To better understand the challenges faced by small businesses in the tourism sector, we include information from an interview with Jane Bertch, the owner of La Cuisine Paris. As a small independent business, La Cuisine Paris operates at the intersection of tourism and food services, the hardest-hit sectors globally during the COVID 19 lockdowns.
First to be hit - last to recover
La Cuisine Paris is an 11-year-old, Paris-based business offering in-person cooking classes in English. Started, owned, and managed by Jane Bertch, the business focuses primarily on North American tourists. With a class size of 6-8 persons, La Cuisine Paris offers an intimate, specialized French culinary experience designed to be souvenirs or lasting memories for visitors to take home. They have 8 chefs on staff and, pre-pandemic, conducted 8000-10,000 classes annually. In 2019, Jane was seeing a positive trend and was looking at ways to expand—then the pandemic hit.
Even though France went into lockdown in March 2020, Jane started to see a slow down in new customer bookings and a higher cancellation rate in January the same year. This is consistent with the EU trends. Although reliant on international (non-EU) tourists, where uncertainty, travel restrictions, and travel bans continue to hinder travel, La Cuisine Paris did not see a demand uptick during the 2020 summer enjoyed by businesses catering to EU travelers.
Follow or create your own path
Aware of this challenge, Jane knew that any solution would need to help the business overcome the lockdown/travel bans but also remain an additional business post-pandemic. Soon after the lockdown began, her competitors - which she considers her community - moved to online classes. Instead of joining them, she took a moment to evaluate and look at all her options.
She communicated with her clients, existing vendor partners, and other community members, e.g. competitors. Keeping in line with the business ethos of intimate, personalized experiences, she decided to create and sell pre-recorded classes. Once purchased, the video belonged to the client to keep using. The client also got access to the team back in France for questions and additional interaction.
The other focus was how to provide the French culinary experience for the client at their home. They worked with their partners to create bundles of products that are being sold online along with the class. For example, for a croissant-making class, they worked with their long-time partner Dehellerin to provide baking equipment. The cooking school put together the packages and sold them on their website and the partner would have to package and ship the product to the end client. They did a similar tie-up for wine but there were some restrictions.
Making sure the people are OK
For most small enterprises, staff and clients remain the backbone of the business. Jane faced a similar challenge. Many of the staff had been with La Cuisine Paris for 10 years and she felt responsible for them. Luckily, France is very supportive of small businesses, and the government provided a lot of helpful information. Jane made sure that this information was shared with all her staff and that they were always informed.
Jane experienced a similar situation with clients who were looking to her for answers. They wanted to know how long the lockdown would last and when they could come back in for classes. In this situation, she truthfully shared that she did not know. She, too, was trying to find answers and working on solutions.
Even though there was strong pressure to make quick decisions and push towards obvious solutions, Jane took the time to think and internalize. She continued communicating with other business owners, partners, and clients. When asked, Jane shares that her advice for other small business owners would be to pause and think through decisions, in addition, to continue engaging with one's larger community. She also believes that finding solutions that help other small businesses helps strengthen one's own community by creating a healthy environment for small businesses.
Did government initiatives help small businesses?
The EU had several initiatives to infuse liquidity into small businesses and help with the lockdowns. Many of them focused on making sure that businesses did not lay off people. Understanding the impact tourism has on the European GDP, the EU has been proactive in creating a safety net for the industry. Initiatives like the European Globalisation Adjustment fund earmarked funds to assist people who were laid off in the tourism sector. Under the EU treaties, individual governments were given more leeway on implementing and providing specific relief.
Early EU initiatives focused on creating support for small businesses including support networks amongst the community. Later, the focus shifted to create a common strategy to allow the safe reopening of borders. Overall, the focus remained on the EU, and not much effort was made to create travel bubbles with non-EU member states to increase international tourist visits.
What to expect in the future?
A UNWTO panel of experts has a mixed outlook for 2021 and foresees that when things do open, the preference will be to enjoy nature and outdoor travel with a domestic focus. The same panel expects only 22% of international tourists to return to Europe by Q2 2021. They expect it to take up to 4 years to return to 2019 international tourism levels. According to UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, the changing nature of the virus continues to be a concern for travelers despite the efforts to open borders and facilitate international travel.
The forecast is dismal, but there may be hope for small businesses. According to Dr. Ayman from the International Council for Small Businesses, the top business trends for 2021 are 1) small business resiliency, 2) human entrepreneurship, and 3) womenpreneurs. These points are similar to Jane’s approach towards the challenges of the COVID-19 and her leadership style. She has created a new business avenue that can grow during the pandemic years and complement her existing business when international tourism gains momentum. She is likely to emerge from this pandemic stronger and more resilient than ever.
Written by Natalia Nagree, an independent strategy consultant with a Master's in Public Policy and 7+ years of hands-on experience managing a small manufacturing and retail business.
Edited by Christine McKenzie