Pandemic Times: How to Reopen Your Tourism, Hospitality, or Retail Business in Rhode Island

Throughout the state’s response to COVID-19, the RISBDC has been working closely with Rhode Island entrepreneurs to understand and implement the many changes and requirements placed on small businesses. As the Ocean State moves through phases of reopening, we’re here to smooth your path through recovery.

Here we outline the state requirements for reopening your tourism, hospitality, or retail business, along with some additional ideas to consider as we all adapt to a new normal.

Requirements for reopening RI businesses

You can find current requirements for each new phase, including guidelines for specific industries, on the ReopeningRI website.

All businesses are required to complete and sign a reopening checklist confirming the steps they are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The checklist, which should be posted at your place of business where it is easily visible to employees and customers, includes affirming that you are committed to:

  1. Cleaning and disinfecting
  2. Wearing masks and putting social distancing safeguards in place
  3. Screening customers and visitors to your premises, or posting self-screening guidelines
  4. Developing a control plan (prior to reopening) that outlines steps your business will take should transmission occur at your place of business or in the process of conducting your work. The state website offers a COVID-19 control plan template to streamline this process.

Businesses are not required to submit the checklist or the control plan template to the state prior to reopening, but they must be made available to the state if requested—particularly in case of an outbreak traced back to your business. At the time of writing this post, RI is also distributing free PPE (personal protective equipment) while supplies last to businesses that submit their control plan to the state through local Chambers of Commerce.

Consider what “reopening” looks like for your business

“Business as usual” is not the goal at this time. As we move through the phases of reopening and anticipate possible setbacks, each business needs to carefully consider what it looks like to reopen. If your business had been holding out and waiting for brick and mortar retail spaces to reopen, now is the time to recognize that making a permanent shift (as part of your overall strategy) may be the only way some businesses will survive changes that may be long-term. Social distancing is now both a requirement, and often a customer preference. The more measures you can take to show that you’re offering ways to do business that all patrons feel comfortable with, the sooner customers will “return.”

For many retail businesses and restaurants, social distancing requirements make it impractical to open their physical space, or unlikely that doing so will bring in sufficient revenue to make it worth reopening. Investing in the time and technology to move to (or expand offerings for) online or phone orders with curbside pickup and delivery will be a requirement to remain competitive. If you have the ability to be responsive to your customers, this type of “concierge” service can be quite appealing.

At the time of writing, RI restaurants are allowed to open for outdoor dining as of May 18. Many towns and municipalities are working quickly to loosen or retool regulations for expanded outdoor seating for restaurants. Check with your local government to explore how these processes are changing and what the new regulations might allow you to do.

Use technology to drive your reopening strategy and communicate with customers

Technology can ease the friction caused by evolving business models. It provides new outlets for sales and also vastly expands the possibilities for communication. Some examples:

  • Use social media and website updates to post more information for your customers about how your business will operate in each phase of reopening. Confirm what you’ll offer in person and through other channels.
  • Use video (on social media or your website) to walk your customers through your new socially-distant space. Show them what steps you’ve taken to be mindful of their safety and comfort, or walk them through how curbside pickup will work at your physical location.
  • Prevent long lines to enter your business by taking reservations online. Nothing kills an impulse buy like being forced to wait. Common for restaurants, reservations can be a thoughtful—and smart—touch for other retail businesses with a brick and mortar location. Consider investing in a low-cost scheduling tool (Calendly is a popular one) and advertise this feature prominently on social media, on your website, and to your email subscribers.

Get creative—and cooperative

Now is the time to fire up those creative juices. Do some research on what your competitors are offering, and other businesses in your industry around the country (or the world). Engage your team by soliciting ideas and feedback from your employees and rewarding bold ideas. Let go of what isn’t working right now and focus on new ways to engage your customer base and even win new customers.

  • Use live video on Facebook or Instagram to create your own home shopping network-style show (à la QVC). Advertise the live event and have staff available to take orders via prominent phone numbers or links. Feature your chefs preparing to cook that night’s meal or take the time to spotlight new ways to use a popular product you sell.
  • Offer added value, such as free gift wrapping or a coupon for a discount on a future purchase.
  • For restaurants, provide one-stop shopping with wine pairings or signature cocktails to go with take-out meal kits, or offer a special delivered catering package for businesses to serve as an “employee appreciation” meal.

Use the power of partnership and cooperation to join with other businesses—a rising tide lifts all boats. Examples include local farms partnering to form a CSA that combines meat and vegetables, bookstores and wine merchants offering a read-and-sip package, or restaurants partnering with local musicians to offer “dinner and a show.” Think about what other needs your customers have that could be combined, and use co-branding to increase your prospective audience—the sky’s the limit. Your local chamber of commerce or retail association may be a good place to start.

Hang in there, Rhode Island! Together, we’ll emerge as a stronger community of small businesses. For assistance with planning, marketing, or financing your small business during the economic downturn, see if one of our upcoming free webinars is right for you.