When COVID-19 forced most non-essential retailers and service providers to close their doors last spring, business owners in Kingston – a city where many merchants rely heavily on tourist traffic – held their collective breath.
“We thought, ‘Oh, it would be a couple of weeks,’ but then reality hit,” recalls Aba Mortley, the owner of Cher-Mere Day Spa.
Having previously relied on providing in-person treatments, Mortley turned to e-commerce to sell homemade beauty products, but found it difficult to cover her rent and electricity bills.
“I was worrying about my staff,” she says. “How can we quickly adapt and try to mitigate the loss?”
For Mortley and dozens of other merchants, part of the answer involved joining forces with one another and leveraging local economic development initiatives to raise the profile of their unique offerings in new venues to tourists and local residents alike.
And, with COVID-19 cases and travel restrictions continuing to linger on the eve of a new summer tourism season, officials are hoping the investments – which included $95,000 in provincial funding earlier this year – will continue to pay dividends by connecting customers with local businesses.
‘Here’s our story’
Kingston Economic Development Corp. started to lay the foundation for accelerating support for local businesses with a consumer campaign called Love Kingston.
After starting as an online directory of local businesses, the program grew into something bigger as summer rolled around and more partners came on board, says spokesperson Alison Migneault.
Tourism Kingston began encouraging staycations and offered packages through the campaign. Then the city and Downtown Kingston introduced The Marketplace, a public place for pedestrians and businesses to gather. It included revamping some of the aesthetics of the downtown area and expanding sidewalks to create more space for patios.
They also produced video profiles of the businesses, giving owners the chance to tell their stories.
“It’s not the time to be promoting and marketing traditional tourism.”
“It’s not the time to be promoting and marketing traditional tourism, so we really do have (to take) a localized approach,” says Megan Knott, the executive director of Visit Kingston.
At Cher-Mere Day Spa, Mortley created an at-home spa-in-a-box that included her beauty products. Then Mortley got others on board to add some of their products to the boxes, such as chocolates and candles, which helped promote her local partners.
“Love Kingston really highlighted local and rallied to collaborate and support businesses,” Mortley says. “It kept me top-of-mind for people and let them know that we were here, here’s our story and here’s how you can engage with us.”
Kingston-based Spearhead Brewing Co. was also hit hard by the dramatic drop in the number of visitors to the city. Not only were fewer customers coming to Spearhead’s brewery, but bars and restaurants were operating at reduced capacity, meaning many clients were curtailing their regular beer orders.
Spearhead was another business that benefited from Love Kingston as it set up a satellite shop in a high-traffic location. Spearhead president Josh Hayter says the company also got creative to ensure it was helping to support other local businesses.
“(Love Kingston) had us (in the marketplace) so we were at least able to extend our footprint into the downtown,” Hayter says. “What we didn’t want to do was have people in the square, buying beer from us and then not go to the restaurants around. So, we gave out coupons to those restaurants along with our beer.”
This year, the downtown marketplace will continue, as will patio expansions and street closures. Key attractions – such as cruises and trolly tours – will hopefully reopen.
“We need to love our community and we need to love it quickly,” Knott says. “That’s the premise: love the community, the experience and shopkeepers.”