Feature Article - July 2007
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Skating Into the Black

Solid strategies to build revenue

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Keep customers happy

As important as teaching people to skate is making sure they enjoy every aspect of their experience at your arena (or at least as many of them as you can control).

"The main thing is a maniacal focus on detail," Hillgrove said. "Operating an ice rink requires attention to hundreds of little things on a daily basis."

And he means all the way down to the basics. "The hallmark of all great recreation organizations is cleanliness. Start with that on every property," he suggested.

From there, things become more complex. "Eternal vigilance is the price of good ice," he said, and he recommends daily, weekly and monthly checklists to keep up with all the maintenance an ice rink needs.

Think also about the atmosphere of your facility. Is it a nice place to be? Project participant Scott Cahill describes the Brenton Skating Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa, as a "gem with lots of character. It's not just a tin building with a sheet of ice," he said.

The Oakton Ice Arena in Park Ridge, Ill., has an "old ice chalet feel," explained rink manager Clint Lauderdale. "There's lots of wood and a triangle vaulted ceiling, which gives it a nice mountain-y feel. Our Express hockey teams like it very much. It gives them a home ice advantage."

Once you've made a bit of headway and have some lessons and programs up and running, keep tabs on how the people who use your rink feel about what you have to offer. What suggestions do they have? How well are the students in your classes progressing? Hillgrove also suggests measuring retention. Do students in your classes sign up for the next level? Do they finish the session they've started? If they're not enjoying what you offer, they likely won't come back.

Schedule your way to well-used ice

Scheduling is the "lion's share of the work with an ice rink," noted Joe Nardone, director of the Taylor Sportsplex in Taylor, Mich., which includes two indoor ice rinks and two indoor soccer fields. "It's very customer-relations-intensive. We need to keep our customers happy, as there are lots of ice rinks in this area. We have to be very firm, but fair."

Scheduling may be an area of ice rink management where some feedback from your users can be helpful, but it's not likely the public will solve this problem for you.

"One of the most common mistakes made is scheduling the most-vocal activities at the prime-est time," Martell said. The local hockey club or figure skating club are important users of your facility, "but they can be very demanding," he said. They may want to practice from 5 to 7 p.m., "but the rink needs to schedule activities that appeal to the broadest audience" during these primo hours, so the most possible revenue is being generated. The figure skaters (or their parents) may squawk, but if they really want to practice, they'll come at a slightly less optimal time.

The same goes for hockey players. York County, Penn., has "a lot of school districts," which means a lot of high school hockey players looking for ice time. "We have a strong team sports component," said Gross about York's ice arena, yet they've managed to avoid scheduling problems by being creative. "We like the ability to push ice time back later in the evenings," he said. "Everyone wants to skate between 6 and 10 [p.m.], but it's good for revenue if [some of them] can skate from 10 to midnight."

If you absolutely can't solve the scheduling conundrum, you could consider a compromise. Specially designed ice dividers are available to split your rink into sections for assorted use. For truly competitive skaters or players, this won't be a workable option, but you could keep a section of ice separate for lessons or games for kids without shutting down public skating time.