It’s been a year like no other. Overnight the business landscape changed, let alone education and home life. As we look back on this tumultuous year, we reflect on how we, as a leading organisation offering business support across South West England, pivoted our focus to urgently support our business community, and in turn how they have supported us too.
In this blog, we review some of the positive impacts resulting from our activity within the business community and chat to some of the business owners we have helped as they navigated the Covid-19 pandemic.
Supporting business through Coronavirus
We immediately set up our Trading through Coronavirus hub on our website, shaped to offer vital advice and guidance, and to explain and signpost businesses quickly to access crucial support as government rolled out their financial support packages, and other opportunities. We launched a video and podcast series and produced a vast range of content and resources, with the aim to create a gateway to facilitate knowledge transfer, directing people to relevant support and services externally.
We shared the message widely with the 23,000 businesses we engage with across the West of England region and further afield. Between 23rd March 2020 – 23rd March 2021 our website traffic increased by 72% - as compared with the previous year.
Local Case Study
Fiona O'Kane, Bristol Head of Office and Real Estate partner, Womble Bond Dickinson said,
“Business West has come into its own, rising to the challenge of this crisis and bringing the public and private sectors together very effectively. “
The Chamber team were also in demand through this challenging period, providing a listening ear and poised to assist our members directly. For example, we worked closely with Chamber members Keri Andriana at Amschela, and Heather at Gopal’s Curry Shack to help them access and understand information about grants availability during the pandemic.
Demand for clarity during Covid-19
Creating over 500 pieces of informative videos, blogposts and related content during this time, to meet the demand for clarity and crucial guidance, we witnessed 191,000 pageviews on Trading Through Coronavirus content between 23rd March 2020 – 23rd March 2021. These covered a wide range of key information, from available grant schemes and discounts, the Kickstart Scheme, and advice pieces, for example, on how to use technology to adapt to coronavirus home working, to how habits were changing as a result of the pandemic.
Top topics sought during the period were focused around furlough – a word that was new to many of us in 2020. They answered burning questions about furlough absence, understanding what furlough means, and accessing information on new opportunities for business during lockdown.
How was the pandemic impacting business?
Between 2nd - 17th April Business West and the Chambers rolled out a survey, to gauge how the pandemic was impacting businesses in the South West. Over 1,100 businesses responded and highlighted the un-paralleled scale of the economic impact being faced by companies grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. The standout results were that 62% of firms said they were concerned about their current financial impact due to the impact of Covid-19 and 88% said they were concerned about their future financial position.
Between 21st July – 4th August 2020, Business West conducted its second major survey measuring the impact of Covid-19 on businesses in South West England. Businesses across a wide variety of sizes and sectors responded, to highlight the overwhelmingly negative impact of Covid-19. It was revealed that less than 1 in 10 businesses saw a positive side to the Covid-19 pandemic and that working from home became more common, demand for office space changed and carbon emissions reduced.
We are grateful to all the businesses who responded to our surveys, the results of which allowed us to lobby government on policy changes through our central connection to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).
Local Case Study
Back in May 2021, we were approached by two local businesswomen, Becca Luger and Jacky Puzey who were not eligible to receive council grants. Business West Chambers of Commerce took up their case and lobbied the small business minister, Paul Scully, with a letter signed by 400 businesses from Bristol and Bath to highlight the issue. As a result, the government decided to award an extra £617 million to local authorities to fill the cracks created in the system, so that Becca and Jacky and hundreds of other businesses could access the financial support they needed.
Becca Baker, who runs Crumpet Cakes in Bedminster and specialises in artisan muffins for events and festivals, said:
“I am absolutely ecstatic because these council grants will make such a difference to the lives of hundreds of small businesses like ourselves here and all over the country.”
Jacky Puzey, a specialist digital embroiderer with clients throughout the world, has her business at the Meriton Foundry in St Phillips, Bristol.
“For my business, the grant will give me essential cover for the period when my audience of clients are in lockdown. We cannot thank Matt Griffith of Business West enough for all his help in helping us convince government of our case.”
British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Business West Chambers of Commerce
The pivotal role BCC played, together with Business West’s Policy team, in representing the business community to government led to some significant changes for business, outlined in the 2021 Chamber Network Budget Wins. Successful campaigns included the extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, extending the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) and the 100% business rates holiday and the recovery loan scheme.
The British Chambers of Commerce are a network of 53 accredited Chambers (including Business West Chambers of Commerce) spanning the entirety of the UK, representing tens of thousands of businesses of all shapes and sizes, which employ almost six million people (nearly 10% of the UK population). Being part of this network makes us stronger and further enables us to lobby on our members behalf.
Online events and webinars
Like many businesses, we had to adapt to an online events programme very quickly. Since the start of the pandemic Business West has held over 150 virtual events, welcoming thousands of attendees. Our ever-popular Chamber networking ‘Zoom Around the Room’ events have helped to connect hundreds of individuals across Bristol, Bath, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. We also ran events with the British Chambers of Commerce including a series ‘In Conversation with’ where high profile speakers such as Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England and Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer provided their insight to the pandemic.
Our Initiative meetings covered a broad range of local business topics in Bristol and the West of England and the Business and Economy meetings in Swindon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire opened up discussions around key business issues. Our Kickstart Q&A sessions have given businesses the know-how to access the Kickstart Scheme, and just this month we saw our first Kickstart cohort start their placements in local organisations, including as a Trainee Business Analyst at Gapsquare and two Design Trainees appointed at Revive Innovations.
Our partnerships with local businesses really strengthened our events programme. We joined up with Bristol law firm Womble Bond Dickinson on an event providing advice on returning to work safely during Covid-19, and with VWV on contracts and coronavirus.
Local Case Study
Tahsin Yahsin, Principal Consultant at Expense Reduction Analysts said,
“Zoom around the Room has been energising, interactive and fun and is recommended for business principals aiming to grow their local awareness and network. Just don’t expect to make sales or direct leads. Its only one step on the lead generation pathway but a worthwhile one.”
Supporting business post Brexit and during a pandemic
During this time, we continued to provide guidance to businesses following the end to the EU transition period. Between 23rd March 2020 – 23rd March 2021 the hub received 16,000 pageviews and a high engagement on-site. Visitors have – according to the data – found what they were looking for on our site thanks to informative content pieces & FAQs answering their top questions.
Providing the correct documentation has been essential to support Chamber businesses trading overseas, and since January 2021 with all the changes from Brexit, our team has processed over a hundred customs declarations.
Local case study
Bristol based business, Q21 Water, which produces sustainably sourced bottled and bulk water for a range of industries, have received support from the Department for International Trade (DIT) services in the South West, delivered by Business West.
Andrew Davies, Managing Director, Q21 Water said,
“We’ve received support with marketing from DIT during the time of COVID which has been great and has really contributed to elevating our sales.”
Looking to the future
As the country begins to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, now is the time to be proactive rather than reactive. To plan and evolve. To drive and focus on new opportunities. To consider new innovations. To embrace new ways of working. A lot of what we do next as a country will be driven at a local level and within individual businesses, but more so than ever, we need to come together.
Being part of the Business West Chambers of Commerce community is a great way to make new business connections, access advice and support and grow your business.
Phil Smith, Managing Director of Business West Chambers of Commerce added:
“In the last 12 months our response to the pandemic has supported our local business community, but we have also worked hard to campaign for change on a national level. I have been motivated by the way individuals, organisations and the business community as a whole have come together to support each other during this time. We are stronger together.”