AS COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, the business environment remains uncertain for many regional entrepreneurs. We spoke to regional businesses and advocates about how they have responded and what might lie ahead...
WHILE many of the businesses who closed due to coronavirus towards the end of March are starting to open, the region has been warned to stay vigilant to ensure no backwards steps.
Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Business NSW has estimated an 8 per cent unemployment rate in the Central West and 7.7 per cent in the Far West and Orana as of early April.
Business NSW western regional manager Vicki Seccombe said the key to the recovery was when government incentives concluded, currently scheduled in September.
"It could be a difficult period at that stage - it's really that time after, when there's no government stimulus there," she said.
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Ms Seccombe said the challenge would be made harder by the drought, as many businesses had already used their cash reserves, and relaxing restrictions might not be enough for them to reopen at first.
"Cafes can open and have 10 people, but it's potentially not viable... and they'll delay it longer until more people are allowed and feel comfortable about visiting," she said.
Coronavirus has sat everyone in the naughty corner as customers have gone shopping online.Central West Business HQ business adviser Anthony Doyle
However, there are many positive signs of recovery and Ms Seccombe said most business owners had used the downtime productively.
"They're doing things and thinking forward about how we are going to be post-COVID," she said.
"They're upskilling and training staff, they're doing small renovations."
She said peak organisations had been offering help and advice, but every business should talk to their accountant or financial adviser if they had not already done so.
"They can understand their individual cases and advise them how they should proceed," she said.
Central West Business HQ business adviser Anthony Doyle said COVID-19 had showed businesses could not go without an online presence anymore.
"Retail has been heading into a slump for the past decade as wages have [added pressure] so of course what's happened is coronavirus has sat everyone in the naughty corner as customers have gone shopping online," he said.
"For those who have embraced it, their businesses will be better businesses than they were before."
Mr Doyle said as restrictions eased and customers left the house more often, they would visit businesses in person more.
"That's short-lived, they'll go back to what they love - home time and family," he said.
"We need to replace the mailbox with the email box - people are shopping 24/7 now and that's the crux of it."
He said state and federal governments funded several of the organisation's programs, which businesses could access for free up to a certain number of hours, to help them cut their utilities costs and wastage on stock while maximising their sales.
Ms Seccombe said there were also underutilised government grants businesses could access directly.
One of them is the state government's Small Business Covid-19 Support Grant, which awards up to $10,000 to businesses with less than 20 employees to help pay for utilities, council rates, telecommunication charges, insurance payments, professional advice, wages for employees not eligible for JobKeeper, franchise fees or paying creditors if the business was closing.
"They're encouraging people to apply, even if they're not quite meeting the criteria," Ms Seccombe said.
Business NSW conducted a flash poll across the state, which revealed 72 per cent of business owners believed their operations would survive the COVID-19 crisis.
More than 3000 businesses participated - 23 per cent said they were unsure how they would fare, while 5 per cent thought they would be forced to close.
Ms Seccombe said they were high numbers considering the viruses' widespread impact and they were testament to businesses' perseverance.
She urged communities to support their businesses where they could but if there was a second wave of the virus, she believed those who were teetering would not be able to survive a second closure.
"That's why it is so important for everyone to continue to follow the directions of government health authorities and obey the restrictions in place," she said.
"Business owners fully appreciate that the best way for them to return to normal, or in fact, the new normal, is by flattening, and then wiping out the curve."
Online offerings key to surviving pandemic
CORONAVIRUS has acted as a catalyst for many businesses across the region to implement strategies they had planned on for some time, but had not had the chance.
For La Bella Medispa, which has salons in Orange, Parkes and Canberra, it has meant an entire extra business model.
Partner Carla Poole said the beauty industry was one of the first to be shut down, but it had already intended to build its social media beforehand.
"We're in the business of touching people, let's be honest - we saw we needed to make a shift immediately," she said.
"Our main skincare product is prescription only so you can't buy it online - we had to adapt our business so we could still sell the product."
As a result, La Bella developed online sessions within days - clients fill out an extensive form about their skin for the staff to review, along with photographs of their skin from different angles.
"You can derive so much from a sheet before you've even talked," Ms Poole said.
The client and staff member then meet via video conference for a diagnosis.
The second type is a check-up, lasting 15 minutes each time, and clients from across the country have used the service.
Ms Poole said La Bella also introduced a virtual walk-through on its website so clients could stop at different locations and browse products.
To replace in-person treatments, staff packed supplies for clients to complete them at home.
"Right down to the brushes," Ms Poole said.
"What we created [when conditions return to normal] is a combination of online and our in-salon experience and I'm really looking forward to it."
Meanwhile in Bathurst, Dianne Sharah has operated her clothing store, La Mode for 30 years.
Ms Sharah was able to keep her store open during the worst of the pandemic as she generally had small numbers of people in her shop at any one time, but she also took her business online.
"My daughter was at the financial institute in Sydney this year and she studied social media, so she's come back and done the website for me," she said.
"I thought now was a good time to do it - I've taken a huge hit, it's been a lot quieter."
She said previously she only promoted on Facebook and Instagram, which worked well at the time, but the website allowed customers to purchase online.
"The website is more a tool for [customers] to get on there and have a look," she said.
"They still come into the store, but they like to see what's available - it's a bit like a library."
Ms Sharah said she had mounted signage at the store to remind customers to be aware of social distancing requirements and provided hand sanitiser at the counter and in the changerooms.
Work continues behind the scenes
TOURISM thrives on bringing as many people through the door as possible, which makes facilities like the Old Dubbo Gaol completely incompatible with COVID-19.
But with the facility planning a $1.2 million redevelopment later this year, operations co-ordinator Julie Webster said the virus had given staff the opportunity to research with minimal distraction.
"We've actually been doing quite a lot," she said.
"We've been working on content that's going into the project, administrative things that needed updating and site clean-up."
She said much of the work had been focused on specific prisoners and uncovering their stories, rather than referring simply to a "prisoner" or "condemned".
"We want to know why they were here," she said.
"They used to go under all these names so we're matching those names with prisoner records, so if there were in for a different crime but they changed their name, which was easier to do then than it is now, we know those aliases."
The gaol is known for telling stories by re-enacting historical people and Mrs Webster said a few more pieces had been put together.
"There's a few scripts, a lot of costumes, there's night tours and educational tours, and we're putting some multimedia up throughout the gaol," she said.
The construction work is still to come, with a contractor yet to be appointed.
While Mrs Webster said missing out on a portion of the gaol's 50,000 annual visitors would affect its bottom line, nothing else could be done.
"People in hospitality and other areas have been more affected," she said.
She said she looked forward to reopening the jail to see visitors again, but the building itself would also benefit.
"Mildew is a big issue for a gaol because it's such a historical place," she said.
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