There was a point during the first months of the pandemic when I wanted to get hold of the business experts preaching pivoting and take them into a dark back alley to share a few of my thoughts. Luckily, social distancing intervened since it might have ended badly for me instead. Besides, I have now made some adaptations of my own as I work at figuring out how to stay in business.
Calls to Pivot
Beginning in March and April as the repercussions of the coronavirus lockdowns began rippling out, the commands to “Pivot!” became more strident. We were inundated by stories of companies who turned on a dime to retool their manufacturing to make masks or ventilators, or otherwise reinvented themselves. Business success stories are normally inspiring reads. I no longer found inspiration. Instead they added to my already overburdened stress levels. Why wasn’t I able to do the same?
Like many businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector, and others, my adventure travel company has been and continues to be pummelled by the pandemic. We have only been able to run one trip this year, from the 14 that were on the calendar. Oh the sweet memories of that rowing tour to Martinique in late February and early March.
Having owned and operated tour companies for over 20 years, I initially felt that I was understanding and responding reasonably well and rapidly. In January, while on holiday in the Bahamas, I started hearing about the virus and what was happening in China. With my previous cycling and walking tour company, we weathered SARS, as well as 9/11, Iraq war to mention a few challenges to travel. In January I started trimming a few expenses. In the period before returning to the Caribbean to run the rowing trip, further costs were cut and we started strategizing about the trips planned for Italy in May and communicating with guests, many of whom were concerned. Within one week of returning from Martinique we were in full lockdown.
What exactly is pivoting anyway?
The term “pivot” originated with The Lean Start-up. In the seminal 2011 book it is defined as” a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth”. Pivots are major and they are hard and must happen fast. And they should be data driven, not based on gut instinct but real feedback information.
The concept has been embraced and pivoting is part of our vocabulary. Others have argued that pivots can be less radical, for example focusing on a different set of customers. Some have called pivoting a “reimagining of assets and talents”. We are also told to be agile. Nimble is sometimes used. Fundamentally businesses need to be responsive in a smart way.
And then there is swiveling, contorting and backflipping
Pivoting during a pandemic is different. For virtually all businesses, rapid change was imposed and not because of a fundamental flaw that needed correcting. There was no data and few precedents. We were confused, exhausted and overwhelmed by the health threat of the coronavirus, what it meant for our families and friends, let alone impacts on jobs and our businesses.
Not running tours did not translate to nothing to do. Our priority was communicating with guests. It was hard to find information on both travel and rowing restrictions. In 2020 we were planning trips in eight different countries. Our guests were coming from Canada, the USA, United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden. Who was allowed to go where, with or without quarantine, was confusing and changing quickly. Rowing was initially not permitted in most of our destinations and then only in singles. This was a significant complication, since we usually row bigger boats especially coxed quads. What about hotels, restaurant meals, transportation? Could we issue refunds to guests when hotels were not refunding our deposits and we were concerned about preserving cash to stay in business. Addressing all of these and other issues wasn’t pivoting, but it sure was active and hard. We were swiveling, contorting and backflipping to keep the core functions of the company going.
Turns out we did some pivoting
During the spring and summer, I felt that I was getting nothing done besides surviving and feeling badly that I was not doing enough. There was ample despair and negativity around and I had my share. Rowing was essential to sanity as was the chance to begin to see friends in person. A camping trip to Caliper Lake was enormously restorative and reminded me that taking care of myself came before the business.
Looking back, I am surprised by what we managed to accomplish. We created a new style of rowing travel called Independent Rowing Experiences which were covid-compliant. We launched our first ever trips in the USA and built a new website to feature them. Now we have trips in this style in Greece and Italy and are developing more in other countries, which will be ready for 2021. Next, we created a second style of trips called Hybrid Explorers, starting with the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. Even while we work to offer 2021 replacement trips for the cancelled group and guided tours, we are preparing for different contingencies, as difficult as that is when you can’t see far ahead.
I have had a consulting business for over 30 years, in addition to the adventure companies. I am incredibly fortunate to get a few contracts since the pandemic really got going. Consulting is going through some tough times too and finding work is not easy. Regardless I will keep investing a certain amount of time and energy to find small projects and opportunities – a little more twisting and turning.
More pivoting to come
Support from the Canadian government has been essential. I am extremely grateful. Most of the programs have not applied to me and there is a lot of criticism especially as some measures wind down or evolve. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit was brilliant and delivered in record time. It has kept me in business and not flipping burgers to pay the rent – not that there were any burgers to flip or jobs available. When business owners are doing acrobatics, especially owners of small businesses such as mine, having that kind of safety net gives us the confidence and the means to try and keep trying again and again.
In the northern hemisphere we are about to enter a long dark winter, both literally and figuratively. Companies which have held on by a thread, now realize that things will not pick up any time too soon and may get worse before they get better. Impacts will ripple through to other industries and services. Uncertainty continues. There are hopeful signs amidst the gloom plus we have many more tools and much more knowledge as individuals, businesses and communities.
Businesses like mine will need to continue to adapt and change, no matter how hard that is. I don’t like the alternative. I no longer have thoughts about dark back alleys. Too busy. I am warmed up, have some new muscles and am ready for more pivoting, swiveling, contorting and backflipping.