The COVID-19 Pandemic is one of those experiences that will stay with us for many years. Every aspect of our lives was upended as the kitchen table became the new office, hospitality and retail closed and social gatherings were heavily restricted. It took almost two years for lives to return to something that resembled our lives prior to March 2020, but the effects of that period are still being felt today.
As an organisation that exists to support local business in a defined geographic area, the pandemic made the team reassess the work that we do to ensure that we were able to support businesses in a way that suited them. This involved the creation of brand new areas of work, and the need to adapt some of our more established projects.
As the pandemic began, we made sure that business were kept up to date with the latest information available. You may have forgotten how the advice and guidance changed on an almost daily basis. Through our email lists and social media accounts, we made sure people were kept up to date with the latest government advice and information.
As packages of support started to be announced for business, we created an online hub for business which signposted people to the various types of support, from loan funds to business rate relief, to information about VAT reductions and what to do if you were self employed. In addition to signposting, we worked with Birmingham City Council to ensure that those businesses that were entitled to rate relief and other funding streams received money as quickly as possible. Once the guidance was solidified, we created our own handy guides for sectors like hospitality, to help businesses consider what they needed to do to ensure they could continue to operate safely.
It became apparent early on that in-person events were not going to be possible for some time. As a result, we moved our events programme online, delivering some of our most well known events, despite the pandemic keeping us at home. We knew that businesses would be thinking about what would be happening next and so, early on, we held a series of online debates on a number of topics to get business leaders thinking about the changes they might face in the coming months. We also knew that many people would have poorer health as a result of unadapted working places and social restrictions, and so, we ensured that we focused both on mental and physical wellbeing. We held weekly online yoga sessions throughout the pandemic and converted our Wellbeing Fortnight activity into online sessions. We also held an online fitness bootcamp towards the end of the pandemic for those wanting to get into shape.
However, wellness isn’t just about physical fitness and mindfulness. We fed the soul too by turning our Food Festival into an online celebration of food and drink, and we made sure that District businesses remained in the minds of workers by producing cookbooks populated by some of our newest and best known restaurants. We created an online history week with a video series and accompanying online magazine to help keep people connected to the District. We kept people connected to their peers in the District with our e-zine, Colmore Lite which was published more regularly to help maintain our sense of community. And as it became apparent that Christmas 2020 wasn’t going to be the celebration we had all hoped for, we took our ever-popular Christmas Craft Workshops online along with our Christmas Lights Switch On.
Throughout the pandemic, our Street Operations Team continued to guard the District. As most of us worked from home, they were present to ensure the physical safety of the buildings and to work with partners to ensure some of the most vulnerable in the city were supported, supporting the government’s push to ensure that all rough sleepers were housed and given support during the pandemic.
As 2020 bled into 2021, and the UK moved from lockdown to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, into tiers and, ultimately, a further lockdown, Colmore Business District lobbied hard to support the hospitality industry. As well as ensuring access to funding streams and supporting business to move their operation on line, we lent our voice to others on a range of campaigns. #RaisetheBar and #BounceBackBetter were both national campaigns to improve and target the level of support offered to the hospitality industry. From Eat Out to Help out onwards we also supported the #Nomorenoshows campaign, encouraging people to honour the bookings they made, and we worked with other BIDs in the city to deliver the Cheers to Hospitality campaign, aimed at reminding people of what a fantastic industry we have in the city.
Despite this seismic change to the working environment, our day-to-day role of custodians of the public realm continued. We acted as trusted consultees to Birmingham City Council on their revised transport plans and continued to deliver our ambitious Snow Hill Public Realm works. Despite the restrictions on construction, we were able to complete our projects on Cornwall Street and Colmore Row, providing much needed spill-out space for local businesses.
We also brought forward an experimental project, parklets. These went from being a test to an essential part of life in the city centre and we increased our original 5 parklets to 7, as well as installing additional seating in Church Street Square. We also supported Birmingham City Council in the delivery of three additional temporary pavement widening schemes providing additional spill out space for business. And, as the regulations on licensing evolved to meet this need, we kept hospitality business up to date with the latest changes and provided support to help them navigate the changing regulatory framework.
As the UK started to re-open Colmore BID continued to adapt to provide support to businesses as they returned to the District. We provided thousands of free Lateral Flow Tests to businesses to ensure they could continue to operate safely and, again, acted as a conduit of information as the road map (and inevitable road bumps) developed. In late 2020, we had already started to ask the question of what central Business Districts would need to do in order to remain successful long term after the pandemic. We partnered with the University of Birmingham to carry out academic research into the Future Business District. We published this study, and our response, The Space Between in late 2021, and this has continued to inform our strategic thinking.
We also started to created networking opportunities. Our Network and Drink series started as a response to the desire for people to return to on-line networking, having been burnt out by it during 2020. This concept has continued and is now a successful bi-monthly, in-person networking session.
One of our key pieces of work to help the District re-open was our partnership with Birmingham City Council to create a spill-out hub around Victoria Square. Colmore BID worked with the council and local businesses to close a portion of Colmore Row and Waterloo Street to create dedicated spill-out space for the hospitality business on the edge of the square. We also provided benches in Victoria Square for people to sit at and use, and use them they did! Throughout the summer the square was full of people enjoying the company of others in a compliant, socially distanced way. To compliment this, we created Summer in the Square. Every weekend for the duration of the summer, five local business traded from our vibrant beach huts on Victoria Square.
COVID-19 presented an incredible challenge to people and to business. We’re proud that we were able to continue to support businesses through this most challenging of periods.