Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Businesses cope with downside of resort location

Slack season has benefits, but is mostly negative, they say

Express Staff Writer

Globus Restaurant owner Wendy Muir crunches numbers Monday at her restaurant in Ketchum. Like other business owners, Muir said she makes it through slack by appealing to locals. Photo by Willy Cook

Local business owners say their earnings decline by roughly 30 percent during fall “slack,” that purgatory between summer and skiing more commonly known as the “shoulder season” in most resort areas. But seasoned owners say that slack, though it means a drop in business, is an opportunity to reach out to locals, switch over inventory and allow employees to go on vacation.

Wendy Muir, owner of Globus Restaurant in Ketchum, said she sees a drop of 30 to 40 percent over fall slack, which she defines as most of September, October, November and early December. She said she normally loses 10 percent of her staff—which is summer seasonal, hired to work 10 tables on the patio—and simply does not have the business she normally does.

“I’d say at least 50 percent of our business is [due to] tourism, if not more,” she said.

However, she said, the restaurant does have a good local base, and the “slack specials” that Muir runs during the spring and fall go a long way toward alleviating her worries.

“It’s basically to get people in [the restaurant],” she said. “It’s to keep us busy and to keep everyone employed. And it’s our way of letting the locals know we appreciate them.”

Muir said that while the slack specials do bring in money and keep the restaurant busy, they also serve as a good tool to gain new local customers.

“It’s well worth doing,” she said. “A lot of times, someone who has never tried Globus will come in and enjoy it and decide to come back.”

Muir is a slack veteran, having owned Globus for seven years and managing it before that. She said she’s worked in the restaurant business for 26 years, and knew what she was getting into when she bought a restaurant in a resort town.

“It wasn’t like I just came here and bought a restaurant,” she said. “It wasn’t a big surprise. I knew what to expect.”

However, she said, just because she knew what to expect doesn’t mean she doesn’t mind the dip in business.  She said the 2012 spring slack—from April until June—wasn’t as bad as usual, due to dry early summer weather, but she still worries every year.

“We stress every year, and every year we get through it,” she said.

Keith Anspach, manager of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, said he also sees roughly a 30 percent drop in business each spring and fall.

“We definitely lost the tourists that come into town,” he said. “The whole retail side of things definitely slows down.”

Anspach said 30 to 50 percent of the store’s business comes from visitors, and many of those visitors rent equipment as well as buy. But Backwoods also has a strong local base, which Anspach said the store cultivates throughout slack by offering special programs such as a Ladies Night for female cross-country skiers and a Backcountry Night for backcountry skiers and boarders to check out the newest gear.

“It helps keep people aware of what all of the new products are, and it keeps people coming in,” he said.

But as slack is also time for locals to get away and relax, Anspach said, it can give Backwoods a mid-slack boost.  

“As a whole, we lose a little bit of local business when locals are out of town,” he said. “But sometimes they come in to get gear for their adventures.”

Last week, Anspach said, a large group came into the store looking for gear for a trip they were taking to Nepal. Fall slack usually isn’t as bad as spring slack, he said, mostly because it’s shorter and the weather’s nicer than in spring, which is often wet and cold.

“Even the locals want to get out of town in spring,” he said. “People are starting to realize that Sun Valley is a great fall destination. Every fall it’s not quite as bad as the year before.”

Carey Molter, director of the Kneeland Gallery in Ketchum, said she isn’t sure that slack has been getting easier for her. She said that since the art market declined a few years ago, she has become more and more reliant on the high season—which, she said, is highly dependent on how good the snow year is, which has an effect on how many people are in town.

“We have such high-quality galleries here, I have people coming in from everywhere,” she said. “They could find a significant piece for their home while they are here, and we will ship that piece to them, no matter where they live.”

Molter said that unlike local ski shops, her gallery makes more money in the summer, when people are not on the mountain and have more time to wander through town and shop.

“Slack gets harder if we haven’t had a good high season,” she said.

She said she does have a few strategies to help, such as switching out inventory often and offering “miniatures” that make good Christmas gifts.

Molter said she is originally from England, so her first slack experience was like nothing she had ever experienced.

“I was one of those people that had three different jobs on the go just to make ends meet,” she said. “A lot of people here have to do that. They have to spread themselves very thin just to get through slack.”

There are, of course, benefits to having a slow period. On a personal level, Molter said, she enjoys the time to hike and be outdoors.

Anspach said slack is a good time to switch over inventory and finish projects.

“It gives our employees time to escape as well,” he said. “Everyone gets to escape and visit family or ride bikes in Moab.”

But Muir said she’d give up slack in a minute if it meant being as busy as high season all year round.

“If I could get rid of it, absolutely I would,” she said. “It’s a very high pace to keep up year-round, but if we had that business year-round, we could plan for it.”

Kate Wutz:

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