How the V&A Waterfront has ‘led from the front’ in this COVID-19 season

Henry Mathys, Senior Manager: Social Impact at the V&A Waterfront Cape Town, spoke at a recent Nation Builder Investor Collab, giving insight into the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the V&A’s stakeholders and social partners. Here, Mathys expands on these insights:

The COVID-19 pandemic, as is the reality for many establishments, had a devastating effect on the V&A. The number of visitors dropped from the usual 60 000 to 80 000 visitors per day – pre-COVID-19 – to barely 3000 visitors a day during the harshest lockdown levels.

The V&A Waterfront is a precinct of approximately 123 hectares, 800 tenants of which 420 are small business, 13 hotels, commercial businesses, public spaces and a healthy marine industrial sector – more than just the shopping centre that comes to mind for many of us. The V&A actively enables job creation through skills and enterprise development, thereby ensuring broad economic growth.

The V&A’s response strategy was based on its core business strategy and driven by the principles of its shared value ecosystem strategy:

Lead from the front

As a precinct – the V&A Waterfront benchmarks against other global destinations and they needed to ensure that they quickly took innovative and progressive steps.

The V&A’s response strategy saw our social impact budget increase by 50%, with a major focus on food security, job retention and increased grant support. A large portion of the shareholder’s budget was diverted to the social impact budget.

In addition to this, rental relief in excess of R250 million was provided to tenants. Working capital was also freed up for tenants – as the V&A allowed for rental repayment holidays of up to 2 years. Tenants could also apply for non-interest bearing loans and an SMME helpdesk was set up for both tenants and suppliers to assist with tax and HR support.

Our shared value ecosystem strategy enabled a more human-centric approach to the pandemic, balancing the importance of lives and livelihood and looking beyond just economic impact.

Remain calm and stay focused on the safety of staff, tenants and customers

It was critically important to have all possible COVID-19 precautions and protocols in place, so that everyone could feel as safe as possible.

Ensure increased and transparent communication

We worked quickly to provide the right information to stakeholders – from credible sources. We spent time explaining to stakeholders the steps that the government was putting in place and continuously engaged with all stakeholders. Because we communicated well with our shareholders from the onset of the pandemic, they were able to buy into our initiatives as we sought to roll them out.

Identify any opportunities to instil hope

We made sure that we recognised  and acknowledged what people were going through, and worked to bring our various world’s together.

Work collaboratively within the broader ecosystem

The nature of our strategy was to support people, so they could support others and we looked for opportunities to scale impact. We worked continuously to build a strong and more cohesive ecosystem as we connected individuals and businesses. We looked to our direct neighbourhood to build a basket of support and facilitating information flow was a large part of this endeavour.

Giving small businesses access to our supply chain was an example of the collaboration and support provided. Additional value chain opportunities were also put in place: increased online trading, peer-learning opportunities through webinars focused on e-commerce, exports and skills development. Most regular service providers were paid their full contractual obligations – thus ensuring that none of the employees eg cleaners or security guards, lost their income over the period.

We also took the lead in ensuring that we looked after the most vulnerable. Food relief was provided by using restaurants in our precinct that were closed as a result of lockdown regulations. They cooked meals for people in the community that were without food; local produce was purchased from small scale farmers for this purpose. Over 130 000 meals were provided from this initiative – which is still underway.

Strive for balance; protect lives and livelihoods through effective management

Who are we helping? How can we help and remain committed to service level agreements. Balance with commercial imperative. Do the right thing. 

Valuable learnings from the V&A’s COVID-19 response strategy included:

  • Don’t underestimate your ability to harness positive energy during a crisis and use the opportunity to think differently about how you are operating. Does the status quo serve its purpose? Think more innovatively. Rather overestimate the timeline of a crisis
  • Facilitating immediate engagement with shareholders on impact related to strategy and budget.
  • Encouraging transparent engagement with social partners – leading with compassion and working to understand how operations have been impacted.
  • Ensuring support for the most vulnerable in the community.
  • Supporting tenants most affected by the pandemic to provide them with a degree of certainty. Sometimes health and wellness, financial.
  • Reviewing all available tools and resources – employing innovative solutions to not only use monetary assets but also non-monetary assets such as human capital, infrastructure, relationship when drafting a response strategy.