This Week in Toronto: a Q&A with Blue Door’s Laura Silver, Plus Community Support for Healthcare Workers, Virtual Speed Dating, and More

BizBash's Toronto column from Calvin Barr covers the week's biggest event news.

Luminato, one of Toronto's largest arts and culture events, has officially been canceled for 2020. The international festival, which launched in 2007, was developed to help revitalize the city’s art scene after the SARS outbreak of 2003. Last year’s event had a “House of Mirrors” (pictured) that invited people to walk through a disorienting, kaleidoscope-like atmosphere that presented reflections from numerous angles.
Luminato, one of Toronto's largest arts and culture events, has officially been canceled for 2020. The international festival, which launched in 2007, was developed to help revitalize the city’s art scene after the SARS outbreak of 2003. Last year’s event had a “House of Mirrors” (pictured) that invited people to walk through a disorienting, kaleidoscope-like atmosphere that presented reflections from numerous angles.
Photo: Courtesy of Luminato

TORONTO—Welcome to BizBash’s Toronto-based column, where Calvin Barr covers the week’s biggest local news. Got a tip? Get in touch!

Industry Voice
BizBash caught up with Laura Silver, the C.E.O. of public relations and digital marketing agency Blue Door, who works with 50 Canadian restaurants and hospitality brands.

You’ve spearheaded a lobbying effort to help event and hospitality businesses through support like HST payment deferrals, expedited EI payments, and recovery funds. Can you tell me more about what the campaign entails so far?
"We’ve engaged one of Canada’s top government relations firms Sussex, which is based in Ottawa, to conduct the lobbying effort, and reached out to all 50 restaurants with Blue Door. About 25 signed up. We went a bit broader and reached out to some other restaurants like Piano Piano—who wasn’t a client of ours but is now on board. So now we have about 35 restaurants who are in. We launched last Thursday, and are now having discussions with different government offices, such as [Minister of Finance] Morneau, and are looking at ways we can work with other lobbying groups. Other than HST forgiveness, and EI and recovery support, we're asking for rent forgiveness for six months. Restaurants have three-percent margins, and it's hard to run them on the best of times. The ones without cash flow are already shutting down—which we already saw with the Westerly [last week]. We need government action now—and in the form of forgiveness, not loans, because we can’t afford to have more debt."

The federal government has said that businesses whose revenue has declined below 30 percent will be eligible for a 75-percent wage-subsidy. How do you think that will impact survival for Toronto’s hospitality sector? 
"It’s great, but it's not enough. It’s one thing if small businesses—or in this case, restaurants—can bring staff back on, but right now there’s no business for them to go back to. They don’t need staff right now because they’re not running a full-scale business. Even if you’re doing delivery, it’s not a long-term solution, and you may have a third-party delivery app taking up to 30 percent of revenue. So it's a good step, but it’s only half the solution."

What are the most creative or innovative ways you’ve seen food and beverage companies respond to the closures?
"Some companies are running delivery services themselves, such as Goa and Pōpa, which are two Bayview Village restaurants of ours. We’re in discussions with a hospitality group that wants to focus on catering for people who really need it, like hospital workers, paramedics, or firefighters, offered at reduced prices. I’m also speaking with a number of our restaurants who are already thinking about recovery and how we can do a relaunch in the coming months. Baro and Dasha, two of our restaurants underneath the Honeycomb Hospitality Group, are already planning what that could look like, and I think that takes real creativity and optimism right now."

As a result of COVID-19, businesses are focusing their marketing efforts online. How can brands leverage digital marketing tactics to support and grow their operations?
"It’s hard to invest dollars right now when you don’t have a dine-in service, but I think it’s key for restaurants to not stop marketing themselves. They should continue to invest, particularly on showcasing their delivery options, or digital ad campaigns with third-parties, so that they show up first on apps like Foodora and SkipTheDishes. This is also the time to be investing your owned assets by upgrading your website or your content if you can. There are even companies offering free photography for restaurants so that they can continue to put out good content. These are types of opportunities people should be taking advantage of now."

What has this experience been like for you and your team?
"We’ve reached out to all of our clients, allowed everyone to hit pause, and we’re helping with their communications to customers, to staff, to government. That’s where we can be really helpful right now. We’re also working on payment plans with our clients, and in some cases starting to work on recovery plans. It’s hard to put the whole experience into words. It’s been eye-opening, heart-breaking, and gut-wrenching. It’s also emphasized how huge of a role this industry that employs tens of thousands of people plays in our economy. It’s been all over the spectrum, but I do believe we’re going to come out of this stronger."

On March 27, Comedy Bar moved its regular lineup of shows to air online at 9 p.m. every night. Titles from last week included Nour Hadidi & Friends, Weird Al Karaoke, and a BFF Variety Show, with more to be announced throughout the month. Viewers can support the venue and Toronto's comedy community by subscribing to Comedy Bar’s Twitch channel—and access free membership with an Amazon Prime subscription. Donations can also be sent directly to individual performers and groups.

The Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario took part in donating thousands of personal protective equipment (PPE) units to #thePPEdrive, which launched on March 24. The initiative, spearheaded by Michael Garron Hospital, redirects protective gloves, masks, goggles, hand sanitizer, and face shields provided by local businesses to frontline healthcare workers. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 873 also worked together to deliver 12,000 PPE, which were to be used for Canadian medical TV dramas on hiatus—including The Coroner, Transplant, and Nurses. #ThePPEDrive is also asking facilities with 3-D printers to help create more face masks using instructions provided online.

After last week, when Luminato, Inside Out, and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival canceled their 2020 events, festivals throughout June, including Toronto Jazz Festival and Pride Toronto were canceled as of last night. As the effects of social distancing to combat COVID-19 are monitored, it remains to be announced if more upcoming arts and culture festivals scheduled for later in the summer will happen.  

Turn of Events
Global Public Affairs, a government relations and strategic communications firm, has published an online sign-up sheet for closed venues to volunteer space for healthcare purposes. According to organizers, the evolving list has been shared with government officials for review.

"The crisis is also a good reminder to always have a contingency plan when it comes to planning a major event: Have a back-up date and consider cancellation insurance. And if you haven't already booked a photographer, consider ones—like Wedding Revolution and True Love Photography—offering discounted packages for couples who've had to reschedule due to the pandemic. Still, even if you're more the eloping or who-needs-a-ring type, there's no denying that a wedding is a massive emotional and financial investment. A lot of work goes into planning one and, naturally, re-planning one."

Now Toronto, on how the Canadian wedding industry stands to be reshaped after quarantine ends. 

On the Scene
Toronto artists are taking advantage of emptier streets to spread messages of hope and resilience through street art: 

What’s Next?
On April 4, Speed Dating Toronto is hosting a virtual event for people looking to meet someone special. Singletons aged 25 to 39 are invited to ditch the sweatpants and mix their favorite drink before logging onto the platform from home, where they’ll be guided by a host who will provide support throughout the evening. After seven- or eight-minute chats with fellow attendees, the host will coordinate the exchange of contact details between participants who’ve matched with one another. 

For those of us who’d rather bake than order takeout, Bake it Up Toronto is hosting a free online pizza-making workshop on April 5. The 30-minute demonstration is meant to help simplify the pizza-making process from home, without sacrificing quality. Last month, the group hosted a live Espresso Amaretti Biscotti Workshop and Caramel Salted Brownies workshops.

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