Running a seasonal business presents a particular set of challenges-and opportunities

By Max Berry

As summer winds down, so too do a lot of small businesses, and running a seasonal business may seem like an entrepreneur's dream: Work hard for part of the year and earn enough for the whole of it. But running a seasonal business, just like any other kind, is a yearlong endeavor-one that requires meticulous time management and an extra degree of financial savvy. Here are ten ways to get the most out of your seasonal business at every time of the year.

1. Take advantage of the off-season
Banish the notion of "down time" altogether: By developing an airtight business plan during your off-season, you can ensure that the money you earn once things pick up again is managed effectively. The off-season is also an excellent time to develop a marketing plan; while you have a minute, poll your patrons to better understand how to serve them and use the information you gather to develop new ideas. You can use your slow season to take care of logistical matters as well. Make sure your lease is in order, lock in your temporary, seasonal staff as early as possible, and negotiate pay rates before you draw up your budget.

2. Make the most of the on-season
One of the perks of running a seasonal business is that, during the busy period, demand for your product or service is high. But the accompanying cash flow can create a false sense of security heading into those lean months ahead. Be financially mature, no matter how booming your business is for those few months. Pay yourself a livable-but not extravagant-salary, put all the money you can into a business savings account or divert a good chunk into a six-month CD, and don't farm out jobs you could do yourself.

3. Diversify
Don't feel like your business is bound to one product or service. You can add to your income by hosting some "extracurricular" events to complement the services you already provide. If you run an art gallery, approach an artist whose work you're displaying about offering art classes at night. If you run a surf or ski shop, try offering lessons on the side.

4. Remember the locals
Even if tourists represent the bulk of your business, don't forget to cater to the locals too. This can be an especially effective way to drum up business in the off-season, when the tourists are gone. Seasonal restaurants, in particular, can treat the end of tourist season as its own kind of beginning. A well-publicized locals night, celebrating the end of a successful tourist season, will remind your year-round regulars that you're there for them too, and will strengthen your business' place in the community.

5. Have two business models
Rather than shutting down completely, adjust your business model to accommodate the seasonal shift in customer needs. Many summer camps keep revenue flowing in the fall and winter by renting space for special events, retreats, and conferences. It's also regular practice for restaurants that cut back on their hours in the off-season to remain open year-round for private events and holiday parties. While these events will provide a less consistent cash flow than the day-to-day business of your "on" season, patrons will pay more for private use of your space.

6. Make the scene
Be on the lookout for events to help promote your business; trade shows run year-round and taking part in local festivals, fairs, and holiday activities is a great way to increase brand visibility and make a personal connection with the people in your community. Include your goods or services in a local charity auction-whether it is during your busy season or not-to keep your business fresh in peoples' minds.

7. Appeal to the entire family
You may eliminate the off-season altogether by appealing to several demographics at once. Don't forget, if you run a restaurant, lounge, or other public community space, that every season is sports season. A television and a liquor license will attract a large crowd on game day, whether that game involves hoops, mitts, or helmets. But stay family friendly. Games and a special menu for the kids-as well as a smoke-free environment-will make your business a viable destination for anyone's night out.

8. Give them something to get into
If there is one particular season that sags for your business, give it some life by initiating year-round clubs and competitive leagues for your customers. Bars and restaurants can bring in business with billiards leagues or regular darts tournaments; bookstores can host regular book club meetings and creative writing workshops; and restaurants can offer a series of cooking classes specializing in local fare and holiday favorites.

9. Start a complementary business
Perhaps the surest way to survive a seasonal business' down period is to start another business for another season. Some landscapers, for instance, do interior floral arrangements and design work in the winter. As long as the two businesses are complementary, the reputation you've built through one will lend you credibility in the other.

10. Stay in touch
Stay fresh in your customers' minds by starting a mailing list. This way you can send periodic updates on developments in your business, new products, and information on when you'll be opening for the season. You can also send valued customers special offers and discounts to keep them coming back. A quality web site, with a section for similar news items and updates, will also give you a way to stay top of mind throughout the year.