It might not be "happily ever after" just yet, but Winnipeg’s business community is optimistic about the post-pandemic future of local commerce.
And in many ways, stakeholders and proprietors believe, it’s a future that is better because of COVID-19 and not in spite of the global health crisis.
At a virtual forum held by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Friday, business leaders and advocates painted a pretty picture for local entrepreneurs, reimagining the innovation and success that seemed out of focus earlier this year.
"We’re finally looking at the light at the end of this long, long tunnel in 2020," Chamber chairman Shreeraj Patel told dozens of online attendees. "And while we didn’t necessarily expect it, businesses saw growth in impossible ways through strategic changes that showed resilience when they needed it most.
"If there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that change is the only constant for business. But it’s the community that helps you embrace it."
Loren Remillard, the chamber’s president and CEO, said he couldn’t agree more.
"What we keep hearing from our members was how important it was for them to lean on each other during this time," he said in an interview. "They told us how their sense of community became stronger because they had to advocate for one another and all together for the same goal of survival."
Remillard said it was through that strength in numbers that the community successfully lobbied for the government to pass sweeping legislation during the pandemic, and provide emergency assistance to struggling storefronts as promptly as it did.
"Now what we want to keep doing is showcasing the opportunities we see for our business community that are on the horizon," he added. "We want them to know that the future can and will be bright for them."
To secure that upward trajectory, however, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business believes various levels of government must put their politics aside and continue to allow for economic growth.
"My biggest hope is that once restrictions are lifted and emergency support is out of the way, governments don’t start slowing down on the work they did during the pandemic," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for CFIB.
"I want the next holiday season to look like the booming, easy and fun experience that it used to be in the past," he added. "And hopefully, the news of this vaccine will actually allow for that to happen."
In addition to keynote presentations, attendees also had a chance to connect and network with other business owners in the city through interactive virtual booths set up by the Chamber. During those breakout sessions, local entrepreneurs shared several solutions for the future, along with ideas for programming and advocacy initiatives.
Some of those ideas included the ways in which Winnipeg entrepreneurs can lift one another on social media and through e-commerce. To that end, the Chamber is asking members to nominate businesses in the city through an online form to be shared on their website and social channels.
"I think there’s no doubt that the kind of digital presence which was forced by COVID on local businesses will need to remain a mainstay," said Bram Strain, president of the Business Council of Manitoba.
"If I’m looking at a future right now, I also expect things like curbside pickups and deliveries that were easier ways to do business during the pandemic to become something that won’t go away."
But Strain said not everything will be so rosy. "There will likely be some jobs that just won’t ever be the same," he said.
"Yet, there’s opportunity even through that — I mean, look at remote working. That’s something we won’t be saying goodbye to, and I expect more businesses will likely keep embracing it."
Aubrey Margolis, who runs Danali clothing store in south Winnipeg, said he’s "finally beginning to look at the calm that comes after this storm." He believes the local-buying sentiment that grew for his business during the pandemic will remain in the long run for all local stores.
Margolis said retailers will likely have shorter hours and fewer staff working in-store, but "there’s no slowing down" of online sales and other such services introduced during the pandemic.
"Normal is a tough word," he said. "But it’s a word that I think we’ll all find a new meaning for when we’re in 2021 — and for me, that itself is growth."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.