Q&A: The Pandemic's Effect on 10 PSPs
Looking back on an unprecedented year and focusing on forward movement.
This is part one in an annual series in which industry experts from Big Picture's Editorial Advisory Board offer their thoughts and experiences as 2020 draws to a close. Check out part two and part three.
Brian Adam, President/Owner, Olympus Group
Elaine Scrima, VP Operations, GSP
Tanya McNab, Founder/Creative Director, McNab Visual Strategies
Brian Hite, President, Image Options
Carol Yeager, Owner/Creative Director, MY Prints
Stan Lucas, Business Development Manager, Wide Format, DCG One
Bob Kissel, President/CEO, KDM P.O.P Solutions Group
Gary Schellerer, VP/Partner, ER2 Image Group
Diana Herrera, President, AP Imaging
Carmen Rad, Founder/President, CR&A Custom
I typically ask: “What was the biggest surprise of the year?” I think we can all agree COVID-19 will be the resounding response, but the specific answers may vary. For some, it may have created major challenges, while others found unexpected success. How did the pandemic affect your shop from March to November? What did you learn from it?
BA Other than a global pandemic resulting in lockdowns and stay at home orders? The resilience of our team members at Olympus. During a deadly pandemic with tons of uncertainty, our team members came to work every day with a great attitude. They worked on a variety of product lines that we didn’t know existed prior to COVID-19: face masks, face shields, and fan cutouts, transitioning from product to product with ease and a smile on their face (at least I think there was a smile underneath their face mask).
Many of our core markets (tradeshows, events, sports, and amusements parks) were shut or fractions of themselves. Our traditional workload dried up and has only recently started to slowly pick back up. We stayed busy producing face masks, face shields, COVID-19 safety graphics, and fan cutouts, but the pandemic significantly reduced our workload and significantly impacted our business. At work, we learned about safe/social distancing, face masks, how to make homemade hand sanitizer, and learned to ration toilet paper (I’m only half joking.)
What did we learn from it? Diversification – selling products to a variety of markets has helped us survive and has mitigated risk. Selling different product lines to different markets can make managing a business more challenging, but our product/market diversity was critical in allowing our team to stay busy and keep the doors open.
ES The biggest takeaway from March forward was our necessity to become more flexible. That isn’t to say we weren’t flexible before, but we never faced the level of childcare issues, virtual learning situations, and fear of the unknown as it relates to the virus that our colleagues and families were forced to face. Information changed rapidly and we needed to respond appropriately and quickly, whether that was adjusting work schedules or implementing the PPE solutions within our own facilities. We made accommodations we might not have previously considered as viable options; not only for our livelihood, but the livelihood of our team and their families.
TM I think the biggest surprise to me was how, in the midst (or at the onset) of this pandemic, print shops, sign companies, and similar businesses were able to adapt in order to stay afloat. We immediately pivoted our embroidery business to decorate masks for companies, and our sign business was quickly turned into a social distancing machine for floor decals, signs, and anything related to COVID-19 awareness. While at the start of the pandemic I was freaking out because I thought “How could we survive?” Signage proved to be a somewhat essential service throughout.
BH Surprise of the year most definitely was COVID-19 and the resulting impact to many businesses – impacts that were at first perceived as outside our ability to influence or control as business owners. One amazing benefit of COVID-19 shelter-in-place rules has been the impact of Microsoft Teams in building closer working relationships between our staff. We have a daily meeting in the morning with key personnel in our Orange County and San Jose offices. Seeing each other daily and working together on projects has done more for the integration of the two locations since COVID-19 than in the prior two and a half years!
Image Options, while diverse in market segments supported as a design build agency, experienced challenges. Historically our core business and major sources of revenue involved large gatherings of people. Tradeshows, events, activations, experiential engagements, and the retail clients were dependent upon participation of people.
In the first two weeks of the government COVID-19 shutdown we experienced major cancellations of contracted, scheduled events and tradeshows. This was followed rapidly by an almost complete shutdown of retail store programs. Our management team reacted quickly. Image Options became an “exempt” business, producing various forms of PPE, face shields, goggles, and other items, receiving “rush” orders from hospitals, emergency responders, and governmental agencies. We then moved into transaction shields for different industries such as medical offices, schools, grocery, retail, and restaurants. We followed up with custom sanitation stations, social distancing markers, workspace cubicle dividers, and back-to-work-plan consulting. Revenue from PPE combined with the government PPP program allowed us to maintain our staff during the period of most uncertainty, supplementing much of the lost revenue.
People want and are ready for a return to life pre-COVID. There will be pent up demand for many of our traditional services, however we anticipate a slow industry recovery in our historical lines of business based on many different economic reports currently circulating and the data moves daily. It is the belief and plan of our management team that conditions will prevent a return for many printers until at least the third quarter of 2021, if not into 2022. There will be anomalies, some industries will fare better than others. Good months here and there, but solid recovery will be a wait and see with slower buildup.
CY The biggest surprise of the year was the impact of the global pandemic and its affects on our business economy. When the seriousness of this pandemic started to surface in early February 2020, I knew we were in for a few months of the unknown, but I never dreamed it would still be rearing its head for as long as it has – and with no visible end in sight. Our digital printing studio took a big hit. We were not considered an essential business, so we had to shut our doors for the time being. We closed from March through June, laying off our entire staff, which was one of the hardest things we had to do.
We primarily serviced the TV/Film/Fashion industry which all came to a screeching halt. All our clients were in the same boat, sheltering in place until we had a better understanding of what we were facing. During this time, my business partner, Steven, and I had to re-evaluate our current business model and find new ways we could pivot our business for survival and longevity. We were an in-person studio that worked hands on and closely with our clients, but this was no longer a safe and viable option. We knew the time had come to transition our business to an ecommerce model. Offering our services online was our only hope of weathering this pandemic storm.
We are currently working on our online platform to expand on the services we will offer. Even inside of this pandemic, existing ecommerce-based businesses are thriving. This is very encouraging for us to follow suit. While the pandemic has caused us some setbacks financially, we know the push to transition to online will be the refresh our company needed to take our business to the next level.
When we were able to re-open in June, business as we knew it had drastically changed. We stopped taking in-studio appointments and converted to Zoom meetings to go over projects. It took a bit of getting use to at first, but all in all, with technology on our side, we were able to start servicing the clients that were able to resume work again. Our communication with our clients has stayed on par as before. I believe we are all more appreciative to be working again so there is a level of enthusiasm that maybe had been lacking before the closures. The saying “You never know what you have until its gone” rings true here. We are all grateful to be working again, and to interact with each other with a higher level of appreciation.
SL We had a major slowdown starting mid-March and through May, at which time some business started to pick back up. As many employees as possible worked from home and production crew numbers were minimized with physical distancing employed, formalized check-in/check-out processes were developed, and foot traffic between departments was regulated. June through August saw more business pick up and employees began returning to the office more frequently, although many still worked from home a portion of each week. Installations, which had been shut down, were scheduled with state and CDC guidelines put in place both for client and installers. From September through October, more business picked up though now it remains up/down, high/low, week-by-week.
Throughout this period, some layoffs did happen, but mostly junior production staff. Mask and sanitation policies developed and were observed strictly, guest visitation and tours were greatly reduced, and decorative clear panels were installed between workspace cubicles.
BK The print business dramatically slowed down to non-existent. We had to pivot and come up with additional offerings like acrylic shields and other PPE.
GS If anything, we have learned from this experience that anything can happen. If you would have told me a year ago that there could be an event that would close the world, I would call you crazy. I would never believe that 30 years of our family’s work could be jeopardized in a moment’s notice through something that was no fault of our own. Fifty percent of our business is exhibits and events. I woke up one morning with basically all this business gone. We were faced with the reality that we needed to fundamentally change our business to operate in a brand-new reality. There was no playbook for the situation we faced.
The pandemic has been the hardest challenge we’ve ever been faced with, as I am sure is the case for many people within our industry. One thing is for sure: our eyes are open to the fact that many of our employees can be efficient working remotely. We have almost 80 workstations throughout our facility and each one can be remotely managed.
Our meetings also look very different. Every meeting now has physical attendance with a virtual option. We have a computer screen or projector, and a Microsoft Teams meeting active with every invite. Anyone joining our meetings can now do this from their phone, tablet, or computer from inside outside our building.
DH Yes, Covid-19 took the world by surprise. In March, about a week after our city mandate to close I started Zoom team meetings. During our first meeting, I expressed to the team how I felt about challenges of life in general and boy was I right!
“During times of crisis or adversity, people will show you their true colors” as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I know who are my real team players and the stars of my company. We learned that humans are able to pivot and keep moving forward even if we change direction and/or pace, we still move forward. We wind and we learn but we don’t lose.
CR We were about to close on Thursday, March 19, when we received a call from a large hospital chain. We started to create the presentation on Saturday and on Monday we were considered essential printers and in production. We then created graduations yard signs and more ecommerce products. This covered us until May. Since then it’s been a mix of projects, but we’ve worked on bids, and restructuring the company. We brought in an HR specialist to help guide and assure us we were compliant with all the changes OSHA or the city was requiring to stay in business. In the past month, we have noticed old clients getting ready to resurface.
This year has given us an opportunity to reflect on ourselves as leaders and look deeper into the culture. I feel blessed to work with the people I work with and am impressed by how they stepped up. I also learned more about really listening to my instincts – even my body was telling me it’s time to slow down. You’re not weak because you need a break.