Covid-19: Strategic Insights from the Caribbean C-Suite

At which point did you stop liking puzzles?  It must feel like since ‘Foreverary’ when you last challenged yourself to complete a 35, 200 or even a 1000 piece puzzle, based on the level of challenge you enjoyed, or endured. Well, Covid-19 has definitely rekindled that angst, as virtually every element of our economy, society, business and family has been fractured and in some cases shattered, leaving many to reconstruct their normalcy and, hopefully, recognise  that a change of their modus operandi will be critical to survival and success.

No one could have predicted the degree of disruption that the pandemic would have caused. Not only was the impact on a global scale, but the protracted period has meant that we are now approximately 21 months into the pandemic experience. The mechanisms put in place to act as a stopgap have long since eroded and the full impact is manifesting itself on organisations worldwide with many closing their doors permanently and others barely hanging on. The coronavirus experience has not solely been one of loss however. There is considerable evidence, both anecdotal and documented, of small and large businesses pivoting.

For many of us, our frustrations understandably revolve around the local experience. Yet, when we look at the global canvas, the picture is just as dire, which suggests that our plight is equal to, or in some cases maybe even better than many. This perspective does not provide license to settle and be satisfied with our current state. Instead, if we carefully analyse the market trends operating within the spaces we work, it becomes a rallying call to approach our businesses in an objective, clinical and strategic manner. Our intent within this article and beyond, as we host a series of interviews with Caribbean executives, is to provide context and a stimulus for strategic changes that will encourage individuals, organisations and economies to rebuild faster and better. 

In 2019, globally the tourism sector whether through direct or indirect employment accounted for approximately 334 million jobs or just over 10.6% of all jobs[1].  Comparably for the same period within the Caribbean that figure was slightly more significant where 15.4% of jobs were travel and tourism related[2]. Admittedly these figures differed significantly by country; for example, in St. Lucia it reached as high as 79.7%[3]. Nonetheless, the simple truth is that the tourism sector was a behemoth of an industry internationally, at least pre-Covid.  However, as a result of the pandemic, one 2020 prediction placed tourism related job losses for that year at 62 million[4].  Highly dependent on tourism, it isn’t surprising that at the peak of the pandemic 45% of tourism related jobs were lost in the Latin America and Caribbean region[5].  

… at the peak of the pandemic 45% of tourism related jobs were lost in the Latin America and Caribbean region

Closely related to the tourism industry, the media and culture sector was severely eroded, with sponsorship drying up, festivals and music tours being cancelled and music and movie production coming to a standstill as persons were forced to social distance and isolate[6]. I recall during the pandemic watching a favorite Netflix series at that time and observing the creative integration of animation punctuating the film of real life characters. I later learned that this was a creative solution to bring the product to market when filming of certain scenes had to be halted due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

Arguably construction represented one of the more fortunate or resilient sectors. Internationally the sector accounted for just over 7% of total jobs prior to the pandemic[7].  Recognising the impact of the sector, it was understandable that governments, including the Barbados government, sought to reopen this sector as quickly as possible under some restrictions. Some of the sector’s buoyancy suffered as a result of the financing that would normally be committed to large government funded projects almost certainly being redirected to provide medical support to stem the ravages of Covid-19 and most recently to secure vaccinations. Quite ominous however is the posit that the worst is yet to be faced by the sector, as protracted project lifecycles become the norm due to repeated lockdowns, material shortages, longer lead times, increased cost of inputs and job losses precluding potential homeowners from pursuing projects due to financial constraints[8]

The proverb that ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’ has fueled much of the change we’ve seen especially in small businesses, sole traders and professionals. Only recently I was expressing to a family member the admiration I have for those  persons who have pivoted to ensure they could maintain a stream of income. Many have monetized a secondary skill or recognized an opportunity borne out of the current climate. For example internationally, small scale farmers lost a significant customer base, as supermarkets and shops closed; hotels, restaurants and cafes suffered a similar if not more marked reduction in activity. Recognising the challenge, many saw the opportunity to offer produce direct to the home consumer, in many cases offering delivery to the home themselves or leveraging platforms like Shopify to promote and sell their produce[9]

While the larger decision-making machinery of big business is attractive to many, it can be potentially inflexible or at least less nimble. However, stories such as AirBnB’s move to allow hosts to generate revenues by offering online events featuring yoga sessions or cooking classes and therefore reducing the dependence on in-person tourism cement the understanding that turning a big organisation need not be akin to turning a massive container ship.  Likewise, Jaguar changed their production area to manufacture face visors at a time when the demand for luxury vehicles would have dropped, and Brewdog shifted from producing beer for an absentee pub and club market to producing hand sanitizer for front line workers and charities[10]

… solutions, or at a minimum inspiration for solutions, are a conversation away.

Covid-19 has forced us to pause and recognize that unlike many of the international calamities that the Caribbean remains relatively insulated from, the pandemic has presented an inescapable avalanche that refuses to lose momentum. Most recently, an unprecedented estimated 46% increase in poultry prices in Barbados[11] is reflective of the knock on consequence of high grain costs on the international market. This and many other challenges face us and the wider Caribbean, whether as business owner, entrepreneur, employeepreneur or employee. We are reminded that no one is experiencing this pandemic alone. Many other organisations and individuals  have taken different approaches and learned lessons along the way. This means that solutions, or at a minimum inspiration for solutions, are a conversation away. Our aim at Antilles Economics gain insight into how others have sought to address several of the questions that you may be negotiating right now such as – How have local and regional organisations responded strategically? Have they pivoted? What are the implications for the workforce? These and several other questions will be discussed throughout our short series of interviews across several business sectors with CEOs and their HR Senior Leaders. 

By listening to these episodes you will learn how our interviewees’ organisations have made sense of the many pieces in front of them and how they have sought to reconstruct their businesses in a post Covid world, and ready themselves to face the next challenge ahead. 

Stay tuned.  

[11] Midweek Nation newspaper – August 18th, 2021

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