‘The new way’: Milwaukee businesses pivot by selling care packages, virtual events to survive the coronavirus pandemic

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The decision for many businesses during the coronavirus pandemic is to pivot or perish. 

Some business shifts seem like natural moves — restaurants offering takeout, venues livestreaming concerts or retailers scaling up online sales. 

Businesses that are based around gathering people for a tour, a game, travel or a conference are finding new ways to get money coming in the door. 

Milwaukee Food & City Tours can’t load buses of strangers to take them on a tour of Milwaukee these days. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements make it nearly impossible. Even with the easing of restrictions, it’s unknown when the general public will feel comfortable gathering again. 

The company started receiving phone calls for cancellations as soon as President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. By the next day, more than $200,000 in business was canceled or refunded, company owner Theresa Nemetz said. 

“Within 48 hours, I realized we were completely out of business unless we pivot,” Nemetz said. 

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Coming up with a new line of business was the only way Nemetz could keep paying her five-person full-time staff and continue to call part-time workers. 

The idea was to bring the sights and tastes of Milwaukee to customers’ doors with care packages. Instead of taking people through the city for sausages at Usinger’s and pretzels from Milwaukee Pretzel Co., Milwaukee Food & City Tours is packing those items up (along with virtual tour experience access) and shipping it out. 

Milwaukee Food & City Tours started in late March with quarantine care kits and shelter-in-style kits.

Nearly 2,000 care packages have been sold. The move is sustaining Nemetz’s business. She has not had to furlough staff members. She also received federals funds through the Paycheck Protection Program. 

The selection has expanded with specialty care packages for events like birthdays, Mother’s Day and Cinco De Mayo. The kits vary in price from around $35 for a chocolate self-care kit to $78 for the ultimate snack break.

Milwaukee Food & City Tours is thinking about offering tours again to private groups with guides leaving adequate distance and talking through headsets. But it’s also thinking about how these care packages can become a lasting part of the business. 

“For the next couple of years, it’s possible that some individuals won’t be able to do a tour,” she said. Instead of having travelers visit Milwaukee to learn about the city, she’ll ship the experience to them. 

Marla Poytinger isn’t sure when her company will be able to bring 1,500 people through her bars for ax throwing, mini-golf, shuffleboard and painting again on a Saturday night. 

The live, host-led trivia game her company launched during the pandemic will remain part of Bars & Recreation Inc.’s business line after bars open. 

“Even if the world goes back to normal, which I don’t think anyone expects, there is still a huge market of people who … still need to gather and interact but can’t or aren’t willing to come together physically,” Poytinger said. Public games are $9 per registration, which can include all the people quarantined together. 

The company, which runs Axe MKE, Splash Studio, NorthSouth Club and Nine Below, is seeing maybe just 1% of its normal revenue, she said. 

Many businesses like hers would lose all their revenue unless a new product could be sold.

Daniel Cruz was launching his new laundry service for Airbnb hosts, Washbnb, as the pandemic halted travel. The company faced a total loss. Cruz thought about shutting down, but laundry still needs to get done, even during a pandemic. 

Washbnb shifted gears to offering services to people who are elderly or immunocompromised in the Milwaukee community, charging around $10 to $20 a load with delivery. The company is also offering a pay-what-you-can model. It is operating at a loss and actively looking for investors to raise $450,000. 

Nearly all the trade shows that BoothCentral Inc. works with to manage vendors are canceled for the foreseeable future.

“No events are collecting vendor payment,” said BoothCentral co-founder Tim Gill. “We had to pivot or we would be at a standstill.” 

BoothCentral’s development team built a new platform out in 10 days to replicate the experience of an in-person trade show. This is not just a livestream. The virtual event page contains a main livestream and vendor rooms, among other areas, with the goal to replicate the buzz of an in-person event. 

It held its first virtual event in the middle of April.

“We didn’t go into this thinking it would be extended this long,” he said. “But we just knew that we had to do something.” 

On its new platform, BoothCentral is hosting art fairs, home and garden shows, and career fairs. The company is now growing and hiring to add to its staff of 10 employees. Even once in-person events are held again, BoothCentral expects hybrid models with online components. 

“There is no going back to normal at this point,” Gill said. “We see that this is going to be the new way.”  

Sarah Hauer can be reached at shauer@journalsentinel.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer.

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