Skating Into the Black

Solid strategies to build revenue

By Jessica Royer Ocken

“T
his is a difficult industry,” said Tom Hillgrove, president of Rink Management Services Corp. in Mechanicsville, Va., about running an ice arena. "There's lots of seasonality, and a historically low margin of profit. That's a struggle."

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.


Teach them to skate

"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."


A history of U.S. ice rinks and the Ice Skating Institute

Prior to 1960, according to records kept by the Ice Skating Institute (ISI), an industry organization formed in 1959, there were less than 100 artificially refrigerated ice arenas in the United States. But then came the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Held in Squaw Valley, Calif., these were the first televised winter games, and the Americans came away with a gold medal in figure skating and a champion men's hockey team.

"Those always serve as catalysts for interest and participation in skating," noted Peter Martell, the Ice Skating Institute's executive director.

Soon private investors and park districts all over the country were seeking information on how to build ice arenas, and the ISI was ready to help. They remain ready to help today and devote themselves to promoting ice skating as a recreational endeavor, providing educational opportunities for arena managers, and supporting and operating skating competitions.

For more information, visit www.skateisi.com.



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.


Party Power

Over the past four years, the San Diego Ice Arena, a private indoor ice-skating facility in Southern California, has carved out a niche as the ultimate birthday party location. And it's not just that they love a festive atmosphere. They've found that creating a fantastic party experience can open the door to attracting new skaters.

"If a child chooses to have a birthday party in our facility, that automatically brings in 10 other families I had no other chance to bring in," explained Gaston Larios, the rink's general manager. "It's a 'forced participation' program," he added with a laugh. "I'm a parent myself, and I get forced to go to the wackiest places on earth that I would never go to, except that my children have been invited."

But getting these children and their families through the door is not enough. The San Diego Ice Arena's goal is to provide an "amazing, remarkable" experience so that word-of-mouth from satisfied customers will help attract more business.

"It's not about spending advertising money," Larios said. "It's about spending money on the experience. We concentrate on training employees and making this a fun place to work," Employees having a good time are more likely to promote that experience among facility guests.

The birthday party package offered at the ice arena is all-inclusive—from cake and pizza to goodie bags to a "skate hero," which is a combination rink guard and playmate who spends the entire party dedicated to the birthday child and his or her guests. "They're responsible for taking control in a fun way," Larios said. The skate hero helps kids get their skates on, gives them skating lessons and leads games on the ice, all the while making the birthday boy or girl feel like a superstar.

Rather than just skating in a circle, birthday parties play games with the rink's mascot, enjoy an activity with a giant parachute, see how low they can go with the limbo, and do the chicken dance or cha-cha slide.

"Most kids have done these things before in another place, but now they're on the ice," Larios said. "Most kids [at birthday parties] are first-timers, so they feel better just standing on the ice participating [in a game] than trying to skate. When we play games we start seeing that kids stay longer on the ice, and the longer they stay, the more comfortable they feel. They're actually skating by the end of the party," he noted. "That's when we're successful and have a chance to hook a child into skating."

If the party goes well, Larios can expect three to five of the participating families to return to the rink and perhaps sign their children up for skating lessons. "From there they may go into figure skating or hockey," Larios said. "Then we have a customer for 10 to 15 years."

For more information, visit www.sdice.com.



It's not just skating - it's entertainment

"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."


What about the off season?

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.


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."


Form partnerships

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.


Where to Put It?

If you have the luxury of planning ahead and deciding where you'd like your ice arena to be built, positioning it within a larger recreation complex—or even a shopping center—can help, literally, increase your visibility as you catch the eyes of those on their way to other activities.

The Taylor Sportsplex in Taylor, Mich., opened in 2001 with two indoor ice-skating rinks and two indoor soccer fields, and it has been a success. Taylor, a town located just south of Detroit, is a "really strong community for hockey and soccer," said Joe Nardone, the Sportsplex's director. At times, the facility has been so full they've had to send people away. Both soccer and hockey are seasonal sports, but with the combination of the two, "we get people in and out all year long, noticing the facility," he said.

"Visibility and accessibility are very important," agreed Peter Martell of the Ice Skating Institute. But he noted that there's not one right way to achieve this. Some ice rink developers opt for cheap land and an inexpensive facility, hoping to minimize costs, while others "pay a premium for real estate" and put up a well-equipped building, then hope to get a return on their investment by drawing a larger crowd, he explained.

In a recreation complex or shopping mall with lots of foot traffic, you do maximize visibility, "but there are also limitations," Martell said. "If you're in a beautiful shopping center, a lot of hockey is probably not on your agenda."



Hire some outside experts

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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