In Season

Making The Most Of It

Not every entrepreneur wants to eliminate downtime, of course. For some, the slow season offers a time to take stock of their business's progress or handle other tasks that get pushed aside during the rush.

Hexter has avoided buying his own printing machines because of business cycles. "I could have a lot of [machines] in my shop that I own and that I'd have to keep busy," he says. Instead, he prefers to contract out the printing, with his 85-person company acting as a broker.

"If it's slow, I'll go out and play a round of golf or put on the answering machine and go out and make sales calls," Hexter says. "If I had a lot of [machines], I couldn't do that."

Other companies use downtimes for employee training sessions or even for a planned business shutdown. When in doubt, ingenuity helps. One particularly slow November, Van de Putte asked employees for suggestions on what to do. "I said, `We really don't have a lot of stuff going on. What would you like to do?' They got real creative and started making Christmas ornaments," he recalls. "It was something to keep them busy, and it generated extra cash."

Creativity was the key for the Staveleys, whose problem was that they couldn't expand during their downtime because there was no business to expand into. The whitewater rafting season is set according to federal guidelines, Joy Staveley explains, so they can't start early. And they can't keep their lodge open in November because the other businesses in the park that might help draw customers and support volume are closed then.

Back when their winter ski operation was just getting off the ground and hadn't yet begun producing much cash, the quandary kept Joy, the company's COO, up at night. She dreamed of a schedule that would pay the bills year-round for the Flagstaff, Arizona-based company and keep her from having to give up the precious part-time employees she hires every summer and fall. The Staveleys' firm employs around 50 people at peak season--in midsummer--and about half that in the winter season. The couple used to have to take out bridge loans guaranteed by the mortgage on their house to keep the business afloat from November through February.

Consultants for businesses that are based on weather advise doing whatever you can to insulate the business from the downtimes--and even surges--caused by the weather. "The first thing you've got to do is analyze the circumstance that your business creates," says John Frado, founder of Nordic Group International, the Winchester, New Hampshire, recreation facilities consulting firm the Staveleys hired to devise a master plan for improving business at their cross-country ski center and country store. "Study the peaks and demand." Then, Frado says, find ways to use your facilities to capacity even if weather conditions aren't ideal.

Frado advised the Staveleys to winterize their summer lodge so it could double as their wintertime Nordic Center, expanding their ski season capacity. He also suggested expanding their peak summer season even more by using temporary shelters, called "yurts," to house overflow visitors. The Staveleys are also adding more rooms to make both winter and summer seasons more profitable.

Finally, Frado suggested the Staveleys expand beyond their traditional business to offer additional recreational activities such as mountain biking and horseback riding, or add educational programs where guests could learn about plants, astronomy or photography, or even go on archaeological digs.

As receipts have improved, Joy Staveley says, she has begun to view November differently. Instead of downtime, she now sees it as a time for planning, marketing, employee vacations and needed repairs on her various facilities.

She's also realized that her seasonal staffing problem wasn't really a problem at all. Once the ski center began bringing in more money and she was able to offer her summer part-time workers winter jobs there, she discovered they didn't really want year-round work and viewed their off-season as a perk rather than a problem.

Freed from her worries, Joy Staveley realized she could make her employees happier by paying them better during the months they do work for her. Now that the ski center is producing crucial extra cash, she and her husband have raised pay and benefits, particularly for their few year-round workers. And today, Joy actually looks forward to her downtime.

"It's a great relief to have a month on either end [of the season] when we can catch our breath and see where we're heading," Joy Staveley says. "What used to be a real problem has become a real breathing space."

And sometimes, a little space for creativity is all you need. "The biggest shortfall in American business is the lack of fun, the lack of humor," says Frado. "Have fun with it. Creativity is an outstanding tool when you're pushed into a corner--or a slow season.

Try it, and you'll agree with Joy Staveley: "Downtime has actually helped our business."

Jonathan Sapers lives in New York City and has written for numerous national and local publications.

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This article was originally published in the September 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: In Season.

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