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Small Business: Seasonal firms face even tougher time due to COVID-19

Seasonal businesses like Huntington Stand Up Paddle are

Seasonal businesses like Huntington Stand Up Paddle are following state coronavirus guidelines to keep customers safe.  Credit: Jeff Bachner

Seasonal businesses have a short window to generate enough revenue to sustain them during the off-season.

Some years are harder than others, especially when bad weather plays a role.

Adding COVID-19 to the mix has made it more challenging as the region’s seasonal businesses work to generate revenue amid stricter regulations, capacity limitations and uncertainty about customer demand.

“Many businesses are going to be rebuilding with fewer customers right now and fewer customers is a tough way to run a business if you only have a short season in which to make your numbers,” said Alice Bredin, president of Bredin Inc., a Somerville, Massachusetts-based research and content marketing firm.

Even if they open there’s no guarantee customers will come, said Bredin, referencing a recent Paychex survey that found 33% of businesses are concerned they won’t have sufficient customer demand.

What will be most critical for seasonal establishments is to “do a good job of building and communicating their safety brand,” she said.

You not only need to educate customers on what you’re doing to keep them safe, but also what is their own role to maintain safety protocols, Bredin said.

At Huntington Stand Up Paddle, signs remind customers about social distancing. They’ve moved payment and waivers online so people can book, pay and sign forms ahead of time, said Katie Buttine, who owns the kayak and paddleboard rental business with her husband, Rich.

They also upgraded their online reservation system and have asked customers to register online for two-hour intervals that allow them to space out customers and gives them time to sanitize equipment between uses, Buttine said.

They opened Memorial Day and customer response has been encouraging with a lot of repeat customers as well as new customers, she said.

One such repeat customer, Kimberley Burton of Huntington, who was out paddleboarding on a recent Sunday, said the sport was “perfect for social distancing,“ and felt the facility was taking proper safety precautions.

It’s especially good to get outside after being indoors so much, which was part of the allure for Victoria Mann and Shawn Paprocki, both of Baldwin Harbor. They recently rented kayaks at the paddle shop.

“It connects you back to nature,” Mann said.

Although Huntington Stand Up Paddle has fully reopened, other businesses faced with restrictions had to get creative until they could reopen.

Adventureland in Farmingdale, known for its rides and games, can’t fully open yet so to help generate revenue since late May they have been offering a package that includes a drive-in movie, bingo and a meal for $30 a person or $100 for a carload in their parking lot, said Steven Gentile, co-owner and president. They’ve also hosted graduation ceremonies.

He said the first drive-in movie they showed sold out in two days.

However, it won’t compensate for their total lost revenue. When the amusement park fully reopens, hopefully in early July, it can operate only at 25%-50% capacity depending on government restrictions, Gentile said. But the movies help cushion the blow, along with an emergency “rainy day” fund the company has built over the years.    

“You never know when you’re going to have a rainy day and this is our rainy day,” he said.

As was the case with Adventureland, businesses’ ability to diversify and be creative will be critical, said Aaron Foss, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead and founder of Nomorobo in Mount Sinai, a robocall blocking service.

“Creativity is going to really drive the successes here,” he said. “You have to look at this with fresh eyes and a blank slate."

Also look for areas you can cut, he said, noting you have to be “incredibly lean” these days.

Capacity restrictions may help businesses do that anyway, Foss said.

This season, due in part to restrictions on gathering size and a smaller menu, the Clam Bar at Napeague in Amagansett will bring back about a third of its staff, said manager Leigh Goodstein.

The seasonal restaurant has made some changes due to the pandemic, including offering home delivery of groceries to the East Hampton area in mid-April, as well as accepting credit cards for the first time. They also started curbside pickup on May 15, which has had great demand, she said.

While revenue will be down this season due to COVID-19, Goodstein said she and owner Betsy Flinn were happy they could even open. She said the business they had seen was “better than we thought, given the circumstances.”

There will be no dining at the counter as in past years, but they’ll have outdoor tables distanced appropriately and added a new reservation system to help space out guests and to alert guests via text when their table is ready.

“We want to make this so fluid that it doesn’t seem like a shock to the system,” Goodstein said.

Other ideas to maximize the season:

• Look into contactless payment methods like Apple Pay to help quell customer concern and ease transactions.

• Don’t assume people know you’re open — ramp up visibility through all channels.

• Look at what other businesses are doing for ideas since one person does not have all the answers.

• Renegotiate contracts where you can or ask for deferred payments to vendors, suppliers, etc.

• Look for opportunities to sell more products online if you have the ability to do so.

Source: Alice Bredin, president of Bredin Inc., a research and content marketing firm, and Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, a robocall blocking service, and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Hofstra University.

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