How to Build Your Customer Base During the Summer Months

As we hit the midst of summer, I find myself contemplating why summer patterns are so different than winter patterns. Our sales year is very busy from November to February, has a busy week in March when the kids are out of school, and dies down the rest of the year. I think that's what they mean by the ice skating business being seasonal. Our business pattern changes once the kids are out of school.

Day parts possess different character in the summer. Usually, in the winter, nights and weekends are busy and the days are very slow. Once the kids get out of school in the summer, the pattern shifts 180o with plenty of business in the morning, slow weekends and slow nights. Thinking back, a long time ago, I realize this pattern has not been here forever. When I first started managing the rink, summers were just plain dead slow. So what, you may ask, is the difference?

The answer lies within identifying possible business and then building that business up through effective marketing. Effective marketing is different now, than in the past. In the past, Ice Rinks would advertise in the newspaper, or on TV and hope for the best. Today, marketers wonder why no one ever seems to read a newspaper anymore. As far as TV goes, there are so many channels now, that a promoter can't corner an audience anymore. We also have modern marketing techniques including email, social Networking and online web sites. Today's marketing strategies lie within the area of segmentation.

Segmentation is identifying characteristics held by many people who are likely to use the goods or services you are trying to promote. In our Learn to Skate business, a good demographic is mothers ages 25 to 40. For our Rock and Skate teen skate party, the demographic is kids aged 11 to 16. Quite a few of our customers are outside those two demographics, which is fine. Sometimes marketers include household incomes in their segmentation. Segmentation just identifies likely customers based on common characteristics. The common characteristics combined create an inclination to purchase the product or service.

Once the perceptive marketer identifies the segments, the next step is to promote the goods or services where the target market is likely to listen. Today, the major choices are Buy One Get One free sites (Groupon, Google Offers, Living Social, and a myriad of other copycat sites), e-mail blasts, social marketing, Adwords, and any Web 2.0 method. The melding of segmentation and marketing is referred to as the practice of target marketing.

However, sometimes when the summer business is nonexistent, target marketing is not enough: we have to make new markets. I had the same situation in the first rink I managed. We had literally nothing going on in the summer. I went in everyday to a black building at 3 pm. I thought about Hockey Schools and how our ice would be a good fit with people who run camps. I decided my target market would be camp operators, went out and bought a copy of the Hockey News, and proceeded to contact every summer camp advertising in the issue. In those days, I sent letters. Today we call this direct mail, which is a very successful tool that I will discuss in a later blog. The letters consisted of an introduction, description of the rink, and a brief description of the clientele. The final paragraph had a call to action. I was delighted when the first calls came in, and then I called everyone I had sent letters to seeing if I could help with their decision process.

Perseverance is an important attribute in this part of the process. Sometimes I have to just keep trying when I don't get a response. In two years, we went from no ice rented to 9 weeks of ice rented. This was a very successful application of the segmentation concept combined with rethinking an existing product. Segmentation, new products, and promotion together create target marketing.

The process boils down into simple steps:

  1. Identify Day Parts or areas that need help
  2. Identify where market formation would help
  3. Create a new product or revamp an existing product
  4. Identify a market segment
  5. Promote to the target segmentation (and persevere if at first you don't succeed)
  6. Run a great program! If the program is terrible, no one will come back.

When I arrived at Lloyd Center Ice Rink, the company (not Rink Management) already offered an in-house summer camp. Upper management named the camp Kool Kamp. Kamp lasted a half day with various ice-centered kids' activities. Quite a few of the activities were all about competitive skating. We did this camp each year for perhaps three weeks over the summer. I quickly discovered most weeks were cancelled for lack of participation. When Rink Management came in, my team and I decided to revamp the camp since Rink Management was willing to let us be creative. We first checked our state laws, determined that we could offer an athletic camp, and then set about designing an all day camp for beginning skaters. Before you knew it, I had a licensed teacher on the staff, we bought crafts and kids started to sign up. Our target market was Learn to Skate students aged 6 to 12 years of age. We promoted directly to that group of customers. We had to make sure everyone on staff talked about the camp and even if someone said 'no' we made sure they received direct mail on the camp. We had to persevere in the face of the first refusal. We offered Kool Kamp 9 weeks in the summer and most weeks were overfull rather than lack of enrollments creating cancellations. When regular customers came in, the large number of kids with camp uniforms on the ice startled them. The camp quickly filled and the summer ice was no longer slow.

The key to creating business in the summer is identifying target segments and creating a program to fulfill the targeted consumers' desires. Promote the new program to the target segment and now you are practicing target marketing. Once an ice rink gets busy in the summers with good programs, customers will come back year after year. Once you've broken the string of slow summers, your business pattern will change the rink into an exciting center point to people's lives, even in the summer!

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