The past few months have put a huge strain on businesses but also presented them with a unique opportunity to shake things up. We meet five firms that have shown an ability to think on their feet.
Strategy: Don’t let ‘space’ be a constraint on your business
Rodney Wages hadn’t spent much time in the sun since he became the chef-owner of San Francisco’s Avery, a popular high-end restaurant in the Fillmore District. His latest venture might have changed all that: inspired by Outstanding in the Field, a travelling outdoor pop-up restaurant founded in 1999 by artist and chef Jim Denevan, as well as the ever-changing restrictions placed on indoor dining, Avery made its move outdoors in July, with Avery on the Farm.
There are three sittings every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, plus private options during the week. Guests are whisked off to a surprise location in the surrounding region for an alfresco dinner via sanitised vehicles provided by a friend’s transportation company. Every detail is carefully considered, from the champagne on the drive in, to the follow-up note offering to make introductions between the drivers, wine-makers and farmers – a model that provides these restaurant-adjacent businesses with increased stability.
Bookings have been consistent through the summer and the effort has helped keep up revenue in a challenging time; Wages has kept most of his staff and even hired a few extras. While its long-term profitability is hard to gauge, he doesn’t see Avery on the Farm as a short-term solution but rather an expansion to his business that accommodates larger parties (Avery’s biggest table seats only eight). “It takes a lot to persevere,” he says. “But I want people in my industry to fight. I want them to put their heads down and grind it out.”
Business: The Commons
Strategy: Expand your customer connections beyond the shopfront
Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan and her brother Varatt pioneered the concept of the open-air community mall in the Thai capital. The Commons in Thong Lor is a mix of dining, retail and community spaces centred around a lush public plaza. Key to the pair’s success since The Commons opened in 2016 has been their ability to adapt – this year, though, it has been their traders who have had to do so.
The most significant new idea has been the emergence of home-delivered, shop-specific care packages. With regular consignments of everything from lunchboxes to coffee, the vendors have been able to stay in direct contact with customers, which is key. “I have a feeling that it could become a significant new, and ongoing, revenue stream for a lot of our brands,” says Vichit-Vadakan.
Business: Grupo Habita
Where: Mexico and USA
Strategy: Remain culturally relevant, as well as true to your brand
“People were shocked that we launched a new hotel right after lockdown,” says Carlos Couturier, co-founder of the Mexic0-headquartered hotel chain Grupo Habita. “But for us it communicated an important message: we must go back to enjoying life.” Delaying the opening of Círculo Mexicano, the group’s fourth Mexico City property, was not an option. Instead, despite only being able to run at 30 per cent capacity, Grupo Habita targeted local visitors, enticing them with special offers and flexible check-out times.
“We’re not reinventing ourselves after the crisis, we’re just staying true to what we’ve been for 20 years”
In its 20 years in business, Grupo Habita has banked on values that have become more relevant than ever. It starts with the design of its 13 properties: all of them come with patio restaurants, rooftop bars, rooms opening out onto private terraces and carpet-free floors. “Since day one we have wanted our hotels to feel clean, natural and well-ventilated,” says Couturier. “So we’re not reinventing ourselves after the crisis, we’re just staying true to what we’ve been for 20 years.”
The same goes for the group’s long-standing belief in pushing its cultural arm. Grupo Habita also encompasses the Casa Proal Foundation – which hosts artist residencies – in collaboration with the Tadao Ando-designed Casa Wabi cultural centre in Puerto Escondido. And now the company has doubled down on this commitment by sponsoring the Museums One by One initiative, which sees people sign up for private tours of the capital’s still-closed museums with artist Mario García Torres.
“Guests want meaningful experiences through culture and good architecture,” says Couturier. As other hotel chains are vanishing from the scene, Grupo Habita is pushing ahead with nine openings for 2020 and 2021, for which it teamed up with architects such as Frida Escobedo and Alberto Kalach. “Hospitality will survive but in a different format,” adds Couturier. “This could well be the end of soulless hotels.”
Business: Amapola Flyg
Strategy: Find your niche and stick to it
Amapola is a small Stockholm-based airline that nobody has heard of – and that’s fine with ceo Erik Salén. “We’re not in it to make a brand,” he says. “We like to take a level-headed and careful approach.” The airline is owned by the Salén group, a family conglomerate founded in 1915 that has been involved with aviation since the 1980s.
Amapola, which was founded in 2004, runs a trusty fleet of seven classic Fokker 50 turboprops. They’re well-sized, with 50 seats, and all paid for, which means low operating costs. Overly ambitious airlines tend to lose money, according to Salén, who points out that Amapola has been profitable because it’s happy to stay small. It doesn’t need new planes, a growing route map or even much marketing – it simply and competently flies routes connecting smaller cities, such as Hemavan and Kramfors, with the likes of Stockholm and Malmö.
Over the past few months, though, this little airline has seen its profile grow. As sas and the largest domestic operator bra (formerly Braathens) cut flights, Amapola saw an opportunity to keep on flying. It won a tender to service a handful of routes that the government deemed vital and it also took on bookings from bra – allowing Amapola to keep its business going and cut fewer flights than others.
Of course, there are headwinds to contend with. “Theoretically we are in a golden position, with low capital costs and small aircraft in a hugely diminished market,” says Salén. But the prospect of bailouts, readily available to larger airlines, skews the playing field: “If everybody would have to pay their [own] bills, we would be in an ideal spot.” Still, Amapola intends to keep doing what it does best: moving people and making a profit.
Business: Daily Maverick
Where: South Africa
Strategy: Don’t hold back and remember that change can present new opportunities
Branko Brkic, who was born in former Yugoslavia, moved to South Africa in 1991 and started Daily Maverick, one of South Africa’s premier news sites, in 2009. It was a venture that rose out of a defunct print publication, which Brkic admits was in dire financial straits as recently as five years ago. He attributes the turnaround to betting on solid investigative reporting – Daily Maverick played a key role in publishing leaked emails revealing state corruption in South Africa in 2017 – and a donation-based subscription model that has attracted more than 12,500 members since 2018.
“We either shelve the paper and try to cut costs as much as possible or we do the opposite”
It’s that turnaround that provided Brkic with the confidence to double down this year. Daily Maverick announced in early August that it’s launching a weekly print newspaper. “When coronavirus hit, we had a choice,” says Brkic. “We either shelve the paper [which had been in the works for some time], wait for this thing to be over and try to cut costs as much as possible. Or we do the opposite.” He concedes that the move is “not what most sane people would do in a crisis.” But he believes that times of seismic change can present opportunities to reshape markets. “When you pursue counter-intuitive ideas, you can make a big difference,” he says.
Images: Fabián Martínez / Carlos and Moisés, Spaceshift Studio. PHOTOGRAPHER: Joseph Weaver