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New Normal: the challenges facing Canberra small business post-lockdown

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Wedding photography, hotels and beauty studios. Three areas of business that require human participation to thrive.

Two months ago, we covered many of these stories—of human-centric businesses pivoting their way through COVID or dealing with the reality of temporary closure.

So how are Canberra business-owners feeling as restrictions begin to ease in the ACT?

“I’m very cautious,” says Amanda Thorson of Ainslie’s Thorson Photography. “This pandemic is a long term thing that we’re going to have to learn to deal with. I’m under no illusions—this is not going to be a short or straight forward.”

“It’s been tough, I cried a lot, mainly in the fetal position on my lounge room floor after my kids went to bed. The first month or so was for sure a time to grieve, but then month two we had to work out how our business was going to survive.”

Amanda Thorson. Credit: Thorson Photography.

With easing restrictions, Amanda says she’s now able to photograph most things she did before like weddings, boudoir, headshots and families, albeit with a few changes.

“I provide large amounts of hand sanitiser [and] I don’t fix hair or cuddle babies anymore. Thankfully, because my work is pretty relaxed and hands-off, I haven’t had too many issues adjusting.”

For some small business owners, it’s been a much-needed time of reflection.

“After what was initially the most stressful few weeks of our existence I am actually feeling pretty well-rested,” says Sianne Fitzsimons, co-owner of Manuka beauty studio The Lab.

“For me personally, the business consumes every waking moment so I decided to take this time to switch off a little.”

“In conversation with other business owners in our industry, we are all realising that we need to address our work-life balance. Hopefully, we learn from this and continue to slow down. The idea that we need to be productive at all times is a parasite of modern existence.”

Unable to provide brow, makeup and skin services, The Lab was able to offer supplements and makeup via their online store, including at-home tint kits, which Sianne says were so popular they’ll be continuing post-COVID.

The Lab’s skin services pre-COVID. Photo: Bel Combridge.

However, while The Lab has “hundreds of beautiful humans patiently waiting for us to open our doors”, they’re not rushing when it comes to reopening.

“We will not be rushing back, but will be taking a measured, considered and safe approach,” says Sianne. “Our hygiene and cleaning protocols are always above and beyond those required by national guidelines but we will also be continuing to employ extra precautions until we feel it is safe to step back. This will include (but not be limited to) temperature testing, drowning in hand sanitiser and disinfectant (standard), and rethinking back-to-back bookings.”

COVID’s effect on back-to-back bookings is something that hotelier Dion Bisa knows a bit about.

The founder of Kingston’s EAST Hotel, Dion’s initial fears were for her team’s livelihoods. But two months on, Dion says there has been some light with the dark.

“It has been a test of time, patience, problem-solving, emotional struggles, breakdowns, tears, anxiety and strength,” she says.

“People in my team have shown strength that I’m not sure they knew they had…Not to be cliché, but this time in history has also offered us new ways to be, live and work and that has definitely been a positive.”

“EAST has had great support from the local community and you cannot put a room rate price on the feeling of checking in a couple who say to you, ‘we just wanted to support you during this time’.”

Dion Bisa in Joe’s Bar.

Given EAST’s position as a hotel that also operates two hospitality venues—Agostinis and Joe’s Bar—the last two months have been a juggle of pivoting to takeaway.

But with Joe’s Bar and Agostinis now open for restricted seating, Dion is looking forward to business as usual.

“Last week, I sat in Joe’s for the first time in months and soaked up my negroni on so many levels—sitting with colleagues and relaxing, chatting and laughing. Talk about therapy for the soul.”

“We are excited to have more people safely dining out with all the necessary precautions in place…bring back the long lunch!”

However, even small businesses able to stay open during restrictions faced unforeseen challenges.

The years Lexi Bannister spent years building her reputation as a hairstylist have paid off—she has a waitlist as long as her arm and juggles the running of her small yet fast-paced Manuka salon Lexi Bannister Hair (LBH) with aplomb.

Yet none of it could have prepared her for the challenge of operating within COVID restrictions—or the atmosphere it would create within the beauty community.

“Hairdressers started copping a lot of hate—even from other hairdressers,” she says, adding that despite the strict new cleaning and sanitising guidelines, the community reaction was “the biggest thing I was dealing with”.

“I understand there are some salons that didn’t have a choice—they might just be starting out and not have clientele that felt comfortable or be a bigger salon, but that was the main thing that I struggled with—people making me feel guilty and judging me for keeping my business open.”

While the constant cleaning and sanitising and reduced capacity imposed by government restrictions were taxing, Lexi explains that her decision to remain open was also due to having other businesses operating out of her salon, and her own staff to support.

However, while she says she feels incredibly lucky, the experience has been “mixed”.

“I feel grateful to be open—there are so many other [businesses] who would love to be in our position…but the negativity really got to me.”

“I’m doing the best I can to keep the doors open for my staff who have mortgages and rent to pay.”

Lexi Bannister in her Manuka salon. Photo: Tim Bean Photography.

Luckily for LBH, the majority of their clientele felt comfortable vising the salon and complying with new procedures.

“It became such a stress release for people,” says Lexi. “They were saying ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. I need to sit down and just have someone make me feel good’.”

Another positive, Lexi highlights was the forced creativity that the restrictions imposed. Like The Lab, LBH is now offering contactless delivery of products, a service she hopes will continue once restrictions are lifted.

“I’ve finally started building my online shop which I’ve been talking about for months,” she laughs. “It makes you think outside the box.”

For many Canberra businesses, this creativity has allowed them to build new pathways, products and audiences. But most are still wary of what the future may hold.

“We are grateful that we are able to bounce back from this and for all the support from our friends, family and clients,” says Sianne. “[However], the effects of the closure and the economic impact will be felt for a long time to come.”

“We just need to support each other the best we can,” says Amanda. “And hopefully, Canberra’s small businesses will survive.”

Feature image: The Lab. Photo: Bel Combridge

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