Eye of the Tiger

Owners of seasonal small businesses must rise up to the challenges and go the distance if they want a chance at survival.

The challenges that small businesses across our country face are endless, but for seasonal small businesses, these challenges are even greater. Being able to stay successful in today’s economy is a challenge for any size business, but even more so for small companies that only have a couple months out of the year to generate their profit. Whether these businesses are only open during certain seasons, or whether certain seasons of the year are far more profitable than others, these companies have risen above their challenges with unique strategies for success.

Stumbling Upon Gold

Scott Stillings, owner of the Winter Sports School at Nub’s Nob Ski Resort in Harbor Springs, Michigan, knows the tricks of the trade for running a successful seasonal business. Dorie and Nub Sans stumbled upon a hill in an old state forest in 1957, which they knew they could build a ski resort on. This hill would become the foundation for Nub’s Nob Ski Resort, which has been growing ever since. With over fifty runs, Nub’s Nob has been named the #1 ski resort in the Midwest for the past three years. People come from all around the world to learn to ski at this majestic resort, Stillings’ Winter Sports School at Nub’s Nob Ski Resort. With 39 years of experience under his belt and the help of 140 instructors, Stillings has helped shape skiers from beginners to future instructors, from 23 states and 56 countries, to make Nub’s Nob the number one Ski Resort in the Midwest.

The Early Bird Catches The Worm

Stillings’ Winter Sports School schedule correlates with the schedule of Nub’s Nob Ski Resort. The goal is to open around Thanksgiving or earlier every year to encourage the early ski season. At this time, only a handful of the fifty slopes are open, and skiers wait in long lines for their turn to shred some powder. During the ski season, the majority of the visitors are from in and around Harbor Springs. Many have grown up skiing and have become regulars to Nub’s Nob. Some have even matured to be instructors alongside Stillings.

As the season progresses and the snow melts, the number of visitors begins to dwindle and the season comes to an end. The current season ends on April 5th, 2009. Stillings has observed that the season dwindles in the spring as the snow melts because the snow is “out of sight and out of mind.” Once the snow disappears from the ground, people move from the winter season to the spring season and warmer weather. They forget about skiing.

Difficult Seasonal Patterns

Stillings has noticed a recurring pattern with visitors to his Winter Sports School: “No matter what faith you are, or where you live, the majority of family vacations are controlled by schools. Whenever schools have a break, that’s when the business starts rolling in,” says Stillings. When schools have vacations, many families travel to the resort to learn how to ski. Although the school vacation schedule is one way to predict the number of patrons, the skiing business is otherwise almost impossible to predict. Mother Nature is the one factor that can completely make or break a season and there is no way to predict it. Stillings just has to hope for the best. “President’s Day weekend of 2007 really hurt us,” says Stillings. “Freezing rain came through Harbor Springs and kept people out of the Winter Sports School. We lost between $21,000 and $22,000 from just that one weekend alone due to a holiday weekend with poor weather. There is no way to get that day back, or that money back. In the skiing industry, Mother Nature could be our best friend or our worst enemy.” Stillings compares the skiing industry to farming, saying that you have to “ride the weather.” “Some years it is perfect, other years it is miserable.”


The Winter Sports School is completely closed during the off-season, between April and November. During the off-season, Stillings ships some of his top instructors to the mountains of Colorado to teach eager skiers from across the nation. Nub’s Nob rents their lodge to visitors for special events, such as weddings and conventions. There is no golf course or resort, which leaves Nub’s Nob and Stillings’ Winter Sports School completely closed for the off-season. Stillings believes this is what makes his school at Nub’s Nob so successful. “Our only focus is on skiing, and we are always looking to the future; what we can improve, what we need to do better, what new and innovative ideas we can bring to the table,” explains Stillings. By being focused solely on skiing, the Winter Sports School and Nub’s Nob prove successful in Michigan and around the Midwest. Word-of-mouth advertising through pro ski shops has helped Stillings’ Winter Sports School tremendously. Through their numerous awards, outstanding instructors, and memorable feel, Stillings and his Winter Sports School perfected managing a seasonal business.

“The Magic is Outside”

Stillings’ motto, “The Magic is Outside,” is yet another reason why his Winter Sports School is so successful. Many of the current instructors have been taught to ski at the Winter Sports School by Stillings and have grown up within the unique ski culture. Since the ski season is only a few months out of the year and there are many ski vacation destinations, Stillings knows that his instructors must be able to create that magic on the slopes for their out-of-towners. “Students [of the Winter Sports School] spend the most time with the instructors out of everyone else at Nub’s Nob, and the instructors need to be able to wow them on their vacations,” says Stillings. Each instructor teaches not only the physical activity of skiing, but also the entire experience of skiing, right down to how one should dress. The “Locker Room Chemistry,” as Stillings describes it, is what makes his team of instructors special to the skiing experience. Without the correct team chemistry, there is no way that the Winter Sports School would find success. “We work hard with the staff during training to ensure they have the right attitude and fit in our culture,” explains Stillings. “We have to have the mentality to make people’s vacations spectacular.”

Stillings’ Winter Sports School is just one seasonal business that has found success through hard work and dedication during the busy season, while remaining completely closed through the off-season. The Christmas Dove, in Barrington, New Hampshire, however, has found its success year-round, benefiting from one specific busy season right before the holidays.

“Be A Fun Place To Shop”

When husband and wife John and Linda Svenson decided to start their own business in Barrington, New Hampshire, they wanted to create a fun experience for shoppers. The Svensons created The Christmas Dove in 1973 as a tiny Christmas-themed craft store, eventually growing their business to the 15,000-square-foot shopping experience it is today. Garth Svenson has since taken over the family business. He watched his parents run The Christmas Dove for 10 years, and is proud of the venture his parents have created. Although it may be more difficult to run a seasonal business, Svenson has learned to adapt by expanding into new markets. “In today’s competitive retail market, if you can’t be flexible and go into areas that are exciting, fresh and new for today’s shopper, then you’re dead meat,” says Svenson.

Keeping The Off-Season Busy

The Christmas Dove is unique in that it is a Christmas store that is open year-round. The Christmas Dove is busiest in the months leading up to Christmas time, serving families preparing for the holiday season. From January through the summer, The Christmas Dove’s slow season, the store keeps its income flowing by offering a variety of non-themed products, such as toys and flowers. Their goal is to be a source for people throughout the year for the experience. The Svensons work to create a great customer experience regardless of the season. By taking pride in offering a powerful shopping experience, The Svensons have learned how to accommodate customers while being a seasonal business, even expanding their business to a second location.

While visiting Ogunquit, Maine, during the summer of 1975, the Svensons noticed an empty shop near the seacoast and decided to open a second location. “With our [Ogunquit] location, we get the spring and summer traffic from vacationers,” says Svenson. The Barrington, New Hampshire, store has become a staple and well known shopping experience that people will travel to see during the busy holiday season, while the Ogunquit location receives the Barrington off-season business from summer vacationers. Unfortunately, in today’s economy, no business is ever safe. “Our success depends on how the average American feels about their future, bank accounts, home, retirement, and things along those lines,” says Svenson. “But the best thing about The Christmas Dove is that it never goes out of style. The store never changes, nor does the shopping experience.” Svenson says that even during the off-season, and an average busy season, The Christmas Dove still does well. Since he has been working for his parents and built upon the empire that they started, The Christmas Dove has acquired an outstandingly loyal customer base, but it is still evolving.

Overcoming Challenges

As a new generation of the Svenson family becomes a part of The Christmas Dove, a new customer base is emerging as well. The generational shift has become a challenge for The Christmas Dove in respect to how they market their business and encourage new customers to visit their store. “Folks who were my parents’ customers are getting older and have enough Christmas collectibles and have begun to downsize,” explains Svenson. “The challenge in the past few years is to get folks in new generations to discover The Christmas Dove.” This, in turn, provides The Christmas Dove with a chance to reach out to new generations. They have successfully done this by starting a family concert series this year. Every Thursday, local family acts from nearby areas offer free concerts to give families with children something to do. It is free for attendees, and gives The Christmas Dove a unique way to advertise their business to a younger generation. Svenson strongly believes on being creative with advertising, especially for a seasonal business. “You have to be creative,” says Svenson. “Everyone these days is doing a newspaper ad, or a commercial on television, or email blasts. You need to be creative and win the hearts and minds of customers.”

Standing Out

The Christmas Dove has developed to become a one-of-a-kind shopping experience that sets itself apart from other Christmas stores in New England. There are not many Christmas stores around that stay open year round, which makes The Christmas Dove unique. To overcome the other holiday competition, The Christmas Dove has done an excellent job focusing on quality, design, and style when arranging decorations and assisting customers. The Christmas Dove staff knows all about holiday decor and can assist customers in picking out single pieces or decorations for an entire room. “As a seasonal business, we have to always stay focused, including in the off-season, to see what customers will want for the holiday season regarding decorations,” says Svenson. “Our dedication makes our designs unparalleled to the rest of the country.” To keep their customers coming back to see what is new and interactive, The Christmas Dove spends extra money to add different cards to their hand. By adding a toy shop, train displays, and a haunted house during Halloween season, their customers find The Christmas Dove to be an interactive and fun destination store. Although The Christmas Dove does not make any money on their additions, it provides customers with yet another reason to make the trip to see what the store can come up with next. “In today’s retail business, you have to stand out,” adds Svenson. “We pride ourselves in doing just that.”

Seasonal businesses, such as the Winter Sports School at Nub’s Nob Ski Resort and The Christmas Dove, have overcome the obstacles of having a predominant busy season as well as an off-season to make their small businesses some of the best in the nation. By planning ahead and strategically marketing themselves, both the Winter Sports School and The Christmas Dove have been able to stay ahead of the competition and have proven successful as seasonal businesses. end_mark.ai

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