We wrote this post last month and in light of Covid-19 and most UK high streets being closed, we were ready to abandon it. However, as the lockdown continues, it became clearer that we’re unlikely to revert back to how things were/the old normal, which provided us with an opportunity to think about how we might adapt projects, or what we can do now to help us prepare for future engagement and in turn to ensure businesses are ready for reopening, whenever that may be.

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Over the past 12 months, we’ve been managing several stakeholder engagement projects. Whilst talking to business owners, BID members, workers, market traders and high street users in very different places, we’ve uncovered interesting findings on how these places work and what interventions might be needed to strengthen relationships, to connect businesses with their communities and increase their chance of success.

Our projects have included- ‘Developing an economic vision for a high street’, ‘Reviewing street markets’, ‘Exploring the potential of the night-time economy’, ‘Understanding town centre use’ and considering ‘How a city centre transitions from retail-focused to leisure’.

Now that Covid-19 has forced many high street businesses (and some of our projects) to close down or pause, businesses need a stronger connection than ever before with their community. If they are to rebuild post-lockdown, businesses need to be able to adapt and consider new ways of operating.

This led us to reflect on our experiences, review the findings as to what lessons can be learnt and adopted in other locations and focus on looking ahead. The key highlights for us were:

The relationship between local authorities, BIDs and businesses

In some places, the relationship between the council and the local businesses has broken down. There is a lack of trust and conviction that change will happen. Council’s need to create a dialogue with businesses on an ongoing basis (as resource allows) to understand the challenges facing them rather than only during consultations. With BIDs, it’s easier to build the dialogue will BID levy payers as they will be looking for a return, however, there will still be those who don’t engage.

From the businesses perspective, many believe that councils are responsible for numerous services/activities, which they are often not!

Our experience with multiples (and large-scale market operators) found that their relationship with the place ranged from disconnected with workers needing permission to speak to us or know little about the area, to those who were adapting their offer locally and working with colleagues in neighbouring town centres to compare data.

Often multiples sit on the BID board leading to a more direct relationship but they remain disconnected from councils. In many places, they may be the anchor tenant, front onto a market square or be in the largest building in the town centre.

Covid-19 opportunities

  • Councils and BIDs are now the main source of information and support contact for businesses to access funds, services and understand what happens next. Covid-19 offers an opportunity to reshape and strengthen these relationships (and be clearer about the roles councils and BIDs play in our high streets)
  • Whilst the multiples are more likely to be planning their next move with their own advisors rather than relying on council and BID updates, there is an opportunity to explore whether a closer relationship is possible. Think ahead as to new uses for these buildings. Indications right now (but they may be different tomorrow!) show that local offerings are becoming more important. Can this be used to strengthen the connection between the multiples and their places, if they are to adapt for the future?

Being creative with how and when spaces are used

Whilst building an understanding of the key assets, opening hours and issues locally, we investigated how spaces can be repurposed, (e.g- in the evenings, on days they are not being used) whether this is a square, market space or food and beverage location. In one high street, a pie and mash shop is sublet to become a cocktail bar on weekend evenings. In shopping centres, table tennis spaces have been added in empty units. Places don’t always need large scale interventions to affect change but it’s important they are bespoke to the place and not a ‘one size fits all’ approach

Covid-19 opportunities

We can’t reopen leisure spaces right now or hospitality venues but what about the outside of closed buildings? Can hoardings on closed premises be decorated (or add ‘coming soon/back soon’) where people are walking past as part of their daily exercise? As businesses start to reopen, sharing of premises (as the lease allows) and utilising pop-up and Meanwhile opportunities may help businesses be more resilient on the long road back to being fully open.

The role of zombie and ostrich businesses

Consider the case of the zombie and ostrich businesses, which sometimes take up too much space on our high streets. Zombie businesses in some cases own the freehold and therefore can turn up every day without the pressure of generating an income leading to little incentive to improve the business.

Ostrich businesses may well be under pressure from rent etc but are ignoring the changes impacting high streets and taking no action, instead choosing to blame others (or parking, business rates etc) for their predicament. This was happening before the lockdown came in.

Covid-19 opportunities

Look ahead to get a sense of which businesses may not reopen post lockdown. Some might be a ‘maybe’ but there will be others – multiples, market traders and high street businesses – who may take the opportunity to retire or sell up. What gaps will this leave with empty buildings or missing commodities?

Collaboration is key!

Asking businesses to attend meetings is a challenge! Sometimes there is only one person running the business, or they have other commitments to attend to and despite the best intentions they then don’t make the meeting. There needs to be a compelling reason for businesses to attend, (not just a chance to share views or find out more about a topic). How will they benefit from attending? What impact will it have on their bottom line if they do?

Calling it a business forum seems to have a negative connotation, with it sounding formal and bureaucratic. It is better to let a business group develop informally and be led by businesses rather than forcing its creation.

Covid-19 opportunities

The lockdown has led some businesses to start informally collaborating where there is a group of them open or where they provide online delivery. This is a great start to a longer-term partnership approach across our high streets that is driven by the businesses themselves. For BIDs, is there an opportunity to review your board and working groups to ensure you have the right people in place to prepare for reopening?

How to engage

We found that survey fatigue is real! In line with a lack of trust, businesses don’t want to be asked the same questions time and time again. Engagement is often not co-ordinated and other projects will start before the last one has finished. It looks uncoordinated and leads to businesses questioning the use of public or BID funds, breaking down trust further.

Future impact of Covid-19:

How we engage now and what works best will take time and be different depending on the people involved and the location but all places can plan projects so they don’t overlap (unless they complement each other) or duplicate content. Most councils and BIDs are sending out weekly (or daily in some cases) updates to businesses on support available. Can the content of some of these emails be delivered as an online meeting too to strengthen relationships with the businesses as the current situation becomes the new normal?

What’s been your experience of engaging businesses and what’s worked? We’d love to hear your examples.

You can contact us on hello@theassemblyline.co or on Twitter @_AssemblyLine