Written by: Leila Ben-Gacem
As an entrepreneur, I am used to staying cool on bumpy roads, but last 2 years were a true test to my coolness limits. As a boutique hotel owner, the pandemic was a survival test.
It was not a bumpy road; it was a road downhill. It was a daily puzzle, to figure out, what is the best business model of the day. No forecasting, no time to discuss plans, and forget about strategy. Wake up, throw a dart, and try what comes out for the day, as survival ideas.
I think I spent most of 2020 speaking to frustrated guests, in airports around the world. What do you say to someone whose country shifted from the green list, to the red list, on their travel week? Or guests with airlines canceling their transit flights stuck in airports, or guests that were asked to go to quarantine hotels on their arrival.
My beautiful Boutique hotel, was terribly quiet, hauntingly peaceful, sadly empty. The staff had nothing to do. Savings evaporated. The expenses are the same, but there is no income. Staying calm, had a whole new meaning. On top of worrying about business survival, I was also worried about the health of my family, my team, the country, the inflation, small struggling businesses around us… All we can do, is hope for a day when life comes back, as we watch the numbers, the curves, the hospital stories, and try to keep ourselves mentally safe.
The experience was humbling; it is a good reminder that there is no such thing as a success story in entrepreneurship; nothing should be taken for granted, whether success or failure. Entrepreneurship is a journey, that you have to stubbornly believe in, no matter what. When you stubbornly decide that there is only plan A; A will survive by adapting to the circumstances, and leave no room for B and the rest of the alphabets. Being humble allows you to voice your difficulties; ready to learn and test new things, and being stubborn keeps you on the journey of achieving your business mission.
Often, we want to speak positively about our business, to encourage people to get onboard our mission, whether clients, investors, fans or staff. Nevertheless, the pandemic taught me to be true, and we were very clear about our financial challenges, transparent with our staff and with our suppliers and partners. Our insurer kindly accepted to grant us payment delays, and our accountant generously made us a discount. The banks acted as if there is no pandemic, and government aid was made so complicated to get, required mountainous paper work, and hence we were advised not to pursue it! I probably filled every aid, support, funding form that came my way, and that helped us make it through the tough months.
During the pandemic, what I religiously did, was keep our social media platforms alive. There is no such thing as overcommunicating, when you have expenses and no income, and when the supply is much greater than demand. We wanted followers to feel we are open and ready, any minute the microscopic enemy dies out. What I also did religiously, was watch all those webinars, talking about the future of tourism, post-covid travel, hospitality’s new reality… anything in google search related to post-pandemic business strategy, I signed up for, and took notes while watching.
Often guests would call, and ask ‘Are you still open?’ that question felt like a sword through my body. It’s a question that questions my ability to take my business out of the nightmare, and it is not easy for an entrepreneur, to accept such doubts. To answer the legitimate question, part of me would like to burst out crying and say ‘I don’t know’ but instead I say ‘of course we are open, what can we do for you?’
Since we had no guests, we were able for the first time, since business started, to have a team meeting, where all staff members attended. Everyone has time, especially when it comes to livelihood economic risks. We needed to meet more regularly, to discuss what are the services that we could offer, to get through each month. We were very creative, open and flexible with what can be done at our Boutique hotel. Our primary service offering, which was room and breakfast, became the least in demand, since the offer was far more than the demand. So, we needed to adapt, offer alternative services, even photo shooting for an hour, was welcomed.
The team did not have similar motivation to change work habits. Adapting to pandemic business change needs, required some nagging. Some team members, just enjoyed having the boutique hotel all to themselves. Some staff members, were very concerned about business umbers, and recommended that the team gets half salary for a month, or even no salary. I stubbornly refused to make changes to any salaries or any employment contract; not only because I am stubborn, but because people make the business, not the other way round, so making the business survive, had no sense without the team.
Since the start of the business in 2013, we have had over 62 nationalities, and during the pandemic, we only had local tourists. This was not our usual target market, and in fact we never really promoted local tourism. Now, we needed to change our target customer and adapt expectations. We were used to guests communicating their booking requests via email, a few weeks before their arrival dates. With local guests, we get booking request over social media, in Tunisian dialect with Latin letters, requesting a room the same day; then they get upset if we do not reply within 30min.
In May 2019, we inaugurated our 2nd boutique hotel, by reinvesting all of our profits from our 1st boutique hotel, in the restoration of a 2nd Dar in the Medina of Tunis. This meant that the pandemic came right after we doubled our occupancy, doubled our staff and drained all our savings and profits in a building restoration. It’s May 2022 now; both boutique hotels are still open, beautiful as always, all the team is hanging together, and we have added 2 new staff members this year already. We could say we feel stronger, prepared for new investments (or new tests), optimistic, and ready for business.
By the same author: Why I Moved Back to Tunisia – For Good
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Leila Ben-Gacem is a social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow; founder of Blue Fish, a consultancy that works on improving the economic dynamics and social inclusion, of heritage and culture to improve its preservation. Leila also founded Dar el Harka, a creative industry hub; Dar Ben Gacem, a Boutique Hotel and cultural catalyst in the medina of Tunis. Leila is also a founder and president of M’dinti, Medina’s first economic interest group. Leila is an elected city council member at her native town of Beni-Khalled. Before switching careers, Leila held various positions at multinational corporations and has a BS in Biomedical Engineering.