How Seasonal Businesses are Preparing for a Shortened Season

Disruption and chaos in the economy affect every business, but seasonal businesses feel the pinch even more. Most of us are aware of how year-round businesses are struggling to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but seasonal businesses have a unique challenge facing them: their window of financial opportunity just got smaller.

Seasonal businesses naturally have a shortened time span to make most or all of their income. They tend to be destination vacations or about the experience, and so what they offer doesn’t easily translate into alternative virtual versions that other businesses have been able to turn to. These are the restaurants, amusement parks, museums, farmer’s markets, crafts, and ice cream and fudge shops that we love to visit, all facing a great unknown.

The looming shortened season could be catastrophic. But, with preparation, a seasonal business can survive (or even thrive) that smaller window of opportunity.

Know Your Foundations And Goals

As a business owner, you know you can’t get to a goal if you don’t know where you’re starting from. You have built a foundation based on data, budgets, and experience, and you use that to know what goals are reasonable and how to get there.

Disruption might change your foundation and your goal, but it doesn’t change your need for them.

Readjust your goal.

Your goal in past years has likely been profit and growth. There’s no saying that isn’t going to happen this year, but you may need to change your goal in order to be able to think differently about planning for a shortened season.

Last year’s goal, with a normal season, might not work this year. You may have had a particular goal regarding profit, for example. You might not only have to change the profit goal but rethink it entirely.

Profit is great, but you may need to adjust your goal to survival.

You don’t want to run in the red, but you do want to survive for another year. If your goal is survival, not profit, you’ll be able to think differently about needs, requirements, and budgets.

Find out where you stand.

No good decision comes out of a lack of information, especially in a crisis. You might be so used to your seasonal business requirements that you almost operate on autopilot. This situation is different.

When it isn’t business as usual, you need to gather fresh data on where you stand. 

  1. Review historical data. Look over your past data to see what you did (or learned) from your lowest season of income. How did you adapt? What worked? What got you in trouble?
  2. Review your budget. The budget you normally used or created last year when the crisis wasn’t on the horizon, may no longer be valid. What is the minimum income you need to at least survive until next season? What do you need to stay afloat? What expenses can you trim and still provide the core service or experience? Trim down menus, reduce attractions–cut any fat that requires supplies or resources you might not be able to pay for or plan ahead for.
  3. Review the season span. Many seasonal businesses rely on a standard calendar. There’s not much you can do about that since it often fits with summer vacations and holidays. However, is there room for you to adjust? 
  4. Create a timeline and cut-off dates. One of the issues in flux is when businesses will open for the season. You need to know the minimum amount of time needed to prepare for opening. For example, contact your suppliers and find out the minimum amount of time they’d need to fulfill orders. What will be the last possible date to begin hiring? If you have a timeline planned, you can set it in motion immediately once you know when you can open. 
  5. Set an agreement with suppliers. You probably have used the same suppliers all along, and have standard agreements or practices. Contact them to find out if they could be more flexible with order turnaround, reduction in orders without penalty, or expedited shipping if things pick up more than you’d planned. If you’ve had a good working relationship, remind them of that, and that this season is a unique situation.
  6. Review your hiring. Many seasonal and tourist businesses depend on foreign students and workers. There are real questions of whether they’ll be allowed to come into the country or state, and when. Whatever happens, it is likely the hiring process won’t go as smoothly as past experience. Could you hire workers from the local area? Could you adjust the number of employees you need to fit those available? Some of these answers are going to come from your state and federal governments, and they aren’t available yet. Contact your local representatives and business organizations to be alerted for this information, and be relentless in pressing for an answer.
  7. Rethink your profit and cost ratios. If ticket pricing (and budgets) were based on a full busload of tourists, for example, but you find you’re only allowed half as many to allow for social distancing, the cost to run the bus goes up. Each ticket now brings in less profit. Be sure to adjust for that in your adjusted financial planning.

The key here is to go into planning with the correct data and understanding that while you don’t know how different things will be, they will most likely be different. Plan with an eye to that adjusted goal, and tighten your budget accordingly. 

Communicate With Your Customers

You’re probably used to communicating with customers for feedback or post-sale purposes. There are recommendations on how to create surveys to gather that information. That is still valuable, but you’re looking for a different kind of information right now.

Get customer feedback.

First, you’ll want to communicate directly with people who have been customers. 

You’re looking for feedback from people who have already supported you or regularly visit and have a working knowledge (and love) for your business. Hopefully, you have their contact information, such as your marketing email list or ticket sales contact information. Be sure you have customer permission to communicate with them.

Create a simple survey that’s not too long; your customers are doing you a favor, so don’t take too much of their time. You can also make it available for anyone through your website, but if you do, be sure to ask if they were past customers or not. 

The survey should help you find out:

  1. What concerns your customers the most. What safety or health issues might keep them from your business?
  2. If your customers plan on traveling. The real question is when will things open up, and then, will people resume traveling? You can at least find out more about the latter.
  3. What roadblocks might keep customers away. Are they staying home out of health fears? Financial concerns? Concerns about traveling through states that have different restrictions? Simply hoping for a good deal?
  4. What timeline they are working from. Ask your customers when they believe it is best to travel and resume activities that include your business. Even if they don’t come to visit your business, it gives you an idea of what others are thinking.

Ask questions using multiple-choice, with the option to add further thoughts. Provide plenty of options, and try not to weigh the questions towards an outcome. 

Gather feedback. Meet with your team. Come up with a plan that would address the top issues the best you can. Maybe you can’t meet every concern, but you can make an effort on some. And then, when you have a workable plan, move to the next phase of communication.

Let people know what you’re doing.

Contact that same list of customers, and put a notice or FAQ section on your website. Post on social media. Update your Google Business listing. Write a blog post and share some of the data from the survey so readers can see they aren’t alone in their concerns.

Tell your customers that you heard them and that you are doing something about it. Layout in clear language what you are doing and why. Provide a responsive contact point for feedback. Prepare your social media team or anyone else who is a contact point to be able to answer questions about these changes. It might help to have a web page or document for everyone on your team to refer to so the message is uniform.

While you can’t meet every single concern, the simple act of letting your customers know you are being proactive is reassuring. You’re telling them you’re listening, you care, you take them seriously, and you’re doing something about it. That matters.

Make the information easy to find.

Customers are going to have specific questions when they contact you or visit your website. Don’t bury those answers in a drop-down menu, or in a link in the footer of your page. Don’t hide it in a convoluted about section on a social media page. Bring it front and center, easy to find. Create a visually clear special section, with one-click answers to their questions.

First, you need to let customers know if you’re even going to be open. Let them know the dates and hours of operation. Point out the changes from previous years so they can see the differences.

Second, you have to let people know what changes you are making because of the situation. A great plan to address customer concerns isn’t great if customers don’t know what you’ve done.

Update your website, and be sure it is easy for customers to obtain the information they want to know at this time. You may want to readjust your web copy based on the information you receive back from customers via surveys or other inquiries.

Connect With Others 

Social isolation might be a buzzword right now, but putting yourself in a silo in a crisis, in regards to your business, is dangerous. You need the connection and input of those who can help you, and who you can help.

Reach out for help immediately.

Don’t wait until you need help to reach out for help.

If monetary help is on a first-come-first-served basis, you’ll be too late. And when you realize you need help, you’re usually far past the point of when you should have gotten it.

Talk to your bank. 

Talk to your suppliers. 

Talk to your landlord.

Can you defer payments until you know what your season looks like? Are there low interest loans or grants available? Is there the possibility of reduced prices or payments?

Let them know you are intent on being a good customer but would appreciate some leniency. Don’t wait until there is a crisis or after late payment notices; go to them now and get on good footing with them. Waiting until the last minute puts you at the end of the line of any resource or grace period. Remember, they are trying to make plans, too. You are helping them adjust to the unknown by letting them work with you.

Talk to industry and community members.

You are a part of many communities. You are in an industry with members around the nation. You are part of a local community, some of whom are likely in the same business and distress as you. And you have city and state political leadership to turn to.

If you’re a member of an industry organization or guild, contact them. What guidance are they providing? Are there any programs through the organization that might help you? This is exactly the time these organizations ought to provide benefit. Visit their website, get their magazine, talk to their leadership. Start prodding them now if they have not already begun reaching out. 

Lean on your Chamber of Commerce to help. Perhaps they could create package deals, a community guide and updates, and even revamped maps for “pick up” zones where customers could pick up food or other items if they wanted to avoid crowds in stores. They are an organization whose top priority should be the survival of its members.

Then talk to others in your community in a similar situation, as well as your team members. What ideas do they have? What struggles are they dealing with? How are they planning for the unknown?

Finally, talk to your community and state leadership. Find out what programs they might have to help you. Make suggestions on what would be helpful in areas such as adjusting normal restrictions that could be loosened this year to account for the extreme situation or financial assistance. 

Press your local and state leadership for specifics on pandemic-related restrictions they are planning to put in place. Will you have to reduce the number of people allowed in your restaurant or in your park? Will you have restricted hours? Will seasonal foreign workers be allowed in? 

Form alliances and networks.

After communicating with others, consider how you can align or network to provide a safety net for the season.

Can you forge an alliance with past competitors in a way that could help everyone’s bottom line? Could you come together to order safety equipment in bulk at a discount? Could you find a way to buffer each other through a package deal that your customers couldn’t resist as you partner together? Could you reduce one area of service while a competitor reduces another, partnering together so you aren’t fighting for the same people?

Change Your Usual Approach

As you can see, creativity and flexibility are required to survive disruption. Adapt, or close your doors.

Find areas of flexibility.

You may have always operated one way, but times are different. The usual or standard way of doing something isn’t necessarily the only way.

What can you change? Perhaps you will adjust your operating hours, or lengthen the season. Maybe you’ll rethink how people buy tickets or wait in line. Maybe deeply discounted prices for those who make reservations would help you in your planning.

When one-factor changes (e.g. seasonal worker availability), something that was previously restricted by it suddenly opens up (e.g. length of season). The key to flexibility is bending in the areas that will help your business survive.

Think creatively about what it is you have to offer.

During a crisis, creativity is what will save you. You can’t rely on “how we’ve always done things” during a disruptive time.

So how do you “dissect” your business so you can think creatively about it? Ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Why do people enjoy your business? Consider all of the reasons people enjoy your business. It might be the regional landscape, the fresh air, the rides, the food–could you offer some semblance of that in a new way? For example, if you run a candy store, be sure you can sell online. Then, partner with a local artist and include a print or card, or something to remind the recipient what they liked about visiting your region.
  2. Could you help them enjoy it in a different way? Things like virtual tours, online product sales, gift certificates, recipes, behind-the-scenes video access, giveaways, how-tos, and contests are all ways customers might enjoy your business differently.
  3. What makes your business unique from other similar businesses? Is it a secret recipe? Ambiance? Look in your online reviews or past customer feedback. Your customers are probably talking about something in particular.
  4. Have you asked your customers what makes you special? In your customer survey, ask what it is people like most (and would miss) about visiting you. That could guide you into offering something related.
  5. What gaps are people experiencing? Pay attention to social media, news articles, and places where people talk about the things they miss or wish they could do. Look for trends. They might not be traveling, but they are still desiring something. Could you step in and meet that wish? Maybe your business was never about fulfilling those kinds of needs before, but could now.
  6. How could you rely less on a season? Seasonal businesses run on a specific cycle. Using some of these online approaches, could you extend your business beyond your typical season? Could you sell your seasonal products in a store or restaurant that is open year-round? Could you have special event nights off-season?

There are a few threads running through how to prepare for a shortened season when everything feels up in the air. Those threads are assessing, communicating, and being creative.

Get the ball rolling even if you don’t know precisely where it is headed.

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