We are living in extraordinary times – 75 days ago, we welcomed a new decade with hope and optimism, and many companies were very pleased with their January and early February performance.
What a difference 75 days make. I don’t believe we have seen a global shock this bad since the outbreak of the first Gulf War about 30 years ago.
That was certainly the only time previously I have seen clients report zero-revenue months. The skills and experiences learnt then are very valuable commodities today.
We have spent much of the past 10 days talking to dozens of clients in multiple sectors and with multiple niches on the effects of coronavirus on their businesses, while at the same time preparing for the likelihood of an office shutdown.
As we hurtle into what will be a very depressing period, I want to summarise what we are seeing into a dozen key points.
There is a global short-term collapse of tourism and international travel, but we will come out of it. We all need to survive and be in the best possible position for when the recovery starts.
In reality, there is almost nothing individual companies can do to change the outcome.
Just accept the fact that you will hardly take a booking until at least after Easter. Keep yourself, your colleagues, customers and suppliers safe and your business operating.
Airlines, other transport infrastructures and major accommodation providers are big beasts, and with travel and tourism such a significant industry in so many countries, governments must support many of them temporarily, both with cash and legislative protection, which will ease pressure on the supply chain down to wholesalers, operators and agents.
Everyone is having the same ultimate issues. However, companies face a variety of differing challenges depending on the sector; type of services delivered; destinations covered; seasonality of bookings; and departures.
All routes, however, end in a severely weakened business.
Most well-run companies can get by for a few months. The big fear for many is if this lasts for six months or more.
Very few companies can comfortably survive decimated trading for that long. There has to be governmental action to return to normality as soon as possible. There are no winners here.
It's all about cash flow conservation in a calm, orderly way. Making knee-jerk reactions with mass redundancies and being unreasonable with contract terms up and down the line is unlikely to be beneficial.
When normality returns, you will be looking to rehire many of your valued colleagues, while poorly treated customers and suppliers will remember long after coronavirus is forgotten.
Most of our clients are acting responsibly and proportionately and have made key decisions collaboratively including on flexible employment arrangements.
Most teams of employees would prefer to collectively take a temporary salary cut and work fewer hours than see people individually made redundant permanently.
Many variable costs can be turned off or reduced quickly and with minimum penalty, and restarted easily.
There is no fairy godmother or benevolent investor. Why would anyone put money in your business at this time, and if they would, on what terms? Be realistic.
In the Budget, the government announced support including bank loans, HMRC Time to Pay arrangements and rate reliefs.
A new temporary coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will be introduced within a matter of weeks, delivered by the British Business Bank.
I don’t believe the banks have a clue yet about how this is going to work in practice, and how easy it will be to access. Keep your eyes open to more information on this, and talk to your own bank.
A more immediate solution may be contacting the HMRC Time to Pay coronavirus helpline on 0800 015 9559 or visit the website.
Instant cash flow benefit can be obtained by deferring part or all of your PAYE, National Insurance, VAT or corporation tax payments, so these amounts don’t leave your bank account when you most need it.
Take this opportunity to improve the operations and processes in your business. While operational activity is slower, use the time wisely to do the things you never have time to do because you are too busy – but really should.
And upskill staff. There may be an opportunity to restructure parts of your business. You or your team don’t need to sit around idle. There will be a bounceback, and you need to be ready to grasp every opportunity.
Travel is certainly at the sharp end of this snap downturn, but most sectors and the businesses in them are also heavily affected.
For example, we have a client that moves relocating employees of global banks around the world and another that supplies hundreds of casual employees to build stages and steward large-scale events, festivals and concerts.
Both of those companies, as well as thousands of others, have also seen their businesses stunningly grind to a near complete halt.
Have empathy with all and they will have empathy with you. Don’t try to monopolise the “woe is me” argument.
Remember, everyone has their own story and their own battles to fight. We are all in a state of war against the same non-human enemy.
Experience does count, as does keeping a cool head. As leaders and business owners, we need to keep those around us reassured that we are doing all we can to protect both our businesses and them, in terms of their health and security.
We need to continue to take considered and measured decisions, not all of which will be easy. Go back to point one, it will end, and we need to make sure we are still around to see it.
We can’t do much about the world we currently find ourselves in. My senior team’s best moments of the past week are laughing with clients whose sales are 75%-plus down. They are taking the steps they can. They appreciate our call and knowing we care about them, reminding them that everyone else is in the same place.
Sometimes, just having a friendly voice on the line is all we need to keep on going. Those are the moments you cherish.
Jonathan Wall is managing director of travel industry specialist chartered accountants Elman Wall.