Martha’s Vineyard Bank’s much-needed lift

Waterside Market
“Lift certificates” helped Waterside Market in Vineyard Haven, Mass., stay open and keep staff employed.

A subsidized gift certificate program boosted Martha’s Vineyard Bank’s local economy after COVID-19 threatened to decimate its tourist revenue.

By Margaret Littman

“It is rare that you hear a bank plan to lose money,” laughs James Anthony. While he wasn’t trying to hurt the bottom line, he was, like leaders at many community banks, looking at innovative ways to help clients cope with 2020. Rather than a loss, he sees it as an investment.

Anthony is president and CEO of $845 million-asset Martha’s Vineyard Bank, the only bank based on the island. In March, when the coronavirus hit and travel declined, Anthony knew that his Massachusetts community’s businesses were at real economic risk. As largely seasonal businesses, they depend on tourists between Memorial Day and Labor Day. While temporarily shuttered businesses everywhere were trying to figure out how to bounce back, the risks to seasonal businesses were particularly acute. “They have to get all the way through to next summer,” he says.

At the same time, he and Christine (CJ) Conrad, vice president of marketing and solution development at the community bank, noticed that “altruistic individuals were going out and purchasing gift certificates. And we thought, ‘Let’s make that a real thing.’”

So, the bank created what it calls “lift certificates,” essentially gift certificates with an extra lift for local entrepreneurs. Participating businesses agreed to offer gift certificates at a discount as an incentive to customers who wanted to support their summer favorites. The business chose the discount, and based on the amount, Martha’s Vineyard Bank matched a portion of the discount. For example, if a restaurant offered 20% off, the bank matched that with another 20%. The customer therefore paid $60 for $100 worth of future food, and the restaurant received $80 (the $60 that the customer paid and $20 kicked in from the community bank).

Martha’s Vineyard Bank already had its own merchant processing, so it took less than a week to set up the online store, Conrad says. Purchases were made through a subdomain of the bank’s website and sent to the businesses on a weekly basis.

Boost for businesses

The first lift certificate was sold on April 13, and within the first two months, the program generated more than $350,000 in sales for more than 100 participating businesses on Martha’s Vineyard and in neighboring Falmouth. Shoppers were locals, as well as those with second homes on the island who want to support their summer staples.

When he got the first email about the program, restaurant owner and bank customer Stephen Bowen thought it was a proactive thing the community bank was doing to try to create revenue for small businesses, but “I honestly did not realize how successful it would be,” he says. Bowen, with his wife, Susan Bowen, owns the casual Waterside Market and La Soffitta, an Italian restaurant above the market. They had been selling gift cards to regular customers before the lift certificates were an option. “We have been amazed by everyone’s generosity,” he says.

“I was amazed how many we sold,” he adds. “Demand was great, and that really helped keep people employed.” Waterside Market stayed open for takeout orders and eventually reopened for outdoor dining but the higher-end La Soffitta closed temporarily before reopening for outdoor dining.

The Bowens promoted the offer through social media, primarily Facebook, using the Martha’s Vineyard Bank link.

“I have never seen a bank, local or national, do something like this,” Bowen says. Other participating businesses included spas, hotels, art galleries and boutiques. Businesses selected dollar amounts that made sense; for example, a photographer had a higher base price than a restaurant.

The bank budgeted $125,000 for the program, calculating that this would lead to a $625,000 total boost for small businesses between the bank’s donations and the customers’ purchases. Unlike traditional gift cards, where the funds live on the card until they are redeemed, the lift certificate money went to the businesses almost immediately.

“In seven weeks, we generated more than $330,000 in revenue in an oceanside community. That gets you up in the morning to go to work.”
—James Anthony, Martha’s Vineyard Bank

The lift certificates were just one way that Martha’s Vineyard Bank and the Martha’s Vineyard Bank Charitable Foundation helped those affected by COVID-19. The bank committed more than $625,000 toward recovery and safety efforts, including making coronavirus testing available to anyone, regardless of insurance or ability to pay.

Anthony is the type of CEO who doesn’t like to be the center of attention, so he was “terribly embarrassed” when he got shout-outs and “thank yous” when he was standing in line at the post office and the grocery store. But he’s also proud of what the community bank has been able to do in difficult times. “This has changed our relationship with customers in a remarkable way,” he says. “In seven weeks, we generated more than $330,000 in revenue in an oceanside community. That gets you up in the morning to go to work. That’s almost mission banking.”

Margaret Littman is a writer in Tennessee.