Business As Usual: Living Through a City Construction Project
As the Elgin St. construction looms ever closer, the anxiety in the Elgin st. business community is in the air. I have a sixth sense for this as I lived through a construction project myself with a business- when I had my first location for Auntie Loo’s- on Bronson Ave. during the construction project there.
I was still a relatively new business owner at the time, and I made some rookie mistakes- but I also took care of some situations like a champ.
I’ve been thinking over the main takeaways from my experience the last few weeks, and here’s what I learned.
Use Media Sparingly: Like most, the first time something major happens that affects your business- a blocked door, a closed sidewalk, a giant pit- you may be tempted to call up CBC or another of your favourite outlets to get the problem resolved quickly. “Pulling Down the City’s Pants” as I call it- in the press can be effective tool. It is also a double edged sword.
The most important thing to remember about the press is that it is their story- you’re just there. They will choose the angle and the presentation before it goes to air and you will have no control over that. Is it worth the gamble? You could be portrayed as the angry business owner, not the small business being slighted by the city that you hoped for.
Before you hit send on that email or make that call, reflect on why - is it out of anger? It most likely is- reflect on your anger overnight (if you can) before calling around to your favourite outlets. See if there’s another way to handle it.
What I learned: I did an interview with Ottawa Business Journal on how to survive a construction project. I made sure I was rested and relaxed prior to the visit, made notes the night before on what I wanted to get across and I chose my words carefully. I spoke of the friendships I formed with the construction team, but also emphasized my disappointment with the local Councillor and City Fathers that were running the project and leaving us in the dust (literally). I was applauded by local bloggers and the community for coming off as classy and fair in the face of stress.
Use Social Media Sparingly: There’s nothing folks love more than some hot drama in the Roman Colosseum that is social media- especially if it's a business owner. It’s easy to post and tag and shame local politicians and construction companies, but do you want to go there? It’s important to remember that your facebook page is your brand. For example, if you’re making cookies and up until now your feed has been cute food pictures and shots of staff, then all of a sudden it’s angry posts directed at the city- your followers will be baffled. Think of why people follow you- for happy pictures of food, and day-to-day slices of what’s up at the shop. If you begin posting like a tyrant on the weekly or daily, you will lose followers. If you’re tempted to post anger, step away for awhile and think it through. Just like I recommended in calling the press.
What I learned: I went on a tirade after my local Councillor misrepresented what was going to happen to the parking at my shop (more on that later). I posted anger on my business page for over a week. As a result, I lost 10% of my following for my own need to vent. Venting should have been done with friends and family.
On the flipside, one morning we lost power mid-bake. I went outside to talk to the construction team, who said that it was the decision of Hydro Ottawa. We were supposed to have 24 hours notice as a business. After speaking with the construction co-ordinator who assured me her hands were tied, I tweeted politely and rationally at Hydro Ottawa. I said how disappointing it was that we were just trying to run our business in peace, and still had many orders to fill. That the power loss was devastating to our day’s sales.
Not only was my power restored in less than 30 minutes, the president himself came to the shop in person that afternoon and purchased $100 in cupcakes for his staff.
Make Friends: You can go to all the city meetings you want- but at the end of the day it’s you and the construction company. It’s important to make friends immediately. They have a job to do and so do you. Keep in mind that it’s not their fault the construction is happening- it’s the City’s decision. You’re all going to be working together for a least a year, so it may as well be pleasant. Establishing a good relationship with the workers outside can ensure harmony in going forward.
What I learned: On the first day of the Bronson Ave project, I went outside and introduced myself to all the workers. I gave them a large box of day old treats and a wonderful friendship was born. I can’t even count all the kid’s birthday cakes we ended up making for them and their families that year- and even one wedding cake. We had great walk in sales on the daily thanks to the workers. On the weekends when there was not work happening, I always had a clear passage and parking left in front of my shop. No heavy equipment, no holes. I also got a day’s heads up if something would be affecting my shop so i could post or notify folks accordingly. We had established a relationship of mutual respect and it was great.
Watch Your Mouth: You’re hurting and frightened and annoyed. You may be tempted to complain to those who should sympathize the most: your customers. Just like on social media, you need to filter yourself and ensure you’re not being too negative. If a client comes in and comments on the mess outside, try your best to retain a sunny diplomatic view on the situation. Save the complaining for your friends and support networks.
What I learned: A customer came in complaining about the road. I had recently been slighted by some city officials, so I bought right into it. I indulged him and gave him a real earful. 2 days later, I found a google review on the shop describing me as a “bitter person”. It hurt, but I’d earned it. Try and keep your feelings in check and keep it neutral.
The City and the local Councillors are not on your side: This may sound negative, but it's the truth. The only side a politician is on is the one that serves their best interest. This was the hardest lesson I learned during the project as up until that point I honestly believed that the Councillors would protect me and my business. They won’t and they actually can’t- their hands are mostly tied. The Councillors, Mayor and development team will volley responsibilities back and forth until you just get so frustrated you lay off. If it’s going to look good for them to visit your shop for a photo-op during the project, they will do it, but don’t expect much more.
My experience: I attended almost every single meeting the city had regarding the construction project as well as weekly meetings organized by our (actually really wonderful) City of Ottawa liaison. I was assured right left and center that I was being respected and taken care of as a business. My location at 507 Bronson had 2 parking spots- not the most convenient but were great for our deliveries and staff. In July I noticed that the plans had changed at a meeting, and it looked like the biggest tree in the project would be plunked in one of our parking spots and blocking the front of the shop- and our sign. To say I was livid was an understatement. Up until this point, I had been in regular contact with the Councillor, but was suddenly met with radio silence. I was mad but I understood- it wouldn’t look good to refuse a tree.
Keep it Simple: Re-train all staff prior to your construction project. You will be met with customers who are annoyed by the delays and re routing. They are allowed to be. Your staff should be ready with smiles and understanding.
What I learned: I had a map of the area taped beside our phone, with all re routes highlighted, so we could guide frustrated clients on their way in. My pamphlets and website at the time also had alternate routes on them. Take the guesswork out of it for your customers- you need them. Events and sales worked great too- we got a lot of the community out and it lifted everyone’s spirits.
Going through a construction project as a business is never easy, so take time to rest. Think before you hit “send” or “post”. Find great friends who you can vent to.
And if you ever want to talk to someone who’s lived it I’m always game to go for a pint- as long as we pick a pub on Elgin St.
Photo of me during my project taken by Zara of www.xovelo.com