Running a Seasonal Business

Making Use of Free Time

The off-season is also a time for seasonal business owners to handle the important decisions that'll affect business the upcoming season. 'From a managerial standpoint, I try to break the business into two interrelated areas, the business side and the operational side,' says Ron Weinhold, general manager and head of operations at two Cal Ripkin baseball camps and tournament facilities in Aberdeen, Maryland, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "The height of activity on the sales side is between October and June, and the height of activity on the operations side is between March and October. So even though our business is considered seasonal, it's very much a year-round operation, with key decisions made during the winter months."

The camps are also slightly different from some other seasonal businesses because of increased cash flow during the months preceding the camps. While the official camp season is visibly the busiest, off-season registration generates the bulk of their income.

Switching Gears in the Off-Season
Although many seasonal business owners are able to ride the revenue wave through the off-season months, some owners opt to switch gears. Whether it's to maintain more consistent cash flow, better utilize a retail location or create a little peace of mind, some seasonal business owners have alternate plans for the off-season.

The Christmas Dove stores in Barrington, New Hampshire; Ogunquit, Maine; Boston; and New Orleans, don't close down after the holiday, but instead undergo a transformation, capitalizing on consumers' interest in decorating for other holidays throughout the year.

"Halloween has become huge with people decorating their homes inside and out, going to parties and giving gifts," explains Garth Svenson, who now runs the family-owned business started by his parents. "People also decorate for Valentine's Day and put up lights for St. Patrick's Day and the Fourth of July."

Supplementing the biggest annual shopping holiday without straying too far and losing the Christmas store following has been a balancing act. But by taking advantage of consumer demands, they've been able to turn what was primarily a Christmas business into a year-round celebratory store.

Jan Axel, a long-time sculptor who took to landscaping after moving from Manhattan to South Salem, New York, supplements her Delphinium Design landscaping business with holiday decorating services. 'As a landscape designer, I found it got very slow in the winter, so a colleague and I started doing holiday decorating,' Axel explains. Together, the two started Cirque de Botanica, a separate holiday design business. 'It was a natural spin-off, and the immediate gratification makes it very appealing. A lot of what we do as landscapers takes so much time; sometimes it's years before we see a finished product mature.

Besides filling a creative niche, Axel's off-season business also bridges the gap between the planning and design phases--which can take place in the fall--and spring and summer, when her planting crews are out in force, sculpting a wide range of residential gardens and landscapes.

The Year-Round View
With 13 stores in seven Eastern states, selling outdoor patio furniture peaks for retailer during the spring as warm weather approaches. Then, as the weather cools and entertaining moves inside, there's a drop in sales.

To avoid having to lay off any of its full-time employees during the slow season, 10 years ago the company began offering top-of-the line pool, ping pong and foosball tables, as well as bars, barstools, and bar tables and chairs in their store showrooms during the fall and winter, transforming a seasonal business into a year-round enterprise.

In fact, the off-season pool table business has become so successful that has become the world's largest Brunswick Pool Table dealer. 'It's taken a tremendous amount of work and a lot of training, but we've been able to turn from a seasonal company into a successful year-round business,' says the company's co-CEO Mitchell Ross. "All the salespeople have become experts in both patio furniture and pool tables. Our entire delivery staff now knows how to do pool table assembly and repair." In fact, they've been so successful at blending patio furniture and pool tables that Ross has wondered whether they should now call the business ''

Whether your seasonal business is one that sustains you through the year or requires an off-season transition, it can provide great diversity--and even a little downtime--if you master the art of careful planning, scheduling and pacing yourself for the full calendar year.

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Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of more than 50 nonfiction books, including several on starting a business. He hails from Westchester, New York, where he lives with his family.

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