How do you keep a walking-tour company going when tourists can no longer travel to your town? Or prepare a hotel for a pandemic? Or manage a company when all of your employees have to work remotely?
Owning a small business means finding solutions to unexpected challenges such as these. And with decades of life experience, professional skills and dedication, older entrepreneurs are well suited to the task. In fact, according to a study from Guidant Financial, 78 percent of businesses owned by mature entrepreneurs are profitable, besting the earnings of Generation X, millennial, and Generation Z small business and franchise owners.
AARP talked with three entrepreneurs to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their operations. Their stories show that even in difficult circumstances, there are opportunities for growth and helpful resources for business owners.
Midgi Moore: Her Tour Business Was Suspended, So She Decided to Go to Customers Instead
Midgi Moore, 56, had big plans for 2020. Her company, Juneau Food Tours, which conducts culinary walking tours in downtown Juneau, Alaska, was heading into its sixth season, and preseason bookings were 200 percent above last year's. She was just about to hire one of her dozen or so seasonal employees as a full-time operations manager to help her expand the company.
Then, in late January, she started hearing troubling reports of a virus overseas and possibly in the U.S. Suddenly, cruise lines were announcing COVID-19–related cancellations, and by mid-March she saw the writing on the wall: The upcoming tourist season would be a bust. On March 27, Gov. Mike Dunleavy confirmed that by issuing a stay-at-home order for nonessential employees and discouraging unnecessary travel.
"To be perfectly honest, I fell apart. I lost it,” she says about her reaction. “I could just see the whole domino effect on our economy.”
Her instincts were rooted in experience. Moore had worked for her city's convention and visitors bureau, Travel Juneau, and also had a popular food blog as well as her tour company. Widespread cruise cancellations and travel restrictions would be devastating to a city so dependent on tourism. Her husband's charter-boat company would also be affected. Then the requests for refunds began coming in, and she needed to find a way to help her business survive.
Despite her concern, Moore kept her engagement to speak on a panel of tour operators addressing COVID-19 crisis management. During the discussion she was reminded of an idea she had two years earlier, to create a “food tour in a box” as a fun way to give a cruise as a gift. Instead of just unveiling tickets or making an announcement, the gift giver could make the announcement with a box full of delicacies and gifts from Alaska — a literal taste of what was to come. The same concept could be adapted to be a subscription box.
Moore quickly shifted gears and created a plan to create four seasonal gift boxes that would include food, art, history and cultural items from all over Alaska, instead of just from the areas she typically tours in Juneau. “Our motto is, ‘If you can't come to us, we'll come to you,’ “ she says.
Working her longtime network of industry contacts, she reached out to food purveyors, artists, and other small businesses and tourism-related companies around the state. She curated a collection of authentic Alaska flavors that were shelf-stable enough to be shipped around the world. Her selections included a 6-ounce box of smoked salmon, a hot sauce made from kelp favored by Juneau locals, herbal tea and salted caramels. She also included a beautiful postcard book, recipe cards for authentic Alaskan cuisine, and travel guides to help recipients plan trips.
Shortly after she came up with the idea for the subscription box, a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News interviewed her for a story about the state's devastated tourism industry. Not one to wallow in grief over what was lost, Moore focused on her new endeavor. Within three weeks of the story's running, Moore sold 50 boxes at $74.99 each and $279.96 for an annual subscription of four seasonal boxes.
"What I'm finding most exciting is that Alaskans saw this article and they're buying them to help me,” she says. Others are buying the boxes to give as gifts to people who love Alaska or want to visit the state someday, she adds.