How a Canadian entrepreneur weathered the pandemic
When someone asked me about my experience of going through the pandemic as an entrepreneur I was a bit apprehensive because the pandemic is still not over. Therefore, I will not claim victory yet. I can only humbly share how we have survived until today with God’s help.
We are a small business offering personal and spiritual development journeys and pilgrimages. As you can imagine, the tourism industry was among the hardest hit. Most of our revenue came from international group tours... We had to reinvent ourselves with local trips, small packages for independent travelers and online retreats and conferences.
Fortunately, we were eligible for Canadian government grants and loans, and we had a safety cushion, money that I had chosen to put aside during the good years in case of an emergency. At the end of each fiscal year, I prayed to the Holy Spirit to enlighten me on how much to give to the Economy of Communion (an initiative of the Focolare that aims at developing a more just and person-centered business model) and how much to keep developing the business. A little voice told me to keep a reserve. I wondered if it was really the right thing to do, but today I believe that the Holy Spirit enlightened me.
The pandemic experience also served to bring me back to basics. During the good years of Spiritours, we had moved into large 3,000-square-foot offices and signed a lease until March 2022. The landlord sold the building in September 2020. Towards the end of November, the new owners came to talk to me and told me they wanted to convert the top three of the four floors into condominiums (we were on the 4th floor), and they were offering me a smaller space on the 1st floor that would remain corporate.
I was very attached to our premises, because we had renovated them at our own expense (floating wood floors, large mural, etc.), and I had the illusion that international travel would start again in the spring. I mistakenly believed that we would do well and still be able to afford our beautiful premises, so I politely declined their offer.
Two weeks later, I received a notice of eviction by bailiff, effective September 2021. I was furious, and my first reaction was to say to myself that I was going to defend myself to make sure that they would honor my lease. We were a few weeks away from Christmas, and the second wave was getting bigger and bigger.
I shared my plight with a friend who said: “Anne, look at this as an opportunity.” She made me realize that indeed, this situation was an opportunity to free myself from an expensive rent and get back to basics.
So I not only accepted the eviction, but negotiated to leave in April 2021. We looked for a smaller office, and finally I thought I’d ask the Centre Le Pèlerin (a Catholic nonprofit organization that specializes in spiritual direction) if they would have a small office to rent us. They said yes and gave us a real bargain. In addition, they had space for us to store our furniture and all our equipment. I sold several pieces of furniture, especially the big ones, and we moved into this small 144-square-foot office. All employees were working from home, so they were fine with that.
I never wanted to lay them off. By March 2020, we had already considered the work-share program. The plan was to temporarily put the employees on this program part-time after the “rush” we were facing to cancel and reschedule trips scheduled for March, April, May and June 2020. So they would have had unemployment insurance for the hours not worked. Before we even applied, Canada announced its emergency wage subsidy, which allowed me to keep our six employees for several months.
In January 2021, unfortunately a key employee decided to leave, and in March or April 2021, seeing that the grant was decreasing, and the spring trips were still being postponed, I had to temporarily let two employees go. Another left in May, and I had to replace her to face the high season, which was still promising with our trips to Quebec.
It was quite a challenge to do distance learning. I had to reduce everyone’s hours in December to 75%, and our last recruit told me that she had found another job. I was really sad, but thank God she chose to continue with us part-time. She gave us an average of 12 hours a week and here is the message she wrote me recently which touched me a lot:
“I would like to extend my gratitude to you and the entire Spiritours team. I am very happy to be part of this beautiful team and to learn little by little with you, enriching my knowledge and my life skills. Thank you also for giving us the chance to participate in the decision-making process, and thank you for always putting us at the heart of this beautiful company.”
I would have so many things to tell, how for example I had the help of a coach who graciously called me twice to see how I was doing and to encourage me, who referred me to another person who trained us at a low cost to make digital improvements. How, through an association I belong to, I was able to get legal advice from an attorney free of charge, and access to a grant to help us automate our billing... The Lord sent me key people in my time of greatest need, supported us during this challenging time and continues to do so.
From the beginning of the pandemic, I said to the Lord, “I put my trust in your hands,” and this hope, rooted in my faith, has never let me down. It helps me to move forward and stay on my feet.
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