EBB & FLOW

Maximize The Downtime Of Your Seasonal Business

Text by Ted Murphy


From the beach, surfing looks easy. You follow the steps and everything will work out. The start of a surf lesson begins on the beach. Your board lays on top of the sand and the instructor walks you through the steps: lie on the board, look back at the wave, paddle, pop up, plant your feet, bend your knees, and lean to steer.

Seven simple steps that will have you falling off the board for the first several days. Surfing is one part skill and one part awareness of the environment. All the waves are different. The wind and current constantly change. Finding your timing and flow takes practice. A surfer needs a willingness to accept changes and allow the environment to guide them.

Like surfing, a seasonal business owner needs to be prepared for the ebb and flow of a season. From running a surf camp to restaurants in a tourist driven area, business fluctuates day to day and season to season.

In a perfect world, customers arrive at evenly spaced intervals allowing a business owner to maximize employee schedules and inventory. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect. An owner must find the balance between the peaks of cash flow and the valleys of minimizing expenses. Digging into your business in the off-season will allow you to discover ways to create a more sustainable business.

Re-evaluate the Plan

Several years ago in the middle of winter, Joey, a kayak tour operator, vacationed on the Caribbean coast of Panama. He spent the month of January kayaking the waters and spending time with his grandmother. Every night after his grandmother went to bed, he wandered into the hotel bar.

Running a seasonal or holiday dependent business means that the business runs for several months, then business slows down or shuts down for some period of time. Unlike businesses that operate year-round, owners of seasonal businesses can usually find time for vacation and reflection.

The off-season is a time to relax, but it also gives time to strategize for the upcoming season. Seasonal business owners often have several months to figure out ways to extend their business, achieve personal missions, and focus on improving the business and its marketing.

Seasonal businesses run a high volume of customers in order to turn a profit and maintain its off-season expenditures. Use this time wisely to gain and retain customers at the start of the season by reviewing the business plan, align business practice with the brand, and expand marketing plans.

One night at the hotel bar, Joey chatted with a fellow American and seasonal business entrepreneur, Rick. As the men talked, Joey expressed his concerns about his business and wasn’t sure what to do. He loved kayaking and offering tours, but the off-season expenses were too much. The previous season’s bad weather had nearly taken down his business.

Rick had recently sold one of his seasonal businesses. For twenty years, he owned a restaurant in Florida and he would close the restaurant every summer when the temperature rose and the snowbirds returned to the north. A few years prior, he considered taking the restaurant mobile with the boom of the food truck industry. He decided against it, but told Joey that he might want to consider going mobile.

For the next week over late night beers, the men banged out a business plan. Joey would continue his business through the season letting all his customers know that the following year his business would be mobile. That summer he also met his now wife, Rose.

Joey and Rose are heading into their second year of their mobile kayaking tours. They are expecting a child in the fall, so they spent this past off-season figuring out how to expand their business.

Guarantee Business

North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a popular destination. It is also home to one of the world’s best surf spots. The beaches stretch for more than 100 miles along the barrier islands that create the eastern coast of North Carolina. The waves range from beginner-friendly to monster waves during storm surges.

Throw a stone in the OBX, what locals and seasonal visitors call the area, and you will find a surf shop. There is one surf shop that stands out. Along the 12-mile stretch of Nags Head, you’ll find Farmdog Surf School.

Robert “Farmdog” Farmer has dedicated his life to natural living and surfing. He grew up in Virginia where he was a talented athlete and scholar. On a trip to the Outer Banks, he tried surfing for the first time and loved the challenge.

In his youth, he worked at a natural food store and ran an organic food delivery service. When his delivery service took off, the distributor stopped selling to Farmer and opened his own delivery business. Farmer decided to move to the Outer Banks and live a beach life. Then in 2002, he opened a surf shop.

In 2007, he and his business partners added a surf school. They offer lessons in surfing and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). Along the way, they also extended the business to include a coffee shop, fresh-pressed juices, fruit smoothies, and a natural food store.

Although they offer lessons year-round, June, July, and August dominate all of their businesses. During the summer months, the surf school has summer camps for kids, teens, and adults. The adult camps were added in 2013 when they kept receiving requests for an adult camp.

Two years before the adult camps began, Farmer received an email asking him to host a camp for cancer survivors. After investigating First Descents, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado, he immediately knew that he needed to work with them.

First Descents offer adult cancer fighter and survivors an opportunity to reclaim their lives with outdoor adventure. The challenges of facing their fears and pushing themselves to their limits provides a chance for them to regain self-efficacy and confidence that may have been lost during their treatments.

The partnership between Farmdog Surf School and First Descents sends up to 15 participants to surf camp. All the accommodations, meals, and surf school are provided to the cancer survivors free of charge through the non-profit. Farmdog is paid for hosting the camp, which guarantees summer business, but it also aligns with Farmer and the Farmdog brand.

All Year Marketing Plan

Seasonal business owners, and small business owners in general, forget that their peak season might only be one slice of the commerce pie. The slower months allow seasonal businesses to maximize their peak season business.

As an owner, you need to take advantage of every opportunity and some opportunities might not be so obvious. Think about the direct sales television channel QVC. They promote Christmas in July because shoppers are already planning their holiday purchases. Seasonal owners tend to miss out on these types of opportunities because they are not planning for them when business is slow.

Shopping guides for potential customers are created months in advance. One clothing company that made a specialty line of winter socks started their marketing campaign in May. The owner of the company knew that holiday shopping guides are put together during the summer months. This means that editors are looking for products to put in the guides during the late spring and early summer.

Another strategy is aligning your business with complementary businesses. Building a marketing co-op with other seasonal businesses in the area to pool advertising money for a big advertising push. Small business owners need to be master guerilla marketers. The best time to create alliances, experiment with new ideas, and brainstorm out of the box ideas is the off-season.

Use the downtime to re-visit your marketing materials and website. Your website should capture email addresses, so you can reach your customers all year long. Write blog posts for the year that promote your business through education. Social media is also a great way to stay in touch and find potential new customers.

Maximize Your Downtime

You are leaving money on the table. It is a matter of finding the places to make extra money during the season without increasing your overhead and expenses.

When the season ends, take a vacation and refresh your mind. Allow your mind to explore ways to increase business during the season. Then, immediately start planning the following year. You should reach out to your previous customers and thank them for a successful season or offer them a discount for the next season.

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