Pandemic prompts small-business tweaks that may endure

Changes that small-business experts expect to stick are those related to customer comforts and technological advances
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From curbside pickup and senior shopping hours to dining in yurts and viewing menus via smart phones, small businesses and restaurants were forced to institute a wide range of customer safety and service steps in 2020. Business owners now are examining which of those experiments were so successful that they will stay around post-pandemic.

The pandemic pushed businesses to turn from what was easiest and best for their own internal operations to instead adapt to become more consumer centric, said Chris Romer, CEO at Vail Valley Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to regional economic vitality.

“The businesses that thrive coming out of the pandemic are going to be 100% focused on the customer experience,” Romer said. “Things that make it easier for consumers are here to stay. The pandemic fast-tracked a lot of that.”

Changes that small-business experts expect to stick are those related to customer comforts and technological advances such as non-contact payments, scannable QR codes for digital menus, curbside pickup of retail and restaurant orders, enhanced to-go ordering apps and online platforms, and expanded delivery services.

With restaurants and bars suffering some of the toughest blows, look for the continuation of carry-out cocktails, dining in unique outdoor settings such as in retired gondola cars, seating expanded into public rights of way, and seasonal extensions of outdoor patio dining, said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the 3,500-member Colorado Restaurant Association. Riggs said food and beverage organizations will carry through with pandemic lessons learned that boost efficiency and cut costs since the profit margin of restaurants is low, averaging 5% to 7%.

The Town of Breckenridge instituted a Walkable Main Street for five blocks from July through September that was a popular and successful experiment, as it introduced more tables and chairs and more space to stroll through downtown, said Brian Waldes, town finance director. He said creating a pedestrian zone on Highway 9 had been discussed for many years, but the “pandemic was the tipping point to try it.”

“We had great visitation numbers over the summer,” Waldes said. “We really feel that it (Walkable Main) kept that level of economic activity.”

Expanded outdoor zones for public consumption of alcoholic beverages are popular with guests and are expected to survive post-pandemic. Last year leaders approved common consumption areas, for example, at ski base areas in Steamboat Springs, Vail, Telluride and Beaver Creek.

Many small businesses committed the time and funds in 2020 to improve online shopping options to serve customers remotely. In small towns such as Fruita and Palisade, chambers pivoted from organizing in-person events to expanding community-wide business websites. Kayla Brown, Fruita Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, said she saw “a huge need” to create a “shop local” directory called

“We weren’t looking into building an online platform,” Brown said, “but we know the value in having a good online resource now more than ever because of the pandemic.”

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