No matter what type of business, each has experienced it: the dreaded slow times. Some result from seasonal customer shifts, others from rough economic climates. Business owners usually call slow times the bad times, but this does not have to be the situation for your company.
You have an opportunity to use this time to streamline and improve your business. For example, you could review your personnel policies and requirements and fleet conditions to see if you can make changes that save time and money. This is also a chance to tweak your advertising and get out there to network for more customers.
You can minimize the pain of slow periods by creating offshoot or related businesses that use your infrastructure. By adapting departments and personnel you already have, you can practically build new businesses overnight. These business ventures can enhance your revenues during the slow times, and well beyond, if you keep them.
KNOW YOUR SLOW SEASONS Operators need to keep a written record of the slow times each year. This will help you plan ahead. “You need to know your market and niche well enough to know when your slow times will be,” says Jeff Rose, owner and founder of Attitude New York in Manhattan. Whether your niche is corporate, which slows on weekends, retail with little or no weekday work, or even a seasonal business, you need to be able to plan for the slow times.
“Of course, knowing these trends generally comes from having been in the market for awhile,” Rose says. “They’re difficult to determine if you’ve only been in business for only a year or two.” Rose also says that you shouldn’t only plan for slow “seasons.” “During the course of the year, you may see weeks, holidays, or certain weekends that may be slow year to year; you need to record this.”
ADDRESS YOUR OPERATIONAL AND EMPLOYEE CONCERNS The largest task you may undertake is refining your office structure and operations. Expanding operations, reorganizing departments, and reallocating your workforce are only a few of the tasks you should concentrate on. “When your company is busy, you don’t have the time or resources to tackle and rearrange your company’s structure,” says Scott Tinkler, vice president and general manager of Aventura Worldwide Transportation Services in Miami. “A strategic use of your slow time can help you complete all of the project training you need to do in order to grow or just function more smoothly.”
He suggests that you create a list of items that you would train or refresh your employees on if you had downtime. Focus on things you need or want to get done. “If you’re installing new software, then it makes sense to have it done when you’re in a slow period,” he says. “This way, you have time to install, train, and implement the new technology without interrupting the normal flow of your business.” The following are just a few of the items you should look at:
- RETRAINING: This helps keep your company’s skill level at its highest level.
- CROSS-TRAINING OF EMPLOYEES IN VARIOUS DEPARTMENTS: Not only does this help you in a short-staff situation, but also allows employees to see what other departments must deal with.
- MANAGER MEETINGS: Keep your staff updated on what’s going on. Tinkler says that slow times give employees time to create “drama.” Regular meetings can help keep this situation in hand.
- ANALYZE YOUR STAFFING: Tinkler says that this gives you time to determine what departments have too many people and which ones need help. “There may also be a time when you find you have too many people for the positions you have,” he adds. “Recognizing this and correcting this will help reduce your payroll.” He also says that there may be situations when you know you’ll need more people, and the slow time is perfect for interviewing, hiring, and training of new employees.
- REVIEW CLIENT PROFILES: This is a perfect time to double check and update client information. Address, contact information, credit card information, general needs, likes, dislikes, and other pertinent information should be checked and updated. “We sent out informational fliers letting them know we were updating our system,” he says. “They were more than happy to provide everything we needed.”
- REVIEW TECHNOLOGY NEEDS: Whether it’s software, GPS, or a new phone system you need to install, you want to handle it at this time.
- OFFICE EXPANSION AND/OR UPGRADES: If you need to renovate your building or move to a larger one, the slow times will give you the latitude to accomplish this.
- MEET WITH AFFILIATES: Call your affiliates and cover all aspects of the accounts and go over the coming year’s goals and plans. Rose adds that when it comes to your personnel, you should create a policy that all paid vacations be taken during the slow times. He suggests that you keep detailed vacation schedules to make sure the vacations are spread out. “You don’t want the bulk of any given department to be on vacation all at one time,” he says. “This could put you in a severe bind if a big job suddenly arises.”
COVER YOUR FLEET ISSUES The slower times provide plenty of time to look at your fleet. Analyze your vehicle needs and move accordingly, especially if you have vehicles that want to sell or replace. Sitting on vehicles that aren’t moving when you know that you will be replacing them is counterproductive.
“We have a very constructive arrangement with Westwood Lincoln/Mercury whereby they know our slow seasons and supply us in accordance with that,” says Ron Sorci, chief financial officer of Aventura Worldwide Transportation Services in Miami. “When we turn over our fleet, we sell off the vehicles in the slow times to eliminate payments, insurance, and maintenance, and then Westwood drop-ships our new vehicles just before we get busy again.”
This proactive approach helps save money each year for the company. The slow times also provide time to get other fleet-related issues accomplished:
- COSMETIC ISSUES: If your vehicles have any cosmetic problems such as chips, dings, scratches, rips, or tears, you should use the slow season to fix them.
- COMPLETE INSPECTION: Although you should inspect your vehicles regularly, you should take the slow times to scrutinize every aspect of your vehicles’ mechanical condition.
- CALL YOUR INSURANCE BROKER: If you have a percentage of your fleet that you know won’t be rolling, Sorci says that you may be able to negotiate a temporary insurance rate change for that time.
- VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY UPGRADES: This is also a perfect time to allow any technologies or other add-ons to be installed in your vehicles. If you are considering buying new diagnostic equipment or specialty tools, this gives you time to get your staff fully trained in the proficient use of it. Plus if you decide to change vehicle brands or add specialty vehicles to your fleet, your staff will need time to become familiar with this new equipment. This applies to the people who are driving and servicing the vehicles.
MARKETING DURING THE LULL It may seem logical to freeze or cut your advertising when your income slows, but Rose believes the opposite. “There are so many marketing prospects or avenues you can’t pursue because you get too busy during the normal seasons,” he says. “Now you have the time to make those contacts.”
Rose suggests keeping a list all year of all possible contacts. Rose also recommends “ramping up” your advertising program. “You don’t need the advertising as much when you’re busy,” he says. “It’s better to go easy on your advertising budget when you’re busy, and then you have the resources to really attack it when things get tough.”
Here are a few more ways he suggests to expose your company:
- GIVEAWAYS: Rose advises to provide teaser runs for potential clients. This could be a one or two hour lunch run that will showcase the quality of your service.
- NETWORKING: This is a great time to invite people to have lunch, play golf, or even go to a show.
- PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL: You want to be armed with items such as cards, brochures, and whatever other materials you fancy at all times. You never know when you’ll meet a potential client.
- REFERRAL BONUSES: Offer your clients a reward for referring a client who rents a vehicle.
- PRICING: Although you may offer high-end service, certain seasons may warrant adjusting your prices to get the wheels rolling. This works especially with unique or niche vehicles.
- NON-PROFITS AND CHARITIES: This is a perfect time to expose your service by working with these organizations.
- CREATE FARM-OUT/IN RELATIONSHIPS: Create relationships with companies in your market that complement your business model. If you’re a corporate service provider, then you’ll want to contact retail-based companies. This will help avoid the “competitive” attitude during the initial meeting.
ATTRACT CLIENTS THROUGH NEW PACKAGE DEALS Many retail clients only think about limousine services at times such as New Year’s Eve, prom time, weddings, dances, and similar events. The best way to make them think about your company during your slow times is to create a complete experience. Creating packages will give you the opportunity to attract more business than the usual suspects. Here are a few package ideas:
- Anniversary/first date package: Roses, champagne, romantic music, red carpet, strawberries w/ chocolate, and a pre-determined time limit.
- Birthday package: Balloons, streamers, soft drinks, “happy birthday” magnetic signs, festive music, and a pre-determined time limit.
- Sightseeing package: Several disposable cameras, the use of binoculars, drinks, snacks, and a predetermined time limit.
- Baby’s first ride package: Pick up a new mother and child from the hospital with “it’s a boy/girl” magnetic signs on rear quarter of vehicle.
- Dinner package: Transportation to and from restaurant, drinks, fruit/ vegetable tray, and dinner or appetizer coupons.
- Movie goers package: Transportation to and from theater, drinks, popcorn, and movie tickets.
On all trips with preset time limits, you could allow extra time at an hourly rate. Also, you can obtain dinner and appetizer coupons and movie tickets through barter deals with restaurants and theaters. This also could work for amusement parks, water parks, and miniature golf courses. Simply offer them limousine transportation, during your slow time, for a promotion. In return, you ask for an equal amount of coupons to use in your specials. You actually can create as many different types of packages as you can think of events or activities.
OFFSET THE SLOW TIMES BY CREATING NEW REVENUE STREAMS Your company may possess a literal gold mine of potential alternate streams of income. There are two types of compatible businesses that you can create for your company.
The first is one that uses your infrastructure. If you have an in house detailing department, for example, you could use the resources of that department to supplement your company’s income. “You have the tools and the people already. It’s a simple matter of having those departments either making you money or costing you money,” says Andy Poulos, president of Montreal Limousines Worldwide.
- Automotive detailing & repair: For companies that possess all of the necessary tools, products, and personnel, this could be a lucrative business opportunity waiting to be exploited.
- Concierge services: This business only requires personnel and a keen knowledge of the area and what it offers.
- Guided tours: Celebrity homes, music scenes, wine country, autumn foliage, and other spectacular scenery all can be used to improve business during the slow times.
The second type of compatible business venture is one where you have the basic company structure, but must add new equipment and/or personnel. Here are a few examples:
- Bus/motorcoach transportation: Many operators are expanding into this new high-potential market.
- Event/wedding planning: This business is always in high demand guarantees that your company is the one which provides each event’s transportation needs.
- Window tinting: With a minimum of training, your detailing staff could learn this vocation. This is a great low-cost niche.