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Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

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Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Opinion

Opinion

The recent news that two small businesses located in the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — will be closing permanently due to a sharp decline in business from the pandemic provides more direct evidence of the damage being done to the business community from this crisis.

A number of small businesses have already closed over the past four and a half months, and those numbers will surely rise as the pandemic continues to keep people in their homes. Many of these closings are seemingly unavoidable — they involve businesses, such as event venues, bars, and restaurants, where people gather in large numbers indoors, something the pandemic has made all but impossible if people want to stay safe.

But some could be avoided if the residents of this area find ways to provide needed support. Many are already doing that, but these numbers need to grow if the Western Mass. business community is to avoid losing more of its valued members.

And we say valued, because that’s exactly what they are. Businesses are not simply establishments that occupy space in buildings and provide goods and services. They are part of the community, and often a big part.

They employ people. They pay taxes. They support organizations like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. Their employees often serve on boards and commissions and lend their support to local causes.

When a business closes, we lose a lot more than a place to buy shoes. When a restaurant closes, we lose more than our favorite pizza joint. When a tourist attraction shuts its doors, we lose more than a place to take the kids on a Saturday.

Supporting local businesses has always been important, but it is even more so during this crisis because so many of them are imperiled. As we have chronicled over the past several months, ventures in every sector of the economy have been rocked by this pandemic.

Indeed, companies recording sales of 60% or 70% of last year’s totals are having a good year. And most are not in that category, with declines of 70%, 80%, or even 90% over last year. Many of these businesses have been helped by assistance from the federal government in the form of PPP loans, SBA loans, and small grants from individual cities and towns. But many have exhausted those funds, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in accounting to understand that most businesses simply cannot sustain losses like this for much longer. And some have already concluded that they can’t sustain them any longer.

With each headline like the one about Serendipity and Alchemy closing, there is regret about what we’ve lost. And as mentioned earlier, we lose more than a shop that sells an item or makes good Italian food. We lose tax dollars, and we lose a piece of our community.

There are many ways to support a business even if you can’t visit it in person — from buying a gift certificate to getting takeout to buying online. And by exercising these options, we can perhaps avoid losing some of the businesses that still call Western Mass. home.

Technology

Air Apparent

By Sean Hogan

Small businesses have been drawn to VoIP technology because of the substantial cost savings they gain when making the switch. However, as VoIP has continued to evolve over the years and moved into the ‘cloud,’ small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.

The growth of virtual companies and remote workforces has brought everyone to the same playing field, and customers across every industry are looking to work with credible, prestigious, large companies. Here are some ways in which cloud voice can make your business look bigger than it is today.

Your office just got a receptionist you don’t have to pay for. Cloud-based phone systems today include features that completely eliminate the need for a receptionist. Systems can be configured in order to route calls directly to the intended employee via a unified auto-attendant. Also, if your office doesn’t have a receptionist, systems can distribute incoming calls among specific groups.

This goes beyond simply sending sales calls to salespeople and admin calls to support employees. For example, you can use caller ID to send specific accounts directly to the CEO’s cell phone. Or if none of the salespeople answer an incoming call, it goes to the sales manager’s cell phone.

Sean Hogan

“Small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.”

Unlimited locations, one office number. With the rampant growth of startups and virtual companies, many businesses need to have a communications system that supports both in-house and remote workers while maintaining a professional image across the board. With cloud voice, calls to the main office can be sent out anywhere simply by asking the customer to dial an extension, just like how large corporations are doing.

Seamless conference calls and lightning-fast voicemails. Conference calls or online meetings are often a source of frustration for most companies. Cloud voice solutions enable businesses to host conferences during meetings so you can be face to face, even when you can’t be in the same location.

Furthermore, all technology is hosted through a single solution, so when it’s time to host a meeting, businesses can rest assured that the technology will perform as promised. Another way in which cloud voice accelerates collaboration is through its ability to convert voicemails into MP3 files, which can be sent as e-mail attachments. Additionally, voice calls can be converted to text and vice versa for easier retrieval and communication.

Collaborate on the fly. Today’s employees need to be constantly connected. Collaboration can’t always be planned out in advance, and when a good idea strikes, everyone needs to be in the loop. Cloud technology has made it easy for employees to see from their desktop what their co-workers are doing and how to best access them (e.g. instant message, voice, or e-mail) so communication can happen immediately.

There are many advantages to moving a company to cloud voice. For small business, the rewards are plentiful because they can utilize the same technology as large enterprises for a fraction of the cost and make them look just as big.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.