The coronavirus has definitely taught me to just embrace the simple things in life. I've never enjoyed my garden so much. I've had some fantastic times with the family. But I've also been missing my work, which I think is a good thing! How often do we get to say, "I actually miss my work"? This period has made me appreciate more, personally and professionally, and I think it's had positive effects for a lot of people out there.
During this time, I also had a little bit of a health scare and that makes you start to evaluate your life differently. I saw a quote from the Dalai Lama the other day, I think it said, "We spend our whole time sacrificing our health to make money and then the rest of the time sacrificing our money to regain our health" – which just seems crazy.
It's certainly made me think about the way we want to do business in the future. I set up Boxpark back in 2011 as the world's first pop-up mall, but it's evolved a lot since then. Our shipping containers now house restaurants and leisure concepts as much as retail pop-ups.
I think we've been in a lucky enough position to really help our staff. We haven't had to make any redundancies, because we've had the support of the Government in terms of the furlough scheme, which has been great.
Our single biggest concern was our tenants. And one of the first things we did, literally the day lockdown was announced, was saying to our tenants, "Look, for the period of the lockdown, you won't have to pay rent and service charges." And this new understanding of how we can help our staff and how we can help our tenants in the long run, we hope will stand us in good stead.
Taking stock and seizing opportunity
When a crisis like this happens, you have to take a deep breath, and not rush into anything. I try to appreciate what I've got rather than look at the negatives. We've got a strong business, we've got really good cash reserves, we can comfortably survive 12 months of lockdown. That's not the same for all businesses, so that's really positive for us. And, now, coming out of coronavirus, we're in a strong position because we're focused on kitchen-only operations, which you can do delivery and takeaways from, and we have a lot of outdoor spaces, too, unlike many restaurant and bar operators.
Don't get me wrong, it's obviously had a massive impact on our business, because we've had to close all of our sites – Boxpark Wembley, Boxpark Shoreditch and Boxpark Croydon. Last year, our profits doubled, our turnover year-on-year had grown 50 per cent, we were doing very well as a business. We were also on the verge of a major private equity deal where I was going to sell a part of my shareholdings – so it had a massive impact. But, I'm always a bit of a glass-half-full type of guy, I'm optimistic. I actually believe in the long-term that coronavirus and the implications could be good for us.
We are going to see a fallout in terms of the number of hospitality and leisure businesses that survive, but that could lead to a new order. Bigger businesses that have huge overheads will not be able to cope with the rental demands and paying salaries when they also have to deal with social distancing. In the short term, it's negative for Boxpark and it's negative for other businesses. But in the long term, it could mean that we can get better sites at more realistic prices. We could get better staff and I think we can fill the vacuum that's been left behind by some of the big brands.
New revenue streams
Before going into COVID-19, we were looking to bring office developments into Boxpark, coworking spaces, and I still believe in that model. The idea that we all need to be based in one central big head office - those days are numbered. I'm not saying they're over, but increasingly you're going to have company directors who feel they can allow staff to work in co-working spaces, or work from home, and have a lot more satellite offices.
Coming out of COVID-19, we're still keen to put co-working spaces above Boxpark, because effectively that would give people the flexibility of working in different places, maybe closer to where they live. Building a couple of stories of offices above us makes sense. We cater for the office worker during lunchtime and after office hours and for people at the weekend, so it seems to be a complementary approach.
Finding the bright side
I guess optimism is a personal trait. I'm always trying to be positive and I believe that things will go back to how they were. Yes, there will be some change, but by and large, we will return to normality.
You've got to look at these challenges as a creative opportunity to reinvent yourself and that's what we've been doing. We've been looking at things like developing apps that allow click and collect, rolling out turnover rent, looking at our POS integrations, and generally just looking at the bright side of things.
We're all in it together, not individually, and if we can survive this, we could perhaps grow stronger on the other side.
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