Facing forward

Industry leaders share COVID-19 strategies, plan for road ahead

Posted on May 29, 2020 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Health care organizations shift nearly their entire focus to fighting a devastating but invisible foe.

Colleges, universities and schools statewide cancel all in-person classes, forcing professors, teachers and thousands of students to switch to online learning. Communities built largely on tourism and hospitality see a primary revenue stream dry up overnight.

Such has been the fallout of COVID-19’s ruthless march across Wisconsin. From Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits to small businesses, the virus continues to ravage the economy, sending unemployment rates soaring and businesses reeling. The pandemic’s economic attack has left no sector untouched.

Undeterred, though, business leaders have picked themselves up and looked for ways to continue using two strong qualities the area is known for — resiliency and a much-admired work ethic. A health care provider is now seeing patients online, while an events planner works with her clients to help them find new and creative ways to host their happenings.

Businesses and organizations have been through a lot since mid-March, and their leaders recognize COVID-19 has changed their industries permanently. Insight caught up with five business owners and leaders from throughout the New North to learn more about how the pandemic is affecting their operations and what the road forward may look like.

➢ Creative thinking

Jacqui Corsi, executive director of the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac, first got the inkling prior to a March 13 concert that COVID-19 was going to impact the nonprofit dedicated to fostering the arts. “We had a few people calling to see if we were still going to have the concert,” she says. “Some were upset (we were still going forward), but that night we had only four cancellations.”

By the following Monday, Corsi began receiving cancellations from people planning to hold events at the venue, and it quickly became clear THELMA’s normal programming wouldn’t continue. “It was very jarring,” she says.

THELMA provides art education and brings visual and performing artists into the community. Member-based and funded by its members, sponsors and corporate memberships, the organization also hosts events at its downtown center.

As Wisconsin’s Safer at Home measures went into place, THELMA’s employees headed home to work remotely. Within a week, they began brainstorming ideas on how to keep the community engaged in the arts. The team put together a full lineup of online offerings, including concerts and art shows and classes.

“We looked at our programming and figured out what we could do online,” Corsi says. “With the online concerts, we’re paying the musicians, and they mention the virtual tip jar for the event goes to us that night. It’s been fine. We’re not covering our costs, but we’re providing a wonderful experience to those who may be thinking that right now isn’t wonderful.”

In a normal year, THELMA hosts 400 to 500 events, which covers about 60 percent of its operating costs. The rest comes from donations and grants. The online experiences have expanded THELMA’s membership base from outside the area, and out-of-state music fans make up part of the audience for some virtual concerts.

“The million-dollar question for us is when can we open? We’re planning for the best possible scenario and the worst,” Corsi says. “The best is that we can begin doing our weekly concert series in July and run it through August. If that’s something we can’t do, we will definitely need to regroup.”

Since the situation is changing so rapidly, Corsi says she isn’t getting too deep into the process of making contingency plans if the summer concerts can’t be held.

“We are good at adapting, and our creative thinking is so important to making it all work,” she says. “Right now, the best thing we can do is to engage the people in our community and enrich the community through our arts offerings.”

➢ Going virtual

A-mazing Events owner Joey Reader and project manager Kara Lendved were attending an events conference in Las Vegas with thousands of other event planners when Reader realized how profoundly COVID-19 would change her business and industry.

“Being with industry peers and all of us taking calls about events being canceled and going through it together at the same time in the same place was surreal,” says Reader, who founded the Appleton-based full-service event design, coordinating and consulting company in 2005.

Before that fateful trip to Las Vegas, COVID-19 was already on Reader’s mind as events in early March began to include more hand sanitizer than normal. She didn’t realize, however, that so many events — even those months out — would wind up being canceled, forcing her business to pivot to the world of virtual events.

“At the beginning, it was such a whirlwind, calling vendors and everyone involved with an event to make sure they knew an event was canceled or postponed,” Reader says of those first few days.

For a business that relies on bringing people together, COVID-19, the state’s Safer at Home order and social distancing rules delivered a big blow. Reader and her team quickly focused on learning as much as possible about virtual events attendees can watch from a specialized link or on a platform like Facebook or YouTube.

“We’re jumping in together — the entire events industry — into this virtual world and learning how to do it together. We need to become experts in hosting virtual events and bring that knowledge to our clients,” she says. “We like events that are face to face and hope it returns to that sooner rather than later, but this is the reality now.”

Since no one is sure when large gatherings will be able to resume, Reader is telling her clients who have events planned this summer and fall that there’s a high likelihood their event will need to be virtual.

A-mazing Events team members are learning everything they can about virtual events, including strategies for keeping attendees engaged, the best technology to use, and ways for clients to get their money’s worth, which includes event sponsorships for businesses and hitting fundraising goals for nonprofits.

Reader believes virtual events will be well received since people still will want the information from an industry event, for example, but do not want to have to worry about health risks. In addition, some businesses may cut back on travel to conferences or think about the health risk of sending an employee to even a local event.

“The No. 1 thing we need to do with all of our virtual events is to keep people engaged,” Reader says. “What does that look like? Maybe it’s sending attendees a gift beforehand to get them excited about the event or encourage group viewing at businesses. People can watch the event but still be able to experience the event with others.”

As A-mazing Events moves into virtual gatherings, Reader says her heart goes out to the vendors she uses for in-person events, whether it’s a florist, a lighting or sound specialist or caterer. “We’ve connected with them all and everyone is feeling this. We have to be creative and find ways we can still use them,” she says.

As Wisconsin begins to meet milestones and the number of people allowed to attend events increases, Reader says events will remain different.

“Once this is over, we will need to think about how we keep our attendees safe. What does that look like — is it more hand sanitizer and tables spread out more? How we change the flow of guests to prevent bottlenecks, and what about serving food?” she says. “And what kind of expense comes with all of these changes?”

➢ Eye of the storm

While most business leaders were not thinking about COVID-19 until February or even March, Dr. Ashok Rai, president and CEO of Prevea Health in Green Bay, has had his eye on the virus since its discovery was first announced.

“We heard about a contagious, new virus with unique characteristics in China last December and began learning what we could about what they were doing in China, and later elsewhere, to combat it,” he says. “I made sure our staff was asking questions about a patient’s travel history since the virus, at that point, was travel related.”

While Safer at Home was in effect, Rai was in the uncommon position of not only ensuring Prevea was prepared to operate under the measures but that it was also ready to treat COVID-19 patients. One of those measures was deferring most elective procedures and non-urgent appointments. The move freed up staff members to help care for patients with coronavirus. Plus, having fewer people in its clinics helped limit the spread of infection.

“From a financial standpoint, that was hard. We shut down 75 percent of our regular operations as we prepared to handle the surge” of COVID-19 patients, Rai says.

But those preparations — as hard as they were — made a difference as the number of COVID-19 cases soared in Brown County, as three meatpackers in the area reported outbreaks among their employees. As of late May, Brown County had the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state, trailing only Milwaukee County.

In mid-May, Prevea and other regional health care organizations began phasing in non-urgent appointments and procedures.

Rai says sharing information among health care providers nationwide has been essential in fighting the pandemic. “We received a lot of great advice from people in Washington state and other places that experienced those first outbreaks about what we needed to do to prepare,” he says.

Locally, health care leaders from all Brown and Door county operations, along with Holy Family Memorial in Manitowoc, gather virtually every morning at 7 a.m. to discuss what group members are seeing at their sites. Rai expects collaboration to continue among health systems once the pandemic ends.

Rai believes COVID-19 will change the delivery of health care across the nation as more services are offered through telemedicine. Prevea has invested substantially in its telemedicine platforms and capabilities, which Rai says has turned out to be a smart move.

The decision by Medicare to expand telemedicine coverage during the pandemic was momentous, and scaling that back once the pandemic is under control will be a challenge for insurers, Rai says.

“Patients really like telehealth, and it’s been a good, effective way to deliver care,” he says. “I think it will be hard to take that away.”

➢ Learning to change

With the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh already in a difficult financial position for the 2019-20 school year, the pandemic could not have hit at a worse time. Declining enrollment, which has affected higher-education institutions nationwide, meant the school had resorted to using reserves to make up for the loss of tuition dollars even before COVID-19 arrived in the state.

“This pandemic has hit at a time when we have decreasing demographics in the state. At the time, we had a booming economy, which was taking a lot of students out of higher ed and putting them into the workforce directly out of high school,” says UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt.
COVID-19 has led to $7 million to $8 million in additional expenses due to lost revenue. Leavitt anticipates losing the same amount next year, and the school is working to figure out how to close that gap permanently.

The university’s first steps include a 15 percent pay cut for Leavitt and two kinds of furloughs for other staff members. Around 180 employees were placed on furlough May 4 through Aug. 31. Remaining staff were placed on furlough two days each month beginning in May. All nine-month employees are exempt from furloughs for the fiscal year ending June 30. They will be notified later in the summer about intermittent furloughs during their fiscal year 2021 contract.

The entire UW System is feeling the pain. In May, it released a three-part plan to address challenges. The system’s plan calls for refining the missions of its comprehensive universities to provide greater institutional distinctiveness and identity, consolidating and streamlining common administrative operational functions, and creating a unified strategic online education delivery model.

Of course, the pandemic has left more than financial strain as staff and students have had to adjust to 100 percent online learning. Leavitt says as soon as the semester began, he started to monitor the evolution of the situation. In early February, the school mobilized its Emergency Operations Center. As universities on the coasts began to close, it soon became apparent to Leavitt that course would be the “only prudent thing to do.”

Leavitt acknowledges the tremendous challenge the situation has created but says staff and students have risen to the occasion.

“To all of a sudden say, ‘You have two weeks to come up with an alternative delivery method for your course’ really put a lot of pressure on the faculty and the students,” he says. “I couldn’t be more pleased and proud of how people have reacted to the very precipitous action.”

Leavitt hopes UW-Oshkosh will be able to hold face-to-face classes in the fall, probably with social distancing restrictions in place. A hybrid in-person/online learning model is another possibility. He anticipates a decision, most likely made at the system-wide level, will come in July.

As for the graduates walking into the workforce or graduate school amid the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic, Leavitt says he has confidence they will find their way. Seniors participated in a virtual commencement ceremony in May and will have the option to attend an in-person one in December.

“This too shall pass. (They) are equipped with a world-class UW degree, and leaving this institution, yes, the options may be difficult at first. But one of the great things about our students, our graduates and anywhere in the UW, is perseverance and resilience. It’s a matter of just getting out there and getting after it.”

➢ Hospitality hindered

While COVID-19 has hit communities of all sizes, it can take an especially exacting toll on smaller regions that rely heavily on tourism. Door County is home to just over 27,000 permanent residents, but in a typical year, it attracts around 2 million visitors.

Those numbers put the county in a difficult position. The county is made up of small communities — some with as few as 300 to 400 residents — but it’s also made up of many small businesses that count on tourism dollars to create a steady stream of income.

Threading the needle between sustaining the county’s businesses and arts organizations and protecting the health of the county’s residents by asking people to take a break from visiting has proven challenging, says Jack Moneypenny, president and CEO of Destination Door County.

“We have had to walk a fine line here in Door County letting people know we want to welcome them back when it’s safe again,” he says.

The situation with the pandemic began to blow up soon after Moneypenny returned from a vacation on March 1. Quickly, he began looking at the organization’s budget and ways to save money since most of its funds come from room taxes.

“I knew we needed to think through this and really kind of be thoughtful of, I didn’t want to lay off staff. I didn’t at first. I took every other precaution I could with funding, and I still ended up laying off a third of our staff,” he says.

Moneypenny says the pandemic has led to a bit of an identity crisis for many of the county’s businesses. Tourism tends to be an “up-close-and-personal” business, he says. Many innkeepers, restaurateurs and small business owners become fast friends with guests, offering a handshake or even a hug. Keeping 6 feet of space around people and wearing face masks complicates that, he says.

A 38-year industry veteran with experience working in both the convention and visitors bureau space and the hotel industry, Moneypenny says COVID-19 has posed the most vexing situation he’s ever faced. Even when people are free to travel, the virus will still be there for the foreseeable future and they’ll need to travel with care.

While the initial messaging from Destination Door County was “Pause now, play later,” Moneypenny says his organization, along with inns, restaurants and shops, has shifted its focus to planning and preparing to welcome visitors back safely. At the same time, he recognizes that the organization will need to continually devise new plans and strategies as the situation evolves.

Destination Door County is basing its messaging on state guidelines about when it’s safe to travel again. As late April and early May arrived, day trippers began to return to the county, visiting parks, getting takeout from local restaurants and dining from the safety of their vehicles. Moneypenny anticipates a gradual return to normal but also recognizes the county will experience a challenging season.

“We’re excited to welcome people back to Door County and show them we can do this, whether it’s from 6 feet away or whether they’ll just have to take air hugs for now until we can figure out a better way of doing that.”