‘Listen Up! Local’ is a special series from Rise Up Podcasts that shines a spotlight on local businesses and their owners who have reinvented their businesses to not only survive but thrive amid COVID-19.
In this episode Rise Up Strategies CEO Adam Smith speaks to Dennis Van Staalduinen, Executive Director, Wellington West Business Improvement Area.
So we are doing a podcast mini-series called Listen Up! Local
This series shines a spotlight on local businesses and their owners who have reinvented their businesses to not only survive but thrive amid COVID-19 crisis and who have found ways to give back and support their local community during this time.
I am joined today by Dennis Van Staalduinen, Executive director of the Wellington West BIA. The WWBIA unites two thriving neighborhoods in the west end of Ottawa. The historic village of Hintonburg and the century old neighbourhood of Wellington Village. Established in 2008 by a coalition of businesses with the united interest in making their spot on the map more welcoming, entertaining and inspiring. The BIA has grown to represent over 500 businesses and over 200 commercial owners. A job made a lot more difficult in recent weeks as we navigate our way through COVID-19. He is constantly engaged with local merchants to provide the latest information on who is open, what the capacity is of these businesses is and when they anticipate the next stage of recovery to happen and really how they have adapted their service delivery models during this time.
So Dennis, hello and welcome to the podcast!
Dennis: Good morning Adam. How are you doing?
Adam: I’m doing great, thanks. Beautiful weather out there, isn’t it.
Dennis: It is – finally, yes!
Adam: Well thanks for taking the time for this, we are going to jump right into it
Now, we have talked before on this podcast about the choices business owners are making during this time, sometimes described as fight or flight. You know, I’d love to hear from you Dennis about what your seeing out there from your members and how businesses are adapting
Dennis: Yeah, thanks Adam. That fight or flight moment is really kind of a defining moment for any business. How do you respond when there is that need to adapt very quickly to something and we have seen that in spades since mid-March since the COVID shutdown started looking likely then it was imminent and then suddenly businesses were being ordered to close. We saw both sides of the fight or flight instinct right across the business area. We saw the panic, we saw the uncertainty, we saw a lot of business owners suddenly having to reassess very quickly who they are, who they serve, who they employ, how they can keep their customers engaged and how they can keep their employees, either on the payroll or at least on the employment family. And then as it adapted, how can they move into a more proactive, a more creative – yeah, how can they actually use their skills as small owners to adapt and be flexible and to reinvent themselves during this time. And it’s been very inspiring to watch, and I think while there’s that fight or flight moment, I think that the flight part of it will hopefully be more taking flight than running away.
Adam: (laughs) Right. Good way of putting it. I can certainly speak from experience with Rise Up Strategies, we are seeing our B-to-C client making big decisions, even this week, around how to reopen, the type of equipment they are going to have to install into their locations and really, what the new normal is going to be around best business practices moving forward.
Adam: And it seems to me the entire world is trying to determine the best way forward in this regard right now.
Dennis: Yes, absolutely.
Adam: So has this crisis led to any changes in the way you think Wellington West business owners will conduct their business once things return to the new normal and if so, tell me about that.
Dennis: Well, I keep hearing the term, ‘new normal’ and I chafe against it a little bit because there is no ‘new normal’. It’s evolution. The process of evolution involves a whole series of different crises and different needs to adapt to whatever situation you are in. And really, over the last two months we have seen 15 ‘new normals’ come and go and that is just going to keep going. It might settle down a bit in terms of how rapid that changes are coming but those changes are still coming. So, in our approach as a business improvement area, trying to advise businesses, trying to market and promote the services they are able to offer during COVID, thinking about the neighbourhood and our interactions with the community as well. We’re trying to phase it into 3 ‘new normals’ 1. Was kind of relief mode. Kind of an immediate ‘what can we do to help our businesses?’ ‘what can we do to connect them with the information and the resources they need. Recovery mode is where we are moving into a little bit now tentatively baby steps, a few more stores every day are opening up or offering new things, as they are allowed to do so. And as they come up with new ways to do that. but the other phase which is really kind of the ‘old normal’ that we are hopefully moving back into is what we are calling reinvention – the idea that these businesses not only need to survive, but that they were already going through a lot of challenges and main street retail has been going through so many changes, you know, over the last decade, that reinvention was always imperative, it was just something that they weren’t necessarily as focused on and also they didn’t have the time to focus on. The COVID crisis apart from the panic and uncertainty, for a lot of small retailers who suddenly didn’t have to sit at the counter and deal with the customers coming through their door, they suddenly had more time and they were doing more big picture thinking, albeit, unwillingly, about How do we survive? Who do we want to be when this is over? And a lot of them have really embraced that and taken that as a challenge and we have been trying to help that and provide tools and provide, yeah whatever we can to do that as well. Yeah, for example, one of the things we did as BIA was, in the early days we tried to figure out, could we do, sort of, online, virtual gift certificates to give money to businesses? Could we just keep lists of all the different businesses and what they are doing? We do those things, we have those things, but we were able to just through, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work, put together a partnership with a Montreal philanthropic foundation, called the McConnell Foundation who was looking to both help support businesses during COVID but also promote an idea that they call Community Wealth Sharing. They are looking for business areas that were interested in helping them sort of prove the concept in the neighbourhood and they introduced us to a UK company called Crowdfunder, one of the largest crowd-funding platforms in the UK and we’ve been having three-way conference calls between McConnell in Montreal and this UK online company. The CEO and one of the co-founders has been helping us build our sites so we created this, I call it crowd of crowdfunding campaigns where we have a collective program for our businesses where we use those partners to cover all the costs and make sure that’s it’s free to all of our businesses and they can do crowdfunding and every $1 goes to them and we use our collective energy as a BIA to promote those, to help them get set up, to use the energy. And they get to choose what they offer in return. Community Wealth Sharing, the concept is there is a mix of altruism that is communities invest in local businesses without the expectation that there is necessarily a direct return but that there’s also a sense of reward and gratitude from the businesses in the form of store credit or incentives to help build a community among their customers. And this community of wealth sharers, this Love.WellingtonWest.ca is the campaign we are running. We have already raised almost $20,000 for the participating businesses in our first couple of weeks. And we are going to keep that running for another month, month and a half and it’s going to be really interesting to see how far we can go. We don’t touch any of that money, people donate it to the businesses and then the businesses fulfill the store credit, or the prizes or the events that they are holding – virtual beer halls and selling art off the walls of the restaurants. Whatever they want to offer… so it’s been a really interesting program that allowed us to do something brand new and give our members value in a new way.
Adam: Well Dennis, I have to say, I think if there’s one observation since the start of this pandemic, it’s the level of innovation that’s coming out of small and medium sized businesses everywhere. You know how quickly businesses have pivoted, and it sounds like, well, it’s very clear that the work you are doing at Wellington West BIA is as innovative as anywhere else. So, congratulations on the work you are doing. I can say, and I’ve heard it from others you’re supporting the Wellington West BIA and its members incredibly well. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to meet you over the last little while and get to know you. This has been really informative so I want to thank you for taking the time today, Dennis, and best of luck as we continue to navigate this ‘new world’ (laughs) – I won’t call it the ‘new normal’ but this ‘new world’ we are in.
Dennis: Absolutely. Anything we can do to keep the positive spirit going, the things that we learned during COVID about what’s important and what’s not, and of course, I’ve gotta’ say to the folks who are listening – Support those local stores! Think in terms of when you’re spending your dollars in the community,think about not what’s good for your bottom line, think about what’s good for your neighbourhood, your community and shop local. Invest in those local entrepreneurs that make our neighbourhood the great places we want them to be.
Adam: That’s a great final message to have, Dennis. Thanks again and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Dennis: Thank you very much Adam.