The Pandemic Rollercoaster

By Sheila Wong

Are you old enough to have experienced the wooden rollercoasters from the PNE, the CNE or even the Calgary Stampede? I’m talking about the rickety wooden type from years gone by, where the metal bar was more of a reminder to stay seated rather than a means of securely holding you in. Because at the first drop, you couldn’t help but stand straight up. With all the ups and downs, halfway through the ride, you would say to yourself, “Okay, enough excitement, I want off!” This is analogous of our pandemic ride. And it’s not over!

Experience teaches us. We remember the exact moment of the news when the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. We remember where we were, who we were with and the sinking pit in your stomach that the world as we knew would never be the same.

I can say the same of when the pandemic was called. I was on a conference call with industry members, you know, the old-fashioned group phone calls before videoconferencing or Zoom became fashionable. On that call someone mentioned that the World Health Organization just called the SARS-CoV-2 virus a pandemic on March 11, 2021. By the evening of March 12th, as we were moving into two separate trade shows, the calls came in. Our first cancellations. Each week brought cancellations for the balance of the month, then subsequent months and finally into the fall. My clients joked that we were no longer in the business of event planning, more like event cancelling.

For the first month, I was the ostrich who stuck her head in the sand. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back I likely had low-grade depression. I slept a lot, stayed in bed until well past a time that I will not share. My business partner and I conferred with each other. He is the realist in the business with an edge of pessimism. I was the opposite. “No,” I would say, “We’ll be back to live events by the fall.” He made me face the inevitable. This pandemic could last a year if not two. “It’s not going away,” he said. We had to figure out how to survive. After that conversation, I cried—for a few days—then I made a deal with him. “You look after making the money last and I will look after finding new revenue streams.”

Once I dusted myself off, I put on my game face. Being an entrepreneur is what I do best. I was reminded by a business coach that we still had our skills and expertise in staffing events. Our teams are customer service centric. They were and still are our resources and assets. Above all, we’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years. Armed with this, we jumped head first into our first pivot.

Pivot Number 1, COVID Safety Ambassadors™, a play on the acronym CSA Customer Service Agents, was trademarked and branded to help essential services navigate the new safety protocols set in place by Public Health. We revamped our eLearning platform, Front-pro™, to train our staff on the new safety protocols and how to communicate with those who resist. Our plan was to have our trained CSAs ready to serve outside the events industry until events returned. I cold-called companies just as I did when we first started the business in the early 90s.

Being a part of CSAE and other associations has taught me how important relationships are. This was no different. Not surprisingly, the most success came from speaking to a long-time client who was an expert in the commercial property management field. He taught me how to look up names and what titles to target for sending out marketing materials. One of those emails landed us with commercial properties in downtown Toronto.

A cold-call email landed in a general manager’s inbox. She connected me to her head of lifestyle and security. Then she followed up to apologize for not reaching out sooner. “You may not remember me, but I worked for BBW a long time ago. I remember what a great company you were. I’m so glad we can help each other out now.” We worked for a four-month period at the end of 2020 until the second lock-down. We are now being recalled for this coming September when companies are returning to their offices.

During this time, another long-time client reached out because they had to pivot from doctors taking specialization exams in Ottawa to doing so in 18 cities across Canada, four in the US, and even Paris and London (UK). What a great fit for COVID Safety Ambassadors! Our CSAs were trained and ready to keep safe the very same people who were saving lives in the frontlines of hospitals. Together, we figured out a way to provide invigilators in all the locations even though we were only operational in nine cities across Canada at the time. It was most gratifying that we were able to employ our friends and colleagues who were furloughed from their event and hospitality jobs. This September, we will be going into the third round of exams with Spring 2022 on the horizon.

Pivot Number 2 came to us through a referral from another client who had worked with us in live events. A technology company needed us to help with their software for AGMs and voting for condominiums. Virtual hosts and moderators were born. The exposure to working these virtual meetings provided our team with confidence to take this to our other clients who started to produce virtual events. Now nearly 1500 virtual events later, we are looking forward to the future of hybrid events.

Pivot Number 3—yes, there is a Pivot Number 3! Remember, my promise to find new revenue streams? This was the most far out venture we took on. Can you imagine my excitement to connect with a car parts manufacturer who pivoted to manufacturing face shields? This too came from a personal connection. Face shields, like any PPE early in the pandemic, were a commodity. It’s a world I was not familiar with. Again, what I did best was cold calling. We managed to sell to manufacturers, school boards and to our hospitality network. I also knew this would be a short-lived venture, but it helped with cash flow. We still have some face shields warehoused, so feel free to reach out. They are sturdy, able to sanitize, and reusable. At the end of the pandemic, you can put it in the recycling bin, so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

The biggest take away is that what we love most about our industry are the friends and connections. They proved to be our lifeline. Since people were there for me, I try to be there for those who need to stay connected to find their next gig. Being genuine in your relationships will withstand the test of a pandemic. They will help you see where the holes are, giving you the ideas on how you can fill them with your offerings. Please, everyone, maintain the safety protocols. Wear your mask when social distancing is not possible. Get vaccinated. No one can afford to go into a fourth lock-down.

We will continue along this path of pivots and adjust as we need. We won’t be calling them pivots for much longer, rather strategies for growing our business. During the pandemic, there was no time to lay on the couch to binge-watch Netflix. To survive, we had to stay in the game. The playing pieces might have changed, but the game of staying connected and nurturing relationships will carry us far into the brave new world.

I look forward to the shiny new high-tech rollercoaster for our next ride—the Behemoth, Dragon Fyre, or the Time Warp. Bring it on, we’re ready for you!

Sheila Wong is the Founding Partner and Senior Vice President of BBW International Inc, operating as BBW Event Staff. After being in business for three decades, BBW International Inc, operating as BBW Event Staff, faced the pandemic head on amidst event cancellations. You can connect with Sheila at [email protected]