While the true cost of the pandemic on the local economy may not be known for some time, a number of small businesses have shifted on the fly to stay afloat.
Those that operate purely in the digital world haven’t escaped the impacts, and they too have found new ways to stay relevant.
“We had to cancel literally 100% of the content on our calendar, which was a little traumatic,” said Molly Bradford, who owns MissoulaEvents and Gatherboard. “In that moment, people said they wouldn’t go to that calendar because nothing was there, nothing was happening – there were no live events.”
For a business based on keeping people abreast of live events across Missoula, the shutdown didn’t bode well. With nearly everything closed and events canceled, at least in their traditional form, Bradford’s platform was growing obsolete, and traffic to her site was dwindling.
“I really felt our calendar needed to be accurate, because a lot of people are dependent on us,” she said. “We decided to break all of our rules.”
As the pandemic progressed and businesses sought new ways to adjust, Bradford’s inbox became flooded with newsletters offering streaming classes and yoga sessions, virtual gallery tours and performances.
But even on Facebook, the events were scattered and hard to track, again emphasizing the need for a free, localized calendar. It’s what gave Bradford’s business its start 15 years ago when MissoulaEvents was born, and the need was still there – it just had to evolve with the new reality.
“It’s been this evolution,” said Bradford. “Virtual is not going to go away. It’s going to be a permanent part of our life now. So how do we make that work?”
Bradford and her team spent a month canceling the content on their site while working to update the material with local events that now live in a virtual world. Along the way, they created a #VirtualMissoula hashtag.
With the new content loaded and the hashtag live, the calendar has found new life, allowing local residents to search for streaming content and archived material.
“If people missed something, they can use MissoulaEvents to search #VirtualMissoula and hit past events and watch things they missed,” said Bradford. “It’s not always how it’s been used, but I think it will be useful. I don’t know how we’re going to translate that into money, or how I’m going to program that, but I think it’s really meaningful for a community calendar.”
With a finger on Missoula’s artistic pulse, Bradford has watched local businesses evolve during the pandemic. Artisans began streaming their classes and charging viewers to participate. Other businesses found Instagram, Shopify and Etsy.
With their doors locked, galleries offered virtual tours. With the theaters closed, film festivals went online.
Even when the doors reopen, Bradford sees a future in streaming content.
“I was impressed by how savvy people were and how quickly they were doing it,” said Bradford. “We think online events and streaming are here to stay, and we want Missoula to remember that there is a great, local and free calendar that does not require a login and is here to help.”