RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Companies around the world have adapted to face the coronavirus pandemic, laying off swaths of workers, shifting employees to telework and holding off on plans made before the virus changed the way business is done.
Amidst these changes, the Greater Richmond Partnership, an economic development non-profit organization representing the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico, continues to recruit businesses to come to the region.
In a conversation with 8News, Jennifer Wakefield, interim president and CEO of GRP, addressed how that effort has changed during the pandemic, what executives think about the market in the Richmond area and how the region can attract more companies moving forward.
Wakefield believes that while there is enthusiasm for the Richmond area, more can be done to market the region. She highlighted research conducted by the nonprofit that looked into how executives perceive the market and area.
“And what they told us is that they just don’t know enough about Richmond,” she said in an interview. “So, you know, essentially neither the state, nor our region had been marketing to the same level as these other regions that are nearby and receive a lot of attention right here in the Richmond market.”
“We like to talk about how great, you know, Nashville is, right? And how great, you know, Charlotte and Raleigh are, right? They’re spending a great deal of money to market the region. We have not prioritized marketing the region to the extent that I think that we need to.”
Wakefield noted that companies and site location consultants raised concerns over whether Richmond is a welcoming and inclusive environment, citing national headlines surrounding the Confederate monuments in the area.
And regarding the region’s accolades for dining and entertain, Wakefield shared that those messages have helped tourism, but not the GRP’s efforts.
“We’ve received a number of those accolades, which really help propel our tourism industry. It hasn’t necessarily translated to the business executives,” she said. “And so Richmond really kind of was a blank slate prior to this year.”
Excerpts from our Q&A with Wakefield are transcribed below.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to adapt. How has the Greater Richmond Partnership changed how it works?
“Greater Richmond Partnership is the lead regional economic development organization. So our role is to proactively go out and find businesses that are not currently located here and recruit them to the market. Now, typically how we do that is we would identify companies within what we call targeted industry clusters, like bio sciences and manufacturing data centers.
“And we would then go and meet with them in person in their offices, all over the world, right, to try and establish a relationship, we would then try and court them to come here. Obviously, everything has shifted to a digital format, you know, as we’re talking on zoom today and not in person. So we have shifted it to a digital format.
“What that means is that the whole what’s called site selection process of how companies select their next location is being done much more online now, especially with the pandemic. And so what we know is that companies are now, when they’re selecting a site, it used to be that they would narrow down a short list where there were a handful of companies, let’s say five or five different locations.
“Now it’s, you’re in the top two locations if they decide to come and do an in-person visit at all. And some companies are actually making a decision without actually stepping foot there.”
Wakefield discusses how the region can utilize office space in the age of teleworking and why companies are looking at midsize cities like Richmond
“It’s very different. So, we first started talking about the site location site tours, and typically if a company would select a location, they would come sometimes two or three times right now. It’s one time. So prior to that, we will conduct a virtual tour, what we’ll do through Zoom. And we will go do a walkthrough, you know, of buildings and different assets throughout the region.
“Overall, when it comes to office space, however, what we’re seeing, obviously across the country and including here in our RVA, a lot of companies are deciding that at least a portion of their workforce are now going to permanently work from home. And so what that’s going to do is it is going to open up some office availability.
“So they’re not going to necessarily utilize all the office space that they previously had. That’s going to open up some subleasing opportunities and that’s good for our region because previously, the greater Richmond region didn’t have enough office space to accommodate the client demand that we had.
“And so we were being passed by because we didn’t have that space. Now I think that we’re going to be looked at more so because we will have more office space. But what’s kind of in the larger picture is that companies that are predominantly located in these very large cities are now looking to midsize cities.
“And they’re saying that midsize cities like Richmond, Virginia are going to be the recipient of this inward investment.”
On how the region’s promising tourism industry has not enticed companies to move to the area
“Richmond had some extensive national media coverage in 2020 as well as a number of other cities, you know, throughout the region. And so, in 2018, we did a perception analysis of what C suite executives and site location consultants who were involved in about half of all those decisions — what they think about the market.
“What we found is that Richmond, for the most part, really wasn’t on their radar, even though we’ve received these really fantastic accolades for the, you know, really great, food and beverage scene that we have here, all the great outdoor things that there are to do.
“We’ve received a number of those accolades, which really help propel our tourism industry. It hasn’t necessarily translated to the business executives. And so Richmond really kind of was a blank slate prior to this year. And so right now we are conducting a new, perception analysis among C-level executives to find out what their perceptions are of the market right now.”
Wakefield addresses the effort to market the region and concerns over whether it is a “welcoming and inclusive environment”
“The perception research that we did in 2018 was quantitative. So it just gave us a number. And so based on that information, we went through and did a qualitative analysis as well, just with the site location consultants, because they are touching a number of projects. So companies involved them on their decisions.
“And what they told us is that they just don’t know enough about Richmond. So, you know, essentially, neither the state, nor our region had been marketing to the same level as these other regions that are nearby and receive a lot of attention here in the Richmond market. We like to talk about how great, you know, Nashville is, right? And how great, you know, Charlotte and Raleigh are, right?
“They’re spending a great deal of money to market the region. We have not prioritized marketing the region to the extent that I think that we need to. But, you know, you were separately asking, you know, this summer, the attention to some extent the protest, but more so the attention of the monuments.
“And the concern over is this a welcoming and inclusive environment. That’s the concern from businesses. And so there have been a few, companies and site location consultants who have questioned us since the summer. And so we want to do all that we can to show that, you know, we are absolutely a diverse and inclusive community.
“I think 2021 is a great year for us to tell that message to business executives and beyond.”
On what she is looking forward to in the new year
“I’m looking forward to working closer with our community partners, you know, than we ever have before in order to get Richmond on the short list, much more often. So that businesses decide to locate in this market. So we don’t want, you know, the perception of Richmond to be, you know, what was deemed at one point a blank slate.
“We want to fill in, what and who our community is and why businesses should locate their operations here.”