Nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic led to gathering restrictions and consumer worries, many businesses are still feeling the strain of a year with unanticipated revenue losses.
And as Public Health Madison and Dane County has continued to release new emergency orders as recently as Dec. 15 – the eleventh this year – to mitigate the spread of the virus, business owners have been kept on their toes by ever-changing safety mandates.
The arrival of the winter months adds another layer of challenge for businesses, some of which typically see a decline in customers as temperatures drop and the snow flies. But despite those challenges, owners, managers and employees from Capital Gymnastics, Fairfield Inn and Suites, Hop Haus Brewing Company and Surroundings Events and Floral are prepared to push through the cold and the pandemic, looking ahead to 2021.
Fairfield Inn historically experiences a decline from November to March, as leisure travel on weekends goes down, general manager Charlie Eggen said. This year, the slow season follows a year in which wedding groups, youth sports and social and corporate events have all vanished, with no return for those on the horizon at this time, Eggen said.
Some of those same types of social events were what brought business to Surroundings, 1001 Solar Court, prior to a year of social distancing. Losing those customers, plus fundraisers and everyday sales has been “devastating beyond belief,” owner John Hosek said.
Even in a normal year, winter weather presents business owners with obstacles. But this year, those obstacles are affecting some of the only options they have to attract customers.
Cold weather inhibits summer adjustments
At Hop Haus, 231 S. Main St., turning the parking lot into an outdoor seating area for summer and fall was a huge hit, co-owner Sara Hoechst said.
And while the city said the brewpub could keep the lot transformed into a patio indefinitely until Public Health allows for 100% indoor capacity again, there were several reasons Hoechst said that wouldn’t work.
Race Day Events, a local athletic race company that is neighbors with Hop Haus’ location in Fitchburg, was lending the restaurant fencing and tables. Hoechst said that solution didn’t work for the winter months, considering how close that fencing was to the road, and she didn’t want it to be affected by snow plows.
But even if the makeshift patio had remained set-up through the winter months, there was another challenge – patio heaters were impossible to come by when she tried to buy them in October, Hoechst said. Plus, Hoechst said that spending extra money to purchase the heaters and the cost of propane to fuel them, while hoping it’ll make customers come out, is a double-edged sword.
But she said there’s a small patio on the northside of the building available to use all year. Hoechst is hoping for a mild winter, so that people can come out and have a beer or two on an afternoon in their coats and hats.
For Surroundings, which lost 95% of its business in the last nine months, the winter is problematic for several reasons, Hosek said.
Late spring into early fall was okay for contactless deliveries but as temps drop below 35 degrees, Hosek said he can’t leave floral arrangements unattended outside of homes, as the integrity of the flowers is affected by the cold – which he said is a horrible challenge.
The change in his business model from being event-focused to consumer-driven pushed him to become a member of Teleflora, a national delivery service for flower arrangements, somewhat like an Uber Eats or DoorDash for local florists.
But when snowy weather makes driving conditions dangerous, Hosek has to cancel orders. And he said customers don’t always understand, such as when he recently canceled an order to deliver flowers locally from a customer in Vietnam, because of a snowstorm. The customer was frustrated by his choice to keep his delivery person safe, but snowstorms are seldom a problem in Vietnam, Hosek said.
Cancellations have long-term impact
Surroundings isn’t the only one who’s lost significant revenue from cancelled events – its rate of loss isn’t far off from Fairfield’s revenue losses, which Eggen estimates have been around 85% down since March.
Corporate events at Epic Systems and school events at University of Wisconsin-Madison were two major drivers of business to Fairfield, which he said have gone away.
While he said even the smallest hotels can make a million or more dollars in revenue a year, he also said hotels are extraordinarily expensive to operate.
As such, the revenue coming in has not been enough for basics such as mortgage and payroll. The hotel has not been breaking even since March, Eggen said.
Therefore, in an effort to consolidate business, Holiday Inn Express and Suites – also managed by Eggen and under the same ownership as Fairfield – was closed from Nov. 1 until at least Feb. 1. Though, he said he realized the hotels were much worse off than he’d thought, as it did not drive much more business toward Fairfield.
Regardless of any business owners’ safety measures and even with additional stimulus, Eggen said that widespread vaccinations are also critical for businesses to bounce back.
“The main thing comes down to consumer confidence – how do people feel about coming to your community?” he said. “The key to recovery and getting back to business is the vaccinations so that people have confidence to travel again.
“Secondary to that is letting people have weddings again and youth sports – that will happen once we have recovered from the health crisis,” Eggen added.
Keeping the kids connected
Unlike Fairfield and Hop Haus, which historically see a winter downturn in business according to Eggen and Hoechst, one business in Verona generally sees an uptick in patrons come winter.
Capital Gymnastics, 310 Locust Drive, typically experiences its busiest months during fall and winter, owner and head coach April Namio said.
Capital’s goal during the pandemic has been to stay as connected with its parents and kids as possible, Namio said. The gym pivoted to online classes during the two-month shutdown that began in March.
Once children were allowed to return, the gym followed all safety measures from requiring masks and physical distancing to taking temperatures and providing hand sanitizer at the door.
For that reason, Namio said she and coaches were disappointed by the Public Health order for Dane County that prohibited indoor gatherings and sports activities, as she said she felt like they were doing everything right.
The latest order allows sports again, but does keep gathering limitations of no more than 10 indoors at the same time.
So for now, all group classes have turned into private 1 on 1 lessons. But, while coaches are working more hours, Namio is not charging families more for the individualized attention, as the pandemic limitations are beyond their control.
And class sizes have been decreased to better enforce distancing, such as a preschool class which has been reduced from 8 down to 4 kids, as Namio said half a coach’s time is spent just keeping the kids apart from each other.
Though despite its safety measures, Capital had yet to return to its pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, as some families had grandparents or other vulnerable loved ones at home who could not risk exposure.
The overall enrollment at the gym has gone from around 200 kids in March down to around 150-60 now, she said. While she said in past years enrollment of new families slows down around Christmas, she expects to see growth in the new year.
And while COVID-19 has been a hit on Capital’s revenue this year, she said she’s staying positive about everything and will just continue to do whatever she needs to do to keep the gym open while keeping kids safe.
“I don’t want to convey any negativity,” she said. “I’ve had parents say, ‘thank you for being open, this is the only thing we still have to see people outside our home – thank god for gymnastics,’ that means a lot to me. Obviously we’ve lost a ton of revenue, but we’re going to get it back and come back better and stronger.”
Getting creative, waiting for help
Though not everyone feels as comfortable about the future as Namio. Hoechst said that even in a normal year, heading into January is a tricky time for brewers as sales tend to go down, but she said this year knowing how bad it will be because of the added reduction in business from the pandemic is “really really scary.”
She said Hop Haus will have to get creative to attract customers, and is considering new food options to get people in the door – or joining forces with other businesses to host a scavenger hunt with prizes.
But despite getting tight and lean with staffing, Hoechst said without further state or federal stimulus, it may be difficult to make January and February payroll.
As such, she’s looking forward to hopefully re-opening the parking lot patio by mid-March.
Eggen agrees that further stimulus is the only way to survive.
“We’re fully dependent on significant financial release or our communities will be significantly reshaped and a lot of people will lose their livelihood,” he said. “It’s vital not only in Verona and Dane County, but across the country, but I do worry support is coming in too little too late.”
Like Namio at Capital, Eggen feels Fairfield is doing everything right when it comes to sanitation and health measures, saying that customers “can’t be anywhere safer.”
But safety measures cannot contend with public health orders, nor people’s discomfort.
However, he said a sales team works to track down every piece of business it can – such as construction workers.
Like the others, Surroundings will also continue to thrive by being creative, Hosek said.
“We as Americans have a tendency to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “When we come into times of need, we’re either creatures of habit or we seek change. I seek change, because I don’t want to fail.”
Apart from joining Teleflora delivery, Hosek said he put the front of his shop “on steroids” doing everything he could to attract new customers by livening up the sidewalk and yard, such as putting out pots of palms to line the building and getting an inflatable flailing arm tube man to put alongside the highway.
He’s also turned his show room virtual through social media and YouTube.
Surroundings would normally decorate holiday parties for 12-15 corporate clients, but this year received none of that business.
And decorating houses had often been a wintertime source of revenue.
Clients referred to Hosek and his staff as “the elves coming in,” he said as they would transform homes by putting trees up, and decorating mantles, bannisters, stairwells and porches pots.
In an average year, Hosek and his elves would decorate 45 to 50 homes but this year only were asked into 15 to 20.
He believes that’s because of people’s concerns about bringing outsiders into their homes this year.
But, he said he’s had upwards of 100 people stop into his shop since March who said they’ve lived in the area for years and never knew it was there.
“It’s been a struggle, I won’t pretend it hasn’t – the pandemic did a lot of bad things, but it did good things, too,” Hosek said.