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HOW TO INCORPORATE

(Almost) Endless Summer

How seasonal businesses get noticed during slow periods
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Every business has its peak season and its troughs, but companies that sell goods and services related to one particular time of year -- whether it is summertime or ski season or tied to a holiday -- have only a narrow window to get customers' attention, feed them information, and close a deal. That usually requires a burst of marketing. And what about during the slow periods? It turns out that many seasonal businesses focus on marketing during their downtime as well: They look for creative tactics to generate more off-season revenue, or else they prepare for the year ahead. Here are some tips from seasonal businesses on what they do during quiet periods -- many of which will work just as well for a business with consistent revenue.

1. Promote your expertise.

The process of cultivating spring and summer sales begins early in the year at Adams Fairacre Farms, a Poughkeepsie, New York, company that operates three garden and grocery stores. Starting in January, the business hosts a six-week series of free gardening workshops. From 30 to 60 people attend each of the classes, most of which are taught by nursery staff. Marketing director William Lessner says the seminars keep customers in the habit of coming to the stores regularly and help to position the business as a trusted resource. It's hard to know the impact on the bottom line. But in the 15 years since Adams began offering free workshops, sales have grown steadily, to $106 million. "They're an investment in the future," Lessner says. "They brand us as having real garden experts working here."

2. Pick up the phone.

When it comes to holding on to current customers, it's hard to beat a personal phone call. That's been Fred Schwam's experience. He's the CEO of American Christmas, which decorates New York City stores and office buildings for the holidays. Starting in February, Schwam and his employees call their customers, one by one. The script is simple: They review the client's previous order and ask if the client anticipates any changes for the next holiday season. If the customer does want something new, Schwam has a heads-up early in the planning cycle. And touching base builds goodwill even if there are no changes to the order. Schwam believes this focus on repeat business is a big part of the reason he has doubled revenue since 2005, to $9 million.

3. Look for ways to extend the busy season.

Don Cheley, co-owner of Cheley Colorado Camps, makes his money during the height of the summer, when busloads of kids arrive at his Estes Park, Colorado, facility. A few years ago, he decided to look for ways to start the busy season earlier and end it later. He had received some calls from campers' parents inquiring about adult programs. Seeing a potential new group of customers, Cheley began offering family-oriented outdoor adventure packages in the spring, late summer, and early fall. The hiking programs now contribute 5 percent of Cheley's $3.5 million in annual revenue. Interest in the programs is growing so fast, in fact, that Cheley says he has had to turn away prospective customers, because he doesn't have enough staff in the "shoulder season" to guide more hiking tours.

4. Blog -- especially about the big names in your industry.

The Golden Gecko Garden Center, in Garden Valley, California, sees business fall off in the winter. Owner Trey Pitsenberger uses the lull to tend to his blog, which has become something of a must-read in the industry. Many posts on the site (thegoldengecko.com/blog) serve up dish about big companies in the industry, such as Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Scotts. Last March, for example, Pitsenberger wrote about the local Home Depot's practice of selling tomatoes before the weather is warm. "With Home Depot's policy of paying the vendors only after the plants have sold, they just throw out any that die in last night's frost and have more sent in," he wrote. "No loss on The Depot's part." By going after the big boys, the site has attained a great Google ranking. Type Home Depot garden center into the search engine, and the Golden Gecko's site lands fairly high among the results. "All I'm trying to do," says Pitsenberger, "is attract the 5 or 10 percent of the public that's tired of the chain stores."

5. Schmooze with your most profitable customers.

Aspen/Snowmass, a Colorado ski resort, experimented with a new mailing during last year's off-season. The company sent a bound journal as a gift to 40,000 people who had visited the resort twice in the past five years. The journal came with photos of Aspen and a letter from the resort's CEO inviting them to return. The piece was produced during the summer and mailed in November, to arrive in homes right around the time most ski vacations are planned. Thirty-seven percent of the people who received the gift booked rooms, according to vice president of marketing Jeanne Mackowski, and those customers were especially profitable. "These loyalty-program customers spent 30 percent more than typical customers," she says, "and they spent double the amount first-time customers spent."

6. Invent holidays!

Blooms Today took a page right out of the Hallmark playbook. Like all florists, this online delivery service in Haymarket, Virginia, bustles on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. After that, it faces a months-long slump. So the company's marketing team combed through calendars to identify obscure events and celebrations, such as Teacher Appreciation Week (May) and Grandparents' Day (September), that it could promote in e-mail newsletters. It worked: The seven or eight holiday-branded promotions the company sent out produced response rates that were 15 percent to 20 percent higher than those for generic discount e-mail promotions sent throughout the year.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2008




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