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North East entrepreneurs take steps towards post-lockdown success

Entrepreneurs in the North East’s travel, hospitality, retail and sports sectors have described the impact of the pandemic on their businesses, hailing customer responsiveness as the key to post-lockdown success.

The Entrepreneurs’ Forum event found that businesses must respond to customers’ changing needs and expectations if the economy is to bounce back from COVID-19.

The panel comprised Simon Whitaker, CEO of menswear retailer Master Debonair, Paul Blake, managing director of the Newcastle Eagles basketball franchise, Dan Foskett, founder and CEO of flooring specialists Connection Retail, Sally Marshall, director of pub and restaurant group the Marshall Robertson Group and Anne Bromley, joint managing director at leisure and corporate travel specialists, Travel Bureau.

Simon, who launched his business online four years ago, before opening physical stores in East Boldon, Chesterfield and London, successfully traded online throughout lockdown, growing sales by 10 per cent.

However, he estimates he lost around £700,000 in business due to the cancellation of peak events, including weddings, school proms and the horse racing calendar.

Master Debonair is now expanding its casual range in response to changing customer demand and introducing a bespoke tailoring service.

Simon said: “I am also focused on improving our instore experiences as well as using technology to bring our shops into peoples’ homes. Demand is increasing and we are seeing appointments for wedding suits return to pre-virus levels, so things are looking up.”

Paul Blake, who owns the Newcastle Eagles, said it was still unclear when, as an indoor sports spectacle, it can reopen.

It also acts as an events venue – although fortunately most of the events booked have been postponed rather than cancelled and the Eagles are currently working towards a possible October reopening.

He said: “We are a business built upon events and atmosphere and to run an event with no-one in the building is not commercially or financially viable. Whatever happens, customer confidence must be quickly restored.”

Dan Foskett of Shildon-headquartered Connection Flooring said his business was fortunate to operate in the booming home improvement sector.

While its 19 stores around the UK were closed between March and June, sales shifted online. The company has now resumed its roll-out of stores but is investing in its online services after lockdown highlight the opportunities available.

Sally Marshall, who runs The Ship in Stockton, said she had reduced the dining capacity by 12 to comply with social distancing measures.

However, this created new opportunities by freeing up capacity in the kitchen, allowing it to offer a restaurant-quality takeaway food service.

Anne Bromley of the Travel Bureau on Gosforth High Street, which reopened in June, said: “There is progress within the industry in terms of holiday insurance to cover COVID-19 and clearer consumer understanding of the financial protection afforded with refund credit notes.

“We have bookings for next year but, with an aging customer demographic, we need to develop a new database, although there are opportunities, as more people are choosing to use the expertise of a travel agent during these ever changing current circumstances.

“I have concerns over a second wave and the development of a vaccine, all of which will impact on whether customers feel safe to travel in future.”