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Lockdown creates thirst for new opportunities

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CLYDE ACKERMAN

After the lockdown and alcohol ban commenced in March, the events industry was shut down virtually overnight. It led to a rollercoaster ride of trying to navigate a starkly different business landscape amid two alcohol bans.

Prior to the lockdown, we were on course to do a record turnover in our 15-year history for the financial year running May to May. With the government banning alcohol, and events out of the question due to social distancing, our main revenue stream was suddenly no longer relevant. We lost R4 million in confirmed income for March.

As a business, the crisis forced us to adapt to a new and changing market virtually overnight, pushing us to re-examine and adapt our core offerings. We examined our resources, and made them work for us in creative ways. The key for us, like many others, was to transition online quickly to serve customers we could no longer interact with in person.

We had a fleet of 12 vehicles sitting dormant which we could use for distribution and delivery of alcohol. We used our event trainers as drivers. Our aim from the outset was to stick to the basics, do it simply, and ensure top-notch service.

We switched to an ecommerce alcohol store overnight, which was gaining traction until the latest alcohol ban. It was our first venture into the online space, and we literally put it together in two days. This online offering has exposed us to an entirely new audience of customers.

Essentially, we are a family business. This crisis has brought us closer together. Rael Lasarow (the co-owner) and I have formed a stronger partnership, and we have worked as a cohesive team to ensure the survival of the business.

Our priority was to keep our staff employed. Non-governmental organisation FeedSA hired all 20 of our warehouse staff to pack thousands of food parcels for those in need across Gauteng, ensuring that they retained their jobs. We also placed staff at our biggest supplier, which was inundated with order backlogs. Other measures included reducing the hours of permanent staff.

This period has been incredibly stressful. It can be hard to clear the fog when you are stuck in the trenches. This has been the most challenging three months of my career.

But, strangely enough, I’ve thrived under the pressure, and enjoy being able to come up with creative solutions to take the business into the future.

This period has also been incredibly humbling, and has given me time to reflect on our offerings. It has given me time to take stock and evaluate what’s important, and how we can simplify our lives. We have spent significant time reassessing overheads, re-examining the structure of the business, and ways to simplify it.

The latest booze ban took the wind out of our sails. We’ve had to restrategise and cut costs to survive. We’ve also, unfortunately, had to consider retrenchments, something we were adamant about not doing at the outset, but we’ve been left with no choice.

We support wholeheartedly the protests against the most recent ban. Our industry has been cut off at the knees. These are desperate times, and we all need to stand together and make sure we have something to come back to when this is all over.

Of course, while the virus has challenged our business, it has also given us new opportunities. Instead of focusing on the negative, we have decided to focus on adapting, innovating, and surviving by finding new opportunities and gaps in the market. We are constantly looking for new ways to connect with our customers and remain relevant.

The latest ban will help us to further refine our ecommerce offering. It will give us time to test and examine what will and won’t work to ensure that by the time the ban is lifted, we’ll be ready to launch a new, experiential ecommerce offering, among other products.

While we’re attempting to navigate this new landscape day by day, we anticipate that the events industry will take a long time to recover and revert to pre-COVID-19 levels. Big gatherings will certainly be off the cards for the rest of 2020, but we hope things will start returning to normal in 2021.

In the meantime, we anticipate an increased focus on unique home-entertainment experiences. We are examining ways to safely bring our experience into peoples’ homes for small groups.

Lots of restaurants will close down, putting chefs out of work. We are talking to some leading restaurants to work together on these offerings.

  • Clyde Ackerman is the managing director of Thirst.

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