One year in: How has Saskatchewan navigated Covid-19? A provincial business panel weighs in (KnowYXE television)

On April 1st, live-streamed over KnowYXE television, community and regional planner (Founder of Prairie Wild Consulting), researcher and host of CFCR’s “Civically Speaking,” Lenore Swystun, moderated a 90 minute conversation with a panel of Saskatchewan business experts, on how we as a province have navigated Covid-19.

Panelists included (in alphabetical order):  Jason Aebig (CEO, Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce), Jim Bence (CEO and President of Hospitality SK), Ashley Charles (CEO, Prince Albert Regional Economic Development Alliance—PAREDA), Monica Kreuger (Chair, Saskatchewan Chamber; CTV Citizen of the Year, Saskatoon) and Judith Veresuk (Executive Director, Regina Downtown Business Improvement District).

Associate moderators were Anika Mysha, Madhurja Ghosh and Rashid.

Panelists took five concepts or questions as starting points for their discussion:

(1) The pandemic has revealed how much our Saskatchewan communities rely on the business industry. 

Judith Veresuk observed that in pre-Covid times, 30K people would daily use downtown Regina, many of them office-related workers who have since gone away. Their counterparts in the suburbs have had an easier time because they have been able to work at homes that are closer to their places of business.

No urban downtown can function well with that kind of a loss in numbers.

Jim Bence spoke about the pain being felt by urban, downtown hotels and restaurants. Those still open are paying their bills each month, but don’t know if they’ll manage next month. Fixed costs on large property can be $250K/month. With no revenue, who can survive?

Bence said that the provincial government has helped businesses to survive, but if the industry loses the summer season and conference season (September to November), it will be on the brink. Currently, industry leaders are “balancing many plates in the air” and find hope in the ingenuity and resilience of its members.

The second question for discussion was this:

(2) What are some of the key things business organizations have done to endure Covid-19?

Monica Kreuger said that the team at Global Infobrokers, including the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship, is keeping well despite Covid fatigue. There have been positives, like the money saved on gas for her to commute between Regina, Craik and Saskatoon, but then that industry has simultaneously suffered. Her team and associates have strived to make optimal use of the “down time,” to put skills and programming “in our wheelhouse to get ready for down the road.”

Kreuger said they’ve had lots of innovation, they’ve asked what are the changing needs of the people we serve, how do we come out to the other side of the pandemic? The PSE has started new relationships with people, worked in collaboration and in new ways, “stepping out of silos, that we should leave behind,” post-Covid.

Ashley Charles said it’s no surprise that Prince Albert Tourism has been badly hit. They have been challenged to meet health and safety standards. She said that it’s been especially challenging to start PAREDA in the chaos, with everyone scrambling to learn Zoom, with small businesses needing provincial and federal grants and capital that can only be accessed by detailed application procedures.

Jason Aebig said the pandemic has been top-of-mind for the Saskatoon Chamber, as it tries to connect with business owners and to assess risk, encourage pivoting or altering operations, and then to attend to members’ needs, such as having children in school, and how families cope in the pandemic. He said that the Chamber has seen the “personal toll of Covid on businesses and business owners who are exhausted, hanging on by their fingernails.”

Aebig observed that the Chamber is paying particular attention to health and wellness, asking its members what support they need and “showing up differently.” He said the Saskatoon Chamber has been discussing the economic determinants of health, recognizing that financial security is a major part of a community’s overall recovery. Members seek stability of income, investment and sector-specific advocacy. The Saskatoon Chamber has been actively managing cases of more than 60 members who were challenged with applying for grants and programs to secure rapid relief.

The Chamber and related organizations have had to be strong “to keep the lights on and to give entrepreneurs reason for optimism.”

Kreuger commented that the SK Chamber is still working on developing a strategic plan and continues with online training to help the community keep connected (e.g., the “growSMART” program, led by Kreuger and Deanna Litz). “Programming has focused on how to stay in business and even to grow.” Respondents to programming said collaboration with others has enabled them to see that entrepreneurship is not a solo effort and that collaboration is needed for every business—it’s an insight that has been illumined by Covid.

Focusing on “shopping local” is essential during Covid and after. The SK Chamber has not stopped advocating for businesses with the provincial and federal governments. The PSE has helped businesses to apply for strategic grants to keep their lights on.

Charles said that PAREDA did not implement the strategic plan it had in place, because Covid left members scrambling. Energy focused on going online, creating a website, trying to build momentum and get an investment strategy that would see Prince Albert and area benefit. How can they approach large companies and ask them to set up businesses in PA?

PAREDA has focused on activities of “response, recovery and resilience.”

Veresuk reflected similarly that the Regina BID has increased its communication with business owners to help them to apply for emergency grants, by acting as a connector. She observed that the pandemic has exposed the prominence and visibility of individuals with mental health issues, when downtown homeless shelters were also closed. Regular downtown businesses and office staff were concerned for street people, so that the BID accelerated its program, now about to launch, called “Our Community Support Program.” This links service providers with people in great need, so that law enforcement does not have to participate.

Bence said that the hospitality industry was hit early on and will be the last to recover, because no one is moving around and attending events. The “Profit and Loss sheets” show that “losses are staggering.” So they keep balancing plates in the air of (i) liquidity and (ii) mental health and wellness, mounting webinars and podcasts that are open to all.

Humans, he says, are intrinsically social beings. We “love to communicate with others and to party,” but currently, “we’re all at home, isolated, worried about job security, which can lead to alcoholism, financial ruin (esp. in the 55-65 year age range) for those not eligible for insurance but having their mortgages called in,” etc. He says the organization holds wellness checks with some of its members, via the RCMP, and that four out of five suicides occur by men.

The hospitality industry has started developing a program for mental health and wellness specific to its employees. 

The third question for discussion was this:

(3) How can businesses deliver better outcomes in times of crises like these?

Charles said one has to ensure that one’s organization is online and can pivot quickly to respond to members’ needs.

Aebig said we shouldn’t think the business community is homogenous, when it has different practices. Saskatoon businesses’ longevity has depended on their capacity for three things: (i) changed physical space (working from home, staying 12 feet apart); (ii) increased their use of technology—moving into online sales; uptake with technology in the province is the highest in the country; (iii) workplace considerations, including policies and practices to work from home.

Veresuk said that for some businesses, 2020/2021 has proven to be the best year ever. Use of technology (such as electronic take-out ordering and delivery) in the food industry has been crucial to its resilience. Equally important is that marketing messaging should not scare customers away. Regina is currently in a lockdown due to the intensity of “variant” cases. But she says consumer confidence should simultaneously increase if businesses are to benefit. So businesses need to appeal to loyal clientele with stories of how they’re coping and keeping the public safe.

Bence agreed that consumer confidence is key in going forward and that the hospitality industry can stress its own responsibility and accountability. Hotels are at the top of safety standards and (with the exception of a few outliers), most are safer than home-based teenage drinking parties and the like. But hotels need to think creatively about how to pivot and reimagine their  services.

Kreuger said pandemic times are excellent in getting to know one’s customers better and what their new needs are. Chambers have done surveys to establish these things. It’s also an excellent time to scale up by taking courses, by learning to digitize with technology—there are lots of resources available for businesses to grow (now more than ever). Businesses can get the support of clients to collaborate on ideas and feedback. It’s a great time to explore pain points and how they can be addressed as opportunities for growth. Small groups meeting virtually will continue. We are all also ready for in-person, large scale events, too.

The fourth question for discussion (raised by Ghosh) was this:

(4) How do we increase diversity in our entrepreneurial and educational communities (as the pandemic ends)? 

Kreuger commented that diversity in the business community serves everyone. Saskatchewan has welcomed diverse populations, notably in our two universities and at SK Polytechnic.  We have online virtual sessions for newcomers. We need to think about how to lay out the “welcome mat” to new immigrants or to people from other areas, so we have a robust number of entrepreneurs and customers entering our doors.

Aebig said that newcomers are crucial to the business community, such as by supplying the workforce that is trying to build us out of Covid. A painful reality is that skilled newcomers to SK have lost a year of their service or human capital to Covid. 

Charles said that attracting fewer immigrants to SK affects Prince Albert’s business model. This is a good time to strategize on how to appeal better to newcomers, to promote PA and SK as great places to live and work. Videos and website resources can extend PAREDA’s reach.

Veresuk said that we need to market our communities as good places to live and work. Regina’s low housing costs create an opportunity for home ownership. But there is too much property available “for lease” in downtown Regina: we must market these spaces to everyone, including newcomers.

Bence said his industry relies heavily on newcomers, so their reduced immigration points to a looming crisis in already crisis-ridden times. Saskatchewan’s available labour pool is very low for the hospitality industry. A pathway to permanent residency and citizenship should be service in his industry—the industry will only grow when there’s a better, more stable, pool of labour in place.

The final question for discussion was this:

(5) What supports are needed from the governments, as the pandemic ends, especially when provincial and federal budgets are about to be released?

Aebig observed that there’s a “terrible gap where businesses under two years old” can’t qualify for support and are “hamstrung and needing oxygen to survive.”

Kreuger said that entrepreneurs need to scale up and out by tapping into the “Re-Open Saskatchewan Training” incentive. If an owner can scale, they bring staff with them. Also, the SK Chamber advocates for companies to digitize. Digitization isn’t only about selling, but about how to take companies to the next level. Government investment there would be welcome and well-invested.

Veresuk referred to the “Digital Mainstream” program from the Government of Ontario, that went out to AB, and NS, as well, but SK has hovered around a decision to use it.  It addresses how small businesses can become resilient by digitization, which dovetails with downtown development, because downtown infrastructure has capacity to get projects off the ground, as Covid ends.

Charles said that investment in infrastructure in smaller and rural centres needs to increase, so that everyone has digital connectivity in their homes.

Bence said that at least the government understands the crisis and the need for supports. Allowing for more use of Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) has helped some bar and restaurant owners to survive. There should also be a cap on third-party delivery of food and alcohol, because most operators are losing out to “Skip the Dishes” or “Doordash.”

By the beginning of 2022, Bence predicts that the hospitality industry could have lost a lot of businesses. He asks what would happen to the retail market if hotels and similar services are gone? What would it be replaced by, year after year? He says entrepreneurs need to discuss these questions with mayors and city councils, about how much could be lost in losing the downtown.

Swystun and fellow moderators referred to a frustrating stigma experienced by entrepreneurs and other business members who report that the public says all they care about is staying open to make money—heedless of public safety. Swystun commented that all businesses are owned and run by people, the vast majority of which follow public safety protocol.

Kreuger said she has not heard an “open or nothing” philosophy amongst entrepreneurs.

Veresuk said that some businesses that remained open were not eligible for subsidies (CERB) and were simply trying to survive. 

Aebig said there is a polarizing effect from an economic downturn when most businesses are bending over backwards to keep employers and customers safe. Four hundred and thirty-six people have died of Covid in SK. But another tragedy would be the forcible closure of all businesses: “Be careful. Exercise caution. Let’s be as precise and targeted in our strategy as we move ahead.” This is “not an open or nothing strategy.”

When concluding, Bence commented that the business and medical communities want the same things and are not really at odds. We have to “take care of ourselves (including our employees) before we can care for others (customers).” Statistics in Alberta show that only 0.8% of transmissions of Covid occur in the hospitality industry. Most cases occur elsewhere. There are intrinsic damages done to health and wellness of a population when hospitality is taken away.

Similarly, as Charles said, there must be ways to reduce the challenges that arise from striving to get onboard with health standards by new and small-town businesses.

And now it’s your turn: are you an entrepreneur in Saskatchewan, striving to survive these late pandemic times? Do you agree with the points made by this business panel? Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.