Columns Opinion Your Views — 24 October 2013
Learning from the shutdown

By Bill Reagan
(Photo/File Photo) 

During the recent weeks of stomach-churning uncertainty, large and small businesses have suffered from the government shutdown.

Many firms dependent on government contracts faced tough decisions, like how long they could go without layoffs. Other small businesses were thrown into chaos as offices that processed federal certifications or loan programs suspended operations.

The tourism and hospitality industry also took a hit as major attractions in the region closed and conferences were canceled. While a few retailers and food service businesses experienced increased activity from furloughed workers looking for things to do, many others saw shoppers postpone purchases until their finances stabilized.

As we move past the shutdown, we have an opportunity to examine some lessons that could help strengthen business operations in the long term. Whether it’s dealing with a government shutdown or a downturn in the economy, building the foundation for a resilient business is critical.

A few businesses realized they had all their eggs in the federal government basket. Hopefully, that experience will serve as a catalyst to begin diversifying and exploring other sectors.
Others, faced with challenging circumstances, went to great expense to avoid furloughing their employees. Thus they strengthened employee loyalty. Many businesses found ways to do more with less and can apply these efficiencies moving forward.

More than a few business owners got creative. For example, the Potomac Riverboat Co. promoted all of the great things to see and do in Alexandria to customers affected by the closed docks in Washington. The company encouraged people with boat tour tickets from Georgetown to board in Alexandria instead.

The Potomac Riverboat Co. also got the word out to frantic brides, whose reception venues were on federal property, and to tourists with plans to see museums and monuments. Good communication always is important, but in these types of situations, it can be the difference between success and failure.

Many retailers showed empathy and promotional savvy by offering furloughed employees discounts or benefits. Danielle Romanetti of fibre space — a yarn boutique — advertised free introductory knitting instruction to those affected by the shutdown. About 50 new students showed up every day.

By demonstrating this goodwill, fibre space ended up with a new group of knitters with strong customer loyalty. Many other businesses offered similar promotions.

Understanding your cash flow and financial position can also alleviate some of the anxiety of uncertainty. How strong are your reserves? What flexibility do you have in paying your vendors or collecting on receivables?

Feeling comfortable with these kinds of questions will help you make strong business decisions. If you need advice on these issues, please reach out to the Alexandria Small Business Development Center for assistance.

Businesses that adapt to changing situations and adopt innovative ways to attract and retain customers in challenging times will be more successful. Adversity often inspires our best instincts. Kudos to the people and businesses that rose to the occasion.

- The writer is the director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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