Local companies get creative to survive the pandemic
“We were very cautious. We didn’t know if people would be upset or people would be excited,” she recalls about the live show theater’s return. “I have never heard an audience react the way they did. When the curtains opened, and the audience clapped and screamed so loud–they were so excited for us to be open.”
That moment was months in the making and anything but business as usual. While pros at finding talent, planning performances and creating a premier atmosphere for the audience, leaders at the 28-year-old theater eager to reopen had to become experts on pandemic-related procedures they’d never even heard of before COVID-19 arrived along the Grand Strand in March 2020. But the determined leaders knew that eventually, when it was safe, the show must go on.
Employees were required to answer health screening questions—any COVID-19 symptoms, exposure, etc.—when arriving for work each day. Audience seats were strategically blocked for social distancing, sophisticated air flow equipment was installed to ensure healthy air circulation and much more. All of the elaborate policies to protect the staff and customers from COVID-19 were detailed in a newly created manual provided to all team members.
“It was months of putting that together,” Scher says. “There’s just so many levels of it… It all comes back to—we have to keep everybody healthy and safe or we can’t operate. It’s a lot, but it was the only reason we were able to open. It’s worth it.”
For more than a year, all businesses along the Grand Strand–theaters, hotels, restaurants, stores, hair salons and more–grappled with how to operate amid a pandemic the likes of which no one had ever imagined. No hurricane, recession or bad tourism season could have prepared them for this.
Many were forced to close for nearly two months at the start of the pandemic, then had to adhere to safety protocols, such as social distancing and face mask requirements when they reopened at reduced capacity.
Some took the down time to renovate their businesses with an emphasis on safety. Others used the hiatus to develop in-depth COVID-19 safety protocols. Most relied on government assistance programs to help make ends meet, even as they tried to focus on the positive with a fierce determination to persevere through the pandemic and come out even stronger.
“Last year was a struggle for everyone,” says Joe Howe, general manager of RipTydz Oceanfront Grille & Rooftop Bar Restaurant in Myrtle Beach. “Honestly, we just tried to make the best of it. We put our heads down and got through it.”
A year later, many businesses still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but said they feel fortunate they’ve made it this far. They are excited by the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine and the early signs of a strong tourism season along the Grand Strand that will help their ongoing recovery.
“Going into this, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Pam Shelley, director of sales and marketing at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes, which was kept afloat by weekend leisure visitors as opposed to its usual group business that disappeared amid the pandemic. “The impact has been heavy, but maybe not as bad as we thought it could be. I believe we fared well, considering the circumstances. But it’s a very slow recovery coming out of this. We are not coming back as quick as we thought.”
GETTING CUSTOMERS BACK
With many people in lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, businesses focused on how to get them back when restrictions were lifted—and how to do it safely. Of course, there were face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer stations and more.
But businesses also got creative in safely luring customers back. RipTydz set up grills downstairs to accommodate to-go orders.
“It was actually great,” Howe says. “We were doing decent enough to keep us staying open.”
Kelly’s Consignment Boutique posted items for sale on social media, but soon discovered customers still wanted to examine items in person. The Murrells Inlet store bounced back quickly, and the momentum hasn’t let up.
“Actually, our business has been great,” says owner Kelly Canipe, who opened the store three years ago. “We have done really well. Overall, we had a really good 2020.”
The quarantines and shutdowns that came with COVID-19 gave some people the time to tackle the task of cleaning out closets and purging their belongings. Many of those high-end items flowed to the shelves at the 1,100-square-foot consignment shop, which boasts more than 1,500 sellers. To help keep everyone safe, the store added protocols, such as cleaning pens, frequently wiping down merchandise and offering hand sanitizer to customers throughout the store.
“They appreciate us doing that,” Canipe says.
Customers also appreciate the store’s personalized customer service, where many are known by name and treated like family, she says, adding that was another key to the store’s quick comeback.
“July was probably the busiest month we’ve ever had,” she says. “And this year? Oh–we have never stopped. I think our business is going to boom. Every week, we are getting so many new people coming in.”
EnVogue Salon & Day Spa used the six weeks of down time,
when it was closed in March and April to renovate. Showcasing their newly renovated salon and the owner’s proven commitment to the community, EnVogue also saw customers eager to return.
“We worked around the clock just to get everybody caught up,” says Lynn Caudle, who has owned EnVogue for 21 years.
Even after the initial reopening rush, business has continued to be steady. Caudle credits the safe environment the renovation emphasized, as well as her reputation for being dedicated to serving her clients and community.
“The salon is clean and safe and they feel protected here. We’ve been very fortunate,” she says. “I always figure it out, but it was scary… Overall, it’s been a wakeup call. Never take anything for granted. Be grateful for every customer who walks in the door.”
Chive Blossom Restaurant and Bar also used the down time to do maintenance on the Pawleys Island restaurant that isn’t possible when it’s open. While the restaurant reopened with limited hours and capacity when allowed in spring 2020, it wasn’t until early 2021 that the eatery was finally back to its regular hours.
Like many other businesses, it relied on government assistance programs to pay its employees while the restaurant was closed so those employees could pay their mortgages and other bills, and take care of their families, owner Paul Kelly Renault says.
“It was super important that we took care of our people,” he says.
The restaurant also implemented pandemic protocols such as requiring face masks when walking in the restaurant, wiping down menus and offering hand sanitizer. Keeping staff and customers safe is the top priority, Renault says.
“We are holding at 85 percent capacity because there are still people who are uncomfortable,” he says, as of April. “If that makes people feel more comfortable, that’s the most important thing to us. We are not out of it yet. It’s not like it’s over.”
MOVING ON TO THE NEW NORMAL
For most, business isn’t yet back to normal. Owners and managers are still trying to figure out what the new normal will be. But they are optimistic.
“We are expecting a very busy season,” Howe says from our chat in March. “It’s already been a very good start for us. We are going in a good direction, and we hope it keeps going. I see it getting better and better every weekend.”
Early signs in the spring point to a strong tourism season for the Grand Strand, with leisure vacationers eager for a trip to the beach and events and group business, such as sports competitions, returning. All are key to filling hotels and generating business for restaurants and stores.
As soon as people are getting vaccinated, they are helping boost business by coming to eat at the restaurant and getting out and about for the first time since the pandemic began, Renault says.
“I know people who didn’t leave their house for an entire year,” he says. “As soon as they get their second shot, they are out. I’m noticing that every day. People are just ready. They want to go to restaurants, get out and go about their business.”
While businesses were eager to welcome back the customers, many along the Grand Strand struggled to find workers.
“Everybody is working double,” Renault says. “We are just stretched really thin.”
And he was preparing for even more visitors during the summer.
“We are on track to have a phenomenal season,” he says. “Everybody on the Grand Strand is in for a monumental summer.”
Shelley says the recovery at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes is a long, slow one. She’s eager for the return of group business, the 186-room hotel’s main customer base that has been slow to come back.
“It’s leisure business coming in that’s keeping us going,” she said. “It’s looking brighter into the fall. Getting conferences and meetings back will get us where we used to be. I think we will get back to normal, back to where we were. I do feel like we will get back to that point, just maybe not this year.”
Scher at The Alabama Theatre is also optimistic, but knows there’s still lots to figure out before getting back to business as usual. After reopening in September and operating through the busy holiday show season, the theater closed again at the end of December to work through the changing theater landscape. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic, as it’s based on a large group gathering in an enclosed space, theater leaders have become active in the Save Our Stages national effort to help theaters figure out and navigate through the new normal.
Eyeing a strong summer season, the theater is planning a late spring/early summer reopening.
“We just want it to be a safe normal–whatever that normal is,” Scher says. “For everybody, we are all just trying to figure out what that new market is and how we accommodate them. There are so many moving parts. So, it’s figuring out what our new version is. We’ve got to figure it out–and we will. It’s just going to make us stronger in the end.”