I have been reading many think-pieces about preparing for the “new normal” as we focus on economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking forward is a good thing, but as we contemplate the future we must not lose sight of the present. The reality is, this is the new normal.
As leader of an organization supporting local businesses – many of them reliant on foot traffic – I don’t see a return to pre-pandemic commerce any time soon. Not until there is a vaccine (and maybe not even then) will previous consumption patterns even be conceivable. Which means that for at least the next few months, and probably into 2021, a significant revival of in-person shopping, dining and entertainment is not likely.
The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (BIA) represents more than 2,000 businesses and their employees in the heart of Toronto – big and small, offices, retailers, restaurants and services – as well as the broader community of residents, students and visitors. We describe our organization as promoting “a downtown neighbourhood renowned for its culture, commerce, opportunity and liveability.” We are confident we can still achieve that mandate, but the experience is going to look very different than it did before.
We have already started pivoting from the way business used to be done. Fundamentally, we have collectively shifted the focus away from foot traffic. Now it’s about eyes and fingers.
Digital platforms have become our focal point, as the Downtown Yonge BIA created a “virtual mall” of local businesses – including building a digital presence for some that hadn’t yet embraced e-commerce. We produced an online map, highlighting the products and services available from local merchants, connecting residents to what’s available in their own neighbourhood. We also let people know about free activities, to continue to keep them in touch with their community.
It’s a win-win. Residents have greater awareness of local services, while businesses gain new customers. Most importantly, it’s sustainable for however long this new way of interacting is necessary.
Just like we used to have special events, now we have online themes. Launching “A Day in Downtown Yonge,” we outlined activities residents could undertake online, replicating what they used to do in person. On Mother’s Day, for example, we listed florists, online spa instruction, dinner delivery and other mom-friendly services as ways to celebrate without leaving home. The initiative generated hundreds of thousands of impressions.
Even live entertainment – long a staple of the Downtown Yonge economy – is doable this way. We expect that programming public spaces won’t be possible for at least a year. But that doesn’t mean performances have to stop. Music, walking tours, comedy, photo exhibitions and theatre all work virtually. Even a fireworks display is possible in this augmented reality; we’re promoting a mobile app that lets you point your phone at the skyline and see a pyrotechnic display above it.
Indeed, there are many things people can do in Downtown Yonge without leaving their sofa. Our job is to promote them. In present tense.
Communication is another area that has seen a dramatic re-think. With so much information pouring out from so many sources – some of it accurate, some of it speculative, some of it “fake news,” all of it creating a lot of disorienting noise – we recognized the need to be careful about what we are telling our members. We instituted a series of e-blasts, being meticulous about only relaying reliable information and providing links to helpful resources.
Clearly this has been appreciated on the receiving end. Our email open and click-through rates have been significantly higher than traditional levels for these kinds of communication vehicles. This is another new approach we expect to be permanent.
As businesses continually adjust, it is important for organizations supporting them, like BIAs, to adjust along with them. I sincerely hope governments will also recognize that the old way of doing things is gone – and it’s not coming back. Municipalities will need to be nimble (not an adjective commonly applied to City Hall in the past) and flexible, adapting to what will no doubt be an ever-changing series of “new normals.”
Recovery from the pandemic will be an evolution, and we must all be prepared to evolve with it. For the foreseeable future, we will have to navigate around disruption, uncertainty and even fear.
Note: Mark Garner is Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of the Downtown Yonge BIA.