Take a pandemic and mix in an unprecedented college football season with limits on fans in the stands and zero tailgating.

It’s a recipe for trouble for small businesses nationwide that rely heavily on sales from college football fans, university alumni, and friends and families who flock to cities and towns each fall. It’s no different in Blacksburg, where the economic hit to businesses could be more than $69 million, which is Virginia Tech football’s projected economic impact locally, according to a 2014-15 analysis of football operations and visiting fans. 

But there is a bright spot in this story. A group of Virginia Tech alumni and Hokie fans who all live in the New River and Roanoke valleys have designed a mobile method to help boost sales for businesses in Blacksburg. 

In August, Jeff Werner ’95, who works for a Blacksburg blockchain company, gathered 12 friends and former colleagues, all with skills in mobile and web development. They spent their nights and weekends working to create an app, called Localyte, through which people can purchase gift cards at participating Blacksburg restaurants, boutiques, yoga studios, hotels, and others.

“We worked insanely long days to get this built,” Werner said. “But it’s something that everybody on the team believes in.”

It all began with a question.

“We asked ‘what can we do to help get in front of all these out-of-town parents, alumni, and fans who can’t come here, and say ‘invest in a future visit,’” said Kyle Thompson, who is spokesman for Localyte and a 2006 Virginia Tech graduate who works in product development.

There are more than 20 businesses currently listed on the app, which is available on Apple and Android devices. The list continues to grow.

“We really wanted it to be available for any kind of business,” Thompson said.

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Still, the requirement is that each business on the app must be local and small, with no more than 15 locations.

Unlike traditional gift cards, the money from each Localyte purchase goes directly to the business at the time of the sale, though purchases include a transaction fee that primarily shifts to the credit card company. Businesses do not have to wait for customers to redeem the gift cards in order for the funds to land in their account.

Also, creating a mobile purchasing app eases people’s fears of physically going into a store or restaurant, which is a concern during the pandemic, Werner said.

“The root cause is that businesses need cash flow and with a lot of these ideas, like [traditional] gift cards, the money sits in a bank in escrow until the customer can go into the store [to redeem the card],” Werner said. “But if the customer could go into the store, we wouldn't have the problem to begin with.”

With Localyte, customers’ gift card purchases save in the app. They scan a QR code that reveals proof of purchase when they present the card to the business.

Since Localyte’s launch in October, Blacksburg residents, out-of-town alumni, and even parents of Virginia Tech students have used the app to make gift card purchases. The app already has generated several thousand dollars for participating businesses, Werner said.

That includes In Balance Yoga in Blacksburg, which is offering a promotion through the app for a 10-class package at $10 a class.

“It helped us to promote that we are open,” said owner Nicole Fitzwater LaFon, explaining that the gift card purchases can be used for virtual and in-person classes at the studio.“It’s just a really sweet thing about our community that there are people out there who are thinking about our situation and want to help contribute.”

As the concept surrounding Localyte continues to grow, it could be a model for other cities and towns that rely on sales from college football fans. In fact, Werner said he’s already talking with localities in other states about signing on with Localyte.

“We built the core product around the needs in Blacksburg, which we feel like will transfer to other markets,” he said.

Still, the Localyte team’s primary motivation is a love for Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. While Werner and Thompson, both natives of Northern Virginia, took jobs in large cities after college, they have since returned to Blacksburg because they said they value the region’s quality of life.

“We’ve done this because we think we can help our town,” Thompson said.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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