Here’s how the CEO of the ‘Airbnb of shops’ accelerated his business in the pandemic despite losing thousands of bookings and getting COVID-19

Ross Bailey of Appear Here attends NY-LON Tech Challenge at Emigrant Savings Bank on February 11, 2015 in New York City.
Ross Bailey of Appear Here attends NY-LON Tech Challenge at Emigrant Savings Bank on February 11, 2015 in New York City.

When COVID-19s forced high-streets and stores to shut and governments ordered people to stay at home, everyone turned to online shopping. E-commerce became the go-to option.

This meant business models, such as Appear Here, which relied on high-streets to be open, hit a brick wall. 

“You go into war mode,” said Ross Bailey, CEO of Appear Here, which lets businesses rent shops and temporary pop-up areas in major global citie – or as he dubbed it, “Airbnb for shops.” 

Since launching in 2013, the London startup has expanded to major world cities including Paris, New York and Miami, and has four offices globally.

Bailey said that January and February 2020 were the best first months of a year the company ever had. But when the pandemic struck in March, everything came to a standstill. 

“Within four to five days we had shut down every single city and we were all remote,” Bailey told Insider from his office in Clerkenwell, London. The company went from thousands of bookings to none, he said.

He then got infected with COVID-19 and was unwell for six weeks. During this time, he said he was having to make tough decisions because he was “suddenly running an illegal business.”

“My brain was all over the place and I was exhausted,” he said.

In an effort to keep his team of more than 100 employees in the loop, Bailey wrote a weekly memo to them about what was happening in the world and Appear Here’s role within that. He said employees weren’t just looking to him for business advice, but also reassurance that the company would survive.

“Your job as a CEO is to give certainty and direction,” Bailey said. “But we didn’t know anything more than anyone else.”

During the lockdowns, the company offered refunds to its customers who had booked a lease in advance. It focused on its brand and hosted virtual events for people who had lost their job or had to close their store to provide inspiration. Most recently, it launched the “Save The Streets” campaign, calling on the UK government to incentivize shopping and provide to support to struggling independent retailers.

The company also questioned whether it should be coming up with a fresh business angle. 

But when the first lockdown in the UK eased and places started to reopen again, Appear Here had a surge in bookings and saw how instantly people wanted to go back into stores. Bailey believes that although we’ve been kept away from others for so long, humans are social creatures and will want to get back out into the physical world, instead of stay in the digital one.

“COVID has really just accelerated what was inevitable,” he said, adding that there’s now a window of opportunity to reset and rebuild the retail industry. Big UK brands, including Debenhams and Topshop owner Arcadia, have suffered even before the pandemic due to long-term lease obligations and so “the new world is going to be more relevant for Appear Here than the old one,” according to Bailey.

Appear Here leases allow businesses to pay monthly so they’re not stuck in years-long contracts. A lot of the brands were safe because they were paying monthly and they didn’t have lease obligations. “It just reiterated that this model makes sense,” Bailey said.

The company started seeing bakers, butchers, fishmonge,rs and cafes use its platform and expand during lockdown. Little neighborhoods around the peripheries of cities were getting more demand than ever before, Bailey said.

Appear Here was founded in 2012 when Bailey and his friend opened a temporary shop in London selling limited-edition Queen Elizabeth merchandise. He realized from talking with customers that other people wanted to rent short-term space too. Bailey put his share of the profit from his shop into launching Appear Here.

Nine years down the line, more than 250,000 brands have found short-term spaces through the startup.

Out of all the cities Appear Here operates in, Paris has had the most bookings since the start of the pandemic as people began to return to the office in the summer. London has been slower but since August the businesses in the neighborhoods were doubling sales from 2019, according to Bailey. He also said that those businesses in Miami are doing better than ever before.

With double the sales, lower rents and more flexible leases, “there’s going to be a renaissance of our streets,” he said.

Although Bailey thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic will leave some lasting changes, he remains positive about the future of the high-street. “It wasn’t natural, it didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “But I’m optimistic.”

Read the original article on Business Insider