Op-ed: COVID-19 forces businesses to face destruction head-on

Lansdowne Park
The sports franchises and other organizations that use Lansdowne Park and various venues across the city will feel the impact of COVID-19 for years to come, writes Walter Robinson. (Photo by Shawn Kent / Flickr)

Disruption has been the ubiquitous buzzword in myriad articles over the past half-decade for authors describing technology-driven category-killers such as Netflix, Uber, Airbnb and local success stories such as Shopify, Assent Compliance and Ruckify.

In the business world, COVID-19 has sidelined disruption in favour of its more menacing cousin: destruction. Companies across a wide swath of sectors have been forced (not chosen, as government and public health policies have diminished their markets and operating flexibility) down one of four paths: death from destruction, pivot from destruction, re-tool to avoid destruction or paralysis in the face of destruction. 

Media reports across the globe have chronicled the deaths of tens of thousands of businesses. Sadly and too often, these firms were family-run for generations and community institutions in retail, hospitality, tourism or journalism. 

But it can be argued that the global pandemic merely accelerated the destruction of some of these businesses that already operated on razor-thin profit margins, failed to cultivate and steward their customers, couldn’t or wouldn’t invest in new equipment, had credit and terms of trade stretched to the breaking point if not delinquent, and their business model already under siege from competitors in e-commerce or other factors.

Pivoting from destruction

Despite the best efforts of their proud owners, the destruction of shuttered storefronts, workers out on the street and broken dreams have ensued. 

Meanwhile, other business owners from restaurants to caterers to drycleaners to main street boutiques have pivoted away from destruction and embraced an expanded online presence and takeout and delivery or curbside pickup options or legally collaborated with competitors and their supply chain partners to keep their business ecosystem, if not thriving, at least in some form sci-fi inspired suspended animation. The principles and ethos that underlie movements such as slow-food, buy-local and 15- to 20-minute walkable communities have enabled these efforts.

For the manufacturing sector – national and local – re-tooling, as a response to the destruction trend, has been an option for up to 40 per cent of businesses, according to some reports.

From aerospace to automobiles to consumer durables and specialty goods, manufacturers have shown flexibility to innovatively adapt equipment and apply engineering knowledge to rework processes to meet current needs in PPE, ventilators, testing equipment, plexiglass partitions and disinfectant production. It will be interesting to see how much of this re-tooling shift permanently transforms some of these enterprises.

Finally, a large swath of business remains paralyzed as they face triple-V (virus vector velocity) forces and their destructive potential. The common thread amongst these businesses is mass gatherings of people that are exciting/raucous/buzz-generating in contained – indoors or open-air – settings. And the roster of these businesses, activities and employees is growing.

Team sports events (amateur and professional), competitive (running, cycling, rowing, triathlon) races, concerts and multi-day music festivals, ethnocultural celebrations, other performing arts (ballet/symphony/comedy), annual association conventions, trade shows, exhibit halls, summer camps, fitness studios and gyms, dining establishments, casinos, movie theatres, parades, charity breakfasts-balls-fundraisers-telethons, educational lectures, poutine-craft beer-busker-ribfests, antique car rallies, museums, wedding venues and even funeral homes all make this list.

In addition, these mass gathering events and activities have their own value-chain of partners and people who are also materially affected, including ushers, concessions staff, AV technicians, food providers, facilities maintenance teams, web content developers, security firms, fence and sanitation vendors, and in-house resources such as sales-sponsorship-programming teams. 

Moreover, these events and businesses often rely on packed public transit to get proverbial “bums in seats” – another paralyzing setback. Then there is the lost opportunity for literally thousands of volunteers who are critical to the success of these events and spectacles.

The Senators, Redblacks, AtleticoOttawa, Bluesfest, Jazzfest, the NAC, Shenkman Arts Centre, Centrepointe, HardRock, Lac Leamy, TulipFest, Canada Day on Parliament Hill, Festival Franco-Ontarien, Capital Pride, Dancing With The Docs, Fight For The Cure, and Race Weekend; this is just a small snapshot of the organizations and events that define our community, attract hundreds of thousands of people, generate tens of millions in economic activity, and create an infinite number of smiles and memories each year.

The human misery and loss due to COVID-19 is tragic and will scar us forever. Yet, even after an effective treatment or vaccine is found and/or herd immunity is reached in 2021 or 2022, the destructive impact of COVID-19 on our culture, tourism, events and entertainment sectors will be felt for years, if not generations, to come.

Walter Robinson is a government and public affairs executive who served as chief of staff to former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien in 2006-07.