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Thursday September 23rd, 2021 4:18PM

Pandemic pivot: NFL guides small businesses in tough times

By The Associated Press
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Lennise Germany’s personal and professional lives were twisted, tangled and turned upside down in a matter of minutes last year.

Germany was sitting in a hospital room with her husband and their 12-year-old son when she got an email that forced her small catering company to temporarily close its doors because of the coronavirus pandemic. What should have been gut-wrenching news barely caused Germany to flinch because doctors had just diagnosed her son with cancer.

No pivot on the planet could make her situation seem anything but dire.

“All of us would be lying if we said we didn’t have some level of fear,” she said.

The months-long hiatus ended up being a blessing for Germany because it gave her the freedom to focus on her son’s health and be on hand for countless rounds of chemotherapy, often every day of the week.

Now, Germany gets to give back to some of those same healthcare workers. Her company, Livy O’s Catering, was awarded a contract to provide food for a pregame tailgate for 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers invited to attend the Super Bowl on Sunday.

The deal was a result of NFL Business Connect, which helps developing companies owned by women, minorities and veterans navigate the Super Bowl procurement process and land deals connected to the big game.

Business Connect spent the last 15 months helping Tampa-area owners prepare for this week, and much like the NFL - and just about everyone else - had to make significant shifts amid the pandemic. Instead of the typical eight or nine in-person sessions designed to help businesses learn how to best write a Request For Proposal and teach them how to get the most out of social media, Business Connect turned to virtual meetings. And instead of the usual hundreds of subcontracts up for grabs relating to the Super Bowl, there were far fewer.

So the goal was the same, although the approach was quite different.

“We had to adjust,” said Stephanie Swanz, owner of empaMamas. “We weren’t even sure the Super Bowl was going to happen, and if it did, in what capacity. We were playing this whole thing by ear.”

Swanz attended all those virtual meetings, spending 60 to 90 minutes on every Zoom call or webinar, and was impressive enough to be offered a chance to provide snack boxes to Super Bowl workers. But Swanz had to turn down the invitation because her two restaurants inside the ultra-popular Armature Works eatery have been so busy in recent weeks.

“I’m sure the Super Bowl and this whole experience here in Tampa would be much different had it not been a time of COVID,” Swanz said.

More than 1,200 businesses in the Tampa area applied to Business Connect, most of them hoping to land a special events contract with the NFL or, at the very least, expand networking reach and develop skills that could lead to greater business success. Only 714 of those met basic eligibility requirements, and just 208 were selected to participate in the program.

Of those businesses chosen during the pandemic, only one changed ownership and dropped out of the eligibility pool.

“The reality is all these businesses know what they do for a living,” said B.J. Waymer, who runs NFL Business Connect. “What we try to do is just add something to their tool kit.”

And most gained a new perspective from the process.

“It was definitely a very worrisome time if you’re an entrepreneur and you invested so much time and so much effort into your business,” said Jessica Eckley, partner and CEO of Crackerjack Media, a public relations and marketing agency that won the bid to work with the host committee. “We’ve made some great connections, people we’ll undoubtedly work with again coming out of this.

“I think that’s been one of our key takeaways. Not just how can we benefit from this Super Bowl and this immediate time frame, but how can we support each other and continue to drive business to each other and support each other.”

Germany welcomed support from anyone and everyone.

When her catering company was allowed to reopen, she scrapped her usual weddings and banquets and pitched to charter schools and private schools. She landed 10 new contracts for the school years, deals that kept the business afloat.

Her business had been eyeing a Super Bowl contract for months and knew that would help. But it was never a given, especially when it looked like the season was teetering at times and when it was clear that coronavirus issues and social distancing rules would limit crowds and stadium capacity.

“It was definitely a roller-coaster of, ‘It’s not gonna happen. OK, it’s happening. OK, it’s not gonna happen. OK, it’s happening. And then finally, oh, shoot, it’s happening soon,’” Germany said.

She secured a letter of agreement last month and started preparing for the most ardent order of her catering career. Even though she had worked with the Department of Agriculture as well as the city, the county and the state, none of those compared to the NFL.

“We’ve got to be even better than good. We’ve got to be great — and in every area of service,” she said. “For the NFL, everything’s got to be on a level that is skyrocketed to the moon and still has to be this tiptop, perfect thing.”

She has everyone pitching in — friends, relatives and all six of her children. They have a motto for the week, one Germany never imagined would ever happen again that devastating day in the hospital.

“It’s going to be fun. No matter how crazy this is about to be, it’s going to be fun,” she said.

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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