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High Stakes in the Recession Era, But Downtown Businesses Can Increase Their Odds

By Rich Alossi
Published: Friday, June 19, 2009, at 09:15AM
Union Station and Downtown Los Angeles Skyline Rich Alossi [Flickr]

Downtown's colorful skyline.

How Downtown business owners can make better use of their existing customer base. Part 1 in a series on weathering the economic storm.

Can Downtown still grow in the midst of an ongoing recession?

We've all heard the news. Economic recovery may not come around until 2011 at the earliest. And the challenges we face are significant: Increasing unemployment, reduced spending and a sudden drop in domestic and international tourism.

Ironically, while many may look to government for help, our neighborhood is disproportionately affected by drastic state budget cuts and a stalemate in Sacramento: Unpaid furloughs affect the Civic Center's government employment sector, leaving fewer customers for area restaurants.

Still, several high-profile projects will soon bring thousands of visitors, residents and workers to the area daily, including the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at L.A. Live, the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension, the new LAPD Headquarters and several new residential buildings. Even with the recession, Downtown's five square miles are packed with over 400,000 jobs and 40,000 residents that need food, goods and services. We just need to ensure they're purchased in Downtown.

A look at the neighborhood's other major assets:

  • Staples Center hosted 250 events in 2008, drawing nearly 4,000,000 visitors last year.

  • The Music Center packs in 2.3 million visitors per year across five performance venues.

  • With an estimated impact of $1.1 billion in 2007, the Los Angeles Convention Center is one of Downtown's biggest economic engines.

  • Downtown's highly successful Art Walk draws between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors every month.

How many of these visitors' dining, hotel and service needs were met outside of the neighborhood? Local business owners can make smart choices to maximize the available customer base.

General Good Practices

  • Get (and maintain) a website: As our society does more and more via the Internet than ever before, why would a good number of Downtown restaurants and retailers still not have a website? Keep it simple and up-to-date, with contact information, hours of operation and even a small map pinpointing your location. Restaurant owners, be sure to post your menu (with prices).

  • Get a Twitter account: I'm a believer in Twitter the power of an efficient Twitter account to help build your brand and encourage a loyal following. Update your customers with news on new specials, discounts or sales. (Part 3 of this series will explain how to take advantage of Twitter for your business.)

  • Get an A-frame sign: Though the city has varying rules on A-frames placed in the public right-of-way, well-placed signage can draw pedestrians into your establishment. De-clutter exterior signage, make sure your storefront is well-lit in the evening, and most importantly, keep a clean sidewalk frontage free of garbage and caked-on dirt (or worse).

How to Reach Commuters

Lunchtime may be a restaurant's top grossing hour, even "subsidizing" slow periods in the evening.

Though the majority of commuters head directly to their parking structure once that clock hits 6:00pm, a small increase in the number that stay Downtown past the end of the business day will have a huge impact for local eateries.

  • Institute a happy hour with food and drink specials.

  • If permits allow, bring live music acts in on some nights.

  • Offer a small discount or a free drink or appetizer to those who show a monthly transit pass.

How to Reach Convention-goers, Game Attendees and Tourists

Luckily, you don't need to be located at L.A. Live in order to benefit from the increasing number of conventions and games in South Park.

  • Offer a discount for convention-goers; Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Sparks fans on game nights; and visitors staying in local hotels.

  • Reach out to hotels. Though many in Downtown have in-house restaurants of their own, introduce yourself and your business to front-desk employees; some clerks may recommend your business to their guests or stock your menu in an information kiosk or guest welcome package, especially if a coupon is included.

  • Local hotel managers: Make sure guests have all the information they need to get around town using various modes of transportation. Hotels aren't islands unto themselves; instead, an overall more pleasant experience means repeat business. Include maps, subway schedules, dining guides and sightseeing information in rooms and lobbies. Consider package deals linking room rates with tickets to museums, events, or docent-led tours, such as the LA Conservancy's walking tours

How to Reach Residents

The full-time population of Downtown L.A. is on the rise, but there's a lot more competition out there than ever before.

  • Tie discounts and promotions to local events, such as Pershing Square's Neighbor Day Weekend, performances at the Music Center or MOCA's late-night cultural events.

  • Add bike racks in front of your business if space and permitting allows.

  • Sponsor the Downtown L.A. Art Walk to be listed on the official map. Many restaurant owners report their busiest night of the month is the Art Walk Thursday.

What do you suggest for local businesses trying to ride out the storm?

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