Posted by: Kristy Tozer and Jeff Chernoff on Monday, July 12, 2021

Impacts of the Pandemic on the hospitality industry
By Kristy Tozer and Jeff Chernoff

We’ve heard the recent stories about hospitality industry’s disproportionate challenges throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. We spoke to three leaders in the industry to get their perspectives. Thanks to Jeff Gigante, Co-founder of Next Level Brands Hospitality and Forbici Modern Italian, Jill Manthey, VP of Sales & Community Relations at Yacht StarShip and Aimee Jeansonne-Becka, VP of Marketing and Sales at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay for their contributions. Even though they represent very different elements of the hospitality space their stories have one thing in common: reinvention. The Pandemic created some unique opportunities to try new things, and a business’ ability to pivot was critical for the sustainability of it’s company, it’s employees, and it’s clientele.

Early in the pandemic, when rumblings of the closure started, Jeff Gigante prepared his Forbici team to begin aggressively promoting their takeout business. They began sharing their story and literally canvassed local neighborhoods with flyers. Jeff quickly realized they had an opportunity to differentiate their takeout experience and called a young musician to play outside the restaurant on weekends as people stopped by to pick-up takeout. Although the restaurant couldn’t pay much at the time, the patrons loved it and made up for it with generous tips.

As the pandemic dragged on, the Forbici team got more creative. Jeff took to social media to share “Monday motivation” posts. When the toilet paper crisis began, Jeff called his paper supplier, and ordered 20 cases for their customers. Forbici orders were packaged with a roll of toilet paper and a message, “From the bottom of our hearts to your families bottom.” Jeff was able to secure additional value from vendors including 6-packs of Peroni beer and full bottles of wine with takeout orders.

One of the most memorable moments was IMPOSSIBLE Saturday. Through Jeff’s relationship with the Impossible Food Group, they received 5,000 Impossible Burgers for front line and healthcare workers. Jeff wanted to do something big! He called the Tampa Bay Lightning with an idea - cook all the burgers and prepare all the meals, at one time!  One of the few places that could handle that order was Amalie Arena. They agreed and Jeff brought in a few additional sponsors to create a massive “Feed the Front Line” event on May 2, 2020. Jeff & his partners were not just doing great things in the community, they were making news for doing so. Through all of this, Jeff recognized that the business wasn’t completely gone, they just needed to find new ways to go get it!

In a slightly different situation, Busch Gardens was able to pivot quickly and led the way to bringing back world-class outdoor entertainment for audiences to enjoy. Aimee’ Jeansonne-Becka shared that one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to execute their popular Howl-O-Scream event while still following CDC recommendations. They were one of the only theme parks to execute a haunt event by turning the entire park into a giant outdoor haunted attraction with scare zones everywhere.

Additionally, Aimee’ shared that Busch Gardens was able to transform their open-air Festival Field to offer several new experiences for our guests. They debuted Busch Gardens’ first ever outdoor ice-skating stage for the iconic Christmas On Ice show during Christmas Town, an impressive feat in the warm Florida weather! They also adjusted their festival seating to allow limited capacity for some of the first live headlining concerts in the country with the Food & Wine Festival earlier this year.

Reinvention for Yacht Starship looked a little different. Prior to the pandemic 70% of its business was group sales (more than 24 people). Yacht Starship marketed some great deals including an open bar at a regular cost for bar free at sea or offering unlimited mimosas during brunches. They also made significant investments in technology in order to better manage their costs. This included using QR Code menus, a new mobile app, purchasing a new handwashing station, and purchasing all new tables to eliminate the costs for linens.

Back at Forbici, when the Governor announced that restaurants could reopen at limited capacities, Jeff Gigante quickly brainstormed guidelines with Mayor Jane Castor, Police Chief Duggan and Sheriff Chronister. The solution was to close certain city streets to allow restaurants to provide more outdoor seating. Forbici placed a large tent in the street outside the restaurant that provided virtually 100% capacity in covered outdoor seating. Tampa was one of the early adopters of this solution and these creative solutions are what kept Forbici in the news and in business throughout the pandemic. “In Times of Crisis the Creative Mind Wins.”

As one of Florida’s most spacious outdoor theme parks, Busch Gardens was well-positioned to adapt to the new guidelines and offer guests a safe way to enjoy and explore more than 300 acres. In addition to the park’s existing health and safety measures, Aimee’ shared that they reopened with enhanced health and safety protocols as well as a new online reservation system that helped manage capacity so guests could enjoy a fun experience safely. Busch Gardens leadership worked diligently with health experts, outside consultants and industry leaders to create a phased reopening plan that was approved by the State of Florida. This allowed them to continue delivering memorable experiences while addressing the important health and safety needs of their guests.

Jill and Yacht Starship worked with other businesses and created a working group in hospitality to share best practices. The group includes TopGolf, Amalie Arena, History Center, Armature Works, Raymond James Stadium, The Tampa History Center, Florida Aquarium, Splitsville, Zoo Tampa, and Busch Gardens. Prior to the Pandemic this did not exist and was created in order to lift all businesses.

Aimee’ and the Busch Gardens team are now looking forward to the return of haunted houses in addition to scare zones with their 2021 Howl-O-Scream event and will continue with the outdoor venue for Fiends – their saucy comedy show - after last year’s test of a new larger location on the festival field.

Many restaurants and attractions are struggling to hire enough staff to operate at 100%, as some left hospitality to work in a different environment with more stability. Additionally, with the costs of goods and services rising, the need to pay higher wages and signing bonuses to recruit and retain talent, and the increase in inflation costs, many businesses have had little choice but to raise their prices. Every business has been impacted differently, for instance Forbici was able to hold on to most of their staff throughout the pandemic. “We have a reputation as a great place to work,” said Jeff. They are committed to taking care of their staff because if the staff is happy, they will take care of customers. Next Level Hospitality is pulling talent from all over the country with the offer of “100% upward mobility – you just have to come get it.”

Based on the prior sixteen months and all of the different impacts to the hospitality industry, what can we as a community do to support these businesses?  Jill Manthey sums it up best when she says, “The best way our community can help is to get out and support their local establishments.”