Skating Into the Black
Solid strategies to build revenue
By Jessica Royer Ocken
He estimates that most rinks bring in 70 percent of their annual revenue between September and March. Peter Martell, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute in Dallas, Texas, agrees.
"I've been in this business 30 years, and [finances] are always a problem. Ice skating facilities are not cheap to build, and they're not cheap to operate," he said. "Consequently it takes a tremendous amount of revenue to be self-sustaining, much less profitable."
So if you find your facility on a bit of thin ice (sorry...), you should know you're not alone. And not only have experts like Hillgrove and Martell determined what's difficult about running an ice arena, they've identified some strategies for success. If you need more revenue, at the most basic level, you need more skaters on the ice—and you need the right kind of skaters on the ice.
An ice arena's mission should be "to create and train skaters," Hillgrove said, and to that end, Rink Management taught 900,000 skating lessons last year at their facilities around the country.
"Set up your programs and schedules at convenient, logical times," he said.
But even this is not the end of the line. "When people come in to try your product, you've got to deliver," he said. This could be a person coming in on an impulse for public skating, a birthday party, a school field trip or some other activity.
"We've got to hook them there on the fact that—hey, this is fun! 'I came here and had a blast, and I want to come back again,'" Martell said. "If you can get them back two or three times, you can hook them on the idea of signing up to take classes and learning to do things properly."
Because classes are where things really begin.
"It's all a pyramid," Martell said. "The base has to be that casual interest. You need a broad base and then the pyramid builds from there, narrowing as it goes up. The top of the pyramid is elite athletes who are really training for competition and travel-team hockey players," he added. "Sometimes rinks make the mistake of having an upside- down pyramid—you know how stable that is. If efforts are all concentrated on the elites, then it will topple over."
Although having elite athletes and their coaches use your ice can be prestigious, it is not likely to generate a lot of revenue. "They usually cost money," Martell noted. They "consume ice time" and they're likely paying most of their money to their coach, not your facility.
"They are good for some notoriety and recognition," he added. "I'm not saying you shouldn't have them. Just be careful where you schedule them and how much ice time they use."
So, the first step toward the financial black is skating lessons. Get a qualified instructor and a basic curriculum in place, then invite your community to have some fun. The York City Ice Arena in York, Penn., has worked with Rink Management to build up their learn-to-skate programs with dramatic effect, reported Jim Gross, director of public works. "We're getting new people through the door to learn to ice-skate, and our revenue has increased a thousand-fold," he said. Summer still remains the slower time for the facility, but hockey camps (more lessons!) have helped keep some action on the ice, even when it's sunny and warm outside.
If adding an extensive learn-to-skate program could put a serious cramp on your already-crowded skating schedule, consider adding a separate learning area. It doesn't even have to be ice. State-of-the-art synthetic skating surfaces offer the look and sensation of refrigerated ice, with a few important differences that can be perfect for those working on their technique: Falling is a frequent phenomenon among beginning skaters, and landing on a room-temperature, slightly pliable, dry surface can be more comfortable than repeatedly banging your booty on the cold, wet, hard ice. Synthetic ice also yields a slightly slower skating speed (about 10 percent slower), which can be helpful to those focused on learning the basics, as well as those looking for added resistance as they build muscle and strength. Visit the Buyers Guide on the Recreation Management Web site (www.recmanagement.com) for information about synthetic ice suppliers.
Once a flock of fairly proficient skaters has developed, they'll be looking for the next challenge. However, they may not be able to leap immediately into competitive figure skating or hockey. Create a way for kids to "sample" these activities, Hillgrove suggested. Offer a few low-key sessions during public skating hours, or provide a low-cost introduction to the sports in the hopes of getting some new prospects interested.
"To ensure the success of the facility, grow the interest and participation in ice sports," Martell suggested. "Once you get [students] into the pipeline of a learn-to-skate or learn-to-play program, you have an opportunity to turn them into repeat customers."
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.
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.
"You have to do more than skate around in circles to be successful," Hillgrove said. This means even your free-skate or public sessions need some added excitement. Open skating may be more appealing when it has a theme—disco party, hits of the '80s, family fun night, costume party on ice—or even just some special music. Bring in a DJ or band rather than playing the usual recordings.
Des Moines' Brenton Skating Plaza, an ice rink that's part of an ongoing downtown redevelopment, gears up for "Rock the River" on Friday nights. They "kick up the music" and aim to attract the city's youth, said Cahill, a liaison between the city, Rink Management Services and Principal Financial Group, which is funding part of the project. "Saturdays have a much more family feel," he added. Little kids and parents toddling along the ice together replace rambunctious teens. "It's a very versatile facility with a mix of all generations and generally a lot of smiles," Cahill added.
Currently, the rink's public skating sessions are so popular that they leave little time for other desired activities, such as broomball (a hockey variant that uses special sticks and a small ball), "but we're trying to get a little more time for the broomball folks," he said.
Another moneymaker in Brenton Skating Plaza's bag of tricks is corporate rentals. Monday nights are "Corporate Night" at the facility, when companies looking for a fun "teambuilding" activity for employees can rent the ice for a few hours or the entire evening, depending on their needs.
Don't forget about your off-the-ice options as well. The building that houses the York City Ice Arena also includes a second-floor community room. Through their affiliation with a local nonprofit organization—the York City Recreation Foundation—the facility holds a liquor license, which makes the room a prime rental spot for everything from bridal showers to parties to company events, and a small games of chance license, which means it's Bingo night twice a week. "Both of those [licenses] have helped us produce revenue," Gross said.
Even as you plan skating programs, remember that you're in the entertainment business, Martell said. "Ice skating just happens to be the medium." Therefore, your competition is not just the other ice rinks in your area, it's also the movie theater, the soccer leagues, the video games, "all the other activities out there for Americans to participate in," he said. "Your competition is all the people who are not thinking about ice skating because they're doing something else."
If you've got an outdoor rink that's only useable during certain months, or an indoor rink that gets a little lonely in the summer, try attracting visitors by hosting other events. The Taylor Sportsplex in Taylor, Mich., has welcomed ice shows and inline skating tournaments (which involve taking down at least one of their two ice rinks), and their soccer fields are actually "multipurpose turf," so those can be used for other events too. See www.taylorsportsplex.com for more details and ideas.
If the time and expense of taking down your indoor ice is what keeps you from opening the doors to special events, technology has solved your problem: Select just the cover panels you need to keep your ice cold and protected while a concert or conference goes on just above this added layer. Many of these panels are interlocking for easy placement, and they come in a variety of make-ups to provide sound insulation, temperature insulation, no-slip surfaces and moisture resistance.
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."
Martell recommends every ice rink hire an external group sales representative whose responsibility is to reach out to all the YMCAs, daycares, preschools, the local school district, summer day camps and so on. When these organizations bring their participants in to skate (which in the midst of week five of summer day camp they'll likely be happy to do), that's attracting those elusive first-time customers who have the potential to blossom into ice-skating enthusiasts.
Because the York City Ice Arena is a relatively new facility (built just five years ago), "we struggle with getting kids interested," Gross explained. But they've made great strides in this struggle since partnering with the local school district to make ice skating (at least on one occasion) part of the fifth-grade school day. The ice rink transports students from their school to the facility and provides them with a couple of complementary hours on the ice, which includes an introductory lesson as well as free skating time. "It's an introduction to the facility,"
Gross said. "Many of them don't know we're here, and then they get interested in skating." This program has worked so well that it's expanding to other grade levels this year. Visit www.yorkskate.com for more information.
Partnerships can also attract more than amateurs. If you've got the ice time available, there may be high school hockey teams, adult hockey leagues or college-level hockey and speed skaters who need a place to practice and compete. The Oakton Ice Arena in Park Ridge, Ill., (www.parkridgeparkdistrict.com/pages/page_facilities_oaktonice.html) attracts competitive skaters who want to train with national skating champion and coach David Santee, and they also share their ice with Express traveling hockey teams, the Oakton Figure Skating Club, the Chicago Jazz synchronized skating team, a speed skating team and DePaul University in Chicago. They open in the mornings at 5:30 and "may not stop until after midnight on the weekends," said rink manager Lauderdale.
Successfully managing an ice arena is no doubt a detail-oriented task, and one that requires quite a bit of special expertise. Depending on the other responsibilities included in one's job description, it could be that getting a handle on all the aspects of running an arena is not a feasible task. "It's a specialized body of knowledge," Hillgrove said. "There's a lot more to an ice rink than freezing water, and it can be more cost-efficient to hire a body of experts."
An ice rink is much more "suited to an entrepreneurial model" than the usual municipal government structure, he added. "The civil service system doesn't allow you to reward people [as rapidly] as you can in private enterprise." A private management company can also "react more quickly in the marketplace than a municipal government can. We are fanatics about numbers and analyzing where we are," he explained. "If we find a program falling behind where it should be, we can go out and do a media buy. Most governments have an approval process that's lengthy."
In some cases, when outside management takes over a rink, changes are immediately apparent. However, "generally we ask for a full cycle, a whole year," Hillgrove said. "It's a skill set that we've honed and continue to hone. The key is programming and scheduling. Everyone wants prime-time ice, and how do you extend the season of a rink?"
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