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From crisis to opportunity

A chance to reimagine everything

Jon Finch knew what was at stake. He had to act fast. With a determination to make things work and a positive, hardworking team in support, he set about completely reimagining the entire concept of his organisation. And it’s now flourishing.

In similar circumstances for many organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the entire modus operandi at Saint Mary’s Church in Southampton. For a group whose work is orientated around meeting each other physically, the impact of a nationwide lockdown was immense. But through inventive workarounds to the obstacles that presented themselves and a daring approach in completely revamping its day-to-day work, the church has not only kept its connection to its congregation intact, but it has found new ways of reaching and supporting more of the wider community in the long-term.

Finch is the vicar at Saint Mary’s. The church reopened in September 2018 after a two-year restoration project, with Finch firmly at the helm. His initial work lay in trying to encourage a new generation of local residents to join him. It’s not new for church communities to change their output to try and encourage the next group of people into its congregation. But Finch says that when he joined Saint Mary’s, he wanted to offer something a little more relevant to people’s lives. The music played in many churches across the country, for instance, has evolved from the sound of the pipe organ to that of electric guitars and drums – it basically sounds like Coldplay, says Finch. The average age at Saint Mary’s dropped from around 70 to under 30 within 18 months. More than 400 people regularly connected. Then the pandemic struck; the time spent creating a sense of community was suddenly snatched away.

Of course, it was discouraging to go into lockdown when the church was gaining so much momentum, but instead of sitting around and waiting for lockdown to lift, the team started innovating.

Saint Mary’s Church in Southampton reinvented the concept of church to continue serving its community during the pandemic, including creating a drive-through church service, complete with ten-second sermons.

Having to create everything the church did from scratch unearthed an entrepreneurial spirit, regularly seen in tech start-ups. The church has the same challenges as a corporate organisation; searching for ways to circumvent the problem to continue engaging with its customer base – in the case of Saint Mary’s, its congregation. The church’s first task was to establish an online connection with its congregation for the upcoming Sunday service. The lockdown announcement on the Monday evening gave them five days. With a lot of budget recording using mobile phones and through Zoom, the Sunday service became a magazine format TV show where the team could capture and share stories from around the community. The church even managed to get its band performing remotely, through clever camera and editing work.

The online services were a success. But the pandemic continued to impact the city.

The UK had exponential increases in the number of people who moved into the food poverty bracket. Many older residents were told to shield for 12 weeks. Unable to leave the house and unable to get supplies, delivery services were booked out for weeks and food banks quickly became overrun. That’s when Finch saw an opportunity to help.

The church, sat empty and unutilised, was converted into a pop-up food bank, delivering more than 100,000 meals.

The church was empty; it was unused space waiting to be exploited. Finch bought a used van, and along with the generosity of local volunteers with cars, the church created a pop-up food bank. The numbers are impressive: starting with around 100 meals in the first week, the operation quickly scaled up with more volunteers joining to organise, stack, package, and then deliver food to vulnerable households. Since March, the Saint Mary’s Church food bank has delivered more than 100,000 meals.

Buoyed by efforts so far, Finch wanted to find a way of reimagining a summer event which normally happens with thousands of people from several other churches. Unable to host 7,000 people in a tent, Finch and his team decided to recreate the feel through the creation of a drive-through church. Modelled on your fast food outlet of choice, he set up stalls along the church’s driveway offering bitesize versions of different parts of a standard service: on the Saviour Menu were ten-second sermons, the band playing part of your favourite song, short prayers, and a water pistol-based game – admittedly not always included in a standard service.

Quick, decisive actions and an open mind to new ideas has left the church and its community in a positive place. Concerns over a drop in numbers over lockdown were unfounded; in fact, numbers grew. The church’s online Easter service saw attendance treble. People felt more comfortable joining an online service than sitting in the back row of a church, crippled by the daunting prospect of meeting an entirely new group of people. When in-person services were allowed to resume, Finch met many new people who started coming thanks to their live streams.

Saint Mary’s is going to continue its online services, and it has expansion plans with a new site in the city set to open for them.

For Saint Mary’s, innovation has been a necessity for survival – and this has been true for businesses across the world. Some organisations have had to adjust to remote working conditions, while others have seen their entire operations halted, through either new lockdown restrictions or because demand has been completely wiped out.

Some have found themselves in a position to capitalise on their individual situations to not only survive the ensuing months, but experience growth in their business. Some leaders pivoted to a completely new business model where they sensed an opportunity; others utilised space and resources that the COVID-19 impact had left surplus to requirements.

These individuals and organisations haven’t thrived just because they were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of opportunities.

Coming out of a crisis well is also dependant on an individual’s reaction to it; here the fundamentals of fight or flight are introduced – and importantly knowing which to choose, and when.

Quick, bold decision-making is required; so too is a strong mentality to go against the flow of your traditional revenue stream and to try something different.

Faced with an enforced closure just weeks after opening, the Alpaca pub in Islington, north London, flipped its business model on its head to continue generating much-needed revenue.

Question everything about your business model
When The Alpaca pub in north London re-opened in March 2020 under new management after six months of refurbishment works, Lucas Owen, the owner, was cursing his luck. An entire business strategy was thrown out of the window, and potentially with it a six-figure investment.

Unperturbed by a potentially devastating impact, Owen repurposed his business model in search of new revenue streams. Supported by an effective social media campaign and a local community spirit the pandemic uncovered, The Alpaca turned into a takeaway drinks service, offering not only pints in takeaway cups, but cans and bottles of craft beers and ciders, as well as its own cocktail concoctions, labelled and bottled on site. Owen even introduced a food service which included Sunday roasts and smaller plates, complete with at-home cooking instructions.

The hospitality sector – pubs and restaurants in particular – had to think on their feet when they were forced to close their doors. But crisis is often a catalyst for creativity; a creativity nurtured by excellent problem solving skills. Like Finch’s complete reinvention of his traditional church service, pubs such as The Alpaca manufactured a new method of running their business. They questioned the fundamentals: why did they need to continue operating in the same way? What can they do differently?

Other sectors embraced this lateral thinking too. When flights across the world were grounded due to cancellations and closed borders, commercial airlines turned their dormant fleet into cargo planes which were able to transport vital medical items and protective equipment. When hospitals in Italy were overwhelmed with patients and were struggling to cope with shortages of hospital beds, especially in intensive care wards, two Italian architects designed an intensive care pod made from a shipping container. And when live performances were cancelled and theatres and events venues were forced to close, those in the entertainment industry saw their income completely wiped out.

Performers needed a new way to connect with their audience, which they found in the form of the burgeoning podcast industry. Several have since pivoted towards a Patreon service; a platform for fans to pay their favourite entertainers for bonus content. In lieu of a paying audience, performers have had to market themselves to an entirely online crowd. Each of these organisations and individuals managed to not only survive but thrive, with each pivot leading to new opportunities. The Alpaca now has a vibrant community of locals who will continue to visit. Airlines aren’t paying expensive parking fees to airports. Entertainers are able to grow their fanbase by reaching new supporters.

Each of these organisations and individuals managed to not only survive but thrive, with each pivot leading to new opportunities. The Alpaca now has a vibrant community of locals who will continue to visit. Airlines aren’t paying expensive parking fees to airports. Entertainers are able to grow their fanbase by reaching new supporters.

Each story demonstrates an acceptance that the definition of ‘normal’ isn’t fixed; a decision has been chosen to explore new avenues because of this. This mantra is relevant for all parts of your business, not just your revenue model.

Repurpose your surplus
The pandemic turned many city centres into ghost towns overnight. Skyscraper office buildings, which would house thousands of workers every weekday, became almost uninhabited. Retail outlets across city centres closed temporarily, either through lack of trade or to protect those workers who could do their job remotely. Several commercial banks saw an opportunity. Reluctant to send their workforces back into their HQ building, the banks repurposed their high street branches that were sitting unused and transformed them into office spaces. The result? Surplus real estate was utilised and their staff didn’t have to take public transport across a large city and cram themselves into lifts and office space at the bank’s HQ.

Just like Finch’s church food bank and commercial airlines’ switch to cargo, the bank sensed an opportunity to utilise its leftover resources efficiently. Another industry decided to do something similar, although this time it repurposed its human resources, rather than its physical assets.

Several Formula 1 teams put competition aside and repurposed their R&D divisions to collaborate, resulting in a newly-developed Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

At the pinnacle of the motor racing industry, Formula One teams spend millions on research and development, searching for an innovation that will shave tenths of a second off their car’s best lap times. But in March last year, when its 2020 season was postponed, the sport’s regulators ordered each team to down tools for two months. With engineers unable to work on their cars, seven F1 teams came together to answer a call from UK government to develop much-needed ventilators, putting aside the sport’s usual reluctance to share intellectual property in a collaborative effort dubbed ‘Project Pitlane’. This was an exemplar of cross-sector collaboration; within ten days the breathing apparatus had been designed and approved, and within a month 10,000 were built.

Crisis creates change; change creates choice
In his book The Infinite Game, author Simon Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Organisations that are solely focused on selling their products will have found it difficult to pivot in the last year.

In reality, what motivates people the most is your mission and vision of what you’re hoping to achieve with your organisation.

Saint Mary’s mission is to connect with and serve the people of Southampton, not to sit in a church building on Sundays. The Alpaca’s is to provide people with one of the greatest pleasures in life – exceptional food and drink, not just to be another pub. Because they are both mission-focused oraganisations, the pandemic forced them to figure out ways they could still achieve their mission given the new environment. The first step to thriving in crisis is to have a strong understanding of the ‘why’ behind what you do.

In a crisis as much as in more stable times, organisations often have a myopic attitude to problem solving. But crisis is an opportunity to accelerate change out of necessity. Hundreds of thousands of people are now working from home or other remote locations out of necessity; the stigma behind home working is disappearing because business leaders can now see that productivity levels aren’t necessarily dropping in the manner they might have envisaged. Workplace experts estimate that the shift to remote working practices becoming the norm – or at least being broadly accepted – has been accelerated by up to a decade because of the pandemic.

Just like home working – and online church services – things rarely return to normal after a crisis. Cities are exploring the ideas of temporary cycle lanes and pedestrianised streets becoming permanent. Environmental experts see this as an opportunity to reset with more sustainable targets in mind. Workplace experts are taking the opportunity to reconfigure office space to be more suitable for how it will be used in the future. Such resilience is a side effect of good crisis management.

Clearly, it’s possible to consolidate your position to survive, while being bold enough to try new things – even reinventing your organisation – without fearing failure. For example, now could be a great time to hire new talent. The pool of skilled workers is changing rapidly; many have suffered redundancy and, due to the pandemic, location is suddenly less important. After World War Two, the owners of Hewlett Packard went on a hiring spree of newly-available engineers, despite an economic climate where downsizing was more common. When asked whether they could afford to hire such talent, the firm’s response: “How can we afford not to?”

You may think that a seismic change is fraught with risk: but in a pandemic with unprecedented consequences on business, can you afford not to make that change?

Vaccine: redirecting resources

As the requirement for a mass vaccination programme ramps up, space currently unutilised is being repurposed to support these efforts. In the UK, seven mass vaccination hubs were revealed by the government at the start of the year. The sites range from sports venues (Ashton Gate stadium in Bristol and the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester) to exhibition centres, such as ExCeL in London. Other smaller sites, including supermarket car parks, are also being offered up for use.

However, it was the hospitality sector’s offer to repurpose its space which caught the eye.

Pubs have had a difficult year. Faced with sudden closures, equally sudden re-openings, turning to takeaway drinks and meals, tracking and tracing customers, serving ‘substantial meals’ and much more, they have been among the worst-hit businesses throughout the pandemic.

But this didn’t stop independent Scottish brewer BrewDog going on record to suggest its 52 UK bars as makeshift vaccination centres.

Co-founder James Watt said: “We would like to offer our closed BrewDog venues to help with a quick roll-out of the vaccine. For free.”

This isn’t the first time BrewDog has stepped in during the pandemic; last year it joined several gin producers in shifting its distillery production line to make hand sanitiser, to be given to hospitals and charities. Given the equipment already in place to handle ethanol (used in both spirits and sanitiser) and to bottle large quantities, production was fairly straightforward.

Similar to its production line, using its venues to vaccinate is a sensible use of facilities. Watt points out that bars are equipped with waiting areas, large refrigerators, and separate rooms for vaccinations. And since they are expected to be closed for up to three months – some UK government ministers have suggested the latest nationwide lockdown could last until April – the hospitality sector is on standby to help.

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