Doin' the Hibernation Hustle

Successful seasonal businesses use ‘off time’ to prepare and improve operations

Drew Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises in Bellingham, said the winter, while stressful in its drop in revenue, is a crucial time for him to repair, refit, and refurbish his fleet in preparation for the busy summer months. Many other local season-dependent businesses also use the winter to prepare for the busier times ahead.

Dan Hiestand
   In the thinnest of business times, Drew Schmidt has been forced to take some pretty drastic measures.
   For Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises in Bellingham, this included the summer revenue drought of 1993, and the unforgiving winter that followed.
   “We had a really bad summer and had to sell my house and everything to get through the winter to keep my business alive,” Schmidt remembered. “At the time, it was a little scary, but I’m still here.”
   Determination and sacrifice are two of the key ingredients that have allowed Schmidt to survive that year and the years that have followed as a seasonal business. For Bellingham business owners who live the seasonal lifestyle, the working arrangement isn’t as simple as a division of on-season and off-season.
   In fact, labor that is done when the customer is not present may be the difference between a business that sinks or swims.

Keeping afloat
   Schmidt knew from an early age that he wanted to do something with boats as a career.
   “I was a Sea Scout when I was a little kid,” said Schmidt, who grew up in West Seattle. “That got me working down at the Seattle waterfront. I was just never smart enough to do something different.”
   He started Victoria San Juan Cruises in 1986 as a franchise of Gray Line at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine. The business operations were moved to Bellingham and the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Fairhaven in 1991, where it has been ever since.
   “We enjoy showing people what they don’t get to see on their own,” Schmidt said. “We get to show them the San Juans. We get to show them the wildlife. We get to take them to cool places like Friday Harbor and Victoria, and not just provide them with a boat ride. We try to make the whole thing an experience.”
   The company is open for business between May and September, with occasional minor adjustments to this time frame. During the busy season, the company employs about 30 people, he said. In the winter, that number drops down to just three.
   During the six to seven months the company is not taking in customers, work is still happening, Schmidt said — just a different kind of work.
   “In the season, like for me, I’m just working to make sure everything goes smoothly. In the wintertime, it’s more planning and strategizing,” he said. “In the summertime, you work 12 hours per day, five to seven days per week. In the wintertime, you can work 8 to 5 Monday through Friday, and maybe goof off a little bit more.”
   Schmidt said people often have a misconception that his work ends when passengers stop climbing aboard his company’s three boats in September.
   “People like to think, ‘Wow, you get six months off.’ No, we don’t get six months off,” he said. “We do all of our maintenance. Boats get dry-docked. We take everything apart. There are engines that need to be rebuilt. Motors, pumps … we go through everything so that nothing breaks during the season because you can’t afford a single down day then.”
   The off-season also gives the company a chance to drum up business for the following year, he said.
   “We have to get the word out to try to get folks planning their summer vacations,” Schmidt said. “That’s a narrow window to make our money.”
   Brett Eaton, 32, director of golf at Semiahmoo Golf Resort in Blaine, said the resort uses its golfing off-season — which is typically from mid-October until May — to tighten the ship from the previous year. This includes everything from making machinery repairs, conducting golf course maintenance and setting annual budgets to performing staff evaluations for the resort’s year-round employees and addressing any problems that may have arisen in operations.
   “What can we do to improve operations the next year? When we have an issue, we look at where we need to be to make improvements the following year,” Eaton said.
   Schmidt said it took some time to get used to the ebb and flow of seasonal work — particularly the budgeting side of things.
   “We’ve been doing it so many years now that we know where we need to be financially and at what point, and how much money it takes to get through the winter and back into next year again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, if it’s a good year, you get a little extra, and you can do a few more things, and some years you eat macaroni and cheese all winter,” he said. “It took a few years to get it down to where it works pretty smoothly.”
   Schmidt said seasonal businesses who fail are usually under-funded, and not prepared for a lull in revenue.
   “I think that so many people that do this are under-capitalized, and they just can’t make it through,” he said. “They can’t borrow enough, and then they are just robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
   For seasonal companies that do survive, having a change in routine from season to off-season can be beneficial professionally and personally.
   “It’s a good time to get house projects done,” said Jeff Brunzell, 43, who owns Trout Landscaping in Bellingham. His slow season usually runs between January and February, and he said he often uses that time to be with his 3-year-old son, go fishing or hit the ski slopes. Because he is the lone company employee, his schedule can be even more flexible, he said.
   “Working for yourself is good,” he said. “Once spring hits, though, things go nuts.”
   “It’s great having a change of pace a couple of times per year,” Schmidt said. “Once you get bored with doing one thing, all of a sudden, you get a completely different pace and different projects, and it makes it a lot of fun. (In the off-season) I like to go get my hands dirty. I have a bunch of welding projects to do, and painting and all kinds of different things. I do a little bit of everything, from accounting to welding and wiring and marketing.”
   He said the off-season allows him to do things outside of work as well. For example, he spent several years rebuilding an older boat. He also has time to enjoy other hobbies, such as playing golf or skiing.
   Getting to this point took some time, and he said revenue can still be affected by outside factors, such as the bad weather that plagued his company in ’93 that may keep passengers away. With all things considered, though, he said he enjoys what he does.
   “I love it. I love being able to be independent and do pretty much anything I want to do.”

 

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