All businesses experience risk. Government restrictions can be a risk. An economic downturn can be a risk. A slowdown in freight movement can be a risk. Kyla Kirkpatrick, founder and CEO of Emperor Champagne, speaks about innovating during a pandemic, when everything you thought you knew is upended and all the risks a business may face are laid bare at once.

While I wouldn’t want a pandemic to become the “new normal”, I don’t see this changed environment as a foregone conclusion — it need not be the business killer everyone is making it out to be.

Every day, we hear about businesses that have found their feet by trying something new, whether it’s a dine-in restaurant that has started a takeaway/delivery service or distilleries producing hand sanitiser.

It’s natural to feel apprehensive, so how do you become more opportunistic?

Take stock

From the minute the crisis hit, we had a strategy board up to talk about risk mitigation, additional revenue streams, how we could pivot. The thing about a pandemic is that everyone is affected in one way or another. Once you’ve let go of your frustration, take stock of your business, find the gaps and figure out what’s possible to fill them. A crisis can quickly reveal inadequacies as well as opportunities.

I run two complementary businesses: one is driven by champagne masterclasses, events and international tours, and the other is champagne curation and online sales. The lockdown stopped all scheduled events for the first business straight away. Since I spend a lot of my time, including four, five evenings per week, presenting, I suddenly had more time to dedicate to the second.

Literally take stock of your resources, both of your product and the people on your team who have the skills to help you. If things are going to change, you need to know what you have at your disposal and you may even see an opportunity to redeploy team members in different roles to enact the changes. I learnt more about my business in the first few weeks of lockdown than since I started it.

I took a closer look at operations and made a number of tweaks so our teams would work more efficiently — efficiency gains that will prevail after the pandemic. And in tightening up the logistics side of the business, I identified an opportunity to offer same-day delivery to some areas and fast delivery to others, which we have leveraged in our marketing. This has become one of the reasons why we secure so many repeat customers.

Evaluate the possibilities

One of the unique selling points of my business is the education I offer alongside the champagnes I curate. Because that element has been taken out of the equation in a face-to-face sense, we have been looking at doing this in other ways. 

Firstly, using videoconferencing to host virtual events including social meetups and masterclasses. We’ve already had interest in the masterclasses from people who would otherwise not be able to make it to the in-person events due to location, so this might be an initiative we take into a post-pandemic future.

Secondly, because a lot of fine dining establishments have closed, I realised we have a fantastic opportunity to share the wisdom of some of our top sommeliers who would otherwise be too busy to provide guest content. We can continue to support the hospitality industry even if their doors are currently closed.

Try it and see

I wouldn’t quite say “anything goes in a pandemic”, but for the most part, people appreciate that you’re trying new things and that there may be teething problems, so they’re a lot more forgiving of initiatives outside of your core business or different ways you’re doing things due to the circumstances.

For example, being a luxury business, I knew the market would change for us, so we had to be proactive in re-positioning ourselves in the shifting economy. Whereas pre-pandemic my brand was primarily about champagne expertise and sharing that through education and access, it was evident that in lockdown we needed to convey champagne as a product beyond a beverage, representing comfort and celebration.

Isolated or not, people are still having birthdays, sharing anniversaries, welcoming babies into the world. As a result, we expanded our gift and hamper selection and launched a cheeky “quarantine kit” that contains a bottle of champagne, chocolate, a roll of toilet paper and a deck of playing cards, which was extremely popular. We’re now cemented in our customers’ minds as the go-to brand when you want to feel good.

People buy a bottle of champagne for themselves and a friend so they can share a virtual drink; we’ve also noticed the rise in sales of quarter and half-bottles as people buy for themselves to lift their spirits.

There’s no doubt this pandemic has changed the way we do business. As a business owner, the only thing we can control is how we respond to the challenges it has uncovered. Take this opportunity to strengthen the foundations of your business and hone its operations so you can see the gaps — and opportunities — more clearly.

Then, seize the initiative and test new ideas; in an environment so laden with risk and uncertainty, you have very little to lose from trying.