Feature Article - July 2007
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Skating Into the Black

Solid strategies to build revenue

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Geographic Considerations

"The philosophy and approach to our business is different depending on where you are in the country," said Peter Martell, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute. "The only common denominator may be a sheet of ice."

In places like Minnesota, high school hockey "rules," and everything else on a rink's schedule may come second, he noted. But in Michigan or Massachusetts, youth amateur hockey, rather than high school sports, comes first. In California or Florida or other "non-traditional" ice-skating states, public skating and lessons are going to draw the most interest.

"In southern climates you have a lot more introductory work to do," said Tom Hillgrove of Rink Management Services Corp. Kids in these cities haven't likely been skating since before they could walk (as kids in Canada can!).

If the youth groups and high schools in your area don't offer figure skating or hockey as standard sports, you'll be getting the leagues and competitions going on your own. Which is not to say you shouldn't try. "In some ways more introductory programs creates a bigger market," Hillgrove said. The novelty of the activity can work to your advantage.

Gaston Larios of the San Diego Ice Arena in sunny Southern California noted that it is "super challenging" to attract customers to the ice, particularly in the summer, because "we have close-to-perfect weather." People in San Diego are adventurous, he said, and they didn't necessarily grow up ice-skating and playing hockey. "When the sun is out we're competing with parks, the beach, Sea World, and outdoor skating and cycling," he noted.

Nevertheless, these challenges can be overcome by building a solid program based on the tips provided in this story. The San Diego Ice Arena offers everything from skating lessons to birthday parties to competitive hockey and figure skating. It's closed only four days each year, and demand is high enough to keep it open from 4:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Marketing and advertising basics

Whatever you're up to at your ice arena, be sure you let people know. "We're not believers in the 'build it and they will come' model," said Rink Management's Hillgrove. "You've got to go out there and introduce the skating sports to potential customers, and then ensure they have a great experience."

"Gimmicks," Martell said. Have a "bring a friend to class" promotion, he suggested. You've got to make people aware of your facility and get them interested in coming to skate. "People in this country aren't born saying, 'Gee, I want to learn to ice-skate,' like they are in Canada," he said. "Every small town in Canada has a bar, a church and an ice rink."

Since most Americans lack an innate drive toward the ice, you'll need some marketing and advertising to draw them in. If you're part of a park district, be sure you're using that advertising and marketing resource to its fullest. Everyone who visits your facility and any organizations you partner with (or are located near) should know all you have to offer and have information about your ice rink they can share. The Brenton Skating Plaza in Des Moines has joined a downtown events group, which puts flyers and information about nearby things to do in local hotels. They also supplement with radio and television spots and print advertising. And, they have a Web site: www.brentonskatingplaza.com.

"The Internet is changing the way business is done," Martell said. "Every ice rink should have a Web site." But just a presence in cyberspace is not enough. "Make it so people can get all the information they need from your Web site. Make it so they can sign up for classes via your Web site," he said. The easier it is to get involved, the more customers you'll attract.

"We get so caught up in administrative details and operations details, all of which are voluminous, but marketing gets put on the back burner when really it's the most important," Martell explained. "If no one is coming in the door, you won't need to maintain your ice rink."