Becoming sustainable: Toronto’s Bateman’s Bike Co., Oakdale Golf and Country Club, The Big Chill, make seasonal businesses work
When Rob Bateman and his crew at Bateman’s Bike Co. spread word of their early bird tune-up promo via social media, they weren’t expecting a 20 degree March.
“It was a bit of a pain because the weather turned so nice so early,” says the owner. “But the year before it was a snowy March, so we’re very grateful.”
It was supposed to generate business during a slow time, but the nice weather meant a staggering number of cyclists looking for tune-ups, and they all wanted the discount.
So it goes in the world of seasonal businesses, where sales are often at the mercy of the weatherman’s predictions.
Ron Burke, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Studies at the Schulich school of Business, says seasonal businesses need to have a solid business plan in place
“Businesses need to plan for the potential down time,” says Burke.
Bateman, for his part, says he uses winter downtime efficiently, keeping a few staff members on to help with the company “to do” list.
“I love the bike season and being prosperous when we can be, but I also really like the winter,” he says, adding that he and his staff keep a running tally of winter projects they plow through during slow times. It includes everything from reordering and restocking shelves to tuning up used bikes they’ve acquired over the season.
And although the short season hasn’t left a lot of downtime for Bateman, it was a good year for the business overall.
Herb Pirk, General Manager of the Oakdale Golf and Country Club, also had a great summer thanks to a warm March kick-starting the golf season almost two months early.
“You play with (the season changes), but when you’re in the business and it comes to opening a month ahead, you’ll never be prepared,” says Pirk, who’s managed the course for 10 years.
He says training and recruitment has many challenges when it’s accelerated, leaving just a few short weeks to bring 250 seasonal staff up to speed. Making the process even harder is the fact that Oakdale’s off-season is already packed with work to prepare for the next season.
“All of the equipment gets torn down and rebuilt and sharpened and maintained,” says Pirk.
That work costs money, and with most revenue coming in at summer’s start, cash must be budgeted wisely to ensure upkeep funds remain available. But the club does also draw in off-season dollars by hosting business events and parties for its 1600 members. It also caters to those loyal patrons during the winter with massage therapy and fitness facilities.
“It’s not a revenue source – it’s a service we provide the members because it’s a service that they’re looking forward to,” he adds.
Knud Jensen, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Business Management, says running a seasonal business takes diligent budgeting and careful cash flow management. And, he says, location also plays a major role.
“You can go in Yorkdale and get shopped out and want an ice cream,” he says. “You don’t want to walk out on Avenue Road in the middle of the winter and want an ice cream.”
And if seasonality bites too hard, says Burke, some businesses may be able to offer their space to other businesses during the slow months. But if subletting space isn’t a viable option, Jensen says fostering a sense of loyalty can help businesses weather downtimes.
“You want a core set of customers who are loyal through the year,” he says.
Sam Santino, owner of The Big Chill – an old-fashioned ice cream parlour in Toronto’s Little Italy – says his challenges have little to with staff, and are more about finding ways to market a cold treat in the winter.
“During the winter time our business goes right down — we need to really work to stay alive,” says Santino. “The month of October it gets very bad because that’s when the weather is changing.”
The Big Chill draws in revenue during slow months with daily specials and by filling weekends with birthday parties and other events. Plus, says Santino, once customers get used to the mid-winter cold, they generally start coming back.
But while engaging customers is crucial, keeping staff loyal is just as important.
Oakdale retains 50 full-time workers to operate the clubhouse and prep for the summer. When summertime rolls around, the course has a unique plan for retaining its 250 seasonal staff.
“We hire most of our kids (for caddy and on-course jobs) from the local Jane and Finch community,” says Pirk. “Part of what we do is support these kids in their educations — each is eligible for 500 dollars a year (as a scholarship).”
Bateman also likes to reward his six or seven seasonal staff by keeping the best half of them on through the winter.
“When they commit to you really well during the peak season, you want to help them,” he says. “It’s okay having staff working when it’s really quiet – there’s lots of work to do.”