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Finding durable lessons from the pandemic

By Lawrence Chia

Recently, Hong Kong endured its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, and as the economic data reflects, the situation is still far from stable. In February, for instance, the value of total retail sales – with retail being one of the most directly impacted sectors – decreased by 14.6% compared with the same month in 2021. In hope of boosting business sentiment, the government eased some anti-pandemic measures, but the effectiveness of these actions is still in question.

It could be better, but at the same time, it could certainly be worse. For the businesses that continued to operate through the first phases of the pandemic, this latest disruption will almost certainly be survivable. But consider this: We may well weather omicron only to be caught wrong-footed by the next major COVID variant. The next economic challenge may not even be COVID-related at all.

While we have probably learned enough during the last two years to weather sudden disruptions, the durability of those lessons has been mixed. In terms of market effects, the pandemic has in many ways only accelerated changes that were underway for years prior to 2020 – for example, the increasing prevalence of shopping from home, and the continuing rise of online and virtual marketing.

An example of what I mean is last year’s introduction of Hydeout: The Prelude, a digital music entertainment platform. It is a sign of the times that the event was actually much more than a newfangled way to deliver live music to a home audience. In Hydeout, audience members were also participants, ‘living’ the event through customised avatars with which they could party and socialise with other avatars.

Absent pandemic conditions, would it have happened? Probably – but not in precisely the same way.

Does it represent a lesson learned in any case? Having stayed at home for several weeks since January, people in Hong Kong are primed to rush to the gates of newly reopened museums, theme parks, cinemas, etc. But given that COVID continues to proliferate new variants with increasing frequency, will their reopening be short-lived? Having learned from experience, such businesses could have used the lockdown period to develop new offerings online that customers could enjoy from home.

This type of adjunct offering can be more than a ‘one-off’ to maintain some revenue during ‘closed’ periods. Even during periods of normalcy, they expand a business’s offerings as well as its customer base, increasing revenue in the long term as well as the short. 

The Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride provides an example. Though the ride plans to resume service on 21 April with the government’s announcement of a further easing of anti-pandemic restrictions, the company in the meantime introduced a ‘360 Sweat Coins’ Instagram game, resulting in a 48% growth in followers on the platform. By launching new online offerings to complement its offline business, the company widened their customer base. 

For businesses, perhaps the real, durable lessons have been – or should be – internal and cultural. The MICE industry, for example, is in the process of fundamentally rethinking how, when and where its people work as the demand for ‘integrated’ events and campaigns rises, and the dividing line between online and offline progressively dissolves. What it has discovered is that the commensurate requirement for more generalist skillsets and less ‘siloed’ workflows has also paid dividends in the form of a more resilient workforce.

In other words, if your people are cross-trained at least to some degree, your business will better be able to cope with fluctuating short-term attrition due to sick leave, etc, as well as delivering better service.

Another lesson that will stand the test of time concerns sense of purpose. When times are good, it is disturbingly easy for businesses to drift – to lose sight of serving their clients’ actual needs, concerns and aims, and cater increasingly to what one wishes they were; or at least to interpret client needs and aims through the tinted lens of what is convenient for you to do.

For many businesses in Hong Kong and elsewhere, the pandemic was a painful wake-up call. But for those who heeded the call, the result has been a new eagerness to understand client demands with real clarity – and just as importantly, a willingness to undertake whatever painful changes are necessary to fulfil their demands effectively. It has created a new closeness and sense of shared experience that ought to be maintained, whether under a pandemic or not.

Are there any more ‘durable’ lessons? Yes – several, and there will be more. Those who start early to separate the crisis’s expedient lessons from the durable ones may have a head start in the post-pandemic world.

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