While the economy is down and unemployment is at an all-time high, the franchising industry saw a bump in activity with people wanting to take more control of their future.
FranNet’s franchising consultant for Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Brigitte Betser, said franchise owners stepped up in the early months of the pandemic to help their franchisees navigate the uncertain climate.
One strategy was pivoting marketing strategies to increase online visibility. Many restaurant franchises, for example, switched to a takeout-heavy structure and pivoted their marketing toward it.
Children’s services is another example of a concept that’s typically face-to-face but had to pivot and quickly execute online and virtual programs, Betser said.
“I’ve been very impressed with franchising in general as we continue to go through the pandemic,” Betser said. “There’s still a lot of fear and uncertainty, but early on as we’ve seen COVID hit businesses, franchisors really stepped up to the plate.”
Franchisors also continue to be flexible with their franchisees, Betser said, offering relief in the forms of freezing royalty fees or paying loans to franchisees.
Certain industries are thriving more than others, she said. According to FranNet, the top five industries that are doing well mid-pandemic are home services, childhood enrichment, boutique fitness, health food and pet care.
“Here in Michigan, fitness has not been able to continue, but there’s a particular concept in boutique fitness with one-on-one appointments that has been able to thrive,” Betser said.
Gym Guys, for example, is seeing success in the Grand Rapids market since expanding in 2018. The company runs a full range of personal training and brings all manner of workout gear — body bars, resistance bands, pool equipment — wherever clients need it.
There’s a new health food concept coming soon to Grand Rapids as well, Betser said. Clean Eatz operates a number a clean-eating cafés and also does meal prepping for customers.
“When you look at health food, a lot of their revenue was maintained through the pandemic,” Betser said. “Most of it was takeout prior to the pandemic. I think heath food in general is attractive because a lot of folks realize now it’s appropriate to find ways to stay healthy.”
Betser recently placed Brett Jeltema with Signworld, based in Spring Lake. The signage company is not specifically a franchise, but it operates like one, offering partners similar resources like human resources, marketing manuals and other documentation for starting a signage business.
“One thing I like is, unlike some other franchises, you are not locked in,” Jeltema said. “It’s my business. It’s my sign company. I can do what I want. The downside is there’s no national marketing. I have to do that myself.”
Partners with Signworld also get access to the company network, including regular webinars and an online forum with the chance to ask questions to experienced business owners.
Signage in all forms has been very busy through the pandemic, as businesses had to change their hours and modes of service.
“We talk a lot about business-to-consumer services, but business-to-business has become very important throughout the pandemic as well,” Betser said. “As businesses begin to reopen, you see all the signage necessary for them to reopen and all their safety guidelines: mask mandates, six-foot-distance markers on the floors, etc.”
Jeltema said his business background is in lab management for oil fields and aerospace, and his experience with managing projects and costs as well as hiring people gave him the tools to manage a successful business.
“I wanted to get away from the corporate world for some time,” he said. “I looked into franchising. Starting a business while supporting a family is a scary thing.”
Jeltema said he’s still in the startup phase having recently latched on with Signworld in August, but based on conversations with other business owners, the continued need for signage is poised to thrive mid-pandemic.
Nationally, many signage business owners shifted gears in the early days of the pandemic to selling the aforementioned mask and social distancing signs, as well as manufacturing personal separators and sneeze guards.
“They’re set for the end of the year, and those who didn’t pivot have seen a small decline but not a big decline,” Jeltema said.