Pandemic Inspiring Businesses, Nonprofits to Innovate
NEW ORLEANS – A Biz New Orleans survey of local business leaders shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired – perhaps even required – many to become innovators. In 2020, formerly bustling restaurant dining rooms are now staging areas for curbside pickup. Doctors see patients via Zoom calls. And concerts, when they happen, look more like drive-in movies than mosh pits.
The people behind these enterprises are proving the H.G. Wells maxim “adapt or perish.”
Ellie Rand, of Ellie Rand Public Relations – headquartered on Burthe Street in Uptown New Orleans – said she knows plenty about this concept after six months of the new normal.
“The biggest challenge in our industry is absence of public life,” she said. “You can’t promote a festival that’s not happening,” she said. “And there is very little room in the news media for anything not directly related to the pandemic.”
So, Rand pivoted to creating original content for her clients and providing it to media outlets. One example is the “Habitat Handymen” video series produced for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for first-time homebuyers and provides repairs to those in need.
“Since people are home during the pandemic, they are noticing home improvement needs but maybe don’t have the extra money to hire somebody or might not want someone coming to their house,” said Rand. “Our Habitat Handymen series shows viewers how to make repairs themselves while reinforcing Habitat’s brand as a useful, skilled nonprofit that provides affordable home ownership solutions.”
Recent topics include making and installing storm windows ahead of hurricanes, cleaning a/c filters and window units, pressure washing slippery sidewalks and sealing doors and windows to keep cockroaches out of the house during the rainy, summer months.
Rand said a priority for PR professionals is to prove value to clients. And the way to do that is to help them achieve their goals in the new reality.
“In the beginning, I had a sort of ‘wait it out’ mentality,” she said. “But now that it’s clear this will be around for some time, the reinvention required can be exciting and rewarding.”
For Sandra Lindquist, executive vice president and COO of the New Orleans Chamber, the pandemic has been all about learning how to move events into the virtual world.
“We had to pivot in a huge way,” she said. “The New Orleans Chamber is an events-driven organization and we cannot have events in NOLA. The first week of the pandemic we looked into Zoom and became one of the first organizations to offer webinars for our members and the community.”
To show you how far everybody’s come, the very first N.O. Chamber webinar was titled, almost quaintly, “How to Use Zoom.”
In a case of particularly bad timing, the chamber had sold 700 tickets to a women’s conference scheduled for March 19, the week after health restrictions went into effect. After initially planning to postpone the event, organizers finally partnered with a local events company and moved the conference online. They learned how to use new technology to produce 60 breakout sessions, two keynotes and five engagement sessions for 600 attendees. Approximately half the sessions were pre-recorded the week before the conference. The remaining sessions were live from the Hyatt downtown.
“We had the equivalent of the TODAY show set up in several of the rooms at the Hyatt,” said Lindquist. “It was a big investment in a multitude of ways but we have had a sensational response.”
Lindquist said she misses attending events with hundreds of people, eating dinner with friends and sitting at a bar with a glass of wine but the pandemic is the ultimate test of flexibility.
“You have to keep adapting,” she said. “Meeting your customer’s needs, which may change in time, and watch what is going on in the market. COVID has proven the need to pivot and adapt.”
Less Foot Traffic
Downtown businesses who normally rely on a daily stream of visitors have had to make major changes to their business models.
Jennifer Merryman, the events manager at Sazerac House, said the stylish new distillery/museum at the corner of Canal and Magazine streets has pivoted in two primary ways. One, Sazerac has been manufacturing sanitizer for first responders and nonprofits. And, two, the cocktail experts have created a series of virtual classes to replace events that would be happening on site.
“We were thrilled to be able to offer our Sazerac House experience through the launch of classes that brought the bar home for our guests,” she said. “We pair the experience with curbside handcrafted cocktail kits and allow our guests to make their favorite drink along with us. The biggest surprise has been just how engaged our guests continue to be with us even though they can’t visit us in person. That’s the enduring quality of cocktail culture.”
Rebecca Rau, meanwhile, said M.S. Rau – the Royal Street antiques shop that recently unveiled a major expansion and renovation – has had to rely on other sales techniques to make up for the lower numbers of visitors.
“In-person interactions are key to building trust in our business,” she said. “While we conduct a lot of business remotely, we do still rely on gallery traffic and trade shows to interface with our clients. This year, neither was feasible, so we really shifted our focus to marketing and selling online. We’ve also amped up our digital content creation, from Zoom educational seminars, to product videos and more. We look forward to continuing these new forms of engagement with our clients and the public.”
Celebrating a Life While Protecting Others
The funeral industry is another one that has had to adapt to the times.
“Finding the best way to work with families and allowing them to celebrate the life of a loved one has been both our biggest challenge and success story,” said Patrick Schoen of Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Directors, which has been in business since the late 1800s. “The requirements for gatherings severely impacted the process, but by working with the city, state and our staff we have been able to bring families together.”
Schoen said his family business has used video conferencing, electronic signatures and other technology to help maintain social distancing during events.
“We also created options for families to be able to lay their loved one to rest now with the ability to celebrate their life when restrictions are eased,” he said. “Our business model, which we have had for the last 146 years, has not changed but how we care for our families and help them through one of the most difficult times has evolved with the times.”
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana said her organization has been paying attention to what kinds of help people need now and pivoting to offer that support.
“One of our most innovative responses to COVID-19 is the launch of United for Early Care and Education,” she said. “It’s a partnership program that provides technical and legal support to struggling child care providers who are fighting to stay open and provide care throughout the pandemic.”
Together, with Loyola College of Law and Agenda for Children, the United Way is helping more than 40 centers throughout a seven-parish service area secure public funding, beginning with a focus on the Payroll Protection Program. So far, the organization has helped secure more than $2 million in Payroll Protection Program funds.
“We also launched our Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund and awarded $2.4M in emergency grants to nearly 5,000 households in our region,” said Gaines. “We’re continuing to recruit volunteers to help pack and deliver meals to vulnerable … households in Orleans Parish, and we crossed the millionth meal delivered this week.”
Gaines said she misses in-person happy hours, weekend brunches, live music and theater, “although I’ve recently been absolutely delighted to find a few different porch concert spots to enjoy at a safe distance. At one of these, a friend said, ‘That sound is the soul of the city, and that’s what we’ve been missing.’ And it’s absolutely true. It always boils down to the food and the music, doesn’t it?”