Small Business Matters: The times, they are a changing

  • Dennis Boyd

Reading about what’s going on as we seem to be emerging from the misery of COVID, it’s easy to share somewhat in Charles Dickens’ tone in A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” While we can’t take those contradictory superlatives as far as Dickens did, what we see and hear today certainly shares some of that contradiction. That goes for both public health and the economy, and it all depends on the view from where you’re standing.

On the one hand, it’s easy to get giddy when hearing about zero new infections on the Big Island on certain days, coupled with a seven-day average test positivity of 0.5% that has declined 70% from Feb. 2 to Feb. 15, per the state Department of Health. On the other hand, we see the rise of new COVID variants, some of which seem to be more resistant to a vaccine or more easily transmitted.

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Then, flipping us back over into positivity, we read about plans for vastly increased federal vaccine production and deployment. On the negative side to that are vaccine shortages and a patchwork quilt of eligibility to receive an injection depending on where you live.

Back to the positive again, Lt. Gov. Green commented recently (West Hawaii Today, Feb. 16) that the COVID crises will largely be over in Hawaii by summer and that vaccinated travelers should be able to travel without quarantine by May 1. This is great, but on the negative front, we hear that COVID probably will always be with us. Admittedly, these two sides of the COVID who-ya-gonna-trust-meter don’t present equivalently contradictory messages, but the conflicting emotional impact they carry is there.

Here in Hawaii, it is widely acknowledged that we won’t have an economic recovery until we get our tourists back and there is some brightness in that area. After a dismal start to the year, “hotel occupancy, although variable among properties, is reported as somewhat higher over the next few months,” according to the Kohala Coast Resort Association’s Stephanie Donoho. On the downside, these rates are not consistent over time and must be understood in light of the pandemic’s newly minted, loosened travel industry cancellation policies, which mean you can’t actually count on an occupancy until it happens.

We’re also seeing some additional flights coming in now and projected for the summer, although the real bump-up in our tourism economy won’t happen until group travel is allowed. “The way the industry works is that conventions and meetings are the backbones of the resort market, and leisure travel is on top of that,” Donoho continues.

Ross Birch, from the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, points out that “group travel plans are made two to five years in advance. We lost the entire year of 2020, so groups were pushed back to 2021, then spring ’21 plans were pushed to summer plans, and then to fall plans. If we lose a full two years of group travel, we run the risk of forcing groups to another location in subsequent years.” Contrary to presumptions, Birch points out the comparative “safety of group business, as no company wants to jeopardize its employees or franchisees, so the safety protocols for the group travel business far exceed what can be expected of leisure travel. One group I’m working with is even bringing along an on-site doctor.”

So, on the tourism front locally, there is equivocal support for things perhaps beginning to look up, but with a lot of caveats.

Switching to the national economy and referring to just one example, an upcoming report by McKinsey Global Institute projects that up to 20% of workers displaced from office settings will continue working from home and that 20% of business travel won’t be coming back. Changes like these might not directly affect us, but they do have a trickle-down effect throughout the economy, and in 2020 we became all too aware of how interconnected we all are.

The jobs that are ultimately going to be impacted by these new working logistics are low-wage jobs in retail and foodservice. And as demand decreases and employers look for ways to cut costs as well as to give customers both the perception and the reality of safety, automation will take off. It already has. And there is no reason to think that mainland automation won’t spread to our island remoteness. So, there are risks, as well as opportunities, for current workers and for the businesses in which they work.

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So, things are changing, not that they don’t always and haven’t been doing so at a dramatically increased rate over the last year. They recently seem to be changing for the better, but that assurance is equivocal at best. It all depends on the view from where you’re standing.

Dennis Boyd is director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center. Hawaii SBDC Network is funded in part through Cooperative Agreement No. SBAHQ-13-B-0048/0001 with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.

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