Pivots That Helped Businesses Through the Pandemic Have Endured

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In Fall 2020, it was an uncommon sight to see so many cars parked in a gravel lot on the outskirts of Detroit suburbs. Masked visitors thronged the place, walking along a path into the woods, amazed by the lights deep within the forest.

Visitors came keen for an adventurous night break from staying home. They were drawn by Glenlore Trails and the temptation of an eccentric half-mile hike through a lit-up forest.

“We envisaged it to be like traversing through a movie”, said Scott Schoeneberger, the brain behind Glenlore Trails alongside his wife, Chanel. “We didn’t have a prototype of what ‘good’ was. We simply decided to install lights in the woods.”

What the visitors encountered was not just a couple of lights but an immersive experience of interactive video walls, colored waterfalls, video projections lighting up the tree canopy, and much more. It was an instant success. Tickets were sold out within a week for the month-long run thus encouraging Mr. Schoeneberger to add more dates. The couple soon realized that this adventurous idea could potentially help their main business, Bluewater Technologies not only endure through the Covid-19 crisis but also keep some of their 225 staff off furlough.

They least expected that three years later, Glenlore Trails would contribute 6 percent to the company’s revenue, with the forecast that it could potentially account for 25 percent in the next five years. “The entire process was speedy, and four years in, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” said Ms. Schoeneberger, the events operations manager.

Bluewater, like many other small businesses, struggled for survival during the pandemic. According to a study by Visa in August 2020, about 67 percent of such businesses reshaped their operations: restaurants began offering homemade meal kits and even started general stores, gyms shifted to online classes, and some veterinarians began drive-thru consultations.

“The pandemic saw a lot of businesses taking big risks,” said Laura Huang, director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at Northeastern University. “When your business is down, there’s no harm in putting yourself out there.”

As customers start to demand a return to the old ways, many businesses are moving away from their pandemic adaptations. However, for some business owners like Mr. Schoeneberger, the Covid climate proved to be an avenue for experimentation that still pays off. They’re making their changes a permanent fixture.

For that to happen, Dr. Huang suggested, “a successful pivot needs to complement their business, not compete with it.”

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Schoeneberger observed that the company’s audiovisual equipment was lying unused and their staff needed work. He proposed the idea to his mother, Suzanne Schoeneberger, the company’s owner, and the team. They all agreed, and in just a month, Mr. Schoeneberger (37) and his wife (34), went from predictably looking for a suitable land to lease, to welcoming the first guests to Glenlore Trails. They hired an influencer to advertise on TikTok to get the word out.

“Given the situation, everyone was open to giving it a shot,” Mr. Schoeneberger noted.

Since then, they’ve expanded their service offering, partnering with conventions and corporate clients to offer similar experiences. They’ve extended the trail to a mile and introduced new themes each season. They’ve invested in equipment specifically for the project, are scouting for a permanent location, and have hired five full-time employees and 20 part-time staff dedicated to the company’s themed-entertainment division.

“It has evolved into a research and development center for us,” noted Mr. Schoeneberger.

Successful pivots often lean into the company’s core strengths in a new way, said Dr. Huang. “The small businesses that manage to continue to operate are the ones that revert to those areas they excel at.”

For Kyle Beyer, that meant venturing into vaccines. Pre-pandemic, his independent pharmacy located just north of Milwaukee, in Shorewood, Wis., didn’t offer them, but now vaccinations constitute 10 percent of revenue and have indirectly doubled the company’s prescription business over three years.

“Covid fast-tracked our marketing efforts that would have otherwise taken five years into a year,” said Mr. Beyer. “It brought people through our doors that might not have considered us otherwise.”

With over a decade’s experience as a pharmacist, Mr. Beyer (37), decided to purchase his own practice in 2019. After making eight cold calls, a pharmacist in Shorewood agreed to meet. They finalized the deal of what was then the 88-year-old business, North Shore Pharmacy, on March 1, 2020.

Less than two weeks later, the status quo changed abruptly. Mr. Beyer suddenly found himself grappling with the unknown as a business owner and not just a pharmacist.

Despite being deemed an essential business, North Shore Pharmacy didn’t close its doors, yet many customers, due to their high risk of experiencing severe illness, were wary of leaving their homes. To accommodate them, Mr. Beyer introduced curbside pickup services and expanded the existing delivery services. During the interim with fewer clients inside, he used the time to refurbish the space that hadn’t been renovated since the 1980s.

When the Covid-19 vaccine doses became available, Mr. Beyer registered to receive them. He doubted that North Shore Pharmacy would top the list to receive the initial doses, but in early January 2021, the state health department contacted him notifying of the delivery of 100 doses the following day.

The next 24 hours were a whirlwind. He promptly converted a recently refurbished display section into a waiting area for the vaccination service. “By chance, we had this large, appealing space that could comfortably accommodate 10 people, chatting and waiting peacefully,” narrated Mr. Beyer.

Soon, people from surrounding areas began flocking to the pharmacy for their jabs. Mr. Beyer had to hire a full-time nurse to keep up with the influx. The rush has since mitigated, but the nurse still works there part-time, administering childhood vaccines, back-to-school shots, and providing travel services.

“We realized that our potential lies in being a local problem solver,” said Mr. Beyer.

In March 2022, he acquired a second location in a neighboring community where he introduced compounding – formulating specialty medications to his services.

Sometimes, the redirection is not about what you offer but who you offer it to. For LaQuanta Williams, it meant discontinuing the residential cleaning service and concentrating on commercial clients. A change she has made permanent.

“The pandemic compelled my business to change in a way I hadn’t anticipated,” Ms. Williams noted. “I lost all my residential clients in a single day. Literally, the very same day.”

Ms. Williams founded her company, White Glove Cleaning Solutions, while still a student at the University of Akron in Ohio. Acknowledging her compulsive habit of constantly cleaning, a friend sparked an idea during an entrepreneurship course where students were required to create their own businesses.

Amazed by her project, her professor prompted her to apply for a cleaning position at the university to gain hands-on experience before launching her business. She secured the job but resolved to delay starting her own venture.

In 2018, when Ms. Williams, now 45, was laid off from work, she decided to use her severance package to start her company. She leased an office and started distributing introductory promotional postcards. Almost instantly, her schedule was bustling with residential clients.

Even though those clients vanished in March 2020, it did not deter her. After considering acquiring electrostatic sprayers for quick surface disinfection, she purchased two and began reaching out to stores and offices to offer her services.

Once again, she was swamped with bookings. A program that aides minority suppliers linked her to several contractors who needed post-construction cleanup services. She has since hired five people to keep up with the demand and believes she won’t revert to residential cleaning.

“When I do, I have the luxury of being selective with clients,” she concluded.

Business Pivot Strategies Used During the Pandemic Have Proven Effective Long-Term