As we reflect upon lessons learned from the pandemic, recurring themes of resiliency, flexibility, and community have emerged. Whether it’s employers, employees, entrepreneurs and people gigging it, there’s one thing we all have in common: hope.
Several companies shared their stories as to how they’ve been managing these unprecedented times.
Bret Csencsitz, managing partner, Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City, leaned into determination, the power of relationships and vision. As the restaurant business was hit particularly hard, he had to let go the entire staff of 100 people. “Hands down, hardest thing I had to do. I felt the weight of the responsibility for their well-being.”
People told him to move on, saying New York would never be the same again and that he should change careers. “I kept coming back to the feeling that this could not be the end, that this was not the last word for Gotham,” he said. “I was determined to keep the story alive and at the same time lay plans for the best years ahead.”
In 2015, he launched Gotham Chocolates, and during the pandemic while noting a silver lining of spending more time with family, he leaned into it as a full-fledged business to keep moving forward that includes partnership with brands and a retail shop.
As Csencsitz forged ahead with a new business partner, he reached out to his community — “colleagues, family, former bosses, suppliers, customers and sometimes just anyone who would listen….It is enlightening and powerful to come to understand what is possible through these longtime relationships.”
As a mobile media company that specializes in remote production, employees were able to redeploy using mobile units and extra laptops while working from home. Staff rotated between working from home and taking turns to safely produce two live productions simultaneously from one NYC location with limited staff on-site.
Butler said, “When the pandemic hit, we had to be strategic and navigate how we could operate and keep our employees and our clients safe, while continuing to run the business. It was important to me to lean into our own capabilities and pivot as needed so we could let our clients know we were there for them and could accommodate their needs.”
Butler leaned into existing technology by putting robotic cameras into action and creating mobile units and she put herself back on camera. In addition, her team has spent a lot of time communicating.
“We were on the phone a lot. As a leader, I try to make it fun. I wanted everyone to know that we’re going to be okay. We were so busy working so many hours, I think it was more of morale to keep going. Everyone really rose to the occasion. I’ve definitely learned we’re extremely resilient, flexible, we can handle anything. I already knew that, but this has been a testament more than anything.”
Pivoting was also key for Eugene Uman, director of the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, VT. During the pandemic, business scaled back significantly in some ways, yet it expanded in other ways.
From May through June of 2020, live musical acts were eliminated from the calendar. Uman said, “Compared to 2019 figures, earned income went from robust to bust.” Live stream events, however, were offered, and there was a loss of 46 percent of concert revenue compared to donations the same time period in 2019. Revenue from the summer workshop was reduced by 75 percent because tuition costs were lowered when programs, concerts and discussions were moved online.
“Due to Zoom fatigue, the number of hours of programming/class-time was cut significantly. Our costs shrunk, too, as we did not have to pay rent to the prep-school where, for the past 23 years we held in-person workshops.”
However, Uman said these numbers don’t present the well-being of the organization which has flourished. “We received generous assistance from the federal government in the form of a forgivable PPP loan from the CARES Act. We also received awards from grant-giving foundations such as the New England Foundation of the Art’s Resilience Program, the Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Humanities Council, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Emergency Economic Recovery Grant and more.”
Second, by redesigning their business model, they blossomed due to the community-minded people who support them. “There is a deep sense of commitment from our public, they feel a sense of ownership of the institution and an investment in seeing that we continue to exist so that they can enjoy the music they love in an exciting yet comforting environment. In 2020 we realized a 63% increase from our annual appeal when compared to 2019, plus there were several donations outside of the appeal that raised that figure by another $24,000.”
Uman attributed teamwork, adaptability, collaboration and thinking outside the box as key skills he and his colleagues leaned into. By shifting from in-person concerts to an online format, they developed an accessible format that featured narrative as well as music. “We met to discuss how we could create a new experience that we would not have been able to produce live. In the past, our shows have typically been musical performances only, with perhaps a masterclass component. Moving forward we love the idea of using new talent and formats which we haven’t had access to in the past.”
Dr. Andrew A. Geller, DDS of Geller Family Dental in Bronxville, NY, also mentioned his staff supported each other through communication, mainly group texts as they experienced challenges.
During lockdown last spring, dental offices were only allowed to treat emergencies. Routine cleanings weren’t allowed and as a result, his business operated at 15 percent of its normal productivity for about 10 weeks which meant furloughing 17 employees. Six people remained so the office was able to operate at a bare minimum and he commended them for working when risks were so high.
“I have nothing but understanding and compassion for those who temporarily shifted away from the workplace to manage their own needs. Both were necessary and appropriate at that time. My consistent message was that their job would remain available to them once they decided on a timeline they were comfortable with. A business owner fails when they choose greed of business over loyalty to their employees. That was a decision I never entertained because to me, loyalty is priceless.”
While his office was allowed to re-open last June, employees had concerns around their return to work as patients feared going to the dentist. “A dental visit, in many patients’ views, suddenly became a risk to their health rather than a benefit.”
Then, in October, he saw an increase in business productivity as his entire staff was back to full-time schedules as his office strictly followed COVID-19 protocols. He leaned into adaptability to running a business with issues surrounding employment, PPP loans and operational guidelines.
“Running a dental business is challenging enough when the rules and mandates are clear. When they are as ambiguous as they were during the pandemic, however, it presented an entirely new obstacle that called for adaptability. When you remain adaptable in business, you will always be better equipped for survival, regardless of the situation.”
Another take-away from the pandemic, is continuing with PPE protocols currently in place. “Working in a dental office, my entire team was already comfortable and used to wearing a mask. Half of our work day is spent wearing gloves and masks while operating on patients. However, we did not wear masks outside of patient treatment. PPE was usually removed as soon as the procedure finished. The pandemic, in my opinion, has presented clear data to show that masks work at preventing the spread of illness. During the last year, we have been combating COVID-19. But, there will always be other contractible illnesses that can easily spread between doctor, patient and staff if we aren’t wearing a mask. I would like to see my entire team wear a mask at all times when interacting with patients and other employees. We have an opportunity to utilize the information we learned from the pandemic to promote better health. I want to set a healthy example for my patients and the community we serve.”
Lastly, travel was a another industry that got hit hard. Dario Jelencovich, president and cofounder of Super Travel of Palm Beach, a Travel Leaders Network affiliated travel agency, said at the start of the pandemic, he and Linda, his wife and co-owner, worked in overdrive to get their clients safely back home before the shutdown.
Dario, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, said his service prepared him for anything that’s thrown his way. “That’s why when COVID-19 hit, while it has been incredibly challenging, I was able to adjust, be flexible, remain calm, especially while supporting and helping travelers all over the world, as the pandemic broke. Travel advisors have always been critically important over the years, even more so in times of crisis, and COVID-19 has been no different.”
Although travel has mainly been on pause, he’s leaned into resiliency and helping clients prepare for the return on travel and getting back to basics. “I looked at our overall business strategy for my business, took new courses in marketing, and explored the world via Zoom to prepare for the return of travel. What’s more, I have been very dedicated in checking in with my clients. It’s been important to focus on customer service and that human element to ensure the wellbeing of long term clients. While many have not been able to travel, dreaming of travel will never go away, as it’s truly a form of self-care being able to explore the world and seek out cultural experiences.
They leveraged down time to take marketing courses and training online as well as get schooled over new industry protocols. For instance, Linda received her master of adventure and bachelor of adventure with Royal Caribbean University. She also achieved the prestigious commodore status in Princess Cruises’ Academy training program, certifying her as an expert cruise professional. Now, they’re back to booking clients’ future trips that have been selling out for the rest of 2021 into 2022 and beyond through 2023, looking towards the future.
Above all the skills learned, setbacks, pivots and sideways turned forward movement, Csencsitz said there’s a phrase he’s fond of: “Sapere Aude which is Latin for ‘dare to know” or ‘dare to be wise.’ I had difficulty at times trusting my own thoughts and ideas. I had to learn to trust myself, and I stumbled across the phrase in an Immanuel Kant essay on The Enlightenment and it continues to give me a boost of confidence to tackle what is unknown and do it through diligence, data and determination. It helps me to take that extra step and keeps me moving forward.”