding work.”

As BusinessWest continues its extensive coverage of the pandemic and its broad impact on the region and its business community, we take an in-depth look at the SSO and how it intends to not just weather the storm but use the time and this extreme challenge to examine how to change and become a stronger institution moving forward.

Working in Concert

As she and others at the SSO packed up their computers and whatever else they might need in mid-March and left the orchestra’s offices in downtown Springfield to work at home, the expectation was that it would be for just a few weeks, said Beaudry, adding that this was roughly the same mindset taken with regard to shelving events on the schedule.

Indeed, even before state and federal shutdown orders were put if effect, orchestras, knowing that their audiences are dominated by seniors, began postponing or canceling events — a few weeks or a month at a time.

“We were halfway through March, and we said, ‘let’s just cancel the rest of March,’” she explained, noting that there were several events impacted, from a show at Symphony Hall to a chamber-music performance at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow. “The board agreed — ‘it’s prudent, it’s the right thing to do … let’s not worry about April yet.’”

Soon, though, those at the SSO had a lot more to worry about than just April. As the full scope of the pandemic became clear, the rest of the season was canceled — and soon it also became apparent that the new season, which traditionally starts in September, was now a huge question mark.

Susan Beaudry

Susan Beaudry says that, while waiting for the green light to start its new season, the SSO is busy with everything from fundraising to building its brand to undertaking a strategic plan.

Which takes us back to that order to stop the presses. The program book that was set to roll detailed a truncated schedule that would start with the popular Holiday Pops performance and include four or five other events, said Beaudry.

Now, as noted, even that shorter, simpler schedule is very much in doubt — but ready to go when and if the word — in whatever form it takes — is given.

In the meantime, there is much more than waiting to do — starting with the HomeGrown series, which started back in April with Maestro Kevin Rhodes performing some Brahms on the piano. Over the ensuing weeks, the program has presented a variety of short programs featuring individual artists and even the entire oboe section.

“It’s been very successful, and we’ve received some very positive feedback,” Beaudry said. “It redirects people to a less stress-filled subject and a little levity, a little beauty. As we’ve always said, the healing power of music is very real, and the longer this pandemic lingers, the more that rings true.”

But to provide that healing power, the orchestra must survive what will almost certainly be its most difficult financial test — although it has weathered many over the years, including recessions and even world wars. This one is different, because there are so many unknowns, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has already forced the orchestra to furlough some staff and reduce hours for those who remain; she personally volunteered to take a 30% pay cut.

“We’ve basically lost a season,” she said, referring to the second half of the 2019-20 season and the first half of the upcoming season — at least. “We have no box-office sales right now, and we still have expenses.”

A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped keep staffers employed for several months, but those funds ran out, she went on, forcing the furloughs that were announced several weeks ago.

Moving forward, and with no program book for the upcoming season and no concerts to sponsor at the moment, the SSO is looking for different ways to provide value for its sponsors, and for those sponsors to provide the continued support needed to propel the orchestra to the proverbial other side of the pandemic.

“What we’re hoping is that we can turn sponsorship into a sustainability partnership,” she explained, “where these sponsors are going to philanthropically help us get over the hump so that we’re solvent on the other side and ready to take our place in the community and on stage when this whole thing is done. And the only way we do that successfully is with the full support of the community around us.”

While sustainability is now the most critical issue, a related need — to change and broaden the audience base — takes on even more importance in this era of COVID-19.

“We need to remind ourselves that not everyone is going to get dressed up on a Saturday night and drive to downtown Springfield from wherever and sit for two or three hours through a concert,” she explained. “It’s a commitment to come, so we need to figure out what people want to come to and how we can morph — not that we’re going to change our mission; we’re a classical music organization, and we intend to remain that.

“There are lots of considerations for us to make what we do a better product,” she went on, adding that, in some ways, the pandemic is amplifying the need for change and perhaps accelerating the process. Meanwhile, it is also helping to move the SSO in directions it knew it needed to move, such as virtual offerings, like HomeGrown.

“What COVID did was prompt us to ask, ‘what can we do virtually — how can we reach bigger audiences with a stronger reach electronically and virtually?’” she told BusinessWest. “That is a new wave of performances. We’re a live-performance organization; that’s really how we’ve focused — how do we get people to Symphony Hall? But if we can figure out how to best use livestreaming, who can we reach? What does that do for our education programs and our performances, or even the snowbirds who are gone for half our season?”

On a Final Note…

“This music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

That’s a quote from Mozart, and it now graces the SSO’s home page in large, bold type.

Not nearly as large and bold as the words “When the Orchestra Returns, Your Seat Will be Waiting.”

That’s a confident pronouncement in itself, with emphasis on the word ‘when.’

“We’ve been around for 76 years, and we’ve been through wars and other disasters, and we’ll get through this, too,” Beaudry said in conclusion. “We’re here to serve; we’re mission-driven. That’s the priority, and we’ll be ready.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the top priority before reopening Springfield Museums was making sure both visitors and staff would be safe.

“Kissing Through a Curtain” is an exhibit of 10 contemporary artists, dealing with communicating and translating across borders, how people interact, and the meaning behind words. It was hung at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in March, a few days before the museum closed due to COVID-19 — and there it has hung, dormant, ever since.

“The curator of that exhibit recently changed the introductory text to note that the questions the exhibit asks feel even more urgent now than they did three or four months ago when the exhibit was originally scheduled to open,” said Jodi Joseph, the museum’s director of Communications.

Visitors have agreed, she added, citing a conversation she had with a family of regulars from Boston the week museums were allowed to reopen to the public.

“Heading out, the mom in the group said, ‘oh, gosh, it has so much more meaning now,’” Joseph told BusinessWest. “That’s truly contemporary art. It reflects our time and what we’re going through.”

What museums have been going through is nothing to celebrate. Shutting down for almost four months is a financial strain for any cultural attraction, no matter how large or small.

“For many smaller museums, the financial impact has really been catastrophic,” said Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, adding that her organization was fortunate to receive not only a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but generous contributions from a private donor and a foundation to help get through the past four months.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that.”

“It was an agonizing decision to shut down. At the beginning, we thought it would be for three weeks, and we’d be able to reopen,” she said, adding that conversations with other museums, followed by Gov. Charlie Baker’s shutdown order in late March, made the actual picture much clearer.

“It was really hard. It has just been an experience like no other,” she said. But thanks in part to the PPP loan and those donations, “we were able to sustain our operation through the closure. And now we’re reopening, but it’s on a limited basis. We’re very, very concerned about making sure this is a safe environment for our employees and our volunteers, as well as our visitors.”

It’s important they feel safe and return, Simpson added, if only because of what this set of museums means to the city and region.

“They’re unique and can’t be replicated at other settings — it’s an incredible complex that has served the city of Springfield for more than 160 years and is constantly evolving,” she said. “It attracts people of all ages and all backgrounds, engaging in learning experiences alongside each other — it’s a place where people come together, and it’s joyful and also educational.”

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

Not that it was easy getting to that point, of course. Museums across Massachusetts had to adhere to very specific guidelines outlined in phase 3 of Baker’s economic reopening plan, as well as their own sense of what visitors needed to feel comfortable enough to return.

Both Simpson and Joseph outlined measures at their facilities ranging from signs reminding people to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay six feet apart to plexiglass barriers and one-way directions at certain areas.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that,” Simpson said, noting that one nod to the new reality is the Yop, a Dr. Seuss character but also a new cell-phone app packed with maps, scavenger hunts, and self-guided tours that lend some interactivity to the museums in a safe way.

“We anticipate families will be among first visitors, and older adults will follow once they feel more comfortable,” she added, noting, of course, that what we know about COVID-19 has evolved, and is no longer recognized as dangerous only to older people.

MASS MoCA

Jodi Joseph says the wide spaces at MASS MoCA make physical distancing easier than at many places where people gather.

“We took COVID-19 very seriously, and we’ve engaged in months of planning,” Simpson said. “Even though we were closed, our staff worked very hard behind the scenes. We had staff talking to other museums, sharing best practices, attending webinars and conference calls, reading CDC guidelines — all to understand how we can safeguard our environment. It’s not like a classroom setting; it’s not like a retail setting — it’s a very different set of physical environments that we needed to think about very carefully.”

In addition to the basic rules around masks and distancing, MASS MoCA visitors who experience fever-like symptoms while at the museum are asked to self-identify to staff, and to enable contact tracing, should that be necessary, all ticket buyers are required to provide contact information and names of everyone in the party — both ways to prevent isolated infections from becoming community problems.

That said, the galleries themselves are massive — “we measure our gallery space by the acre here,” Joseph said — but high-traffic areas like stairwells are now one-directional, the entrance and exit have been separated, and the admissions desk has moved outside, accepting no more than 75 timed tickets every half-hour to keep crowds at state-mandated levels.

The museum, at one point, was considering five different scheduling plans for those galleries, which were gradually whittled down to one plan as the reopening date became more crystallized. Joseph credited state Sen. Adam Hinds and Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, for keeping the museum abreast of what was happening at the state level.

“As guidance about the hospitality and tourism sectors started to come down in late spring, we had a pretty good sense of when we’d be open, and we were able to come up with an exhibition calendar that made sense,” she explained.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences.”

Like many museums, MASS MoCA has a long exhibition cycle that’s planned out well in advance, so most installations were ready to go this month. Meanwhile, the museum staged its first concert last week, for an audience limited to 100 — including staff — in a space that can typically pack in 4,000.

For the region’s live-music scene, it’s a welcome start. MASS MoCA alone usually hosts performing-arts events 40 weekends per year, and about half its resources go toward supporting the performing arts, mostly emerging artists.

In short, it’s tough when everything shuts down.

“MASS MoCA is a landlord — we have between 30 and 40 tenants on our 16-acre, 28-building former factory campus,” she noted, and a core group of employees remained on site to manage them, but also reach out virtually with daily ‘art moments’ — “like a greatest hits of MASS MoCA, some fan-favorite exhibitions. We wanted to remind people how great it would feel to be back here, walking these halls, reflecting in the galleries, taking in performances on our stages all across campus.”

It was in many ways “an excruciating few months,” she added, yet the museum staff was inspired at times, too.

“Visitors kept in touch not just with donations, but with deeply felt personal messages telling us how much MASS MoCA means to them, or sharing landmark memories from their own lives that have taken place within these walls,” she told BusinessWest. “As our hearts were aching from being closed and dealing with all the daily troubles of the world, we were also reassured by all the gratitude and appreciation folks were showing the institution, even though we weren’t able to welcome them inside.”

That said, Joseph was thrilled to see more than 1,000 people arrive on opening weekend. “Everyone who showed up said things like ‘thank you, I’m so glad you finally opened’ and ‘I’ve been dying to get back here.’”

Virtual Lessons

Springfield Museums stayed connected to fans as well by bolstering its virtual museum offerings online, Simpson said, from online classes to video demonstrations of collections and exhibitions, to staff videos showing parents how to do activities with their kids at home.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences. So there is innovation that has come out of this,” Simpson said. “Out of something that no one wanted came positive results that can help shape what we do in the future and help us be better.”

That said, she was quick to add that “we strongly believe having people come down to the museums and engage in on-site experiences is really what we do well, and it’s our greatest contribution to our community and people who come to us from all over the region — and across the country and all over the world.”

She’s confident they will come from afar again, though it might take some time. “We might need a vaccine or successful treatments before people feel really confident about being together in the way they were before the pandemic.”

Joseph knows they’ll return, too, whether it’s to see art, like “Kissing Through a Curtain,” that shines a light on today’s world, or, conversely, to get away from reality, especially when that reality has been living in isolation for months on end.

“We want our institution to be a place of respite and a place where people can reflect on their shared experiences — and a place to escape, if that’s what they need. Leave the cares of the world behind and take a moment to be with art. That was our great hope when we reopened the doors.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Solid Proof

Mike Quinlan

Mike Quinlan says the pandemic has ratcheted up online orders and curbside pickup, while generating an increase in overall consumption of alcohol.

Some are calling it the ‘drinking at home’ phenomenon — a reference to how people who can’t go to bars, nightclubs, or (until recently) casinos have been doing all or most of their imbibing at their residence instead.

Others are calling it the ‘drinking while working at home’ phenomenon, and that’s another story, one that has a number of employers understandably concerned.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a fact that people are not going out to drink nearly as much as they did BC — before COVID. And they’re drinking more, by most all accounts — according to a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in the spring, 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with higher rates among younger adults — and for reasons ranging from coping with all the additional stress from the pandemic to not being in the office for eight or nine hours a day, to being able to stay up later on ‘school nights’ because they don’t have to dress for or commute to work in the morning.

All this has created opportunities for some area business owners, especially liquor-store owners — always deemed essential by the governor — who have seen sales volumes rise (in some cases dramatically) and a number of trends emerge.

That list includes everything from more bulk purchases to buying less-expensive items to keep overall spending down; from ordering online to getting items delivered or picking them up at curbside.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy,” recalled Sean Barry, owner of Four Seasons Package Store in Hadley. “It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

Mike Quinlan, fine wines manager at Table & Vine in West Springfield, agreed. He said overall business volume has increased, as have visits to the store, but what has really ratcheted up has been online ordering and curbside pickup. The company has always featured the former — it’s been especially popular with wine buyers — but not the latter until the pandemic created a huge need for it.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy. It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

“The impact on our business for online orders went up dramatically — it was a huge increase in the number of orders we were getting,” he said last week, noting that, while it has tapered off lately as restaurants have reopened, recent holidays, such as the Fourth of July, saw huge volume, and orders continue to flow in. “There’s a stack of orders for us to pick today, and then we keep up with it throughout the day.”

For others, this trend, which would appear to have some staying power — because, in this state, bars won’t open until there’s a vaccine, and in others where they’ve opened, they’re closing down again — is simply shifting business from one type of client to another.

Indeed, Paul Kozub, founder of Hadley-based V-One Vodka, said that, while his sales to liquor stores are certainly up — 30% to 40% over last year, by his estimation — sales to restaurants and bars are way down. And the scale is not exactly balanced because the latter has traditionally been the source of more business than the former, especially at certain times of the year, like spring, when COVID-19 shut most everything down.

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub says that, while the pandemic has certainly increased sales of his vodka in liquor stores, that hasn’t made up for the losses he’s incurred at bars, restaurants, and events.

“In March and April, I lost 50% of my business because I do so much in bars and restaurants during those months, while I do a lot more in liquor stores in November in December, so that was quite a shock,” Kozub said. “The package stores are up, but that certainly doesn’t make up for what we’ve lost in those bars and restaurants.”

Overall, as with most sectors of the economy, the pandemic has created some opportunities for those making and selling spirits, and also eliminated others. For this issue, we take a look at how the numbers provide some hard proof — yes, that’s an industry term — of how buying and consumption habits have changed.

Case in Point

Barry, like many liquor-store owners, reduced his hours early in the spring and closed earlier at night. There were many reasons for this, he said, listing fewer people being on the roads, the fact that almost all surrounding stores were closed, and a desire to limit the risk of exposure to customers and employees alike.

But there was also what he called simply the “fatigue factor.”

“My staff was just overworked, so we needed to cut back,” he explained, noting that, while things have settled down somewhat since then, with restaurants now open, many people are still wary about going to such eateries, and in the meantime, large numbers of people continue to entertain and, yes, work from home.

Which means they’re buying more at the liquor stores. And their buying habits are changing in all kinds of ways, said Barry and Quinlan, noting that in-person visits are still popular, but curbside is flourishing as an option, and delivery, offered by some but not all, has certainly gained significant traction as well.

And while business is up generally, there have been periods of especially heavy volume, including some holidays that have historically been dine-out occasions but are now, like most things, stay-at-home affairs.

“When Mother’s Day came, and Father’s Day … those are occasions where a lot of people go out to a brunch or something like that — but not this year,” Quinlan said. “And so we saw our business jump significantly during those weeks when people would be having meals at home instead.”

Barry noted that, while it’s logical to assume that the closing of the five colleges located near his store in the middle of the spring semester would certainly have impacted his bottom line, he said that’s not really the case.

That’s because the vast majority of students are underage, he noted, and also because his store, unlike some in that area, does not directly market to the college crowd.

But the crowd it does cater to is definitely buying more these days, adding that he’s seen several trends develop. One is that many people — meaning those who can — are buying in bulk, on the theory being that, as with trips to the supermarket, many are trying to make as few as possible.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit. People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles.”

So they’re coming less often, and they’re also buying in larger quantities, which is better for them than it is for the liquor-store owner.

“Sales are up, customer counts are pretty flat, and overall, net profit is slightly down,” Barry said. “That’s because everyone is buying bulk items and taking advantage of case discounts and all that stuff.”

Quinlan concurred, to a point. He noted that, while buying the large, economy sizes, or full cases of products, is less profitable for the store, Table & Vine — and other stores, he presumes — have been able to sell more in fewer hours, thus yielding greater overall productivity and profitability.

But while consumption of alcohol is increasing — statistics nationally confirm that — overall spending in individual households may not be. People are buying in bulk, as noted, but they’re also buying less-expensive items in some cases.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit,” Quinlan said. “People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles; the number of bottles we’re moving has increased significantly.”

Mixed Results

As for what people are buying … it’s generally across the board, said Barry, noting that wine and vodka probably represent the biggest increases.

Speaking of vodka, Kozub, while referencing the shifts in consumption and buying and some changes at his company as it expands nationally, said the pandemic has certainly helped his business in some ways — but definitely hurt it in others.

Indeed, while he’s done much better with liquor-store sales — in large part because the company is now working with a distributor, which has opened a number of new doors — he’s suffered greatly from not having bars, restaurants, and other gathering spots — from the Hadley American Legion to the South Deerfield Polish Club; from MGM Springfield to the Big E — open for business.

And there are other missed opportunities as well.

“We were going to be the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Kozub, noting the company’s current push into Ohio, where that shrine is located (in Canton). “And we were going to sell a lot at the induction ceremony and Hall of Fame Game, but that just got called off.”

As for his liquor-store business, he’s been helped by the work-from-home and stay-at-home trends, and also by ‘Zoom mixology’ sessions, as he called them, Zoom happy hours, and other vehicles to educate the public, bring them together (online, at least), and share experiences somewhat like being in their favorite bar.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distributor he’s hired has certainly reduced the profitability of each bottle he sells in his liquor store, but it has greatly increased volume.

“Without the change to a distributor, we would be down 40% overall for the year,” Kozub said, emphasizing, again, just how much he’s lost through restrictions on people gathering in large numbers or confined spaces.

And this ongoing trend — and even taking steps backward in some states, including Florida, Texas, and others — is slowing V-One’s efforts to go national.

“We’re going to do Ohio and Michigan next, but we’re going to wait a little bit for Florida, Texas, and California,” he said, adding that those states, among the current hot spots, are closing many of the bars and restaurants that were open just a few weeks ago. “The timing of us going national is good in some ways, but tough in others.”

Meanwhile, in the current climate, getting into new liquor stores and expanding that footprint, which is among Kozub’s many goals, is somewhat of a challenge.

“The liquor stores are so busy that they’re not necessarily excited about bringing in new products right now,” he explained. “Because they’re selling everything they have, they’re selling a lot of the staples — the brands people know.”

Beer with Us

This is yet another emerging trend at a time when there have been many changes when it comes to what people are buying, when, where, how, and in what quantities.

The pandemic has certainly changed the landscape in so many business sectors and aspects of society — and alcohol is just one of them.

For some businesses, this will be a vintage year — another industry term — while for others, like Kozub, it will be a mix of new opportunities and lost opportunities, with the former hopefully outweighing the latter.

And, as with those other sectors, it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Coping with a Lost Year

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Eastern States Exposition is much like the farmers it helps promote; one lost season can spell disaster.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the cancellation of this year’s Big E and how the Eastern States Exposition (ESE) will respond to that huge loss of revenue, Gene Cassidy stopped and pointed to a picture at the opposite end of the company’s large conference room.

“That’s J. Loring Brooks, son of Joshua L. Brooks, founder of the Eastern States Exposition,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of ESE. “He was the Big E’s chief development officer. When the Eastern States had rainy fairs or fairs where, for one reason or another, we didn’t make any money, he would get on the phone and fundraise; when we had difficult times, he would find the funding to make ends meet.”

J. Loring Brooks died in 1984, Cassidy went on, and it’s been a long time since the fair has needed to try to raise money in that fashion — and it would be difficult do it that way now. “That’s not an aircraft carrier you can turn on a dime,” he noted, adding quickly that he did hire a development officer last year, and is looking into various strategies to perhaps do some fundraising.

Action of various kinds — from a development campaign to borrowing to discovering new revenue streams — is needed because 2020 has been the rainiest of years — figuratively, if not literally — in the fair’s 102-year history, and the assignment of making ends meet, as he put, is going to be a very stern challenge.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke,” said Cassidy, who quickly went from that analogy to another one. “I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?”

The Big E, he noted — originally known as the Eastern States Industrial and Agricultural Exposition — was created to be that church bazaar, the method for raising money needed to support a mission of promoting agriculture.

Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has done more than close the fair for the first time since World War II. It has put the Eastern States Exposition on precarious financial ground; put plans for rehabbing and modernizing some of the buildings on the grounds, especially the obsolete Coliseum, on ice; left large questions marks about how the ESE is going to respond to the agricultural community’s ongoing need for a platform; and even raised some doubts about the fate of the fair in 2021.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke. I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?’”

But while those at the Big E are certainly moving full steam ahead with planning for next year’s fair, they must also contend with a massive hole in the budget — the Big E accounts for 85% of the yearly revenue, and much of the remaining 15% (all the many types of shows on the books after mid-March) has been wiped off the calendar as well.

Grounds for Change

That makes this year decidedly different, said Cassidy, noting that, in a typical year, his staff would be on what amounts to cruise control as it enters the final six or seven weeks of lead-up to the Big E. This year, these employees are searching imaginatively for ways to generate revenue and close the budget gap.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season,” he explained, noting that the fair, despite its wealth of space, buildings, parking, and amenities, is still limited in what it can do. Put another way, it’s limited by what it can’t do, according the governor’s reopening plan — bring large numbers of people together in close proximity to one another.

J. Loring Brooks

When he was the Big E’s chief development officer, J. Loring Brooks would get on the phone and raise money when the fair had bad years, usually as a result of weather.

Options, most of which involve keeping visitors in their cars and taking full advantage of the Big E’s sprawling, 59-acre main parking lot, include everything from a drive-in theater — a cost-benefit analysis is currently underway — to concerts to events like the recent ‘Taste of the Big E,’ a gathering that was eye-opening in a number of ways.
Indeed, the Taste, which involved visitors driving onto the Big E property and then staying in their cars to sample some of the food that would have been offered at this year’s fair, drew far more people than organizers were expecting, said Cassidy, adding that traffic was backed up the full length of Memorial Avenue. “People drove for hours to get here, and then they spent hours waiting in line to get in.”

Ultimately, the Taste helped convince Big E organizers that they simply couldn’t control the turnout for this year’s fair, said Cassidy, adding that the event showed that, if you open for the doors for something people want, they will come.

“When we saw the response to the food show, we knew there was no way to control the number of people on the fairgrounds for the Big E,” he explained. “And knowing that really helped make the decision that staging the fair would not in the best interests of the people who came.”

But the Taste also provided ample evidence that different types of revenue-generating events can possibly be staged at the fairgrounds during the pandemic. These won’t generate anything approaching the income the fair did, but they may help limit the flow of red ink in a year no one could have comprehended just five months ago.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season.”

A drive-in theater is among them, said Cassidy, noting that, decades ago, there was one just a half-mile or so down Memorial Avenue, and other one on Riverdale Street. Drive-ins have staged something approaching a comeback during the pandemic, but the startup costs are considerable — $90,000 to buy the camera to project the movies, for example.

“We’ve done a lot of due diligence to discover if there’s a way we could actually turn a profit,” he noted. “That’s one of many things that are on the table.”

Another is the possibility of bringing carnival rides — which are not discussed anywhere in the reopening plan, according to Cassidy — to the fairgrounds. Others include finding new uses for the state buildings (or the grounds outside them), and staging concerts where attendees stay in their cars.

“There are some challenges to putting these on, and some limitations, but they’re a viable option for us,” he noted. “People want to get out to events like this, and a lot of entertainers are dying to work; they’ve lost a lot of opportunities, and they need to work.”

Daunting Challenge

While optimistic that some revenue streams can be created in the midst of the pandemic, Cassidy is also realistic and knows that, collectively, these efforts will generate only a fraction of what a solid Big E would.

“My goal is to get this organization through this very difficult time and run a Big E in 2021 that brings people together again,” said Cassidy, adding, again, that this will be a stern challenge not unlike that faced by a farmer who loses a year’s worth of crops.

Or a small fundraiser that loses its annual bazaar.

Those analogies might not seem appropriate for an organization, and an event, that brings 1.5 million people to the region every year. But for Cassidy, they work, and they illustrate just what he and his staff are up against.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Improved State

By George O’Brien

In many respects, Dr. Andrew Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Dr. Robert Roose

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if nt shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

For every business in Western Mass., there is a story about coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one, as we’ve noted before, is different. But there are many common themes, especially the need to deal effectively — somehow — with those things that one can control, and cope — again, somehow — with the things one can’t control. And that latter list is, unfortunately, long and complicated. It includes everything from navigating the state’s rules (and short timelines) for reopening to losing large and important clients, like MGM Springfield, to not knowing what the future holds. Here are six more COVID stories.

 

Judy Puffer

Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa

Responding to COVID-19 has been hair-raising to say the least   Read More >>

 


 

White Lion Brewery

For this Springfield business, better times are on tap   Read More >>

 


 

Wilbraham Monson Academy

At this school, pandemic has been a real learning experience    Read More >>

 


 

Jerome’s Party Plus

Growing need for tents is helping company through a trying year   Read More >>

 


 

King Ward Bus Lines

Chicopee-based company is still trying to get out
of first gear   Read More >>

 


 

Park Cleaners

‘The place where COVID goes to die’ is still in recovery mode   Read More >>

 


 

Back on the Clock

COVID-19 era presents unique challenge for older workers   Read More >>

Coronavirus

Responding to COVID-19 Has Been Hair-raising to Say the Least

Judy Puffer

Judy Puffer, founder and owner of Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa in Westfield

Judy Puffer knows she’s ready for a vacation. What she doesn’t know is whether she’s going to get one any time soon.

With that, she speaks for the vast majority of business owners and managers coping with everything the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing at them. In short, shutting down the economy was anything but a break for most people in business, reopening was exhausting on many levels, and doing business now is … well, anything but business as usual or what life was like before any of us heard of that now infamous name followed by a number.

“I was working hard behind the scenes — probably harder than when we were open,” said Puffer, founder and owner of Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa in Westfield, who told BusinessWest that the past three and a half months have easily been her most trying in business. And while most all aspects of that business are now open again, getting here wasn’t easy, and challenges remain.

Replaying the tape from the past 100 days or so, she recounted challenges ranging from shortages of needed supplies and encounters with price gouging to lack of guidance from the state and federal governments regarding how and when reopening would occur, to clogged phone lines once the ‘open’ sign was back on the door.

Some of this she could see coming, like those busy phone lines, but most of it she couldn’t, and as she retells her story, one can sense the exhaustion, exasperation, and, yes, relief in her voice now that most of the really hard stuff is in the past tense. Or so she hopes.

Turning the clock back to March 23, Puffer said from the day the shutdown order was given, the focus turned to reopening. And there were challenges everywhere, including this state’s slow, cautious approach — which actually turned out to be a kind of blessing in disguise, although she didn’t use those exact words.

“It was obstacle after obstacle after obstacle just trying to get set up to open. Governor Baker did a great job with all this, but he gave us very little notice; he said, ‘OK, you can open, but you have to have these protocols in place.’ It was like setting up a whole new way to do business, and we weren’t given much time to do it.”

“One of the things that really helped me was being part of the Aveda Corporation,” she said, referring to the Minneapolis-based supplier of high-end health and beauty products that has affiliated with salons across the country. “The company immediately started owner calls, two a week that ran for an hour to an hour and a half; what they would do is get people from a variety of states on these webinars. That was huge because we were getting feedback from people who were opening in Georgia about the challenges they were facing; we were getting people from California who were still closed, talking about what they were doing to get open; we heard from people in Florida, Colorado, Minnesota, New York.

“All this really helped me,” she went on, “because there wasn’t really any guidance from this state from anyone. Getting that help from Aveda was huge because I could then take what these states were doing and put it into my culture and kind of be prepared.”

Elaborating, she referenced everything from shampooing customers — some states allowed it, while others didn’t — to blow-drying hair (again, some allowed it, others didn’t); from taking customers’ temperatures when they walked in the door to learning about a company that came up with plexiglass dividers on wheels to place between stylists’ stations.

The goal was to be as prepared as possible, and all those webinars certainly helped.

What also helped was some advice to think outside the box when it came to needed supplies, which she did after finding that items she ordered in March were simply not going to arrive. She managed to buy some alcohol for cleaning from another business in Westfield, spray bottles from another business owner, and a timely referral from an area dentist on where to procure thermometers in just a few days.

“It was obstacle after obstacle after obstacle just trying to get set up to open,” she recalled. “And we started the minute we closed. Governor Baker did a great job with all this, but he gave us very little notice; he said, ‘OK, you can open, but you have to have these protocols in place.’ It was like setting up a whole new way to do business, and we weren’t given much time to do it.”

The company reopened its salon the day after Memorial Day, with the salon aspects of the businesses opening a few weeks later, under the second stage of phase 2 — again, with very little time to prepare. Now, all but a few of the many services are available, with the rest, like the sauna, to come in phase 4.

Puffer says she’s managed because she was able to learn from others through those webinars and by anticipating what would come next so she could be ready for it.

It’s been a trying — and very tiring — experience. And that’s why she’s more than ready for the vacation she’s not likely to get any time soon. u

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

For This Springfield Business, Better Times Are on Tap

Ray Berry

Ray Berry, seen here at the site of White Lion’s new facility in Tower Square, now under construction, says the pandemic impacted virtually every aspect of his business.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Ray Berry’s White Lion Brewery was deemed an essential business by the state’s governor.

That means it was allowed to remain open when many others had to close amid efforts to flatten the curve and relieve the tension on the region’s healthcare system.

But as any other venture on that large list can attest, ‘essential’ does not mean free of challenges, headaches, anxiety, and uncertainty about what might come next.

Indeed, there’s been plenty of all of those things for this Springfield-based company that was looking toward 2020 as a watershed year, and still is in at least some respects.

Especially with plans for a much-anticipated taproom and accompanying restaurant in Tower Square — specifically the former Spaghetti Freddy’s site — now moving forward again after a halt to most forms of construction during the spring.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product,” he told BusinessWest. “And then … the pandemic hit.”

And it hit hard, impacting the company from “front to back,” as Berry put it.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product. And then … the pandemic hit.”

By that he meant virtually every aspect of the business, from the closure of the hundreds of bars and restaurants (as well as MGM Springfield) that sold White Lion to a halting of construction work on the brewery; from the canceling of high-profile events where the brand had a presence, such as the Holyoke Road Race, to the suspension of the beer gardens the company has hosted in downtown Springfield and Westfield during the summer and fall months.

“It was just like a crash — it all happened at once within a 48-hour period when the state and federal governments stepped in and put restrictions in place,” he noted, adding that, as sales plummeted (only liquor stores, also deemed essential, remained as a distribution point), the company had to lay off some of its employees in stages and figure out how to manage with those who remained.

White Lion has been helped by assistance programs on a number of levels, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to the local Prime the Pump initiative created by the Development Department in Springfield, said Berry, adding that this help, coupled with the remaining business from liquor stores, enabled the company to stay on its feet during those brutal spring months.

And as the state continues to reopen businesses, the outlook for White Lion continues to brighten. Restaurants have reopened across the region, and the state’s casinos have been given the green light to open their doors, although MGM Springfield has not given a specific date when it might do so. And work has resumed on the project in Tower Square, and Berry is projecting that his crew can be in and brewing beer by the end of this month.

“The taproom component is under construction now,” he went on, “and we hope that by mid-August, the taproom piece, as well the kitchen piece, will be complete, and that by the end of August or early September we can start welcoming people into the space.”

Meanwhile, White Lion has recalled most of its seven employees and expects to be “whole” in that regard by late July, he said.

Projecting beyond the next few months is difficult, but Berry believes the company will be able to open its beer gardens in late August or early September, noting that these ventures will be part of phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Looking back — and ahead — Berry, echoing countless other business owners across every sector of the economy, said the pandemic has provided a stern test, one he believes his team is passing through determination and imagination.

“It’s been a challenge in every way you can imagine,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just a predicament that we’re in, and we have to pivot and continue to find ways to remain resourceful and efficient for the benefit of the sustainability of the company.

“I always said that we’re all resilient as people,” he went on. “And there’s always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how long that tunnel may be, but there will be a light, and we’re starting to see some of that that now.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

At This School, Pandemic Has Been a Real Learning Experience

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy was perhaps better prepared for the pandemic than some other institutions, but pivoting to online learning was still a stern challenge.

Brian Easler still recalls the name of the briefing staged by the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago: “The Impending Pandemic.”

Actually, what he remembers even more was the subtitle to the program: “It’s Not a Matter of If, It’s a Matter of When.”

He took the content to heart, and because of that, he believes Wilbraham Monson Academy (WMA), which he serves as head of school, was in some ways better able to handle the arrival of COVID-19 in mid-March.

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually,” he told BusinessWest. “That was a three-day workshop I attended in Washington led by some of the country’s leading epidemiologists. I came back to the school with a lot of good information on how to prepare.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of that warning, the school was well-stocked with what everyone knows now as PPE, and there were plans already in writing for several different scenarios depending on when in the school year the pandemic actually hit.

Such preparation certainly didn’t make the closing of the campus to all but a few international students who simply couldn’t get home, or the transition to remote learning, easy. But it probably made it easier, said Easler, comparing what has transpired over the past several months to a military operation — and he should know, having served in the Army Airborne Rangers.

“You’re getting swept up in something bigger than yourself, where there’s risk involved and a degree of planning,” he explained. “And the decision making — the emergency decision-making process — is much different. During normal times, a decision might be very difficult to make; during an emergency, that decision becomes very easy. We wouldn’t normally turn our school meeting space into a second dining hall — that would be a big decision during normal times. But under these conditions, it was an easy decision to make.”

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually.”

Flashing back to March — and then further back to what he heard all those years ago — Easler said the pandemic did not hit quite like those experts projected it would.

“What tripped up us a little bit is that the CDC was anticipating a pandemic that would be fast-moving,” he explained. “We were prepared for three weeks; that was fine when it came to PPE because all the students went home. But it didn’t help us with transition to an online education program; we had to literally make that up on the fly during spring break.

“In the end, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a fast-moving pandemic, because fast-moving also means really deadly,” he went on. “We were planning for a three- or four-week event, as opposed to a 12-month event, which is more like what we’re looking at. But as a school we saw the signs early, and we paid attention to the right things and the right information. When the students were getting ready for spring break, we told them to bring their laptops and books home with them and to be prepared in case we were not able to return for classes.”

Overall, that transition to remote learning went smoothly, he went on, because of the tight, close-knit nature of the WMA community and the hard work and dedication of staff and students. And these elements are also facilitating efforts to plan for the fall semester, which will start at its traditional time in early September and feature a hybrid model that mixes in-class and remote learning.

“We can simultaneously run classes on campus for the faculty and students who can be on campus, while students and faculty and who cannot be on campus can still synchronistically participate in the same program,” he explained. “It’s fluid, it’s very flexible, and, quite honestly, it’s the future of education anyway. We wish it didn’t take an event like this to move us in this direction, but we’re happy to be moving in this direction — it’s good teaching.”

Looking ahead to the fall, Easler said enrollment, which is traditionally roughly 400 students, remains steady, and, overall, the school may see its numbers rise due to uncertainty among parents about just what the public-school environment might look like come late August or September.

“We’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in local interest,” Easler noted. “I’m speculating, but I think the public-school systems are going to face some significant challenges, and they don’t necessarily have the space resources that we do — we’re structured much like a small college campus with multiple buildings, lots of outdoor space, and a number of spaces that, even though they’re not used as classrooms, can be used as socially distanced classrooms; we have a lot of advantages over public schools.”

Whether this interest locally translates into a bump in enrollment remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that early and effective planning has paid off for this venerable institution.

And it was necessary because the planners of that program in Washington all those years ago were right; it was a question of when, not if, a pandemic would arrive.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Growing Need for Tents Is Helping Company Through a Trying Year

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents his company supplied to the High Street Clinic in Springfield, an example of how the pandemic has created some opportunities while robbing the company of many others.

Greg Jerome didn’t want to get into any specific revenue numbers, but he made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a year to forget for his business, Westfield-based Jerome’s Party Plus.

But he also made it clear that, if not for certain aspects of the pandemic, the numbers would be even worse.

Indeed, for this venture, and others like it, tent rentals are a big part of the portfolio. And while the pandemic has wiped all kinds of tent-worthy events off the calendar — from weddings to graduation parties to town gatherings like ‘taste of’ events — it has also driven considerable need for this item, especially over the past several weeks as sectors of the economy and specific types of businesses began to reopen.

That list includes restaurants, summer camps, and even churches, said Jerome, president of this family-run business that has 200 tents in its inventory, noting that his crews have been kept busy putting up tents in recent weeks, and not so much taking them down, because this year, when a tent goes up, it stays up for a while —perhaps the whole summer and beyond.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now.”

“And that’s just one of the things that makes this year very different,” he told BusinessWest, noting that going back to March, when he first installed a tent for Baystate Health for COVID-19 testing, the company has been involved with some unique undertakings.

However, he made it clear that, while he’s renting out tents, there is still a good supply available in the warehouse. Meanwhile, he’s not renting out much of anything else.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now,” said Jerome, adding that, while there is hope that some of these items may soon get back into circulation, the picture was further clouded by the cancelation of the Big E for 2020.

“The Big E cancellation will be our greatest loss of revenue this year,” said Jerome, noting that the Eastern States Exposition is his biggest customer and the fair is by far his biggest single event. “The cancellation of the fair certainly took the wind out of our sails; we always get excited during the push to install 150 tents and 3,500 chairs.”

For now, Jerome said his company is trying to make the most of the sudden, and still-surging, need for tents as businesses and institutions search for ways to carry on during the pandemic — often by moving activities and services outdoors. And his large inventory, especially when it comes to the bigger models, has certainly helped in this regard.

New and certainly non-traditional tent clients include several restaurants, including Shortstop Bar & Grill in Westfield, Tucker’s in Southwick, Captain Jimmy’s in Agawam, and Masse’s in Chicopee, among many others, as well as Blessed Sacrament Church in Westfield, which held services outdoors for several weeks and still uses a tent for those uncomfortable with going inside. The company has already supplied tents for several nonprofits with summer day programs, including the Greater Westfield YMCA and a few Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as the West Springfield Parks & Recreation Department.

It has also provided tents and other items for a number of drive-in COVID-testing sites operated by Baystate Health, including facilities in Westfield, Ware, Greenfield, and three locations in Springfield. This work goes back to mid-March when the company was hired by Baystate Health to create what Jerome called “cubicles” inside the new triage facility erected just outside the emergency room.

Elaborating, he said the company provided the piping, and another vendor supplied corrugated boards that were attached to the framework to create 33 private spaces.

For the drive-in sites, the company created a model that was eventually used at all six locations, facilities that also included a greeters’ tent and a heated tent-within-a-tent with clear sides that served as a type of nurses’ station.

These intriguing projects have certainly helped, but those thousands of items gathering dust and not seeing the light of day are the bigger story.

And they explain why this is certainly a different kind of year, when the pandemic has generated some business, but taken away so much more.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Chicopee-based Company Is Still Trying to Get Out of First Gear

Dennis King

Dennis King says the pandemic brought bus travel to a near standstill, impacting every type of customer in the company’s portfolio.

Dennis King says he’s experienced a number of subtle, but mostly not-so-subtle, cruelties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting with those low gas prices from a few months back and the fact that no one could really take advantage of them.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go,” said King, president of Chicopee-based King Ward Bus Lines, who used that statement in reference to individuals and families — and just about every one of his customers.

Indeed, ‘nowhere to go’ applied — and still applies — to college and high-school sports teams, an important client base in the company’s portfolio. And to people seeking to visit one of the region’s casinos. And to groups heading to Red Sox games. And to people looking to go to a show in the Big Apple. And to classes going on school field trips.

All those sources of revenue dried up, seemingly overnight, for this family-owned business, said King, adding that the last bus left King Ward’s garages on March 14, and the company’s busiest time of the year was essentially wiped off the calendar.

“And our July is kind of on hold, because we don’t have any trips booked, unless something happens with the casinos,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while the Connecticut gaming palaces are open, they are currently not accepting bus groups. The Bay State’s casinos are set to open early this month, but it isn’t known if they will accept bus groups.

As for the future … it is a giant question mark, he said, noting that, while the Red Sox may start playing again, it’s not known if there will be any fans in the stands. Meanwhile, Saratoga Raceway in New York and countless other venues that people travel to by bus are closed for the summer or the rest of the year. Meanwhile, no one really knows if there will be any high-school and college athletics this coming fall, or any school field trips.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go.”

And then, there’s the Big E, another important source of revenue for the company. It’s been canceled for 2020, leaving another huge hole in the budget that will be difficult to fill .

Faced with idle buses, King said he laid off or furloughed all but a few of his employees back in the spring. He’s looking to bring some office staff and mechanics back on Aug. 1 and hopes things get busier come September.

“We’re banking on college athletics coming back,” he noted. “If there is a light at the end of the tunnel — and that’s if — it would be schools getting back in session.”

As for the casinos, and especially MGM, King Ward was given what was at the time (the summer of 2018) thought to be a game-changing contract to bring people to the casino from various destinations across the region. To say things haven’t worked out as planned would be an understatement, said King, noting that the service — subsidized by MGM at the start — was scaled back only six months after the casino opened in August 2018, and it eventually evolved into a door-to-door service using vans rather than buses, with those choosing this option getting credits for the gaming floor and lunch — what amounted to what King called “a free ride to the casino.”

“But it never really took off,” he said, adding quickly that the service does have the potential to grow, and, like many others, he’s watching and waiting to see if and when the casino will reopen.

There will be a lot of watching and waiting for this company, which, like so many others, is dependent on other businesses and institutions for its livelihood. The pandemic has impacted all of them, and, as noted earlier, the trickle-down, in this specific case, was much more like a torrent.

So much so that King was one of many within the bus industry who ventured to Washington, D.C. several weeks ago to lobby elected leaders for financial assistance for a sector he said is often overlooked within the larger transportation industry.

“I don’t expect to be busy again until Labor Day, unless something happens and the casinos start accepting buses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that ‘busy’ is certainly a relative term in 2020, and there are myriad factors that will determine when, and to what extent, the buses start rolling again.

Still optimistic, despite a gloomy year to date, King said people are calling and asking about service to the casinos.

“People are ready to get out — they’ve been cooped up for a long time,” he said, adding that he hopes there will soon be places to take people.

Gas certainly won’t be as cheap as it was back in March, but all things considered, that’s certainly one of the more subtle cruelties stemming from the pandemic.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

‘The Place Where COVID Goes to Die’ Is Still in Recovery Mode

Rebecca Merigian

Rebecca Merigian says the pandemic, by canceling all kinds of events and shuttering businesses like MGM Springfield, put a huge dent in dry-cleaning volume.

Rebecca Merigian can’t find too many silver linings in this COVID-19 pandemic.

But at least people still need clean shirts for those Zoom meetings. Dress pants? Not so much.

“We’ve seen a lot of shirt business, and we’ve actually picked up quite a few new shirt customers,” said Merigian, owner of Springfield-based Park Cleaners, adding quickly that most of her other steady supplies of business have run dry or mostly dry over the past three and half months.

That includes MGM Springfield, which awarded her a lucrative contract just before it opened nearly two years ago — one that sends uniforms for all its employees her way — that effectively tripled her business volume. The casino closed in mid-March, as did a host of other businesses, and Park Cleaners was just one of many local vendors to take a huge hit when it did.

“We’ve heard from them … they’re starting to bring some employees back, so we’re on call,” she said, adding quickly that she’s not sure how many will be back and just how much work will be coming back in.

But the fallout goes well beyond the casino, said Merigian, second-generation owner of this family business. As large numbers of people continue to work at home she noted, there is far less need to get dress clothes cleaned and pressed. But beyond workplace clothes, the company has been hit by the almost complete stop to many types of events for which people needed clothes cleaned and pressed.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for,” she said, adding that overall, she projects that business if off a whopping 85% to 90% from a year ago, with MGM’s closure being easily the biggest hit.

She has been helped by the stay-at-home trend in a few respects, though; she reports that people are being more diligent about cleaning in general, and especially about cleaning linens, bedding, and other items. Meanwhile, some don’t want to spend their time doing the wash, so they’re sending it in to be cleaned and folded.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for.”

“Cleanliness has definitely been on people’s minds through all of this, and that’s helped keep us going,” she said, adding that she’s also noted an uptick in work cleaning uniforms for first responders, in part because there’s a nice discount forwarded to those frontline workers.

But even healthcare-related business is down, she noted, adding that many practices have only recently reopened and are seeing fewer patients. So if they dropped off items to be cleaned twice a week before the pandemic, now they’re down to once a week.

In the meantime, there are now a host of new protocols and safety precautions to follow at this business that has, informally, marketed itself as “the place where COVID goes to die,” Merigian said.

“It’s like starting over or starting a new business, with a very uncertain future — the risks are very high,” she said when asked to explain what the past several months have been like. “There are new rules, and we have to make sure that anyone who deals with contaminated laundry is fully prepared; we’ve had to change the way we do business, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

Like many business owners we spoke with, Merigian said that, while the focus has been on companies reopening — and that’s important — the issue isn’t whether they’re doing business, it’s whether they can make any money if they are. And for ventures in many sectors, the quick answers are either ‘no’ or ‘yes, but not enough.’

And there are obvious questions about when those answers will change.

Merigian says she’s heard from officials at MGM who tell her that some employees will be coming back ‘soon,’ and that some business will follow. But how much business remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, questions remain about when gatherings like weddings, business functions, and even funerals will return. And working from home may become a long-term proposition for many workers — if not something approaching permanent.

But, like most business we’ve spoken with in recent weeks, Merigian is looking optimistically toward fall and the possible return of something approaching ‘normal.’

“The fall definitely looks good, so long as COVID subsides or they find a vaccine,” she said. “I see a very good fall, but then I tend to be optimistic.

“It’s a waiting game,” she went on, referring specifically to MGM, but also to all those other events — and sources of business — she mentioned at the top. Until weddings and funerals resume and more workers return to the offices they left in early March, generating business will be a challenge.

In the meantime, at least people will need clean shirts for all those Zoom meetings.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Back on the Clock

By Mark Morris

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says companies should regard older workers as valuable assets that can help them ramp up.

David Cruise knows how to help people navigate tough economic times, but admits COVID-19 is a different kind of event.

“Quite frankly, we’re doing this live,” he told BusinessWest. “We have no playbook.”

Since February, more than 1 million workers in Massachusetts have lost jobs as a result of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, said nearly 35,000 workers filed new unemployment claims between February and May in Hampden County alone. One group in particular, workers age 55 and older, accounted for 20% of those new claims.

Job loss due to COVID-19 presents particular challenges for the 55-plus crowd. On top of the concern about finding a new job as an older worker, many worry that, because of their age, they face a higher risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus.

Cruise expects many older workers will have an opportunity to go back to their prior jobs, but it may take time for that to happen. Because COVID-19 is still actively infecting people, he noted, career conversations with older workers must take into account a “fear factor” many have about returning to work.

“Our staff are trained to help people develop their career plans, and while they can be supportive, they’re not psychologists,” he said, adding that it can be a tough decision whether or not to return to work — one that’s ultimately up to each individual.

Cruise expects there will be more job search activity in July by older workers, but their prospects will depend largely on how successful the phased reopening has been and if employers are ready to start hiring again.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered. It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

As a first step, he recommends workers talk to the employer they recently separated from to see what kind of opportunities might be there, even in a different role. If it’s not possible to return to that employer, openings in other industries might be available.

“There are certain industries where I think older workers will find themselves in significant demand, if not full-time, certainly part-time,” he said.

He also thinks many people will seek out training in new fields, including ones that allow working from home. Those who have health concerns about returning to the workplace may find their next opportunity in a remote job. Cruise said this would be good fit for older people with a good work ethic, time-management skills, and self-discipline.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered,” he said. “It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

With so many Baby Boomers retiring, experienced workers are wanted and needed, according to Tricia Canavan, president and CEO of United Personnel. Hiring managers recognize that workers in their 50s still have 10 to 15 years of good work ahead of them.

“Employers are interested in people who bring a good work ethic, have skills, and are reliable,” Canavan said. “We have no issue placing older workers because our clients want employees who have those characteristics.”

Cruise advises older workers to think about who in their personal and professional networks are in a position to help them, or at least provide some guidance to finding work. “It’s essential for people to stay connected and to not leave any person untapped who might be helpful, even your dentist or your barber.”

Maintaining technology skills are another key for older workers. If a person was using technology before being laid off, Cruise said their skills are most likely in good shape. On the other hand, those who did not use technology in their job and now only use it socially may want to consider training to boost their skills and expand their job prospects.

“Technology keeps changing, and it’s possible that we all may need to develop new skills in the way we work because of the pandemic,” he added.

Because these skills can be easily updated, Canavan said a person’s “tech savvy” should not be a deal breaker when they are looking for work. “The hiring philosophy I share with my clients is: hire smart, hire the right person for the job. You can teach someone how to use Slack, but finding someone with initiative and the right mindset is harder to teach.”

When to Return?

For now, many careers are up in the air, at least until the state’s reopening progresses further. And in many cases, some are choosing not to return to work immediately.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the DOL encouraged some flexibility with unemployment claims to make it easier to comply with social-distancing guidelines. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) put in place emergency regulations that allowed those who could return to work to keep receiving unemployment benefits for personal health reasons or concern about the health of others in their home, even if they had not been diagnosed with COVID-19.

That emergency regulation expired on June 14. As shuttered businesses begin to reopen, workers who are offered their jobs by their prior employer are expected to accept them. Refusal — unless that refusal is deemed reasonable — would mean losing their unemployment benefits and termination by their employer. The DUA said determining what’s reasonable involves a fact-specific inquiry into the person’s health situation and whether they work with or near other employees or the public.

In addition to fear, finances are another disincentive to return to work. Those who lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic could apply for traditional unemployment benefits, which cover roughly 50% of a person’s average earnings. Then in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which added $600 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits.

Business owners who depend on seasonal workers during the spring and summer months have told BusinessWest they are having trouble filling open positions because of the generous payments from the CARES Act. They say it creates a situation where people can make more money unemployed than if they took the seasonal jobs that are available. Unless it’s reauthorized by Congress, however, the CARES Act is scheduled to expire at the end of July.

A company’s ability to reopen — and quickly get back up to speed — may depend in part on how they acted before COVID-19 hit. Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said some of her organization’s member companies are easily getting people to come back to work because of a well-established culture that keeps people engaged.

“The leaders have stayed in touch with people, they respect their employees, and they’re trying to do everything they can to create a safe environment for them,” she said, adding that, when employees are engaged, they want to be back at work because there is a mutual trust.

It’s a different story when a company has not communicated well and has allowed distrust to take root.

“For example, if a company has done a shoddy job of keeping up their facilities before COVID hit, why should employees trust them with proper cleaning and sanitizing now?”

Canavan echoed the importance of paying attention to worker safety. After visiting several manufacturing clients, she was impressed with the transformation they’ve done to comply with pandemic-related guidelines.

“They’ve completely retooled their facilities to ensure social distancing, and when that’s not possible, they’re putting up physical barriers,” she said. “Many have extensive policies in place regarding hygiene at work, frequency of washing your hands, and even how to get water out of the water cooler.”

Added Value

The impact of COVID-19 on older workers’ employment is something Cruise predicts will become clearer over the next six months. He is concerned that not just older workers, but younger ones — in the 18-to-24 group — may be more likely to permanently lose their jobs due to the pandemic than other groups.

With three and even four generations in some workplaces, Canavan stressed the opportunity to take a collaborative approach and learn from each other. “The members of my team are of different ages, and they all contribute different strengths based on their life and work experience,” she said.

Might companies use COVID-19 as an excuse to shed older workers? Wise said a few might, but many companies will not because they need the institutional knowledge that older individuals bring to the job. She said very few companies have effective succession planning or make a concerted effort to transfer knowledge, so they need experienced workers to get them back up to speed.

“Whether it’s an operator who knows the ins and outs of a machine or a salesperson who knows what certain customers like, companies need these people to come back to the workplace.”

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Opinion

Going back to the early days of the pandemic, one of the overriding questions on the minds of many in this region, and especially its business community, was: will there be a Big E?

On Monday, we finally learned the answer: no.

In many ways, that verdict was not unexpected. Looking at the situation objectively, one had to wonder how organizers could possibly stage a fair that draws more than 100,000 people on a good day and keep not only these visitors safe, but also the workers, vendors, and area residents. It just didn’t seem doable, even to those who really, as in really, wanted the Big E to happen.

And that’s a large constituency, especially within the business community, where many different kinds of ventures benefit greatly from the 17-day fair and the 1.5 million people drawn to it annually. That list includes hotels, restaurants, tent-rental companies, transportation outfits, food vendors, breweries, and many, many more. These businesses have already lost so much to the pandemic, and now they’ve suffered perhaps the biggest loss of all.

Indeed, the year-long (at least) challenge of surviving the pandemic just became a little sterner for all kinds of businesses within the 413.

And the community loses out as well. The Big E isn’t just an annual event, it’s a century-old tradition that has become part of the fabric of this region.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

The silence on Memorial Avenue this September will be deafening. And the blow to the region will be significant.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Destination Unknown

John Doleva

John Doleva says the Basketball Hall of Fame still has a big, important year on tap, even if the schedule has shifted quite a bit.

As he talked with BusinessWest about his industry and his family’s hotel group, Kishore Parmar kept glancing back and forth between the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Hadley and the parking lot outside.

He did so with a look that blended something approaching disbelief — still, after roughly three months of the same view — with resignation.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is,” he explained. “If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

Instead, there would be maybe six or eight people staying in this 71-room hotel just off Route 9 that night. The lobby was empty. Just a few vehicles dotted the parking lot, all of which Parmar could identify as belonging to staff.

This view is a metaphor of sorts for what hotels have been experiencing since mid-March, something none of those in it have ever seen before. Business for the Pioneer Valley Hotel Group — which also includes a La Quinta by Wyndham in Springfield, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton in Hadley, Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow, and Hadley Farms Meeting House in Hadley — is off roughly 80% from what it was a year ago. And the numbers would be even worse if some first responders didn’t stay in these hotels in the early days of the pandemic.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing is that Parmar doesn’t know if, when, or for how long things will get appreciably better.

But while the view for all hoteliers in the region is similarly troubling, there are some signs of life in the broad tourism and hospitality sector. Indeed, many area restaurants are now open for outdoor seating, and a good number of them are creating intriguing spaces as they welcome back customers that have been relegated to takeout for more than three months.

Signs at the Hall of Fame

Signs at the Hall of Fame will use players’ wingspans to send a message about standing six feet apart — or, in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case, more than seven feet.

Meanwhile, some tourist attractions are moving closer to opening their doors. The state’s casinos are eyeing a late June opening — although MGM Springfield has not committed to a specific date — while the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is in the final stages of a $23 million renovation project, is targeting July 1 as its reopening date.

President and CEO John Doleva isn’t sure what kind of turnout that opening will boast, although he told BusinessWest the Hall will be aggressive in marketing what was supposed to be a high point in a year of many high points.

“In January, I sat down with the senior staff and said, ‘first of all, this is going to be the greatest class ever — Kobe (Bryant), Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. That was before Kobe passed away, which was pretty unbelievable,” he recalled. “On top of that, we had a 100% new museum, top to bottom, that was going to open up on May 1” — not to mention a commemorative coin from the U.S. Mint, to be unveiled at the Final Four in early April.

The coin was eventually released, but the Final Four was cancelled, the 2020 induction was moved into 2021, and, who knows what the July 1 grand opening will bring? But Doleva is optimistic.

“The good news is, all these things are going to happen; it’s not like we lost them. They’re just not on the time frame we thought they would be,” he said. “But we do feel that people want to do stuff — but how will they decide?”

That equation has surely changed in the year of COVID-19.

“People always ask, ‘what am I going to see, what does it cost, how far away from my house is it, and what kind of experience is it?’” he noted. “But kind of rising to the top is, ‘what kind of procedures and protocols does an organization have in place to ensure my family’s health and safety?’

“Safety is paramount at any tourism destination at this point,” Doleva added. “You’ve got to communicate not the traditional marketing of ‘we’re fun and we’re affordable; your family’s going to have a great time and talk about it forever.’ It’s also, ‘you can come here and feel safe — and here’s everything that we’re doing.’”

And that presents an opportunity in a region rich in attractions that are often taken for granted by locals. There are indications that, due to real concerns about traveling in anything but a car, area destinations might get a boost from those looking to take a ‘staycation,’ rather than typical vacation, and that includes visiting sites where they feel safe.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is. If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

But a host of challenges remain for this sector, and questions remain about everything from how hotels will serve guests breakfast to whether there will be a Big E — which benefits a number of businesses in this sector — and what that fair might look like. But as tourism lurches back to something resembling life, there’s plenty of hope in the air, too.

Animal Attraction

It was opening day at the Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center in Springfield — a full nine weeks later than usual — but Sarah Tsitso liked what she saw.

“People are definitely responding,” said Tsitso, the zoo’s executive director, as guests took advantage of a new timed reservation system that, at least for now, lets only 10 people in every 10 minutes, to promote social distancing. “It’s great seeing families and children so happy being out seeing the animals, and the animals are happy to see their friends come back. We close the first week of November. That’s a long time to be closed to the public.”

The key word is ‘public.’

“The zoo is open 365 days a year for the animals. They live here, and they’re fed and get vet care whether it’s winter or summer. We rely on the visitor season to generate revenue for the months we’re closed.”

Those nine lost weeks cost the center some $200,000 in revenues, losing not just gate receipts but educational programs, a robust schedule of spring field trips, and three major events typically held annually between March and July.

“That’s a pretty huge loss,” she said. “We’re still not sure what’s happening with summer camps, which would start around June 25. We’re not sure what that’s going to look like.”

Whatever shape the summer takes, it will be better than the waiting game to reopen, during which the zoo managed to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep staff working and developed the protocols now in place, from a mask requirement and sanitizer stations to additional barrier fences and a one-way path around the grounds.

“It was certainly challenging, but manageable,” Tsitso said. “The biggest change was probably the timed ticketing system. But we were quickly able to identify a system that works for us and get it up and functioning. We were just waiting for the green light.”

The light turned decidedly red for Peter Pan Bus Lines back in March, CEO Peter Picknelly told BusinessWest.

“We ran for a few weeks once the pandemic hit, but within two and a half weeks, sales declined over 90%. So we shut down for about eight weeks,” he said. “Shutting down was one of the hardest things we have ever done.”

When the buses did start rolling again earlier this month, making limited runs to major destination cities, Picknelly was pleasantly surprised. “Activity has been pretty good,” he said after the first week, adding that the second week was looking even busier. “There’s a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, and that’s what we help people do.”

One issue is that destination cities like Boston and New York are still reopening in their own way, and once the big cities fully open, he expects more of a rush. For now, the company is getting its “sea legs back,” he said, and making sure everyone on the bus feels safe.

Kishore Parmar

Kishore Parmar says the most unsettling thing about the pandemic, from the hotel industry’s perspective, is not knowing when business might get better.

To that end, Peter Pan has improved its contactless boarding procedures while introducing PermaSafe, a CDC-approved product that purifies passenger cabin air while making interior surfaces anti-microbial and self-sanitizing. The company also uses electrostatic handheld sprayers to sanitize and disinfect the buses every night. In addition, passengers are required to wear a face mask at all times, and employees have been issued personal protective equipment, including face masks and hand sanitizer.

“Here’s my theory — nobody wants to get sick; nobody wants to get someone else sick,” Picknelly said. “But nobody wants to be cooped up any longer, either. A lot of what we do is leisure travel, but people also have to travel for medical appointments, for school, for business. There’s not only a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, there’s also a need.”

But, they also need to feel safe, he said. “As time goes on, people will be more and more comfortable getting out. I’m confident this is going to end way sooner than people think. And I think any smart business person knows, if you want customers to come in — and come back — you’ve got to make them feel safe and comfortable.”

At the hall of fame, protocols in place for the opening include regular disinfection of all frequently touched surfaces, complimentary stylus pens to use on interactive touchscreens, an electrostatic disinfectant air-mist system, and … well, the list is frankly too long to detail all of it here.

“We’ll have the clean team out in the museum unlike ever before,” Doleva said. “People will see it in action.”

And it’s important they see it, he added.

“People are clamoring to get out. They’re looking for the safe places that are paying attention — but I definitely think there is pent-up demand.”

Some will want to be among the early visitors, he added, while others will take a wait-and-see approach. “It will be a short summer, but we are going to showcase the museum. This is a grand-opening summer, and everyone has the opportunity to come here.”

Room for Improvement

Parmar told BusinessWest that, for his group’s hotels, and most all facilities not in the shadow of ski resorts, winter is a slow, difficult time.

And what he fears is that, unless some things change, 2020 might take on the look of a 12-month-long winter in terms of occupancy rates and overall vibrancy.

“We might go from winter … right into another winter,” he said, adding that July, at this moment, doesn’t look much better than June, and the rest of summer and fall amount to a giant question mark.

The company has essentially seen its busiest season wiped off the calendar, losing college commencements, visits to area colleges and universities, business meetings, weddings, bridal and baby showers, and much more.

This certainly isn’t what the company was expecting in 2020, a year that began with hopes and expansion plans. Indeed, this is the first full year for the Homewood Suites facility, opened just over a year ago and off to a solid start, and there were plans to create a new hotel on the site of the old Howard Johnson’s on the Mohawk Trail in Greenfield and completely renovate the Roadway Inn in Hadley, which is currently closed.

That’s were. “We had a plate full for this coming year, and we were very excited about it, but then we had it all taken away,” Parmar said, adding that those projects have been put on ice, and the company is essentially trying to make the most out of what will be a trying year.

The company applied for and received a PPP loan and used it to bring its employees back to work after many were furloughed earlier in the spring. The problem now is that the money is running out, and business certainly hasn’t come back — as evidenced by the parking lot and the front lobby. Parmar said there is little if any leisure business at this point, and also little if any business travel, as companies continue to rely on Zoom meetings.

“We’re bootstrapped right now — we’re counting every penny, we’re counting every dollar,” he said. “We’re doing our best to reduce every cost there is.”

While hotels might continue to struggle, however, many in the tourism sector feel they will see more ‘staycation’ action than usual — particularly if out-of-state travelers are put off by Massachusetts’ suggested (but not required) 14-day quarantine when entering.

“If someone from Enfield wants to come to the Hall of Fame, they’re not going to take a 15-day trip to see a one-day experience. So that’s got to be clarified,” Doleva said. “I do think it is an impediment to tourism. People see ‘suggested,’ they think ‘required.’ So we’re hoping for some clarification because it affects us, and it affects hotels, restaurants, and other attractions.

Doleva said he never foresaw what 2020 would bring when he began a two-year term as board chair for the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau back in November. But he’s been impressed with the planning the GSCVB has done to hit the ground running once tourism ramps up again this summer.

“We have a very aggressive plan to advertise the region like never before, the attractions especially,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve never brought people together the way we are now. That’s a blessing in disguise — this is bringing the different factions of the tourism business tighter than ever.”

As chair, he also hopes elected leaders develop a greater appreciation of the impact of the tourism and hospitality industry and the numbers of people it employs, as well as the taxes it generates — and make investments in supporting tourism statewide over the long term.

“I think, if we look for the silver lining, this has caused us all to step back and focus on how we’re all interdependent, and when one improves, we all improve,” he added. “We know we have something special out here. It’s a nice place to visit, we’ve got a lot of things to do, and the industry is very focused on safety. Now we need to move forward together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Breath of Fresh Air

Peter Picknelly, right, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, right, and Andy Yee, two of the co-owners of the Student Prince, stand in a crowded Fort Street a few days after the restaurant reopened.

Lisa Pac has been brewing beer for almost two decades, eventually growing a home-brewing enterprise into Skyline Beer Co., a restaurant, craft beer and wine bar, bakery, and home-brewing supply store in Westfield.

In December, she and business partners Dana Bishop and Daniel Osella realized a dream of moving into a much larger space in the Whip City — a 4,500-square-foot restaurant, tasting room, and 10-barrel brewery on five scenic acres. Early receipts were very strong, and things were looking up.

And then March happened.

“At first, when COVID hit, we shut down for a couple days and had to reassess what we were going to do,” Pac recalled, adding that they told staffers to give them a chance to figure out a plan to stay operational and keep them working. “It was scary — we didn’t know what all this meant.”

But a plan did emerge. Pac and her team went to work simplifying and streamlining the menu before launching a robust takeout business, among other activities.

“It gave us a chance to re-evaluate a lot of things. We had such a strong start, but we got the rug pulled out from under us, so we were chasing our tails. But we were able to catch up with the day-to-day stuff, the construction stuff. It gave us the chance to breathe a little bit and finish up projects we were doing. We also came up with some top-notch beer recipes.”

Most important, while Skyline had to lay off about a third of its staff, a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan allowed it to keep many employed, albeit with different responsibilities; servers shifted to production in the brewery, for example.

“The staff has been awesome, doing what they have to do to help us get here,” Pac said. “They were eager to work. Ever since getting the loan, we did it backwards — we have this staff that’s willing to do whatever we need, so what can we have them do?”

Eventually, Skyline was able to bring back about 90% of its staff; only three or four didn’t return, but the company has created new positions in the brewery, and actually has right around the employee count it had before the pandemic hit. And now that restaurants are allowed to serve patrons outdoors, 14 tables dot an outdoor area, while a major construction project on the back patio awaits Wetlands Commission approval to move forward. “We’ve got some big plans for back there,” Pac said.

Skyline Beer Co

Skyline Beer Co. partners Dana Bishop, Lisa Pac, and Daniel Osella.

Munich Haus in Chicopee has been planning for the reopening as well. Back in March, owner Patrick Gottschlicht recalled, “we shut down completely given all the unknowns surrounding everything. Then we decided to reopen for curbside service, to take the first step in the direction of getting reopened — and our to-go business was more than it has been in the past. A lot of regular customers who hadn’t been able to dine in for a while were excited to get curbside.”

After weeks of takeout only — helped by a PPP loan that got some employees back on the payroll — the German restaurant recently opened its large, outdoor Biergarten, as well as its smaller front deck, and packed them in — well, maybe ‘packed’ isn’t the right word, considering some tables were removed to maintain safe distancing, but the place was booked solid its first week.

“With the big biergarten and the deck, we took advantage of the nice weather. And I think people, with all the restrictions lately, are excited to get back out and get some semblance of normalcy. People are eager to get back out into the world.”

“We were excited to reopen, after being shut down for a while there,” Gottschlicht told BusinessWest. “With the big Biergarten and the deck, we took advantage of the nice weather. And I think people, with all the restrictions lately, are excited to get back out and get some semblance of normalcy. People are eager to get back out into the world.”

Raring to Go

‘Eager’ is also a word that applies to Peter Picknelly when BusinessWest caught up with him two days before the Student Prince & the Fort were set to reopen, with Fort Street in downtown Springfield closed to traffic to accommodate tents, lighting, live music, and anything else that might transform an outdoor dining experience into something a bit more.

“I’m really charged up about what’s happening on Fort Street,” said Picknelly, one one of the establishment’s owners. “We’ve got our menu, all the Fort specialties, and we’ll have entertainment Thursday through Sunday night. It’ll be a downtown festival — we’ve got lights, flags, beer wagons … it’s going to be really cool. It’ll be like a German carnival out there, a mini-Octoberfest between now and Labor Day.”

But one that, at least at first, requires a shift in diner — and server — behavior. The restaurateurs we spoke with talked about table spacing (at least six feet), 90-minute limits on seatings, regular sanitizing practices, and making sure patrons wear a mask, except when sitting down at the table.

“We’ve got the tables about eight feet apart, and people have to wear masks once they leave their table,” Pac said, adding that the team is sanitizing every pen that comes back in, while wearing gloves to boot. In short, she’s balancing guests’ enthusiasm to be dining out with their safety.

“People are champing at the bit right now. That’s why it’s important to make sure we’re safe,” she added. “People do get caught up in the moment — they want to take their masks off and talk to people at another table. I’m a social person; I want to talk to everyone, so I’m trying to keep myself away from the front. It’s a natural thing — we want to talk and hang out. But we’ll constantly remind people about the masks.”

Gottschlicht’s team has been equally diligent. “We’ve already got outdoor seating, which is a big challenge for some restaurants that don’t already have it,” he said. “We went over all the government and DPH restrictions for reopening and implemented all those, and now we’re starting to work on the indoor phase — finding out what restaurants will look like and developing a plan for that.”

At press time, state guidance on indoor dining was still forthcoming, but restaurants are doing their best to plan based on what they’re hearing and common-sense predictions.

The front deck at Munich Haus

The front deck at Munich Haus, as well as the large patio known as the Biergarten, opened recently to very solid business.

“Until the guidance is released, we’re trying to put together a game plan for that, so we’re somewhat ahead of it,” Gottschlicht added.

Picknelly expects indoor seating to begin very soon, perhaps at 25% capacity, though he hopes for 50%. “Until then, the outdoor scene is going to be great.”

He’s just as excited to reopen the White Hut as well, the venerable West Springfield landmark that has begun its second life as a food truck before opening the doors to a renovated indoor space on July 4. And he knows others are pumped, too, to have a variety of dining choices, both casual and takeout, suddenly spring back to life.

“I love my wife’s cooking, but I want to get back out to restaurants,” he said. “There’s a whole other feel to it. It’s entertaining, it’s fun — let someone else serve and do the dishes.”

Next Course

To be sure, restaurants are still dealing with significant challenges, from carving out alfresco seating where none exists to limiting the number of people they can serve to the question of meetings and banquets. Gottschlicht said some event bookings for later this year at Munich Haus have been canceled, while others are waiting to see what restrictions might emerge — for instance, whether they’ll be faced with 50% occupancy or be able to pack the house.

We’re hoping to get some guidance on what we can and can’t do,” he told BusinessWest. “Some want to reschedule, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.”

At the very least, though, dishes are pouring out of the kitchen to guests who are happy just to be getting out of the house.

“It’s a great feeling to get the place back open, and get the staff back to work, too. We’re going on our 16th year, so we’ve put a lot of blood and sweat into Munich Haus and plan to be around a lot longer. I was born in Germany — we’re proud of what we do, of being an authentic German restaurant. It’s definitely a good feeling being back open.”

Pac is feeling good too — partly because business is back up to maybe 90% of its former pace, considering the outdoor dining, continued takeout service, and the brewery.

“I would never wish it on anybody,” she said of the almost three-month economic shutdown, “but I can’t complain because it helped us dial in and gave us a minute to get on the same page with everything. It’s been a wild ride.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

The Grass Is Greener

By Mark Morris

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says the pandemic has definitely contributed to a spike in landscaping business.

On his daily commute from Wilbraham to East Longmeadow, Dave Graziano has never seen lawns as green as they are this year — even with the recent lack of rain. And as project manager for the landscape division of Graziano Gardens, he knows a thing or two about green lawns.

“More than ever, people are working on their homes and their yards,” Graziano said. “Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

BusinessWest spoke with several area landscape contractors who say their residential business is booming this year. With people spending so much time at home, yard projects — both large and small — that were delayed in the past are now getting done.

“There’s definitely a correlation between COVID-19 and a spike in our business,” said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping. “People are stuck at home and want to enhance their lifestyle, so they are improving their yards.”

For some homeowners, the scale of yard projects has gone far beyond replacing some shrubs or reseeding a lawn. Contractors are finding most of their business has shifted to hardscape projects, such as stone patios, stairways, and outdoor kitchens. Projects like these can cost around $20,000, with larger and more elaborate designs exceeding $100,000. For one project, Campedelli and his crew are working on a “massive patio” with an overhang attached to the house to shelter a bar underneath.

“We’re installing a TV with surround-sound speakers, as well as a firepit so they can chill out next to their pool.”

Where patios already exist, Campedelli said some homeowners want to rip out the existing structures and start fresh with new construction, while others enhance what they have by adding a firepit or accent lighting.

According to Gary Courchesne, president of G & H Landscaping, accent lighting has been in high demand in recent years. Also known as low-voltage accent lighting, it’s the subtle lighting that can enhance a home’s aesthetics, safety. and security.

“Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

“As important as the safety and security features are, about 90% of the time, people choose accent lighting for aesthetic reasons,” Courchesne explained.

Improvements like lighting help owners to better enjoy their property now, while boosting curb appeal if they ever want to sell. Real-estate website Homes.com estimates that, when homeowners install accent lighting, they can recoup about 50% of their investment to the eventual resale value of the home. The return on investment for patios and decks can range from 30% to 73%.

No matter what project homeowners choose, they all have the same objective: low maintenance. Courchesne said some of his customers have asked for “no-maintenance” shrubs. While those don’t exist, he and his crew design layouts with reduced maintenance in mind.

“For example, instead of filling around the shrubs with mulch, which needs replacing every year, we’ll use stones,” he said. “People are definitely leaning toward designs that look nice and are easy to maintain.” 

Graziano echoed that point, noting that, when he replaces old shrubs with new ones, his customers want landscapes that are easy to care for and do not require lots of maintenance. “Everyone has busy lives, and they don’t want to be burdened with spending too much time on yard care,” he said.

For many years, sprinkler systems have been an effective way to maintain lawns with minimal effort and continue to be popular this year, especially newer, more efficient models.

“People who did not have sprinkler systems are getting them installed,” Courchesne said, “and those who own systems but haven’t run them much are using them more this year.”

Growing Revenues

While landscape companies are busy with plenty of projects, it’s not exactly business as usual.

Each day starts with making sure workers have the proper face masks and other personal protective equipment they’ll need for that day. In the past, a crew might ride together to a job, but state guidelines now mandate one person per vehicle, and shared equipment must be disinfected in between users. Contractors have adjusted to all these extra steps because they are grateful to be considered an essential business.

That essential status wasn’t a given at first, though. Back in March, when Gov. Charlie Baker released the first round of essential industries that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape industry was not explicitly listed. The guidelines allowed for some interpretation that would include them, such as support of essential construction projects.

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

So a coalition of landscapers, golf-course superintendents, and related professionals formed the Green Industry Alliance of Massachusetts (GIA) and appealed to the governor to specifically identify landscaping as an essential industry. The group’s argument centered around the short time window that spring presents for fertilizing, as well as controlling mosquitos, ticks, and other invasive species. The GIA also noted that many homeowners who are physically unable to take on lawn care depend on outside companies to maintain their property.

Shortly after the appeal, the governor declared landscapers essential providing they follow CDC guidelines.

Courchesne said the initial confusion of whether or not they could start their season resulted in some starts and stops in the beginning, but his company is now up to full speed and adjusting to the new protocols.

“Normally, we start the day with our full staff gathered around a conference table,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in smaller groups out in our yard, so even if there was an infection, it’s not spreading to everyone.” 

In early March, before the governor had ruled on landscapers’ status, Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping, temporarily closed his business over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“We closed for three weeks to make sure all our people were healthy,” he said, noting that this decision put his business behind in some of its early spring projects. “We’re scrambling now to get bark mulching done and plant seasonal flowers and such.”

Campedelli said his company also lost some work early in the spring due to delays caused by COVID-19, but he understands the changing nature of the virus and the guidelines. “We stay current on the latest requirements regarding COVID-19, and we make sure to share those with our workers as they happen.”

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

Since the go-ahead in March, Campedelli said his company is so busy, he would hire 10 more people if he could. Having enough workers is also a constant challenge for Omasta, who has 30 workers on staff but would like to add six or eight more.

Several contractors said one particular challenge in finding workers this year involves the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which allows unemployed workers to collect an additional $600 per week through late July. While they all agree the program has merits and is important to help those who are struggling, they also point out that the additional $600 a week keeps some people on the sidelines who would otherwise be working.

Sometimes, filling open jobs is difficult because of the nature of the work. Graziano said the industry has been the same for more than 50 years, and it’s not for everyone. “Either you like to put a shovel in the ground, move mulch around and install pavers, or you don’t,” he told BusinessWest.

A typical landscaping season can run nine months, with three winter months dedicated to snow plowing. As Omasta pointed out, the length of the season is always tied to weather, which determines how early they start in the spring and how late they can work in the fall.

Even when the season is in full swing, rain is a constant variable to consider, Courchesne added. “There was one week in May when, out of six work days, it rained four of them.”

Home Games

When the rain clears, people are looking to get outside, but they’re not ready to stray too far. Until there is more certainty about the coronavirus, many are choosing not to go away on vacation.

Because of this uncertainty, Omasta said, his customers have made the decision to stay put rather than spending a week at the Cape.

“They’re telling me they want to stay home and work on some improvement projects so they can enjoy their backyard this summer,” he noted.

It’s not unusual for homeowners to want a big improvement project and then procrastinate on making the final decision. Courchesne said this year seems different.

“I’m seeing people with less hesitation than normal in their purchasing attitude,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re home, so let’s do this.’”

Because more people are home, even working from there, he added, they are realizing their home is not such a bad place — and they want to make it even better.

And that has made this a different kind of year for this industry.

Coronavirus

Supply Chain of Events

Supply chain.

That’s a two-word phrase that had rarely made its way into the lexicon of most area residents before the COVID-19 pandemic; it was generally assumed that the shelves in the stores would be crammed with product — because they always had been.

But in a year when there have been shortages of cleaning supplies, surgical masks, beef, fish, hair coloring, paper towels, ice cream, rice, frozen pizza, and, yes, toilet paper — a product that has become a metaphor for a crisis — people can no longer take supply chain, and full shelves, for granted.

This has been a learning experience — on a number of levels.

So too for those who work to keep the shelves stocked. For them, it’s a time of relationship building, finding new ways of doing things, and providing ongoing proof that, while the supply chain has been bent — severely and repeatedly — it hasn’t, in their minds, been broken.

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows,” said Michael D’Amour, chief operating officer at Springfield-based Big-Y, the fourth-generation, family-owned grocery chain. “But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Michael D’Amour

Michael D’Amour

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows. But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Doug Baker, vice president of Industry Relations for the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) agreed.

“Almost weekly we’re getting back numbers, and we’re still seeing double-digit growth across many categories — and you can’t have double-digit growth if inventory is not available,” he said, referring to specific product lines ranging from cleaning supplies to frozen foods. “It’s just a matter of matching inventory with consumer demand, and that’s been the challenge.

“And that’s why we’ve seen shortages — because that inventory output hasn’t been able to rise to the level of consumer demand,” he went on, adding that recent numbers show a slowing of demand that is giving many producers at least a chance to catch up.

In March, on average, the industry was seeing 35% to 40% increases in overall sales volume, Baker said, while in late May, the number was closer to 20% to 25%.

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent,” he explained. “But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that, as May turned to June, a good number of people were still in something approaching lockdown mode. They were eating most meals at home because restaurants were only open for takeout. They were also still working at home and, therefore, eating lunch at home. Meanwhile, children are home from school, and college students are home as well. This all adds up to people buying more at the supermarket.

As phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan takes effect on June 8, restaurants will be opening for curbside dining, and preschools and day camps will be reopening. And as more and more people go back to their offices — the ones they left in March for space on their dining room table — the ratio of food dollars spent out of the home will start to rise higher.

How long it will take to reach pre-COVID levels — when 54 cents of each dollar was spent outside the home — remains to be seen, said Baker. However, what is certain is that the situation is fluid at best and it could change in a hurry if cases start to surge, a second wave arrives, and people start spending more time working — and eating — at home.

Doug Baker

Doug Baker

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent. But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

Meanwhile, this new normal has essentially forced chains like Big Y to forge new alliances with suppliers, said D’Amour, noting that as restaurants, colleges, and schools of all kinds closed earlier this year, this created an enormous surplus of inventory, but put the demand on grocery stores, while also creating an opportunity to redeploy goods and resources to grocery retail to meet demand and reduce waste.

One such alliance, one that typifies how suppliers and grocers are working together to forge solutions, involves Little Leaf Farms in Shirley, a local partner and grower of lettuce that saw demand decline dramatically as schools and restaurants closed a few months back and was looking for new opportunities to sell product and reduce the kind of waste that was seen almost nightly on major news broadcasts.

“They’re one example of so many local partners who have sat down with us and worked to figure out how to maximize business between us and keep their stuff growing and moving through the pipeline when the restaurants were shut down,” D’Amour explained. “We worked with them on supply and hotter deals and pricing to keep it moving through the grocery channels.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several players involved with supply chain about the lessons learned to date and how they will help the broad food industry through the uncertain months to come.

Food for Thought

As noted earlier, the laws of supply and demand generally take care of shortages on store shelves — in normal times.

But these are not normal times, said those we spoke with. Still, those laws have applied to items like surgical masks. Hard to find only six weeks ago, they are now seemingly everywhere, and in large quantities, as a number of companies started making them — and more of them.

“Everyone’s getting into the mask business now,” Baker explained, adding quickly that it’s much easier to convert machines to make those products than it is to supply more canisters of Lysol or make more rolls of toilet paper, as simple as that might sound.

“Paper manufacturers have been putting in additional lines,” he said. “But the challenge the industry is facing now is that there two types of fiber used to make toilet paper — there’s recycled fiber and there’s virgin fiber, and with recycled fiber, the supply is low, and not every machine can be converted to use virgin fiber, so you’re going to have less output if you can’t convert.”

And sometimes, because of the pandemic, producers simply cannot meet demand.

That was the case for several weeks — although matters have improved — when it came to supplies of meat and chicken, said Baker, noting that, early on, plants were shut down temporarily. And when they reopened, to keep workers safe, production lines were altered in ways that actually slowed production.

Such specific cases help explain shortages of particular items, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, many of the empty shelves result from unprecedented demand and panic buying that is starting to wane in many instances. But as the year continues, more lessons will certainly be learned, said D’Amour, adding that there have been plenty of learning experiences already.

Elaborating, he said that, from the beginning, those at Big Y have been watching what’s happening globally, anticipating, and “trying to get on top of things” — a phrase he would use many times — when it comes to everything from employee and customer safety to creating efficient traffic flow in the stores, to keeping items on the shelves.

This has obviously led to new policies and procedures — from the directional arrows on the floors to special hours created for seniors to the plexiglass screens at the check-out counters.

“For us, the biggest component is the people part, and that continues to be stressed by our suppliers, wholesalers, and others,” he said, adding that, while much of that panic buying and hoarding is being talked about in the past tense, the need for diligence remains, and chains like Big Y can’t let their guards down.

Getting back to the supply chain, D’Amour said it has been a struggle in some well-documented areas, but suppliers are responding by trying to increase supply and also reduce the number of overall SKUs to help put some product on the shelves.

“Where people are used to walking down the paper aisle and seeing 150 different choices of bath tissue and paper towels, now they’re seeing far fewer,” he said. “But products are coming back; we’re working with all our partners to get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest key to providing quality service to customers during the crisis has been efforts to forge new partnerships and stronger relationships with those within the food-service industry, said D’Amour. He mentioned ongoing work with Springfield-based Performance Food Group as one example.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job working with us, working together, to figure out what food they have stuck in the pipeline that we can use,” he explained, adding that, over the past several months, PFG, as it’s called, has even helped with trucking and labor for either Big Y’s warehouse or at wholesale partners. “Most of these partnerships we’ve had have been mutually beneficial, but there are strategies and tactics that we’ve never done before; everyone’s been very open and ready to fight the battle, work together, and think of new ways to partner for the benefit of the consumers.”

Which brings him to Little Leaf Farms. Paul Sellew, owner and founder of that facility, which began operations just four years ago, said it is now part of a larger local-food movement that not only puts fresher produce on the shelves, but in many ways helps ease flow of product through the supply chain.

“People don’t realize that 95% of the leafy greens that you see in the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona,” he explained. “And when you have this global pandemic, an unprecedented situation, that puts stress on the supply chain, so imagine managing a supply chain from Selinas, California to Springfield, as opposed to my supply chain, from Devens, Mass. to Springfield.”

Little Leaf has historically seen much of its business fall into the broad category of food service — restaurants, schools, and other institutions. But with the pandemic and the sharp decline of demand on that side, the company, like many other suppliers, has shifted into retail grocery, which has been a win/win/win, for those growers, the grocers, and, ultimately, consumers.

“When you get these unprecedented events, you really want to make this region stronger and more resilient, and food is such a strong, fundamental component of that,” he went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful for partnerships like the one we have with Big Y, which has supported us from day one.”

Overall, there is a ‘new normal’ within the grocery/food-service industry, a phrase now being heard in virtually every sector of the economy. It involves a landscape that could change quickly and profoundly depending on the pandemic and its impact.

No one really knows when there will be real light at the end of the tunnel, said D’Amour, adding that Big Y, like all those it is partnering and working with, needs to remain nimble and flexible, and continue to work in partnership with others to not only keep the shelves stocked, but also keep people safe.

Bottom Line

Summing up the past several months, those we spoke with said it’s been a challenging and in many ways difficult time, where, again, many important lessons have been learned that will serve consumers, suppliers, and retailers well in the uncertain months still to come.

“The United States is a country of abundance, and the supply chain is a beneficiary of this abundance,” Baker said. “Yes, the supply chain is strained, and some shortages will be experienced, but it’s not broken — there are not critical disruptions in the supply chain.”

The hope, and the expectation, said D’Amour, is that things will stay that way.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

Shell-shocked Businesses Respond with Grit, Determination

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked businesses large and small in virtually every sector of the economy. The individual stories vary somewhat, but there are several common themes — lost revenue streams, struggles to make payroll and pay the bills, and large amounts of uncertainty about what the future holds. But there are other commonalities as well, including a willingness, born of necessity, to respond to this crisis — the worst situation any of these business owners have faced — with determination, imagination, and the will to find a way to get to the ‘other side.’ For this issue, BusinessWest talked with 10 business owners about what has happened since the pandemic arrived with brutal force three incredibly long months ago, and how they’re battling back. These are their COVID stories.

Zasco Productions

Event company works to pivot, position itself for the long term

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Go Graphix

In a sign of the times, this company has pivoted into new products

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Lenzy Dermatology

Practice owner says many patients still wary of returning to her office

Liz Rosenberg

TheToy Box

Shop owner finds ways to share joy at a time when it’s badly needed

Teddy Bear Pools

During peak season, this area fixture is making up for lost weeks

Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality

Hotel group continues to grow through an uncertain time

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood

For this photographer and sock maker, the pandemic is a developing story

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Mercier Carpet

Pandemic poses challenges, opportunities for flooring company

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Cuts Plus

Salon owner says he missed the relationships the most

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

Eastside Grill

Restaurant owner says reopening will be exciting, but scary, too

Coronavirus

Event Company Works to Pivot, Position Itself for the Long Term

Mike Zaskey says his ‘spreadsheet of doom’ includes more than $1.2 million in lost events for this year, but he’s pivoting with virtual events and other initiatives.

Mike Zaskey calls it his “spreadsheet of doom.”

And for good reason.

It chronicles what he estimates to be $1.2 million in lost business since early March, when the phone started ringing … and kept on ringing. On the other end were representatives of corporations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits calling Zaskey to let him know they were canceling or postponing — in most all cases, the former — the large events his company, Chicopee-based Zasco Productions, has come to specialize in.

“After a while, I was afraid to answer the phone, because every time I did there was a cancellation,” said Zaskey, noting that more than 40 major events, including 20 college commencements, have been erased from the calendar. In fact, when he talked with BusinessWest just after the Memorial Day weekend, he was lamenting how what was normally a very busy week for him — clients Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and the Rhode Island School of Design traditionally schedule their commencements for the final days in May — was now anything but.

Indeed, a business leader who rarely has time on his hands, especially at this time of year, now has way too much of that commodity. And he’s devoting it to everything from finding ways to somehow pivot — some more successful than others, as we’ll see in a minute — to advocating for an industry that is large and impactful, but often flies under the radar.

“The Live Events Coalition has put together some interesting statistics, and by their estimates, the live-events industry employs 12 million people and contributes more than $1 trillion into the U.S. economy,” he said, adding that few understand the size or importance of a sector that includes everything from venues to caterers to companies like Zasco. “If live events were a state, we’d rank seventh in population.”

Turning the clock back to early March, Zaskey said that’s when he first started getting calls from “six-figure clients,” as he called them, inquiring about cancellation terms in their contracts.

“It was around Friday the 6th,” he recalled, noting that some dates stick in his mind, for obvious reasons. “I got a few e-mails before that, but things really started to get scary on March 6. We had a team meeting at the end of that day, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we all need to be aware of this.’ And it just ballooned from there.”

The calls kept on coming, he went on, adding that the events, as noted earlier, have been canceled, not postponed.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back,” he told BusinessWest. “If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

Despite these losses, one of the first decisions Zaskey made was to work with clients when it came to deposits and existing balances.

“A number of clients have multi-year contracts with us, so their deposits were paid two or three years ago, depending on the terms of the deal,” he explained. “Technically speaking, our contract says that, when an event is canceled, the deposits are non-refundable, and, in some cases, the client would still be liable for the cost of the event. But, in looking at the situation going on in the world, we decided that the right thing to do would be to apply those deposits to future events for clients, and that’s exactly what we did across the board.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back. If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

“While it’s not the greatest for our financial position,” he went on, “it’s the best for our customers, and we’re looking to build long-term relationships with those customers and keep those customers.”

And a few customers have returned the favor by essentially paying balances due for next year’s event now, to help the company with cash flow.

Faced with its spreadsheet of doom, Zaskey said his company, which eventually had to lay off most of its 12 employees, looked to pivot in an effort to create some revenue streams. And upon taking a hard look around, he said one early option that presented itself was to put Zasco’s large fleet of trucks to work as couriers.

“But it doesn’t generate as much revenue, and we would probably actually lose money if we tried to turn into a delivery company — we’re not set for that,” he told BusinessWest. “We did actually try it — a friend of my owns a courier service, so we did a day of deliveries. But the revenue we generated versus the hassle of trying to pivot into an industry we weren’t suited for just didn’t work out.”

The company has had more success pivoting toward the staging of virtual events.

“A virtual event is more than just a video webstream or livestream,” he explained, adding that he’s now working with several clients on such initiatives. “We’re trying to capture the elements of a live event that can be held across multiple sites and make them feel like they’re at the actual event.”

Summing up what’s happened and what might happen moving forward, Zaskey summoned a phrase put to use by just about every business owner in Western Mass.: “we’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Indeed, and while the short term (and that spreadsheet) looms ominously, this company, which put itself on the map by pulling off big events, continues to position itself for the long term — and, more specifically, a time when Zaskey won’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

In a Sign of the Times, This Company Has Pivoted into New Products

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably because major clients like MGM Springfield have shut down, but he’s managed to pivot and get work like these social-distancing signs.

Jim White says it took him 15 years to go from zero to 60 with his business. And 15 days to go from 60 to zero.

That’s how the co-founder of East Longmeadow-based Go Graphix, a maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and a host of other marketing products, described that two-week period back in March when business came to a near standstill.

That’s because most all of the company’s major clients — MGM Springfield, the MassMutual Center, sports teams like the Thunderbirds — came to a complete halt.

It seems like years ago now,” White said of those days in March. “It was tough — probably the toughest times I’ve experienced in business.”

With many of those businesses still shut down, Go Graphix has pivoted into other niche products that could be described as ‘COVID-related,’ said White, adding that it now has what could be called a line of ‘back-to-work’ products, including social-distancing graphics — those ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs now appearing across the region — as well as the protective barriers that are also appearing almost everywhere.

Still, revenues for April and May of this year are down roughly 80% from their levels of a year ago. The company, which had to lay off a few workers and cut most employees back to four days a week, has been helped by federal assistance, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — and White’s ‘save for a rainy day’ philosophy, passed down by his parents.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep,” he said. “We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

Flashing back to early March, White said that’s when a number of major clients had to shut down operations, which brought operations at the Benton Road facility to something approaching a standstill.

Those clients include MGM Springfield, for which the company makes a wide variety of promotional items, from signage for upcoming events to the dasher-board advertisements for the skating rink.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep. We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

“They’ve been one of our best customers,” said White, noting that his company was one of many fortunate local businesses to become vendors for the casino operator. “Throughout the casino, you see a lot of promotional graphics, and we were doing things on a weekly basis — work that came to screeching halt.”

But even clients that weren’t shut down and were actually doing well had put work given to Go Graphics on hold, said White, citing the example of beer distributors, for which the company provides vehicle wraps.

“They were so busy, they couldn’t leave the trucks with us for a day to be wrapped — they needed them on the road,” he explained. “They were hitting all the package stores, which were doing really well during all this. That was tough one for us; we’re thinking, ‘even the guys who are doing great can’t do any business with us.’”

Beyond the PPP loan, what has helped the company through the crisis has been its ability to adapt and create new product lines. White calls this the “great pivot.”

It involves making plexiglass shields for a number of clients, including Baystate Health, Monson Savings, J. Polep, Hartford Hospital, and others, as well as social-distancing signage now seen in virtually every sector of the economy.

As he talked with BusinessWest at the plant, he stopped to display the round ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs bound for Staples’ corporate headquarters, a contract that has provided a good amount of work for the company.

As for the plexiglass partitions, most of them are custom orders, and the work is intricate, which is why a number of businesses across several sectors have decided on Go Graphix for the work.

“We’re not just providing an off-the-shelf solution,” he said, while pointing to some models bound for Baystate Health. “And the orders keep coming in — we’ve pivoted, and we’re going for it.”

And White has to hope that the orders keep coming in, because plexiglass is now a commodity; amid fears that short supplies would become even shorter, he ordered a lot of it.

“It’s kind of toilet paper in the early days of this pandemic,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s looking to get it, and it’s becoming harder to find. But we have some good suppliers, and I’ve made the investment in a good amount, even though it scares me to the core. I figured, ‘I’d better be the guy who has it on hand,’ and just pray that we sell it.”

All indications are that he probably will as companies scramble to take the necessary steps to reopen, a process likely to play itself out over the next several months.

As White said repeatedly, this isn’t work he could have imagined doing just four months ago, but he’s very grateful to have it — an attitude that’s understandable after watching a company go from zero to 60 to 15 years, and 60 to zero in just a few painful weeks.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Practice Owner Says Many Patients Still Wary of Returning to Her Office

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy, like many healthcare practitioners, says many of her patients are reluctant to come to the office out of fear of contracting COVID-19, leaving overall volume down considerably.

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy admits to not knowing exactly what would happen when she officially reopened the doors to her Chicopee-based dermatology practice on May 18.

She knew what she was hoping to see — that patients who had put off coming to see her for more than two months out of fear of the virus would start scheduling appointments and getting their concerns and even routine checkups addressed.

And while that’s happening to some degree, the numbers are not what she hoped, although Lenzy would be the first to say that two weeks’ worth of data is probably not enough to make a definitive statement on what it all means.

“Last week was better than this week,” she said toward the tail end of May, adding quickly that she wasn’t sure just how this was attributable to the Memorial Day holiday or other factors. “We’re still not reaching the numbers we set as a goal — even the reduced numbers we established by limiting the number of office visits to half what they would be normally to allow social distancing.”

Lenzy, who opened her practice in 2014 and quickly built up a clientele of some 30,000 patients, believes her venture is typical of most others in the broad healthcare realm when it comes to the impact of the pandemic and the ways in which it has changed business — in some cases for the long term.

This is true of everything from the emergence of telehealth as a way to evaluate patients remotely (more on this later) to the manner in which the crisis brought the practice to a precarious place, where Lenzy, who has a staff of nine, wasn’t sure if she was going to able to make payroll.

With some relief from the CARES Act, specifically in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, Lenzy has been able to pay people and keep all her staffers employed — although that money can only be used for another few weeks.

She — like just about every small-business owner who has received such a loan — is already starting to think about what happens when that money runs out. That’s because normal, as in life in mid-February before the pandemic reached Western Mass., still seems a long way off.

Flashing back to the pre-pandemic days — that’s a phrase all business owners and managers have added to their lexicon — Lenzy said hers was a very busy practice. And while deemed essential because of the services it provides, the office closed on March 18 — again, like most all healthcare practices in the region — and shifted to seeing patients virtually.

And, for the most part, this move to telehealth went smoothly.

“It was definitely a generational piece,” she explained. “Some of our older patients had some difficulties, but they were able to get people to help them; some people don’t have smartphones or don’t have computers with cameras, so we did so some phone visits. But some people preferred to wait until we were back in the office.”

As for the business, while Lenzy she kept all her employees on, she cut back hours from 40 to 30 a week. “That was still a stretch,” she said. “But I wanted to keep everything going.”

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses. That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The PPP money arrived her account in the beginning of May, and it provided some desperately needed breathing room.

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses,” she said, adding that there are many of those, including rent and supplies. “That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The practice reopened exactly two months after it closed, but this was and is a phased reopening, she explained, noting that, to maintain social distancing, roughly half the staff works at home a few days each week and continues to see patients virtually.

“There’s always one provider in the offices at a time to see patients,” she said. “And we’re limiting the number of patients per hour that are in the office; with our specialty, we do a lot of procedures, like biopsies and freezing, so a lot of the patients that we’ve seen virtually needed to come into the office and have something done.”

They’re coming in, but, as noted earlier, not in the numbers this practice needs to get back on secure financial footing.

“We cut our volume in half, but we haven’t been able to even do that,” she said, adding, again, that she’s working with a small sample of data. “In talking to our front desk, we have some people who still don’t want to come out, so we’re trying to convert those people to virtual care.”

As for when things will get better and those numbers will improve, Lenzy said that will happen when and if more people feel comfortable enough to go back to the office.

“Our success and how we fare depends on peoples’ comfort levels,” she told BusinessWest. “And right now, it’s too early to say when people will reach this comfort level. My front desk is telling me that now, many people are saying, ‘I just want to wait.’”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Shop Owner Finds Ways to Share Joy at a Time When It’s Badly Needed

Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg says customers appreciate the messages on the front door of the Toy Box, as they wait for her to reopen that door.

One of Liz Rosenberg’s favorite games — to both play and sell — is called Lion in My Way.

“It’s for ages 5 and up,” said the owner of the Toy Box in Amherst. “You’re presented, in card form, with obstacles, like a lion in your way, a giant wall, all sorts of things. And then you have a hand of cards that are ideas how to get past this obstacle — maybe a catapult or balloon or a sandwich to feed the lion. You have to create the story. I feel like this is the greatest game.”

And not just because she feels like she’s living it every day.

“It’s a great lesson in, ‘ugh, yes, this is awful, but what do I have in my pocket that I can use to get past the awful part and start making progress?’” she continued. “It’s all here in this game.”

Retailers across Massachusetts being told, three months ago, to close their doors indefinitely? That’s no game — but Rosenberg has been playing some effective cards.

Like morphing into a delivery service.

She recalls shuttering her shop on Sunday, March 15. “But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

The strategy was to offer delivery within 20 minutes of the store — which gave her some solid territory to cover without infringing too much on similar stores in the region.

“It allowed me to get in my car in the morning and drive to the store and open it up, work all day, and at 2:00 make a route map and deliver to people’s driveways, and then go home,” she explained. “I didn’t have to interact with anyone.”

She soon found this model was actually functional, and used the Toy Box’s Facebook page to showcase as many items as possible to keep customers engaged. “My website is under construction, and now isn’t the time to focus on that, and people require visuals,” she said of her Facebook photo albums.

She also spends plenty of time offering gift ideas over the phone. “I find myself absolutely cracking up, standing here trying to describe something, my hands moving, hoping they get a visual on this. It’s really entertaining.”

The result hasn’t been anywhere near normal sales volume, but it has kept the shop afloat.

“But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

“I didn’t know what it would bring in; I didn’t really think about success,” Rosenberg told BusinessWest. “I just thought about day by day, and at the beginning of this, that’s where everyone’s head was — ‘it’s 10 in the morning; where is life going to be at 11?’”

Another card she drew on was humor — “because that’s how I live.” For example, the first day the doors were closed, she arranged a group of stuffed animals in the store window, with speech bubbles offering messages like “we miss your faces” and “we will deliver toys” and “we love you!”

“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen from behind the register, taking pictures outside the front door. It makes me giggle.”

In the past couple of weeks, Rosenberg has played the curbside-pickup card — well, parking-lot pickup, “because we don’t have a curb” — and continued a popular gift offering known as ‘mystery bags,’ for which customers provide the recipient’s age and pay a discount price for a surprise assortment of goodies, such as putty, markers, stickers, mini-games, bouncy balls, and more.

“People trust our judgment on things their children or grandchildren or friends’ children might like,” she explained. “People tell me the age of the child and a couple things about them, and I put together little activities to keep them busy, keep them curious, and keep them educated. It’s gone over really well.”

Rosenberg is hoping to reopen the Toy Box in mid-June, depending on the guidance she gets from Boston, and is mulling ideas like shorter hours — perhaps half-days, or full days by appointment only — so she can manage staffing and sanitizing in a safe manner.

“As much as we’d like to be open for business, I only want to do it safely — against the virus and against unnecessary worry and anxiety,” she noted. “Anxiety is a real thing, and I don’t want people feeling forced to come into the store. So I will continue with deliveries and parking-lot pickup because, in my mind, that’s the safest way.”

One of the speech bubbles in the window reads, “we are essential.”

That may not be true in the eyes of Gov. Baker, but Rosenberg is quick to note how important it is for kids — who have, after all, been cooped up in their homes for about three months now — to experience joy through play.

“We are essential — not necessarily from the government’s perspective, but from families’ perspective. Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time. That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

During Peak Season, This Area Fixture Is Making Up for Lost Weeks

Ted Hebert surveys the line outside his store — well, roughly one-third of it, anyway.

When BusinessWest recently caught up with Teddy Bear Pools and Spas owner Ted Hebert, he was surveying a line of customers around his Chicopee property that ran roughly 40 deep.

The wait to reach the premises was about 45 minutes — typical on most days recently, Hebert said, although it can reach an hour or more. And it would be longer still if the store was still letting just 10 customers in at a time, but Teddy Bear was recently approved for 20.

“We worked with the Health Department and got it up to 20 customers at a time, and we have not seen a letup since we opened on March 18,” he noted. “I’ve never seen it like this. It’s nuts.”

Compare that to the middle of March, when the governor’s orders forced Teddy Bear to close its doors.

“That didn’t really kill us because it wasn’t pool season yet. But it hurt us a little bit — we have hundreds, if not thousands, of spas and hot tubs out there, and those people do need water chemistry.”

So customers would leave water samples outside the door, and Teddy Bear employees would conduct the water chemistry and then deliver whatever products they needed to their homes — sometimes 70 or 80 deliveries a day. Hebert jokingly referred to this period as ‘TedEx.’

“We weren’t making a lot of money; we were charging 10 bucks per delivery, as far as Palmer and Monson, and we grouped them up,” he recalled. “We had a lot of fun meeting customers.”

From a safe distance, of course. In fact, Hebert put off the start of pool-installation season, which usually begins in April, out of concern for customers — not just their physical health, but their anxiety about being around other people.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there,” he recalled. “A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off. We probably could have been out there, but we didn’t want to take a chance. So we started in May, four weeks behind.”

May brought a gradual opening of the retail store as well. “We were trying to figure out how to open, and we were able to do curbside for a few days, but it was still a lot of work. People had to go online and pay for it,” he explained.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there. A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off.”

But then he started working with local officials — entities like the City Council, Mayor John Vieau, the Health Department, and the Police Department — on what it would take to be deemed an essential retailer so he could open the store to foot traffic. Through the city, he appealed to the governor’s office and was indeed deemed essential. The key selling point, he said, was the water-chemistry testing service.

“We ended up putting together what you see at the store now — this line with every six feet marked,” he said. “We have signage everywhere and a sanitizing station as you go in and go out.”

Meanwhile, carriages are sprayed with disinfectant after every use, employees interact with customers from behind plastic shields, Hebert himself greets people in line to answer their questions before they enter, and everyone, of course, must wear a mask. “If you don’t have one, which is seldom, we’ll offer you a free mask,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it safe for them — the customers and my employees. We just want them to be healthy and safe.”

The first few days, traffic was parked up to a quarter-mile away; it didn’t help that roadwork narrowed East Street that first week. “Traffic was bad the first week, so we rented the church parking lot around the corner,” he added, noting that the store plans to make a donation to the church.

Sales of new pools are slightly down, partly because people were buying hot tubs and pools online during the shutdown — “I’m old school; I never thought I’d see that day,” he said of this more impersonal sales experience — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the late start has installers scrambling. “I’m paying my guys extra to work Saturdays. I’m running 60 people servicing pools.”

And 2020 could see some later-than-normal action — as families cancel vacations, they might be inspired to invest in a backyard experience. “Even if you get a pool at the end of July, you still get four to eight weeks out of it.”

As noted earlier, the traffic subsided a little when the state approved a 20-customer capacity, but lines still regularly stretch into the dozens, as BusinessWest discovered.

“I’ve never in my life seen anything like this,” Hebert said. “But I have very considerate customers. No one’s fighting. It amazed me. They’ve been very patient and understanding.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

Hotel Group Continues to Grow Through an Uncertain Time

Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis says the Berkshires has plenty to offer, even when arts and culture attractions are closed, and the Red Lion and other hotels await whatever uptick in business arrives this summer.

Sarah Eustis has some visions for the Courtyard, an outdoor dining area at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

“It will be a really active force — we’re thinking of new, creative ways to use it,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re ramping up menus, we’ll have music outside, maybe screen movies with a projector, ping-pong, cocktails … just some relaxation and fun for people in a world that isn’t very fun right now. That’s our goal.”

It’s an ambitious goal for Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality, and her team as they navigate how to move forward with the group’s roster of Berkshire-area hotels while launching two more in Rhode Island, at a time when hotels are just starting to fully reopen, and no one knows how the traveling public will respond.

That’s especially true in the Berkshires, whose economy is so reliant on tourism. Several major players, including Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Shakespeare & Company, have canceled their summer season, and more might follow. Others are planning shortened seasons, like Barrington Stage Company, which will open on Aug. 5 with social-distancing practices in place.

Hence, Eustis’ emphasis on the other Berkshires draw: being outdoors, whether it’s hiking in nature or enjoying a breezy meal at the Courtyard.

“All the demand drivers, from a cultural standpoint, at least — with a few exceptions — have been moved to next year,” she said, adding, however, that some theaters are still looking for ways to accommodate performances, and museums are considering creative options like open, timed visitations.

But with vacation planning on hold for so many, Eustis knows she has to be realistic.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience,” she said. “We can play to the strengths of the Berkshires, which have a lot to do with being outdoors and natural beauty — we’ve got that in spades, and we will be well-served to promote that as a reason to come out and spend some time.”

Hotels weren’t forced to close by the mid-March mandate from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, although business certainly dried up almost immediately across the country. Main Street Hospitality made decisions about its Berkshires properties on a case-by-case basis. For example, Hotel on North in Pittsfield, with its proximity to Berkshire Medical Center, has been used regularly by essential healthcare workers.

On the other hand, the Porches Inn in North Adams shut its doors completely. With little business expected there during the pandemic — it’s located across the street from the pandemic-shuttered MASS MoCA — the closure was an opportunity to tackle some needed construction and maintenance, and that site will reopen later this summer.

Meanwhile, the Red Lion Inn has maintained a robust, popular takeout program, as well as preparing meals for essential workers throughout Berkshire Health Systems and for Main Street employees who had been laid off.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience.”

Briarcliff Motel in Great Barrington and Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield were effectively closed, but have partnered with Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires to provide housing for essential workers and also people recovering from COVID-19.

“So, we’re trying to deploy each property within the mandated guidelines and leverage the characteristics of each property to the best of our ability,” Eustis said.

It wasn’t enough to keep about 300 employees working, however; layoffs reduced the company to about 25, with the discomfort spread throughout all properties and the administrative office.

“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever been through as a leader, to be sure,” she said. “However, we took it week by week, with a very thoughtful approach.”

The plan now is to begin ramping the team back up again. On June 12, Main Street plans to reopen the Red Lion and Briarcliff within the safety parameters mandated by the state, as well as expanding reservations and culinary service at Hotel on North. Porches will reopen, somewhat refreshed, on Aug. 1, while two new Rhode Island properties are set to open as well: Hammetts Wharf Hotel in Newport in June 26, and the Beatrice Hotel in Providence on Aug. 9.

So, the company certainly sees a strong future.

“We are all trying to develop our strengths and skills without knowing what’s going to happen,” Eustis said. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I do believe it will make us stronger as business people and hospitality providers.”

Part of that is reopening in a safe manner, with attention paid to everything from the cleaning and sanitizing strategy to what kind of voice and body language to use with guests from behind those ubiquitous masks.

“We’ve got a 40-page COVID manual guiding our preparation,” she said. “We want to check all the boxes, so when guests visit with us, they don’t have to give it a second thought. We’ve got you covered.”

As summer approaches, this should be a time of happy anticipation at a hotel group synonymous with visiting the Berkshires — but this is totally uncharted territory, Eustis said, so optimism must be tempered by reality. But she’s still optimistic.

“We will come out on the other side, although there are days it doesn’t feel that way,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s such a massive tactonic shift. But we’ve got a really talented team that’s super committed, and we will be here to tell the tale.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

For This Photographer and Sock Maker, the Pandemic Is a Developing Story

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood says both his photo studio and sock business have been greatly impacted by the pandemic.

Lenny Underwood started off by talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge dent in both his businesses — a photography studio and an intriguing venture called Upscale Socks, which has become one of the many intriguing stories of entrepreneurship being written in the region. But then he put those losses into their proper context by changing the subject to his grandmother.

“She died from this virus,” he said slowly and deliberately for additional emphasis, as if it were needed. “Her name was Queeie Brown, and she died late last month [April] — it was awful.”

So Underwood, a member of BusinessWest’s recently announced 40 Under Forty class of 2020 — honored for his entrepreneurial exploits as well as his work within the community, such as donations of socks to area groups — has seen the virus alter his life in probably every way imaginable. Right down to his socks.

His designer socks, a venture he started dreaming about in 2014, became a reality the following year. He now has several dozen styles, including a popular ‘Springfield Firsts’ sock that came out last year and continues to draw orders. The products are manufactured by a partner in China, said Underwood, adding that production had to be halted for a time earlier this year when the virus was spreading through that country.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people. Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

But as this year has progressed, that setback has turned out to be just one of many ways the pandemic has changed the landscape for Underwood — and perhaps one of the more minor ones.

Indeed, like most all photographers, Underwood has seen the virus rob him of a number of jobs and reliable revenue streams — everything from proms to weddings to family gatherings.

“Most of my photography is event-based, but I do some head shots and senior portraits as well,” he told BusinessWest. “Mainly, though, I’m on the scene, on location for different celebrations.”

And there certainly haven’t been many of those over the past three months, and those that have been staged have been smaller and decidedly different, he went on; after searching his memory bank, he determined that the last event he worked was the second Saturday in March.

The following Tuesday, he recalls getting seven cancellations for jobs that day alone. “I was looking forward to four proms, a lot of graduations, and weddings,” he went on, adding that he has one wedding still scheduled for late in July — and he’s somewhat dubious about that — but everything else has been wiped off the calendar.

Overall, he estimates that business is off 65% to 70% from what it was a year ago, a precipitous decline that has forced to him to seek — and eventually receive — unemployment benefits. However, they are due to run out in 20 weeks. He has also applied for a number of grants through various agencies, and is awaiting word on whether he’ll receive any.

Underwood has managed to find some work — a few of those ‘parade birthdays,’ for example, a photo shoot for a newborn, a few ‘senior-announcement photos,’ as he called them — where soon-to-be high-school grads announce where they’ll be going to college — and some other scattered assignments.

Meanwhile, the virus has generated some needed, but somewhat macabre work. Indeed, there has been a noted increase in funerals across the area, and for some of them, Underwood has been hired by families to scan photos of the deceased for slideshows and memorial tributes.

Still, like most photographers, he has seen his business devastated by the virus and doesn’t have any real idea when things might start turning around.

As for his socks … he’s still getting orders — someone recently purchased 20 pairs of the ‘Springfield Firsts’ style, for example — and some specials he’s been running have helped to generate more of them. But overall sales volume is down because he’s not able to sell them at large events, which generated a good deal of sales prior to the pandemic. Overall, sock sales are down by roughly 50%.

As he talked with BusinessWest near the tail end of May, Underwood said he had a few events on the books — an outdoor church service, for example. But the longer view is clouded by uncertainty and some doubts about whether the large events that have become his livelihood will be staged any time soon.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people,” he said. “Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

For now, he’s maintaining his focus and looking for opportunities whenever and wherever he can find. For him, the pandemic is a developing story — in all kinds of ways. u

—George O’Brien