Innovation enabled us to survive Lockdown
I want to take you back to Monday 23rd March 2020. This was a very different day in our company as all our clients were closed down, retail sector, visitor attractions, venues and events. We heard a new word – LOCKDOWN!
What to do? Rishi Sunak came to the rescue with the furlough scheme and allowed us to send employees home and he would pay them 80% of their wages. That at least was the staff sorted. What about the business? Effectively that was put into mothballs as we were prohibited from performing any activities that constituted company promotion or revenue generation.
What could we do then? After discussions with various sources, HMRC gave some guidance that it was OK to carry out product development, staff training and marketing strategy in order that when we came back we would be in a stronger position to move forward again.
We took full advantage of that and added new features into the software, many of which had been put on the back burner due to the daily pressures of supporting existing systems. Some staff went and upskilled themselves in a variety of areas and others of us started to look forward as to what opportunities there might be once the lockdown was eased.
One thing that was happening was the late spring weather was really good and fruit was ripening in the fields. However, the Eastern European people who usually pick all this fruit were not allowed back into the country so what was going to happen to it now? Boris Johnson appealed to the country and came up with the slogan “Pick the fruit, save the farmers and feed the nation”.
This in itself gave us the germ of an idea in that yes, people could go and pick the fruit but there were restrictions on numbers, social distancing was required and the farm staff had to be kept safe. How then could all that be controlled? Our solution was to create an on-line bookings system where a ‘picking voucher’ was bought for the type of fruit to be picked. Initially this was strawberries but as the season progressed there were gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc. The system we created was very simple, you pay for the voucher on-line, obtain a date/time when you could go and pick the fruit and then turn up at the appointed time. You present your voucher, which is exchanged for the appropriate punnet size for the fruit you are picking, and off you go into the fields. Social distancing in the fields was controlled by markers and a one-way system. Once the punnet was full, put it in your car and go home.
We were the only company offering such a system so a significant number of the country’s Pick Your Own Farms immediately took it on board as their method of operation.
Needless to say our revenue streams just grew and grew as more farms adopted the system and more fruit became available. Some farms even added vegetables to their offering, including pumpkins for the October season.
As the season progressed the lockdown was eased and visitor attractions were once again allowed to open, admittedly with limited numbers. The issue here was that they also had to maintain social distancing, which meant that all visits had to be pre-booked. What better way than with an on-line bookings system?
Enter Merlin® again, as we had the system all ready to go with a web based solution where event organisers could just sign in and create their own branded bookings and ticketing platform in under an hour. This was the only product of its type on the market and once again people signed up in significant numbers and our revenue streams continued to grow.
June was the significant turning point as we could see that on-line sales were booming for all our clients, which obviously meant that so were ours and the outcome was a better June than in any previous year.
Moving into July with even more venues coming on board, covering everything from Hog Roasts to Maize Maze all needing on-line booking systems, our revenue streams hit an all-time high, with sales up by 500% on the same period last year.
This continued throughout August with a further increase in revenue of 46% over July. September and October continued at the same pace and we can also be fairly confident that this growth will continue, with the need for booking being increased as cafes, restaurants, etc also have to control numbers and therefore need a bookings system. We also know that sports clubs, football and rugby clubs, etc. will be allowed to open at some point but with controlled visitor numbers, so that’s another area where we already have a pre-prepared 'stadium' solution. We’re now well into seven figures each month and still growing at a fast rate.
How did we get to where we are now, was it by chance, pure luck or more than that? I put it down to some business advice I was given many years ago when I was told that you don’t sell products, you find problems and sell solutions. My mentor summed it up like this, “problem seeking, problem solving, friend for life". Yes, we were in a sticky situation back in March but so were many others, so could we do anything to help them that would also help us? The answer, as you can see, was a resounding “yes” so we went off and did it.