For Some Rinks, Status Quo Seems Good Enough

I’ll bet even my long time followers believe my experiences over the past 40+ years have been limited to just coaching hockey.  Oh, it’s true, that my main interest has been in teaching the game.  Over all that span, though, I’ve actually had to wear a number of hats, including running some hockey businesses and twice being an arena manager.  Moreover, I’m an observant rascal, and I’ve hardly missed a trick as I’ve watched some of the best at doing hockey biz.

With that, I sense that any business type is going to find a number of my recent observations interesting…

Coach Chic:  Hi, this is Dennis Chighisola.  Is Bill available?

Rink Secretary:  Sorry, Coach, but Bill and Jerry are out of town for a couple of days, at an arena managers’ convention.

Coach Chic:  (Thinking to himself:  Hmmmmmm…   A 20-year veteran rink owner and his long time manager are taking the time to learn new things, and to discover what’s going on at other rinks?  Ya, hmmmmmm…)

So, what got me going on this topic today?  The truth is, it’s the culmination of my having received a kzillion emails over recent months, these having to do with rink offerings that will take place lightyears from now.  Okay, that last part was a little tongue-in-cheek,  but let me explain…

This morning’s email was advertising a stickhandling course that will take place next fall.  So, with this being almost the start of July, that rink is alerting potential customers at least two months in advance.

Actually, I have probably received five or six other notices from various rinks, each of those alerting the reader about the summer hockey schools coming to their facilities.  Rightly so, though, those emails arrived in my inbox a good three or four months ago, and still several months prior to each program’s start.

It should make sense that enrolling in anything like a clinic or camp requires some sort of commitment on the parts of the prospective customers.  And it should make further sense that families will oftentimes plunk down their deposits as early as they can.

What I’m getting at is that it’s risky business to think about and then advertise new programs at the last minute.  Most of your potential customers will likely already be committed elsewhere, even if they’d have preferred your program.

As you can tell, I’m on a lot of mailing lists, mainly because it’s my business to keep up on the goings on in the hockey world.  And one of the regular newsletters I received yesterday is from back near my old Massachusetts home, where a group of rinks is always announcing their coming programs, also a good two to three months in advance.  And they then constantly remind their readers of those offerings over subsequent issues.

Then, get a load of this…  About a month ago I received information about two different youth hockey tournaments that will take place next Christmas — one in the northeast, and the other out west.  So, in each case, I believe the notices arrived something like six months in advance.  (Halfway into writing this post, an email arrived announcing tournaments at a southeast location that will take place this coming November, January and February.)

Of course, it’s easy to see that every one of those arenas is on the ball.  At the same time, my relocation to Florida has me observing some rinks down here that don’t seem to be on quite the same page.  (More on this later.)

I think it’s been a good thing for me to experience or see the rink business from different vantage points.  Of course, I’ve spent the majority of my time as a rink customer, and mainly as a hockey clinic or school director.

As an aside here, I know I used to drive relatives back home crazy when I described my need to sometimes design my own hockey work schedule close to a year in advance.  Trust me, that one doesn’t just rent ice on a given day, and then expect a slew of customers to show up a day or so later.  So, very far in advance, I’d have to lay out the likes of my winter teaching schedule, my winter-long team coaching schedule, my spring clinic lineup, and then where I’d be over the summer months for hockey schools in various locations.  Not easy, for sure, but very, very necessary in my line of work.

Oftentimes those conversations with friends and relatives had to do with how difficult it was to predict the economic climate and so many other outside influences that might have a bearing on attendance (or profit).  A major storm could hit at the wrong time, the economy could tighten drastically, or the local schools could even make a scheduling change that devastated my turnout.  As I said above, though, it was absolutely necessary to book ice, enlist my staff, and do so many other things long in advance of each program.

Switching hats now — from hockey school director to arena manager, let me tell you that so much of the same line of thinking holds true from one job to the other.

When I was a rink manager (in my younger years), I was always working on schedules that were two seasons away.  In other words, sometime around mid-winter, I’d already be plotting how the rink’s spring should look; not long after I’d be looking at the summer months; and by the spring I’d already be sensing what was necessary to fill our ice come the fall.  Then, considering all the things long distance teams have to do in order to commit to a tournament, an undertaking like that had to be planned and then announced a good six months (maybe further) in advance.

Now, one thing I’ve always been famous for is the way I handle the so-called “dead ice”.

BIAFor sure, plotting a rink’s activities far in advance helps identify open blocks that aren’t yet sold.  And, of course, that makes for a handy list or chart to keep available when one is talking to hockey or other skating groups.  And it always came in handy when I was considering a new program.

As importantly, areas of dead ice can often suggest where slight scheduling changes might be made.  One has to identify them early, though, in order to jockey some hours around — to either close some gaps or enlarge them, the latter in order to accommodate a new program.

I said I was always famous for filling dead ice, and this is so.  In fact, there used to be one rink manger in Massachusetts who would call me any time he discovered a block of ice that he just couldn’t sell.

Actually, that’s the ice-time I’ve always viewed as dead.  I mean, something locally usually had an effect on that ice — maybe because that was when tee-ball was played, or when the local town soccer teams had their games, whatever.  It could have even been during prime-time cookout hours that prevented locals from coming to the rink, unless…

Ya, unless something very special was taking place.  And that’s where I’ve tended to excel.

I’ve already been told by more than one USA Hockey official that they keep tabs on what I do and write.  So, I have to be thinking that some of the inspiration for their current day ADM Program comes from something I created sometime around 1990-ish.  Believe it or not, it included “small area games”, teaching stations and — get this:  portable rink dividers that I made myself.  And, that program not only packed the ice in my home rink on Saturday mornings for many springs, but I ultimately trailered my portable “boards” and took that show on the road to several other area rinks.

Again, though, nothing of consequence can be accomplished on empty or trouble ice-times unless someone identifies those times far in advance.

Now, I might be unfairly accusing some rinks of not keeping up with what’s going on elsewhere, or with what others in the industry are doing.  However, it at least seems that way to me.  Remaining in the dark — and staying with the status quo — is not only stifling to a rink’s bottom line, but it’s also eventually quashing growth in most of its skating programs.

I recently stumbled upon a story about one local rink that seemed not to deal with a situation in what I know to be the right fashion.  What happened was that a hockey mom and coach’s wife messaged me on Facebook one day with a slight complaint.  She said that a local rink had wanted to charge her husband more than the wintertime hourly rate to run a summer hockey school.  Huh?

I told her that rinks back in and around New England generally discounted their spring — and especially their summer — ice-time, mainly because it was difficult to lure hockey families away from other sports, barbecues, the beaches, and the likes.

Here’s the scariest part to handling things in the wrong way, however…  My guess is that the manager of the rink in question is going to be walking into the place lots of times over the coming spring and summer months, and he or she is going to stare at a place with the lights off and no one on the ice.  Not good; not good at all.

SportAboutShopUnderstand a basic premise when it comes to a rink’s bottom line…  Within reason, the bills to run the facility are constant — 24/7, and for 365-days out of the year.  I mean, the costs to maintain the ice, staff and other things are going to keep mounting, whether anyone is paying for the ice or not, whether anyone is buying from the snackbar or vending machines or not, and whether anyone is spending any money in the pro shop or not.

And it’s at times like that — when the manager (and owners?) see the empty ice, that he or she has to be thinking, “God, I’d even take a dollar or two for that ice right now!”

Worse yet, not only is that hockey school gone for this summer, but it’s gone for lots of summers to come.  Think about that one, please.

Just so you know, when I’d make initial contact with a new rink, I’d ask the manager to help me over the first summer hump.  That guy usually knew what I meant, in that it’s always tough getting a first-time program started.  A hockey school director almost expects to lose a little money until his program becomes established, but if the rink can work with him a little, it surely helps.  At the same time, it seems in the rink’s best interest to help that school get going, understanding that it might stay in that previously dead ice slot for a lot of years to come.  And, if it’s anything like my old programs, there’s a chance that the new school might even expand and buy a whole lot more hard to sell ice.

Then, while I said that an email this morning got me reeling at my ‘writer, something else a few weeks back actually started me thinking on this subject.  I was talking on the phone with a guy from the midwest, and he was telling me about the rink near him trying to advertise and start a springtime adult skills clinic on the spur of the moment.  Ugh.  By now, you know my feelings on that.

Here’s what I suggested to the young guy on the phone…  “That thing should have been advertised while all the potential customers were still playing in the rink’s winter adult league.  They were a captive audience back then — for handouts left in the lobby and in their dressingrooms, and for posters around the rink.  Teammates would have likely discussed it, they may have told guys from other rinks about it, and some may have even arranged for car pools.  Most importantly, guys (and gals) could have made long-range plans to attend that clinic, before they looked elsewhere, and maybe before they arranged spring or summer vacations.”

One other thought when it comes to building up rink business…  I tend to use a pyramid to demonstrate a lot of things in hockey.  When it comes to this conversation, though, the triangle-ish shape I draw on paper shows a kzillion little kids at the base.  They’re needed to support and feed the upper levels of a rink’s programs, be they in ice hockey, figure skating, whatever.

If you can visualize what I’m describing here, little ones should be relatively easy to attract — partly because a beginners’ program can be dirt-cheap and accessible to many local families.  Hooking them — or keeping them so that they’ll move onto a higher level program — is the next real challenge.  (I’ve written quite a lot on this subject over on my CoachChic.com website, including the way I’ve managed nearly a 100% success rate in keeping the little ones coming back.)

The reason my sketch tapers towards its top is that skaters are generally lost for a myriad of reasons, as they get older and move up through more challenging levels.  Such attrition can be for a lot of  very good reasons, including lost interest, the parents inability to keep up financially, and so on.  Again, it’s a natural thing, and something to be expected.  The answer is to start with the broad feeder program, give regulars plenty of reasons to stay, and then have enticing reasons for new players to join the higher levels from elsewhere.

About the only other unusual element of my pyramid has a rather exclusive type team at its peak.  In hockey, that might be an elite-like under-16 team, and eventually either an under-20 or Junior team.  Why is something rather elite so important?  My feeling is that all the kids at the lower levels need something to look up to and to aim for.  Dreams of playing in college or in the pros are factors in young kids sticking with their game, and so might those things be in the backs of the parents’ minds.  However, that local elite team is the obvious nearby stepping stone, and one that should be within reach for the better homegrown players.

If you can picture the opposite here, it’s that — absent a higher level team in one rink, the parents of young teens start looking elsewhere.  Worse yet, they just might leave the first rink a year or two early, just to get their foot in the door at another rink.

As it so happens, an organization I used to do a lot of work for is planning to build a new rink complex up on the east coast.  The man in charge touches base with me once in awhile, maybe to pick my brain, but more probably because he knows I enjoy talking about such things.  One concern I’ve pointed out to him — beyond what I’ve already mentioned here — is the importance of structuring ice-time in a special way.  I mean, the majority of successful rinks have certain groups skating in similar time slots for very good reasons.  I mention this because I’ve noticed some rinks going again the grain in this regard.  What I’m hinting at is that they’re painting themselves in a corner when it comes to growing certain programs, purely because the unused ice isn’t where it should be.

Then, as I watch Florida rinks make announcements for their various team tryouts, I have to shake my head once again.  What could they be thinking, if they’re not trying to one-up other rinks, or trying to attract more players to their own organizations?

I usually love Kevin Costner movies, and I especially loved “Field of Dreams”.  At the same time, most business types will tell you that the movie’s “build it and they will come” theme doesn’t work in real life.  Naw, you have to have a promotional plan in place, and then you have to very carefully execute that plan.

My gut tells me that a number of the rinks I’ve visited lately long ago built their shiny new facilities, opened their doors, and then declared, “Here we are!”  Management may have armed themselves with the right ideas back then, but they later relaxed into a “they will come” mentality.  Of course, I’m here to tell them that they will not necessarily come, or at least in the numbers most rinks want.

I may be 108-years old, but I get the feeling I’m more “with it” than a lot of rink owners or managers half my age.  I mean, I investigate everything new that comes along, and they should, too…

I’m not only big into social media (boasting 15,000+ connections), but I know how to use it.  In fact, a lot of business types ask this old hockey coach for advice on the subject.  With that, I believe every rink nowadays ought to have a social media person (other than a niece or nephew) keeping its brand constantly before customers’ eyes (and in their minds).  And new deals ought to be flowing on a weekly basis.

QR Code

Then, here’s a freebie tip…  QR codes are easy to generate, and they’d be awesome to use on posters displayed around a rink.  Anyone who has ever printed posters, knows they’d love to include more info, but that just makes the poster look cluttered.  The answer is to encourage customers to “Scan this code to discover a whole lot more!”  (You’d be surprised how many customers already have code scanning apps on their smart phones.)  The scanned code can take the customer to a website where an on-line signup or printable application form can be found.

Here’s yet another freebie…  Have your top coaches (in any sport) create a simple ebook loaded with some simple tips.  Offer the ebook on the rink’s website as a free gift in exchange for the customer’s name and email address.  The entire process is simple to automate, and a rink can make some friends while its email list grows — completely unattended.

Winding down here, what I’ve been saying doesn’t necessarily go for all local rinks.  In fact, in between the rinks that aren’t keeping up are those that are thinking outside the box — or at least thinking — and stealing the others’ customers.

Does any of the above sound like rocket science?  It shouldn’t.  For the most part, everything I’ve mentioned above is really a matter of common sense.

Have I meant to direct any criticisms toward a single rink?  Naw.  All rinks have their strengths and shortcomings.  And even the best deal with the likes of dead ice; they’re simply among the best because they’ve taken the time to identify the problems, and they continue to look for creative solutions.

As for me, I really just needed to give my mind some exercise today, and I also needed to clear out a rather cluttered email inbox of all those hockey school, clinic and tournament ads.

One last minute thought…  I’ll be the first to admit that I make as many mistakes as the next guy  (or gal).  What I hope I do better than most is to not make the same mistake twice.  I say this because the rinks I’ve kinda criticized here look like they have a track record for doing the wrong things — or perhaps doing nothing — on a regular basis.

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