Travel bans test business planning

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

“The show must go on” is such a powerful mantra in live theater that for decades fearsome storms that shut down every other type of business wouldn’t cancel a scheduled performance. More

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SMALL BUSINESS

Travel bans test business planning

PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
SHOVELING OUT: Closing early Friday, Feb. 8, in advance of the blizzard, Warwick Mall didn't open again until the following Sunday morning. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the shopping center's 5,000-space parking lot.

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Posted 2/18/13

“The show must go on” is such a powerful mantra in live theater that for decades fearsome storms that shut down every other type of business wouldn’t cancel a scheduled performance.

Of course that was before statewide (and regionwide) roadway bans and admonishments from elected officials starting days before the first flake asking residents to stay indoors. Now even theaters are putting caution first when confronted with extreme weather.

“In the past, theaters didn’t close down that much – you just did the show,” said Michael Gennaro, executive director of Trinity Repertory Co. in Providence, which canceled three shows as a result of the recent snowstorm. “Trinity had a history of never canceling, but … the forecasters have gotten better at pinpointing things. They don’t go crazy unless they know it is going to be bad.”

Closing the doors, sending workers home or canceling an event always has been a tough call for all kinds of businesses, and the travel bans declared for the first time in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts during the Blizzard of 2013 have added a new wrinkle.

Knowing that most customers and employees won’t be able to get to a business would tend to make the decision easier, although in many cases the roadway ban came down long after organizations had made the call.

“Basically, we had always gone by whether there was a state of emergency declared – that would be the only time we would cancel shows,” said P.J. Prokop, spokeswoman for the Providence Performing Arts Center, which rescheduled Friday and Saturday performances of “American Idiot” to new times on Sunday and Monday respectively, after the storm. “But based on the very specific travel bans, which I have never seen before, there was no way anyone could have gotten here.”

The Rhode Island travel ban was declared Friday afternoon, Feb. 8, after the decision to push back the Friday show was made. A spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee did not immediately returns calls seeking comment on the criteria for how such bans will be decided in the future, and whether the timing of the recent storm – at the end of a standard workweek – was a factor this time.

In the retail sphere, Warwick Mall owner Aram Garabedian said the travel ban generally worked out well, although he said officials should be careful not to overuse it or enforce it too strictly in the future.

“The ban on the roads helped the trucks get the snow cleared,” Garabedian said. “The situation that started to cause problems was once someone wanted to pick up [relatives] who might have lost power or had an emergency. It became a delicate balance.”

The Warwick Mall closed early on Feb. 8, was shuttered all of Saturday, Feb. 9, and then reopened Sunday for normal hours, although anchor Target stayed open independently for limited hours Saturday, Garabedian said.

With a 5,000-space surface parking lot at the mall, one of, if not the, largest in the state, the biggest challenge for the Warwick Mall was getting rid of the snow after it fell.

For this job Garabedian, like most business owners with sprawling properties, has a standing snow-removal contract that had a team of workers at the mall clearing snow starting Feb. 8 and through the night until the snow stopped.

By Feb. 10 the mall was back in business with parking. By Feb. 12, with the snow melting, the parking lot was the meeting site for 300 National Grid utility trucks heading out to fix remaining power-line problems.

At Rhode Island supermarkets faced with panic buying before the storm, blizzards test ordering acumen and supply-chain management as much as snow-removal plans.

Order too little of in-demand items, like milk, and risk days of empty shelves. Order too much and risk gallons of unsold product that may need to be thrown away if the power goes out. Anti-price-gouging laws prevent the option of raising prices to control the balance.

Dave’s Marketplace feels it has Rhode Island pre-storm buying pretty well figured out.

“Obviously this wasn’t our first bread-and-milk panic,” said Susan Budlong, director of marketing for Dave’s. “We know what makes people nervous and that they need the essentials. We have good relationships with [milk suppliers] and made provisions to get those additional deliveries at the beginning of the week.”

Of the nine Dave’s stores in Rhode Island, Budlong said most received three truckloads of milk in the days before the storm, instead of one. A few of the smaller stores got double shipments instead of triple shipments.

As a result, only one store ran out of milk Thursday evening and two others were down to quarts (gallons are more popular.) The other six stores never ran out, and all stores were restocked by Friday morning, although they closed at 1 p.m. that day.

Two stores, both in North Kingstown, lost power and were closed all of Sunday.

In addition to milk, bread, eggs and cold cuts are other big pre-storm sellers, Budlong said.

While most retailers need to remove snow so that their customers have places to park, car dealers are also concerned with freeing their merchandise from the drifts.

At Saccucci Honda in Middletown, the dealership has started in the last few years keeping a pickup truck and plow in its inventory at all times in case of a big storm. Trying to get a plow once a storm had arrived proved difficult and costly.

When a storm is on the way, the dealership moves all of the cars in stock to one corner of the lot. When the snow stops, that corner of the lot is plowed by a team of six to eight contract workers from Labor Ready, then cars are dug out using special sponge-tipped brooms and driven to the recently plowed area, said co-owner Carol Saccucci.

The whole operation during the blizzard and aftermath took 94 man-hours between Friday and Saturday and then the sales staff finished up clearing walkways on Sunday when the dealership reopened.

Saccucci said even though sales are minimal during extreme weather events – and those who are going to buy a car are likely to return another day – there is still some reluctance to send everyone home.

“That is always a debate: We wonder if there is someone who is going to stay open who will get that sale,” Saccucci said. “It’s the reason we started opening on Sunday once a month. We hope it’s the case that the purchases are just put off a few days, but we never know.”

Giant storms like the recent one and travel bans, however, do make the decision to shut down easier.

“There isn’t much sense in trying to sell a car when it would be illegal for the driver to get it home,” Saccucci said.

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