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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 4, 2020 2 years ago

After reopening, Sarasota businesses plot promotional strategies

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Hopeful for an economic recovery, merchants and officials are encouraging consumers to spend their money locally.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As officials began to discuss strategies for helping businesses recover from the negative economic effects of COVID-19, Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin thought back to his experience in Oak Park, Ill., during the last national economic crisis.

There, where he previously served as village manager, a public “shop local” promotional effort helped offset some of the challenges associated with the recession that began in 2007. Barwin said he’s optimistic such a program could have a positive impact in Sarasota too, stating last month that he hopes to pursue a similar initiative in response to the coronavirus.

“We did that type of a campaign in one of my previous communities,” Barwin said. “Even during the Great Recession, we were able to see an 8% growth in local revenues by reminding people that shopping local is a really beneficial thing in many ways.”

As reopening continues throughout Florida — phase two will take effect Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced — public leaders and business owners are searching for ways to encourage customers to support the local economy. On Tuesday, the Downtown Improvement District held its first meeting since coronavirus closures began in March. The first item on the agenda: a “reopening downtown marketing plan.”

Although that discussion was delayed until the July meeting, a presentation from marketing consultant Paula Sanders noted a lack of cohesion guiding merchants’ approach to reopening. Sanders’ presentation encouraged the DID to team with the city and the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association on a strategy for communications during the crisis recovery process.

As downtown stakeholders have discussed promotional efforts in the past, collaboration with partners has proven to be a recurring stumbling block for organizations including the DID. Sanders said the absence of a cohesive promotional strategy confuses the public and makes it harder to promote downtown as a destination. Although some individual businesses are able to put together successful campaigns, others struggle.

“There is no cohesive message like ‘Shop local,’” Sanders said. “There’s nothing out there that I’ve seen that over and over again. The businesses are all saying the same thing.”

In Southside Village, a collaborative effort to support neighborhood businesses began even before the stay-at-home order ended. Southside Village Life Magazine, a monthly publication covering the area, hosted a series of online “neighborhood night in” events to promote local shops and restaurants.

Eddie Morton, owner of Morton’s Gourmet Market, said previously established relationships between merchants and neighbors is helping drive support to businesses during a trying time.

“We’ve always tried to get the businesses in the community here to band together,” Morton said.

On Tuesday, June 10, the St. Armands Business Improvement District will hold its first post-coronavirus meeting. That agenda includes more than $48,000 in proposed marketing expenditures.

Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, said pushing a positive message about local businesses is crucial after the toll taken during peak tourist season.

“The most important thing we can get out there is for people to support local businesses,” Corrigan said. “The small business, the local business, that’s what keeps the economy going. That’s what’s employing local workers.”

On Siesta Key, no formal promotional campaign has come together, but businesses in Siesta Key Village and elsewhere have reported signs of increased activity recently. Ann Frescura, executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s approval of a plan to reopen vacation rentals could prove particularly significant for businesses on the barrier island.

She said the chamber is fielding calls from potential visitors interested in learning if the island is open for business, and her organization is working to communicate as much information as possible on behalf of its members.

“I do think the overall energy and the number of people that are here is starting to pick up,” Frescura said. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a good summer.”

Although the statewide stay-at-home order had a significant effect on businesses throughout the community, some are already reporting an economic rebound. Doug Forde, manager at CB’s Saltwater Outfitters on Siesta Key, said things started to pick up as soon as restaurants were allowed to reopen. Activity last month was on par with a normal May, which Forde hopes is an encouraging sign for what the future holds.

“Our month of May was solid,” Forde said. “We were renting anywhere between 10 to 15 boats a day during the week, and weekends in the past four weeks have been booked solid. A majority [are] locals, but a decent amount of out-of-state people have been coming in too.”

As businesses try to encourage customers to spend their money locally, they recognize the importance of promoting safety as the health threat of COVID-19 continues to affect public behavior. Morton and Forde both emphasized the precautions their businesses were taking, including sanitizing surfaces and encouraging the use of masks.

Morton said businesses would continue to face challenges as long as social distancing guidelines were in place and standard indoor capacity is not feasible. Still, he said his store was seeing positive signs in terms of community engagement, and he was hopeful sensible business practices could help create some sense of normalcy for Sarasota.

“That’s all we can do, is make our employees and customers feel safe, so they can come in and enjoy what we have to offer,” Morton said.

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