— Middleburg has responded to the coronavirus pandemic with inventive solutions, from changing business practices to new local government programs. That was the message of the Middleburg Business and Professional Association’s first virtual Biz Buzz, held Sept. 8.

The Biz Buzz, hosted by Old Ox Brewery, served to highlight many of the characteristics that make Middleburg special: the entrepreneurial attitude of the town’s business owners, the small-town spirit of neighbors helping neighbors, and more.

“These are unique, challenging times, and one in which I am very proud to say the town and the community have risen to overcome these challenges in the most heroic ways,” said Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton. “It’s a sense of joy to see everybody come together and helping out each and every member of our community in the best way possible.”

The Town of Middleburg, which launched a restaurant voucher program and offered partial reimbursement to retail shops offering discounts during the pandemic, continues to look for ways to assist Middleburg’s business community. Next up: the Town is turning its attention to ways to help Middleburg’s dining establishments as the weather becomes cooler and affects outdoor dining.

Littleton encouraged businesses to bring their ideas for addressing that issue to Town officials. “Government is not good at running businesses, you all are good at running your businesses, so no idea is unreasonable. Please bring it to us,” he said.

Beth Erickson, president and CEO of Visit Loudoun, noted that the pandemic hit the county’s hospitality industry particularly hard, but the support of local officials has been key to the industry’s rebound. (You can download Erickson’s PowerPoint presentation here.)

The “support of our elected officials in recognizing the importance of our industry to our communities has been really incredible and I will say that I think in many ways Middleburg has led that charge,” she said. “And I’m incredibly proud of what the town has done and their innovation to really make sure that our businesses were supported.”

Local efforts

One of the businesses that demonstrated ingenuity during these changing times is Biz Buzz host Old Ox Brewery. As concerns about the virus led to the shutdown of both of Old Ox’s tasting rooms and its restaurant partners in March, Old Ox suddenly had 80% of its revenue disappear overnight.

In response, Old Ox found new ways to distribute its signature brews, including home delivery and curbside pick-up, and new uses for its tanks, as the brewery switched to producing hand sanitizer. Chris Burns, president and CEO of Old Ox, noted that Middleburg’s voucher program was also instrumental in the brewery’s ability to continue its operations.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and I can’t say that I’m happy at all with the pandemic and how it’s impacted every local business, but I can say that there have been some good things for us to come out of it,” Burns said. “I am an eternal optimist. We were forced to innovate, but some of the things that we’ve implemented will probably stick with us long after this pandemic is over.”

One of the innovations Old Ox experimented with as the pandemic took hold was promotional videos on Facebook, including the use of an inflatable shark in the background of one video to draw people’s attention. The video became so popular, Burns said, that Old Ox decided to incorporate the shark into its home delivery program, allowing customers to pay an additional fee to have the inflatable shark deliver beer to their home.

“What we quickly discovered was that it wasn’t that we were delivering beer, we were delivering joy,” Burns said. “We were doing something more than the product we created, and I think that was kind of a key to us surviving and thriving.”

MBPA has also been active promoting Middleburg online, said MBPA President Punkin Lee. MBPA’s Visit Middleburg reaches more than 6,000 followers on Facebook, 3,300 on Instagram and 530 on Twitter, she noted. MBPA’s Facebook ads reached more than 34,000 people, and the website had 26,700 users with almost 64,000 page views from March 1-Aug. 31. With the help of Forthright Films, MBPA also produced two promotional videos during that time, which garnered nearly 40,000 views, Lee said.

Additionally, Middleburg businesses continue to earn national and statewide recognition. The Red Fox Inn & Tavern and Goodstone Inn & Restaurant both received Wine Spectator‘s Restaurant Award, and Old Ox won gold for their Black Ox and Sight Seer Saison beers in the Virginia Craft Beer Cup. Several Middleburg businesses were featured as Virginia Living magazine’s “Best of Virginia,” including Salamander Resort & Spa, Red Fox and Native Barre, as well as several runner-ups, including The Jackson Clinics, The White Elephant, Briar Patch Bed & Breakfast Inn, Christmas in Middleburg and Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery.

MBPA has also kept busy by continuing to keep visitors informed of happenings in town. Although events are still limited, Lee said the MBPA calendar of events is full of things to do and see, including the Phyllis Mills Wyeth exhibition at the National Sporting Library & Museum, an in-person and virtual exhibit that runs through Jan. 3, 2021.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, Visit Loudoun CEO Beth Erickson noted that there are positive signs for the tourism industry. A recent Destination Analysts survey showed that more than half of American travelers are ready to start traveling again, and the majority of those travelers are looking for a vacation or weekend getaway within 539 miles of their home, she said.

One key to attracting visitors in the future will be Middleburg’s commitment to safe business practices. “One of the things that I think is really, really important is [visitors’] expectation is that [COVID-19] safety protocols are going to be in place,” said Erickson.

Mayor Bridge Littleton echoed that sentiment. “I really want to thank all the businesses for working as hard as you have to ensure that the safety protocols put in by the Department of Health are enforced, not only in making sure seating is 6 feet apart, but also making sure that all of your patrons wear masks, providing hand sanitizer, providing masks,” he said. “It is so crucially important that we continue to do that — that is what is going to help us beat this virus and, at the end of the day, overcome it quicker.”

Erickson noted that many Middleburg businesses are among the 800 Loudoun businesses that have signed the “Loudoun is Ready” pledge committing to the best health and safety practices. Visit Loudoun has also developed a business toolkit to ensure that businesses have the information they need to provide the best service to their customers during the pandemic. Additional assistance has come through Visit Loudoun’s Tourism & Hospitality Relief Fund, which has raised and distributed more than $105,000 to support Loudoun tourism industry professionals impacted by shutdowns and furloughs as a result of COVID-19.

In terms of financial aid, there are also still opportunities for businesses affected by COVID to apply for grants. Jamie Gaucher, Middleburg’s business and economic development director, noted that the Rebuild VA! small business grant program is still accepting applications for grants of up to $10,000 and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve additional funding for the COVID-19 Business Interruption Fund. Businesses interested in learning more about these programs should contact Gaucher at 540-687-5152 or jgaucher@middleburgva.gov.

The Town of Middleburg is also expecting to launch a new marketing campaign to promote Middleburg in the next month. One significant change to Middleburg’s tourism efforts this year will be a shift in Christmas in Middleburg activities. Rather than the usual weekend-long festivities that typically draw thousands of visitors, this year’s focus will be a series of smaller events throughout the holiday period, Gaucher said.

Other upcoming events of note include the Middleburg Film Festival (Oct. 15-18), which will be a virtual festival combined with outdoor, socially-distanced screenings. The outdoor, evening film screenings will include at least one drive-in and a large screen on the grand lawn of the Salamander Resort in Middleburg. Both the virtual and outdoor screenings will feature the carefully curated slate that MFF’s filmgoers have come to expect — including “Oscar buzz” films, international features, independent gems and fascinating documentaries.

We hope to see you at our next virtual Biz Buzz, which will be hosted by Nature Composed in October!