Resilience and collaboration within the downtown Victoria business community
In our first episode of Season 3, Paul Holmes, chats with Jeff Bray executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA). Despite the ongoing challenges due to the pandemic, Jeff draws attention to the resilience and collaboration of the downtown business community. He talks about two specific marketing campaigns “Save the Sales” and “Downtown Deliveries” — both initiatives that were created to get folks supporting downtown Victoria businesses. Jeff highlights the vibrancy of the downtown core and encourages listeners to get to know some of the business owners who bring energy and life to our city in their Meet Downtown campaign.
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Paul: And welcome to Island Thrive. My name is Paul Holmes, your host today, and unfortunately, Dave couldn’t be with us, but we do have a very special guest, and his name is Jeff Bray, the Executive Director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association. Jeff, great to finally get you on island thrive. How are you today?
Jeff: I’m doing great, Paul, thanks for having me on. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Paul: There’s so much, of course going on in our region, people are excited to restart the economy post-pandemic, lots of optimism, which is fantastic to finally see. It seemed like a very long tunnel and we’re starting to see the light at the end of that tunnel, and so we’re really excited to interview business leaders like yourself. I want to start maybe by asking you the mission of the Downtown Victoria Business Association for those who maybe aren’t familiar with it?
Jeff: Sure, so in essence, the Downtown Victoria Business Association is what’s referred to as a Business Improvement Area, and that’s actually very common throughout North America. Some people use to call it your Main Street Business Association. Here in BC, they’re actually enabled under the Local Government Act Community Charter, and then municipalities can create bylaws and create these areas. And in downtown Victoria, we occupy basically at the Northern border is Chatham and Discovery, and then we go south along Blanshard to Bellville. We take in Belleville to basically the Inn at Laurel Point and then back along the water, and we also include the Delta Ocean Point over in Vic West. We were established in 2005, and we primarily act as a sort of marketing place-making organization on behalf of our members of which right now there’s about 1350. We also do some advocacy, really liaise with primarily the city on issues that impact our members to try to improve the business climate, the vibrancy and the vitality of downtown, both for storefront retail, but also you’ve got professional offices and banks and insurance companies and accounting offices, all of them are our members…to really make downtown the best that it can be on behalf of our members.
Paul: Wow, okay, I’ve learned a couple of things already. First of all, I didn’t realize that it was coordinated through legislation, and so would we see an equivalent of a downtown Victoria Business Association in Nanaimo or other cities on the island?
Jeff: At various times, Nanaimo had one. It was disbanded. But there’s a small one in Sidney.
Jeff: Oak Bay actually has one. And then the city of Vancouver alone has 22 BIAs of various signs and some are quite small, not only a couple of blocks long, others like Downtown Vancouver are very large. And then there’s the International Downtown Association. So we belong to an organization with literally hundreds of equivalent BIAs throughout North America of all shapes and sizes.
Paul: Wow, and I guess the other myth that you just shattered for me was I sort of thought Downtown Victoria Business Association was focused primarily on retail, maybe that’s my bias, because I think of downtown, I think of going to the retail shops, but it’s a lot more than that it encompasses all of the businesses downtown.
Jeff: Well, exactly, they’re all our members by virtue of being in the boundaries, and so yes, obviously for most people, what public-facing is, your retail, your restaurants, but of course, downtown is comprised of a whole bunch of other types of services, personal services, legal services, financial services, and so that’s what makes your commercial center what it is, is that combination of things that you don’t necessarily get everywhere else, and it’s historically been downtowns, and our region is no different.
Paul: So I want to get into a little bit around the origins of the downtown Victoria Business Association, but I think it kind of ties in a little bit to your background as well, so we’ll just… what we’ll do is we’ll leave those two things together and see how that works, so… How did you get started? What was your education background and early career?
Jeff: Sure, so like many people of my generation, I grew up in Vancouver, went to the University of British Columbia, graduated with a degree in physical education, focusing on sports administration. I was going to head off to Ottawa and run Sport Canada, however, while I was finishing my degree, I actually started working as a front line income assistance worker in the downtown East side of Vancouver, because the courses I was taking to finish my degree were at night, so I thought well, and I don’t want to work as a waiter in a restaurant for another semester. So I took this job and it started a 13-year career in the Ministry of Human Resources that ultimately led me to be here in Victoria. And I was part of the team that worked on the last major round of legislation and policy that rewrote the entire income assistance system in BC and that’s why I moved to Victoria.
Paul: Wow. Yeah. Quite a lengthy career. And then, of course, for those of you who don’t know, Jeff, I think we met when you were running as an MLA and were elected in 2001, is that right?
Jeff: That’s correct. So as a civil servant in a civil servant riding, still only a few years here in Victoria through my hat and then got the nomination radiate formidable Carol James, but it was in the 2001 election where there was a sort of massive sea change and I got stuck along with that scan, and it became the MLA, and it was an amazing experience. And gosh, what I learned in areas of healthcare and finance and budgeting, and mining and aquaculture, it was really just an incredible experience being in the room where decisions, major decisions were being made..the Olympics and all sorts of things.
Paul: Oh, that’s right.
Jeff: But as I tell people, the day I got my certificate of election, just knowing the history of the riding, I also knew I wasn’t going to get re-elected, that I could enjoy and focused on being the MLA without having to worry about every last little thing affecting my chances to getting re-elected in naturally, in 2005, Carol ran again excellent candidate as we all know excellent Minister won the riding. And I moved on to be the chief of staff of the government caucus after that.
Paul: Wow, so during that period was around the time when the legislation was coming into place for those Business Improvement Associations and were you involved in that process as well?
Jeff: I wasn’t directly involved, but when I was the MLA, I had downtown Victoria in my riding and in these early 2000s, things were pretty tough downtown, there was a sense that have been kind of been neglected street issues, not surprising we’re rearing their head. And so a number of the business leaders really felt like they needed to organize and kind of put a focus on downtown and put some energy into it, and so they petitioned the city to create the Downtown Victoria Business Association. And so a lot of that work was happening while I was still the MLA, so I’ve been a fan of the DVB T from day one, because of course it was business, individuals, shopkeepers, saying we’re going to help ourselves here, we may need support from government on some things, but we’re going to take things on ourselves, and I always admire that because they were already employing people generating revenue for three levels of government, keeping the downtown going, and yet they took this on as well, it actually was officially formed in 2005.
Paul: In 2005?
Paul: Wow it’s funny too, ’cause 16 years later, I feel like the DBA has just always been around, but that’s certainly not the case, is it?
Jeff: It was Ken Kelly was the long-time executive director, and anybody, any of your listeners who’ve never can know that you’re rarely going to find a more decent individual and somebody who cared about community and place-making, and Ken’s now in Halifax with his wife, and now I’m literally in his chair, so it’s funny, I’ve no Ken for years, and I still deal with them all the time, and I’ve been here three and a half years, and I’m loving it.
Paul: Yeah, and you started out to November 2017 as the interim executive director.
Jeff: That’s correct.
Paul: And I guess that was formalized in April of 2018, so still I guess fairly new as compared to the previous year.
Jeff: 20 years. Oh yeah, I’m not a raw rookie anymore, certainly it’s been an incredible job, I love it. It doesn’t feel like a job, not understanding the huge challenges that our members have been going through for a year now, still to be working with all of the other agencies downtown and collaborating the way we do here in Victoria, it’s still been a very positive experience.
Paul: And you’ve got a small but vibrant team working with you there, and I know one of the things that really stuck out to me, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage our listeners to go and have a look was the retro ad campaign that you guys did. That was at an initiative that was at early 2020 or late 2020?
Jeff: That was basically August, September. So that was a campaign we did called “save the sales.” Everybody had sort of embraced shopping local by that point, that was a message that great Victoria had really embraced. But you had Langford doing promotions, Sidney doing promotions. And one of the things that we always had to deal with here in downtown shopping local is for a lot of people who work from home, they absolutely embraced it, which… But they walked down to the corner store or the strip mall suburban strip mall. We had to find ways to keep reminding people that shop in the local included making the trip downtown, whether it was online or whatever we had to stand out a little bit different. We had to kind of keep downtown front and center. So the “save the sales” campaign was based on those variety of club telephones from the 80s. We partnered with Chek TV, and so Ed Baines and Jeff King, they did a mock telephone one night (a Saturday night) and we did a series of ads that ran both on TV and online, some of them unfortunately featured me in terrible 80s Miami Vice like garb.
Paul: That was brilliant, by the way.
Jeff: It was… Yeah, it was a ton of fun. I like the business says, Be a little bit… Not cheeky, but just to be a little bit off center. And again, that reflects the eclectic nature of downtown, it’s a fun nature and people. Part of it was also a contest, people could register their sales, and then every week we did a draw and you could get your sale covered up to 100 bucks. We had thousands of entries, so we really engaged with people, made it fun as they were supporting downtown businesses and yeah, that’s the type of thing that we’ve had to do in a variety of ways to continue to remind people about downtown while we wait for office workers to return and ultimately, tourists.
Paul: Let’s talk about some of the other initiatives. And I know the one that really stood out for me, and we used it was the “downtown delivers initiative” and so maybe you can tell us the origin of that and status as well.
Jeff: Sure. Well, if we go back maybe, and I’ll take the liberty here and Paul to go back to last February, March, when all of a sudden we were all watching the Prime Minister every morning and his message was stay at home, stay at home, and that was a very ominous time for everybody, regardless of your circumstance, but obviously, if you work in retail, hospitality tourism, a very, very scary time, because this was a new experience for everybody with absolutely no playlist, absolutely no sense of when it might be over.
And so we, here at the DVBA recognized that we needed to pivot very quickly to focus almost entirely on how we can support our members over that first several weeks and months, and so we pivoted into a couple of ways. The first was there was so much information coming out every day programs and rules, and so we really focused on almost daily, providing information to our members in a way that they could access what they needed for them, and really became a bit of a clearinghouse for all of the information that was flying around. The other thing was not everybody was staying at home, people still had to go out and about people were still taking public transit, and so we wanted to add that sense of safety if people were coming downtown, so our clean team who are the folks you see downtown who have the cleaning carts and go around, and sort of augment the cleaning or the city has really focused on things like sanitizing bus stops and other areas where other people congregate, even on the tops of garbage cans, just again, to really help make people feel safe when they were downtown, they were amazing.
We also realized that as we were talking with our businesses and the impacts were becoming clear as to what were the risks for businesses, what is it that they need from various levels of government, we really took on a much more active role in advocacy, just helping to focus the voice of especially small and medium-sized businesses on the issues both local and provincial, nationally, we lent our voices to chambers and the Canadian Federation of Business on things like wage subsidy and commercial rent programs, but also locally on issues that the city could be involved with and they were very keen to understand what could they do to help businesses in the short term.
As we sort of rolled into the summer though, and the Premier kind of announced here’s phase two re-opening, then we moved into phase three and kind of what people were talking about this renewal, we started to change what we’re doing to include a real focus on marketing. We weren’t hosting any events, there was none of that going to happen, but we really amped up sort of what we were doing to market on behalf of downtown in the region. And so through the summer, we were promoting all the patios that were opening up, which was part of the city’s plan to help businesses and really had not a bad summer, everything being relative, we didn’t have tourists and we didn’t have conferences and all of those things, and office workers weren’t working but people are coming downtown, they were supporting businesses and join the patios, so we kind of were marketing and helping with those local issues through the summer and when it was not bad, nothing like what it normally is.
When we got into the fall, of course, things started to slow down a little bit, but people who are really working hard to shop local, and so that’s when we did the “save the sales” promotion. But in November, if you recall, Dr. Henry brought in some additional restrictions and it really sort of put a chill on everything, and we thought, “oh my gosh, are people going to stop shopping in person, what’s going to happen?” Some of the data we’ve seen had suggested that back in October, 91% of Canadians to indicate they would do some holiday shopping online. So there were programs that were helping local businesses establish some kind of online presence, including the ability to do transactions, so we started to promote all the businesses in our downtown that we’re doing some kind of online shopping, and then when the restrictions were amped up a bit we recognized that people might not want to come into a store, they may still want to shop, they may still actually want to come down and pick it up, or they might want it to be delivered. But that adds cost. So we initiated a program called “Downtown delivers” in November. We partnered with three locally owned and operated courier companies, Maximum Xpress, Geazone Eco-couriers that have electric vehicles, and then NomadEx bike cargo two guys who have bikes. And we said If you buy from one of our businesses and you live anywhere in the CD, the delivery will be free. So that was to encourage people in the region to still shop downtown, even if they weren’t going to come downtown or worried about standing outside in inclement weather, hugely popular. And of course, what it did was it made it a good value for the consumer, but also saved the retailer the $10 or the $8. So hugely important for retailers. We also partnered with a local food delivery app called Tutti, they’re a relative new company, but they’re local here in downtown to replicate that for the restaurants. And so if you order from a restaurant within 20 kilometers, we will cover not only the delivery charge for you the customer, but also 100% of the commission for the restaurant, of the restaurant keeps 100% of the sale.
And again, that’s a fourth local company, so providing jobs for courier drivers, but also making sure businesses retain 100 percent of the sales. We are at probably at this point, our last invoices, we were at 103,000 worth of courier charges we’ve covered, we’re probably up to about 120 now. We are running the program to the end of March, and it’s really just been a huge boost for our businesses, and people loved it because they knew that if they purchased from a company that they’re going to keep 100% of the sales. And that leads to more employment in 100,000, 30-40,000 injected directly into businesses during a pandemic is no small feet.
So that was one that’s been very successful, we’ve also been doing other marketing promotions, if you go on to our website, one of the others that we did was a series of interviews with business owners that really talk about why they’re in business, what the impact of the pandemic has been, but really to help people connect to small and medium-sized business owners are, and those have been hugely popular, so we’re going to continue to do those types of marketing pushes so that people continue to see who all our rate entrepreneurs are and why supporting local is so important and why it’s so impactful.
Paul: Wow, it’s a lot to digest.
Jeff: We have the Bay Centre downtown. Malls are fantastic. And so, we are big supporters of the Bay Center, and you’ve got Mayfair. But when you come to a place like downtown, it’s what makes downtown thrive is all the unique businesses that are here that are not in malls, they are independently owned. And so we know that when people discover all its down here, they’re pleasantly surprised because it’s not retail available anywhere else, it’s not food and beverage, that’s available anywhere else. Prior to the pandemic, we were downtown really was… People certainly had issues with parking and the usual downtown issue, but had 3% retail vacancy rates, our restaurants were being written up in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Victoria just got named the best small city in the world. Conde Nast recognized this as the best island in the world, there’s been so much that we sometimes forget it ourselves…We get a little bit complacent, maybe we kind of get a little bit glass half empty, but when the rest of the world comes here, they go “holy cow.” We have one of the best mid-sized downtowns in North America, and so we have a lot to celebrate while we have issues that we always still have to work on, and so that’s been part of what we’ve always been trying to remind greater Victorians on supporting local is all the great entrepreneurs who are our downtown and what they contribute to on our region economically, but really in terms of vibrancy and energy. And we think the future of downtown with all the new residential installed on the books, the innovation hub things that are looking to come online that will continue to be one of those downtowns that people will want to invest, that people are going to want to move here. And that bodes well for us, if we can just get through the next several months.
Paul: That’s a really great place to end it, and I think on a positive note, we’re really excited about what’s yet to come, maybe…And we talked a little bit before the show some of the initiatives it’s kind of hard to plan, initiatives post-pandemic, but you do have some things in the works. So maybe let us know what we can expect to see from the DVBA over the course of the rest of 2021.
Jeff: Sure. Well, you know, last few years, we really worked hard here at the DVBA, our Board of Directors and our amazing team to really increase our relevance and people recognizing that we really do bring some authority on things, downtown knowledge, and that we have a valued place at the table. And the city’s really responded in a number of ways. We’ve partnered with the city, with Destination Greater Victoria, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, on lots of things. With the city they recognize that we can really play a role in helping to improve the cleanliness and safety of Downtown, they’re looking to create a clean and safe committee, which will be one of the lead players, develop a retail strategy for downtown, we’re one of the lead players on that to really look at what we have in downtown and help foster and build up gaps, do we have enough pediatric buses to get folks downtown. What other things can we do? Encourage retail and food and beverage to come downtown. We’re looking to partner with the city on sort of a downtown Ambassadors Program, which we see in lots of cities, folks that are there to help the public navigate downtown, but also to support businesses if there are issues at occurring that they can respond quickly where you don’t need to call police or somebody else. So there’s a lot of those kinds of initiatives where the DVBA is happy to partner with the city because they are solutions-based and evidence-based programs. And I guess the final one I’ll finish on is, we are all so starved for events again. This is a region at and lots of great events, festivals and we’ve all been missing those, so we are planning to go ahead in December with our Lights of Wonder, which occurred in 2018 and had over 75,000 people here, it was our first year, it was a huge success. We’re looking to do bigger and better. And again, it’s free for everybody, there’s no tickets, there’s no gates, people could just come and enjoy this community space, and we really think people will be ready for it by December. We’re excited to again on behalf of our downtown businesses offer that really is just a big gift of the region.
Paul: That’s exciting. I will be there post-vaccine, and really looking forward to part that Jeff. We do live in one of the best places in the world, we live here in British Columbia, we live on this amazing Island, we’re surrounded by nature, and we have this incredible historic, beautiful downtown that has issues from time to time like any downtown does, but by and large, just such a positive place. And so on behalf of us, and I think probably everybody in the region, thank you for all the hard work that you’ve done to keep downtown Victoria front and center, and we’re really excited to see what happens in the year ahead, I haven’t been this optimistic in a long time.
Jeff: I’m glad you’re feeling that, and you know your listeners who’ve been so great to support local, I just want to remind people, we’re not out of the woods quite yet, and so continue to make those purposeful shopping decisions. Support local, know that when you do that, money stays in our community and employs people… Keeps people working and we will get through this, and I think we will be a more resilient region as a result, and it’s really all of us working together. The collaborations have been fantastic, and I think we can come out of this stronger than even when we went in and we went in pretty strong to begin with, so to support local, be safe and be kind and patient.
Paul: Right, and for those who are curious, the downtown Downtown Victoria Business Association has a fantastic online resource at downtownvictoria.ca. There is a business directory there, there is an events page, which we hope to see many more happens coming up, all about walking tours and a blog profiling businesses and different things as well. There’s even a parking resource page for people who want to be strategic about parking.
Jeff: Parking hasn’t been the issue, but if I could direct listeners to anything, if you go to dvba.ca/ meetdowntown you’ll see some great videos of just some of our businesses downtown, who they are. There’s some amazing stories in there, and it just reminds us all that these are people, these are families, and when we support them, we really do support our community.
Paul: Awesome, well, thank you so much, Jeff Bray, the Executive Director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association. I appreciate your time today, and I wish you all the best in the months ahead.
Jeff: Great, thanks Paul, I enjoyed it. And once the vaccine’s here I look forward to having you down here at the office for a coffee.
Paul: Awesome, thanks. Take care.