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ARRA Monthly Forum Features ACDBE Challenges, Stories

The challenges of operating as an Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) throughout the last few decades and the progress made in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic were the main topics in the June Airport Restaurant & Retail Association (ARRA) Two Years In Forum on Wednesday.

The webinar featured two guests, both prominent names in the ACDBE world. Bill Swift – owner of Business Services, Inc. and Swift Services, Inc. – and Greg Plummer – CEO of Enjoy Repeat and Concord Collective – joined ARRA Executive Director Andrew Weddig to discuss the ongoing issues many ACDBE’s continue to struggle with as they recover financially from the pandemic.

Swift, whose experience spans retail, consultancy, automated vending, ATM and other airport service ventures, spoke of two other memorable and troubling points in time for airport businesses: the sudden shuttering of major carrier Eastern Airlines in the 1990s and the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“We learned something in both cases,” said Swift. “In both cases, we went to the airport first. We realized that was a mistake – not because the airport wasn’t receptive, but they were handcuffed by the rules and regulations associated with the contracts that all of us had.

“We went to them thinking because they were closest to the problem that they would be receptive to our solution,” he added. “Well, they were but didn’t have the tools.”

When Covid struck and he and his colleagues saw the writing on the wall, said Swift, they knew they needed to band together to find actionable solutions to keep their businesses afloat.

“That’s where the little player – as in ACDBE and the small operators – had a collective voice rather than [a number of single voices],” he said. Swift said the business operators recognized that the cities were holding the purse strings, and they would be the ones needed on board to secure safety nets.

“From where [city officials] sit, they’re not dealing with us on a day-to-day basis,” said Swift. “So, It was important for us to bring them up to speed to demonstrate to them the impact of Covid. They had no idea. At the same time, [we explained] that the airport administrators had no toolkit, they didn’t have the tools to make the adjustments that were necessary [to help us in the way we needed].”

Plummer, whose experience is primarily in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), felt his business and others at LAX were particularly hard-hit due to their reliance on international travel. He said his company was in the midst of working with prime partner SSP America to fix the challenges they’d been battling pre-pandemic when Covid exacerbated all of them. They, too, knew they had to partner with other business owners to make their struggles matter to those with the power to help.

“We did a lot of storytelling,” Plummer said. “The ACDBE community here really banded together, which was something that never happened before. We created a whole video series educating the public, the city of L.A., the city council members, the mayor [with] our stories and how we are equitably impacted by the pandemic.

“It was really a lot of collaboration and really difficult and honest conversations,” he continued. “We’ve been able to right-size the ship …but as a result, I’m personally impacted by my lender who quite frankly did not care that it was a pandemic… and unfortunately that is something that we’re still working through.”

Despite the difficulty of working with institutions that want their money back, hell or high water, Plummer said he and others are dedicated to the role their play in supporting their communities.

“If you look at the airport as an opportunity, what we’re doing is creating jobs for those otherwise overlooked. We’re making a huge impact on the local community, providing above living wage jobs with full benefits in the city of Los Angeles,” he said. He also asked, “Are [concessions] past being an amenity? Are we there to service the public? What is the fair amount that we [the concessionaires and the airports] should share in that so it makes sense for all parties?”

Swift agreed that more collaboration will probably pave the way forward for both airports and concessionaires. “Let’s reexamine the rules of the game to make it more inclusive to those who also have a lot at risk,” he said, adding that when airports struggle, the leaders still receive their paycheck, where small business owners’ revenue is directly tied to their livelihoods.

“We’ve got some experience now,” Swift said. “How about we have a thinktank think that through and maybe come up with some prescribed manners of response? Take the politics out of it where possible.” Swift said he believes this would take a lot of pressure off those tasked with responding to future crises.