After taking off 2020 due to the pandemic, the NCET Small Business Expo returned on Oct. 15, 2021, at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Photo by Kaleb Roedel.
In a normal year, 600 people parading through a Reno-area ballroom filled with 60 exhibitors would have been considered a small turnout for the Nevada’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NCET) annual small business expo.
This year, nearly 20 months into the coronavirus pandemic, it was deemed a strong return to normalcy.
After taking off 2020 due to COVID, the oldest and largest small business expo in Northern Nevada was back in business. NCET hosted its 15th iteration of the event on Oct. 15 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
“I’m very pleased, in the post-COVID environment, with the number of exhibitors and number of attendees,” Dave Archer, president and CEO at NCET, said with a hop in his step and pep in his voice. “There’s such a pent-up demand to be back in person. For 18 months, people have been focused on Zoom calls and phone calls and things like that. To be able to go out and see people in a relaxed environment, face-to-face, is an amazing change of pace. I think people were really ready for something like this.”
Prior to the pandemic, NCET’s annual event typically drew more than 100 exhibitors and over 1,000 attendees. Archer expected numbers to be down this year in the organization’s first in-person business expo in the COVID age.
The reason exhibitors said they couldn’t participate, though, was different than in years past, Archer said.
Normally, a small business would forgo the expo because they were too busy trying to keep up with the day-to-day demand. Now, many don’t have enough staff to run their own operation, let alone a booth at a business expo.
“I can think of a dozen exhibitors who said they’d love to be here,” Archer said. “But the No. 1 reason people have given us for not doing it this time is they don’t have the staff to do it — everybody is looking for employees.”
The Reno-Sparks businesses that were in attendance, though, were happy to be back at a large-scale networking event that didn’t include the words “virtual” or “Zoom.”
BOOSTING CUSTOMER CONNECTION
Clint Vernon, CEO and co-founder of MessageDesk.For Clint Vernon, CEO and co-founder of MessageDesk, the pandemic put their demand in overdrive.
Formerly called SnapDesk, MessageDesk is a SaaS (software as a service) startup that keeps businesses and organizations connected to their contacts and customers with a business text-messaging platform.
“The pandemic happened and all of a sudden, businesses needed to be able to communicate in other ways than face to face, and text messaging is a really good way to communicate,” Vernon said. “I don’t like this idea of benefiting from COVID — it bothers me, honestly. But, in reality, we had a ton of people that reached out that probably wouldn’t have thought about text messaging … or at least wouldn’t have had the need for it, the immediacy for it.
“And then when COVID happened, they were like, ‘I need to be able to talk to my customers right now.’”
In the same vein, Maslow Creative, a Reno-based website design and developer firm, has seen a flood of businesses that needed help boosting their online presence amid COVID.
Megan McNutt, account manager at Maslow Creative.“A lot of businesses realized they need a presence online and on Google to be successful,” said Megan McNutt, account manager. “Right out of the gate, we saw a lot of people that don’t have a website, and there was a huge need for ecommerce, especially if you have a brick-and-mortar store and you don’t really have a way to sell online. That was definitely an area that people really needed a lot of help.”
HELPING CLIENTS SHIFT TO WFH
Others saw a strong need for their services because of the shift to remote work.
Sierra Office Solutions, a business technology and services provider, helped many Northern Nevada companies set up their employees with home offices when the pandemic first hit, said Riley Warren, senior account executive.
Riley Warren, senior account executive at Sierra Office Solutions.“We’ve been helping people get back to work,” Warren said. “We helped set people up working from home and get people up and running again. That’s been one of the really positive things that we’ve been able to do as a company.”
All the while, Sierra Office Solutions has also helped companies that have stayed in offices and grown their operations over the past year and a half.
“As a company, we cover everything from copiers to IT to marketing solutions, so we basically had something that helped every company,” he continued. “And that was probably the nicest thing, being able to really take care of our clients.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Some Reno-Sparks businesses had a single client that not only helped keep them afloat but also kept them busier than they could have ever foreseen.
Becky Murway, co-owner of Digiman Studio.Take Digiman Studio, a photography and video production company in Reno. Months before COVID hit, Digiman Studio developed a relationship with a company that produces medical gloves, said co-owner Becky Murway.
“They ended up needing a ton of content from us, so that really kept us going through everything,” Murway said. “We started doing educational videos on how to take off gloves, how to put gloves back on, taking off contaminated PPE. So, it was really nice to actually be helpful during that time as well. Our company was putting out educational videos that were helping thousands of people to learn what’s important during the pandemic.
“And that was the best thing that could have happened to our business because a lot of things got canceled, so having that work built-in really helped us get through it all.”
BUILDING BACK TRUST
Meanwhile, many businesses that survive on in-person interactions with customers have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year and a half.
Mimi Strickler, owner of UFC Gym in Reno.UFC Gym in Reno was one of many gyms and fitness facilities that saw business plummet overnight when the state shut down in mid-March 2020. And the challenges did not stop, even after social distancing and capacity mandates were loosened, said Reno owner Mimi Strickler.
“I think the most difficult thing was building the trust and getting the confidence back up with our community members to feel comfortable to come back in and be in an enclosed environment with people to start exercising again,” Strickler said. “It took a good seven or eight months for people to build that confidence back up, especially with the seniors.”
Now, she said many people of all ages are more focused on their health and wellness as a byproduct of the pandemic.
“What we’re really loving is we’re seeing families start to come in and exercise together — we’re helping families be more health and stay fit,” she said.
BACK IN THE COMMUNITY
Another organization that was especially challenged early in the pandemic is JOIN Inc., which provides workforce development solutions for employers across the Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe regions.
“The most difficult part for our organization was not being able to assist our clients,” said Perry White, regional manager at JOIN Inc. “A lot of our services had to be held virtually, and the type of work that we do is very closely related to case management, so it’s really important to be able to have our clients in front of us to determine what their actual needs are. So, the struggle was worrying that we weren’t serving our clients to the best of our ability during that time.” Sarah Sloan, left, work experience administrator at JOIN Inc., and Perry White, regional manager at JOIN Inc.
As a result, White said JOIN has discovered there is a “very strong community” in Reno that focuses on helping individuals with barriers to entering the workforce.
“We realized we really need to get out there and meet all of those different organizations,” White said. “So, they can learn more about our programs and we can learn about their programs so that we can assist our clients better.”
In other words, White had NCET’s small business expo circled on her calendar this year.
“It’s great just to be at any expo right now in the community,” she said. “That’s what we need.”