Continuing our work of speaking to people involved locally in business, today we spoke to Amanda Masters, CEO of Experience Guildford about what she has seen as the impact on businesses during this second national lockdown, and how they have been helping local businesses.
How have businesses dealt with the COVID outbreak?
On the whole, very well. It was a real blow back in March because of the strict restrictions, but many of those traders who didn’t have much of an online or social media presence really upped their digital offering. More began to promote themselves to stay front of mind and began their e-commerce journey. I think there was a realisation that online isn’t necessarily the enemy of the bricks and mortar business, but can actually work hand in hand with it. It is impressive how quickly they adapted their business models to make the most of a very difficult situation. It was hard for everyone to lose so much face-to-face trading time. Which is why the November lock down is a real kick in the teeth. Retailers can make most of their annual turnover in the weeks running up to Christmas, so to lose so much of that is hard.
What help is there on a local level for small businesses?
There is a lot of support available for businesses. There is no magic wand unfortunately, but organisations like, Experience Guildford, Surrey Chambers and Guildford Borough Council have offered online training, links to grant funding and peer to peer support where needed. We created a Crowdfunding platform for our businesses to investigate other sources of income to help support them through the lockdown. We brought in external partners such as a local digital agency to give advice on how to take a business online. I think communication is vital, so our e-comms went from weekly to daily to make sure we were pushing out information as soon as we could.
I hope businesses are looking into whether they can claim government grants again. Also, as in the last lockdown, local authorities will have some discretionary funds, which I hope helps as many businesses as possible.
Do you think of Guildford Borough Councils response to the pandemic?
I think the council recognised the need to support the staff and customers of the essential stores in lockdown 1, and they provided parking to help those travel challenges. Their rates team worked so hard to get the grants out as quickly as possible to eligible businesses and those they couldn’t reach they asked us to get in touch with. As we headed toward the re-opening of the non-essential stores in June, I approached GBC to align our plans to make sure the town was ready to welcome shoppers back. They gave me lots of officer support and helped conversations with Surrey County Council in order to make this happen. It was truly a huge partnership effort. Indeed, the team that I gathered to provide these measures in town still meets every 2 or so weeks to implement other COVID related measures which directly affect the town centre.
It is great to see they are reviewing their parking charges (hopefully to come into force before Christmas!) which will enable people to spend longer in the town for less. I hope now we continue these discussions as we look towards the transformation of the town centre.
What is Experience Guildford doing to help businesses in Guildford?
Additional to the above we have worked throughout the lockdowns to support our stakeholders. During lock down the town rangers were out about 7 days a week, making sure business premises are secure, keeping an eye on things like shoplifting and supporting those who were trading. We facilitated free training. We promoted the individual businesses through our own channels as long as helping them get on their feet where this was concerned and where needed. We kept them all informed of government guidance and funds available to them. We provided distancing floor stickers, COVID safety paperwork, launched a Pubwatch Facebook page to share info and ideas through, continued to highlight our independents, lobbied local and national government to provide greater financial support and started the #ISupportGuildford campaign. We acted as the “go-to” for the stakeholders’ questions. If we didn’t have the answer we found somebody who did! Now we have launched Mi Rewards Guildford, a town wide loyalty scheme which encourages shoppers to support local.
Now I am linking up with agents and landlords to try and utilise some of the empty units in the town (not as easy as people think!) and to enliven the town at a time when events are not allowed as such.
How can people support local business?
Firstly, sign up to the Mi Rewards scheme! www.Mi-rewards.com It is free and you could win some lovely prizes. Secondly and importantly, think before ordering from Amazon. If what you want is available from a local shop, that business will benefit more from your purchase than the big guys will. Also, spread the love! Leave a Google review of a local business, help them reach more people by liking and sharing their pages.
What is your message to business people in Guildford, who may be struggling at this time?
What I have seen around our independent businesses is that they are resilient and the local customers are fiercely loyal to them. I would say don’t ignore digital, embrace it and talk to your customers even if your doors are not physically open right now. They will remember you if you continue your conversation with them.
Ed is a designer, business owner, environmental campaigner and Councillor representing Ash Wharf on Ash Parish Council