A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to temporarily close their doors to in-person customers, owners are preparing for a return to business as (mostly) usual, and in some cases, better.
Many learned lessons about how to reach their customers virtually and don’t intend to let them go to waste. Here’s what three different Alaska businesses have planned as they begin to re-open:
Toast of the Town
When COVID-19 hit Alaska and the first emergency order was issued, Crystal Biringer, President of Anchorage-based events company Toast of the Town, or TOTT, remembers thinking “Holy cow, everything we have planned for the foreseeable future is no longer an option...what are we going to do?”
She knew that her team needed to make some quick decisions to continue serving their clients and for the business to survive.
Pre-pandemic, only about 10 percent of TOTT’s businesses was virtual, consisting mostly of the occasional live stream or post-event recordings shared on social media. Regardless, the team was confident they could make the transition to focusing mostly on digital events for the next two years… and they were right, to the rate of a 57 percent increase in the number of events in 2020 from 2019.
Biringer notes that the company also saw an increase of at least 50 percent attendance at virtual events, and credits part of their success to enlisting the services of Upper One Studios to partner on virtual production work.
She also says thoughtful touches like hospitality boxes — themed packages sent to attendees pre-event to create a shared experience and tie into the event — along with chat functionality and interactive two-way app integrations allowing people to connect digitally with each other went a long way to differentiating TOTT’s events from just another Zoom call.
A key lesson learned during the last year was that while in-person events are often successful because the attendees look forward to seeing and interacting with each other, virtual events are successful because of high quality content and relevant subject matter. Fortunately, access to high-end speakers is better than ever, Biringer said.
“You don’t have to worry about housing, travel, and developing a full-fledged Alaska experience for each speaker you bring up. Instead you’re just asking for a couple hours of their time,” she said. “That cost difference has been a blessing to event budgets.”
As businesses begin to open up and it’s safe to gather in crowds, Biringer intends to make use of everything she learned this year.
“We discovered what virtual events can deliver — increased attendance, higher sponsor impact, speaker accessibility — and so I believe the future of events is to go hybrid. This isn’t a solution for all events, some have an in-person value that shouldn’t be replicated digitally, but if you’re producing a conference or fundraiser, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a hybrid event. In fact you’re really missing out on a big opportunity if you stick to just in-person.”
Despite changes, Biringer says the purpose behind TOTT’s work hasn’t changed.
“We’re still bringing people together through shared experience and an immersive atmosphere,” she said. “We’re still helping people engage, the environment in which we do it is just a little different now.”
The Pub at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a 30-year-old institution well-loved by students, staff, and alumni, and self-described as “a little bar on the flagship campus of the coldest state, and we like to party.”
Manager Mike Willis says that pre-COVID-19, The Pub had a Facebook page that wasn’t used much. That quickly changed as he and his staff scrambled to figure out how an in-person drinking establishment on a now closed college campus could stay connected to the community during the midst of a pandemic.
The answer? Virtual Pub Trivia.
“We knew trivia was something we could offer online, that would help people stop feeling so alienated and alone,” Willis said. “Natilly and Melissa on our staff quickly figured out how to do it via Zoom, there were a few kinks at first but now we’re rocking and rolling!”
Trivia has been a mainstay of The Pub for nearly a decade, featuring topics like Alaska History, Black Histroy Month, Sex Ed, Inaugurations, and Alaska Beer Week. When it shifted to virtual delivery, Willis said that alumni and former staff now living out of state started joining the Zoom and the team soon had “celebrity hosts,” like former pub manager Donald Crocker who joined in to host a couple sessions. A few student clubs also stepped in to host as well.
Recognizing the value in creating digital content for their customers, The Pub also partnered with Telesomm, a startup company headquartered in Fairbanks offering custom wine experiences with sommeliers via Zoom. Last week they hosted “The Arts and Beats of Wine” with Chris McCoyd, a “Hip Hop Somm” with a degree in music business.
Facebook Live tours and Q&A sessions with breweries like the Alaskan Brewing Co., Black Spruce Brewery, and Midnight Sun Brewery also proved popular. Willis says they expect to continue offering similar content even as they begin to re-open.
“Our big takeaway from all of this is that now we have a strong social media presence, we have some momentum, and we’re going to invest more time, energy, and resources into keeping it going,” says Willis. “Because of social media we were able to connect with regulars, stay relevant, and communicate with our patrons. We don’t want to lose the ground we’ve gained just because we’re starting to re-open for in-person visitors.”
Willis is excited about exploring a hybrid model for Pub Trivia after The Pub re-opens for in-person customers.
Mind and Mountain
Sarah Histand is the founder of Mind and Mountain, a woman-centered training program for winter (“Ski Babes”) and summer (“Summer Strong”) outdoor recreation. Although most of her work pre-pandemic was in-person, she had already developed an existing online platform meant to complement sessions in Anchorage.
“Because I had the technology, it was a pretty easy decision to pivot to all online delivery,” Histand said. “There was a learning curve working with people who hadn’t done online workouts before, helping them see that they could get the benefits of going to the gym from their living rooms, but overall it went well.”
Her response to the pandemic quickly paid off, as she nearly doubled the number of people signed up for her program in 2020.
As Histand built up the digital Ski Babe and Summer Strong experience she made sure to emphasize both physical and mental health, as a lot of her clients were struggling with disconnection and isolation.
“I heard from a lot of people that they appreciated having a way to interact online that wasn’t social media,” she said. “The support of our community was a big benefit for people, and helped them manage their stress.”
Despite her success this year, Histand is looking forward to a return to in-person training and hopes to bring it back as soon as the summer.
“As a teacher it’s really different to interact with people in-person, and I’m excited for it to be an option again,” Histand said. “But I’m definitely going to keep the online platform going; it’s so easy for people to access at any time and is an incredibly effective way to get strong from anywhere, plus now I really believe in the possibility of creating community connections online.”
Histand says there’s balance to find between in-person and online experiences, across industries.
“The pandemic showed us that it’s possible to operate online but emphasized how valuable and irreplaceable in-person time is,” she said. “There’s a hybrid, a place in the middle that’s the way of the future.”
Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.