How it started, how it's going: Here's how 3 N.L. businesses have adapted under the pandemic

·5 min read
From left, the people behind Corner Brook's Hue & Draw hotel, Urban Market 1919 in St. John's, and 618 Entertainment in Twillingate have had to adapt under the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Autumn Gale/Sandra Lee/Mike McDonald - image credit)
From left, the people behind Corner Brook's Hue & Draw hotel, Urban Market 1919 in St. John's, and 618 Entertainment in Twillingate have had to adapt under the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Autumn Gale/Sandra Lee/Mike McDonald - image credit)

Nearly two years into the pandemic, we've seen businesses in all industries emerging or adapting to meet changing consumer demands while managing public health protocols.

Three Newfoundland and Labrador businesses, all of which either opened or significantly changed operations during the pandemic, are showing us the value of customer engagement, local support and resiliency.

Strength in numbers: Urban Market 1919

Urban Market 1919 opened in November 2020 in St. John's.

"We had to personally open it with very little support funding-wise," says co-owner Ivy Allan. "But because we knew that everybody wanted to support local, that was how we were able to be successful."

Allan says Urban Market's key to success was their willingness to adapt, not just to the pandemic but to customer demand.

"We constantly pivot to keep new products in store and keep customers happy and engaged."

Located in a former convenience store space on LeMarchant Road, when Urban Market 1919 opened it offered both general convenience items and locally sourced goods.

Submitted by Sandra Lee
Submitted by Sandra Lee

Within three months we realized that our Hershey's chocolate bars were expiring," as customers were seeking products like Mother's Cupboard, Busy Moms, and Aunt Sarah's. "All they wanted was local."

Allan characterizes Urban Market's model as "strength in numbers." She says the shop provides a space for customers to seek out their favourite brands, while at the same time learning about lesser-known local products. He says customer engagement is essential, so their staff records requests so they can seek out the vendors customers are looking for.

"I find that the customer relationship is just as important as the product itself," he says.

Urban Market 1919 already has plans to double its space. Serving customers in-store, via drive-thru window, and by local delivery, their next goal is online sales across Canada.

Reinvention: 618 Entertainment

When asked whether he has seen a shift in priorities for 618 Entertainment over the past two years, Mike McDonald says, "They're just night and day."

Incorporated in 2018 with the mandate to "provide employment for the artists of Newfoundland and Labrador while servicing the tourism industry," the company made a pre-emptive move in March 2020 and leased the Twillingate Performing Arts Centre, to host live-streaming concerts. McDonald estimates he has streamed about 100 events since the beginning of the pandemic.

Since that move to online performances, 613 Entertainment was nominated for several MusicNL and East Coast Music Association awards, and in 2020 won the MusicNL award for industry professional of the year. The Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce has also recognized 618 with its annual award for outstanding company.

"They surely don't pay the bills," says McDonald. "It's validation to keep pushing."

Submitted by Mike McDonald
Submitted by Mike McDonald

When the Omicron surge forced performance venues to shut down again, McDonald was forced to find new revenue opportunities for his equipment and expertise. In addition to live concert streaming, he now offers mobile recording and production services and helps organizations move their events or festivals into digital or hybrid formats. He also rents out his high-end production equipment for rental.

While his current work feels a long way from his original mandate, McDonald says he's committed to supporting Newfoundland and Labrador artists in whatever capacity he can.

Whenever he can, he seeks out local talent rather than hiring unknown service providers.

"I'm still serving my mandate; it's just not at all how I thought I'd be serving it."

The power of local: Hew & Draw

After a three-year construction, the Hew & Draw hotel opened its doors in Corner Brook on March 1, 2020, and then was immediately shut down by the pandemic.

"There was such buzz about a new hotel in Corner Brook," says director of operations Autumn Gale. "There hadn't been a new hotel here in 30 years."

The Hew & Draw's only guests in its first four months were Eastern Health essential workers who had come to work for Western Health.

Gale sees this delayed startup as a "silver lining" in the pandemic cloud.

"For our first year or two we were going to figure out how to properly run our business and get it to a world-class level of experience and luxury."

Submitted by Autumn Gale
Submitted by Autumn Gale

That extra time seems to have paid off, as the Hew & Draw was recently selected as one Travel & Leisure magazine's best new hotels in the world.

Travel restrictions gave the company time to collaborate with other local businesses and build partnerships within the province's tourism industry. This local engagement has enabled the hotel to offer unique experience packages that support more Newfoundland and Labrador businesses.

The staycation movement has kept Hew & Draw running despite travel restrictions.

"People are seeking out local," says Gale. "They're seeking out businesses where they know the single consumer's footprint is going to touch more than one local business and support as many people as possible."

But Gale stresses the hospitality industry will need more than community support to be sustainable in the long term. "Our businesses are depending on the traveller, and the fact is that there just aren't enough local people to keep us open for long."

When asked about the importance of resiliency, Gale laughs.

"We're all on an episode of Red Green right now. Another news announcement comes out, we just add a little more duct tape."

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