Business must respond to customers’ changing needs and expectations if the economy is to bounce back from the pandemic, an Entrepreneurs’ Forum panel event heard.

Entrepreneurs operating within the North East’s travel, hospitality, retail, and sport sectors agreed that creating a strong connection with customers and restoring confidence is key to achieving a quick recovery.

The panel comprised Simon Whitaker of menswear retailer Master Debonair, Paul Blake, managing director of the Newcastle Eagles basketball franchise, Dan Foskett, founder and CEO of flooring specialists Connection Retail, Sally Marshall, director of pub and restaurant group the Marshall Robertson Group and Anne Bromley, joint managing director at leisure and corporate travel specialists, Travel Bureau.

Simon, who launched his business online four years ago, before opening ‘destination’ stores in South Boldon, Chesterfield and London, successfully traded online throughout lockdown, growing sales by 10 per cent. However, he estimates he lost around £700,000 in business due to the cancellation of ‘peak’ events, including weddings, school proms and the horse racing calendar.

He has responded to changing customer demand by expanding his casual range and introducing a bespoke tailoring service – while ensuring costs are in line with revenue.

“I am also focused on improving our instore experiences as well as using technology to bring our shops into peoples’ homes. Demand is increasing and we are seeing appointments for wedding suits return to pre-virus levels, so things are looking up.”

Paul Blake, who owns the Newcastle Eagles and is chairman of the foundation that operates the Arena, said it was still unclear when, as an indoor sports spectacle, it can reopen.

It also acts as an events venue – although fortunately most of the events booked have been postponed rather than cancelled and Eagles are currently working towards a possible October reopening.

He said: “We are a business built upon events and atmosphere and to run an event with no-one in the building is not commercially or financially viable. Whatever happens, customer confidence must be quickly restored.”

Dan Foskett of Shildon-headquartered Connection Flooring said his business was fortunate to operate in the booming home improvement sector.

While its 19 stores around the UK were closed between March and June, sales shifted online. The company has now resumed its roll-out of stores but is investing in its online services after lockdown highlight the opportunities available.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” he said. “There is a great deal of activity in the housing market that should keep things going next year – but everything is focused on meeting customer needs.”

Sally Marshall, who runs The Ship in Redmarshall, near Stockton, said she had reduced the dining capacity by 12 to comply with social distancing measures. However, this created new opportunities by freeing up capacity in the kitchen, allowing it to offer a restaurant-quality takeaway food service.

In addition, it has developed a booking app and invested in its outdoor areas in response to a shift in customer behaviour.

“Sales figures are better than pre-lockdown. Our customers have reacted well to the new normal to such an extent that reviews not only praise the quality of our food but our safety procedures. Regular communication with our customers, and achieving the right tone, has been hugely important.

Anne Bromley of Travel Bureau on Gosforth High Street, which reopened in June, said: “There is progress within the industry in terms of holiday insurance to cover COVID-19 and clearer consumer understanding of the financial protection afforded with refund credit notes. We have bookings for next year but, with an aging customer demographic, we need to develop a new database, although there are opportunities, as more people are choosing to use the expertise of a travel agent during these ever changing current circumstances.

“I have concerns over a second wave and the development of a vaccine, all of which will impact on whether customers feel safe to travel in future.”

The panel event was chaired by Forum board member and former chief executive of Parkdean Resorts, John Waterworth. The next programme of events resumes in September.